by Richard Nightingale
[Editor’s note: this was the third-place finisher in the Vinyl Café story contest]
When you’re a kid, the world is the town you live in.
Almonte was my world, and although small in area, it was endless in my eyes when I was 10. Once school ended, the long days of summer vacation began, and there was never a problem trying to find something to do. Something to fill your day that didn’t involve anything video or TV related. Most days led you to the banks of the Mississippi, for a long swim, or fishing with a friend.
It was there, next to the river, at the bottom of the falls by the bay, that I found myself and my friend Doug one sunny day. We were fishing for the bass, pike and possibly pickerel that scoured the deep waters. I liked to fish, always did, but I was never in the league of my friend Doug. He was born to fish.
His day revolved around fishing. He knew every secret spot from Almonte to Pakenham along that river, the right time to fish, the right bait to use, and the right person to take fishing with him.
It was my honour to join him that day, and I knew my place. Keep quiet, and don’t get the fishing lines crossed ever. The river was low at that time of year, and we were able to get right to the edge of the bay, standing on the rocks that usually lay beneath the rapids. I had my beat up used fishing rod, and was borrowing a lure that Doug had recommended. He was a few feet away standing on a large rock, his nice new tackle box between us, casting far out into the bay with deadly accuracy.
Now Doug would take almost any fish back home with him, if it was big enough. He loved to cook up anything from bass to mudpout. The only fish he would have no part of was sunfish, and would curse at them when he found out that fish was on his line as he reeled it in. On this day, he was still waiting for his dinner. He’d pulled in a couple of smallmouth bass, but nothing yet that would taste good in the frying pan. Until something with a bit more fight hit his bait and the fight was on.
I watched as his rod bent, and he reeled as fast as he could. It had to be a large pike, or pickerel the way it was fighting. I put my fishing rod down, grabbed his net and moved closer to him to help him pull in the fish. Only it wasn’t a fish. Once it got within a few feet, we both knew what he had, it was an eel, and a big one at that.
Now this was gold. This almost never happened, in fact it was the first time either Doug or I had seen one on the end of a fishing line. It’s not that Doug would take it home and eat it, oh no, this was very valuable. Not to us, mind you, but to the owner of the Canadian Cafe, one of the restaurants in town. It was common knowledge, the owner loved to cook fresh eel, and if you presented him with this culinary delight, he would give you a free meal in his restaurant.
Of course, we now had to get the eel there. Doug pulled the eel out of the water, it was at least three feet long and was whipping this way and that. I tried to get the net under the eel, but the tail smacked it and I couldn’t manage to snag it. Doug then tried to set it on the rock he was standing on. The eel, immediately bounced up and wrapped itself around Doug’s leg. He was wearing shorts, so he knew where it was now. I saw panic set in, as Doug tried to pull it off his leg with the fishing rod. But it wouldn’t let go.
“Get my knife” Doug yelled. His knife was in his tackle box, and I stepped towards the rock that it sat on. The rocks were damp and slippery, and in my rush, I slipped, and kicked the tackle box out into the deep waters of the bay. We both stood watching the tackle box, float out into the deep water, and slowly submerge. Doug had forgotten all about the eel around his leg. I debated diving in after it, but I didn’t know how deep it was, and knew there was an undercurrent, and so I turned to him and said, “Sorry, man.”
He looked at me with absolute disgust, and incredible anger. The eel, must have sensed this, because I swear I got the same look from it.
“Here” said Doug, now returning his attention to the eel. “Hold onto the rod, and I’ll pull it off my leg.” I did as I was told, and Doug reached down to the line near the eels’ mouth and pulled. It was on his leg good, and didn’t want to budge. I saw a stick on the rock next to me and thought I could help. Without really thinking, (seemed to be the theme that day), I swung the stick at the head of the eel, mostly missing the eel entirely, but hitting Doug’s hand and his leg.
This didn’t help anything, and may have made the eel a little madder. Not nearly as angry as Doug, but enough that it decided it wanted to get back to the water, and unwrapped itself from his leg. Doug held onto the line, let the eel fall to the rock and stepped on it, trapping it there. He then looked up at me, and until that point in my short life, I had never really felt I was about to die, but now it seemed likely Doug would kill me.
But he didn’t, and didn’t say a word as he worked his way past me, moving from rock to rock to get to the shore. I followed, because I had no other idea of what to do.
“So are you going to take that eel up to the Canadian Cafe?” I asked.
The eel and impending free dinner was of little solace after losing his tackle box, but Doug, without looking at me, nodded. It was about a 5 minute walk to the restaurant from the bay, up the main street and we set off. The entire time I was apologising about the tackle box, and how I would buy him lures every week until he had them all back. Doug didn’t respond at all, just walked ahead of me, on a mission.
We were halfway up the main street, when Doug stopped. Seems the hand I hit with the stick was sore and he was having a hard time holding on to the rod with one good hand, and the line with the eel with the damaged hand. He turned to me, “Hold this for a minute.” It wasn’t a request, it was an order and I owed him now, big time.
I grabbed the rod with one hand and the line with the other, while he inspected his hand, and took his wet shoes off. I looked at the eel, dangling there, it seemed lifeless now. I looked closer, nothing, no movement. So I shook the line to see if it was still alive. One shake too many caused the hook in the eel’s mouth to release. The eel fell on the sidewalk, and immediately came back to life. I stood there, frozen once again as Doug and I watched the eel squirm and bounce off the sidewalk, and into the road. Just in time for a truck to crush it flat.
Now I really had nothing to say, no “Sorry” was going to make this right. Doug stared at the definitely deceased eel, the incredibly flat lifeless eel. “ It might still be okay for the restaurant.” I offered up. Doug grabbed the rod, and cursed at me. He yelled about losing his tackle box, about how useless a fisherman I was, and how he was never going fishing with me again.
And then he stormed off. I was alone on the main street looking at a flat eel. No free dinner there. I didn’t fish with Doug again that summer. I bought him the odd lure, but it was never what he had. And later, much later, he even laughed at the whole thing.
I still fish on the Mississippi, in Almonte or closer to Blakeney. I remember all the fond memories, and every time I get a nibble, hope it’s not an eel.