I can recall fishing from the shores of Lake Erie, near Presque Isle, as a youngster. I like to think that, over the course of the years, I have become something of a more refined sportsman, but, back then, my friends and I weren’t too particular about the kinds of fish we caught. Up to a certain point, worms, mainly nightcrawlers, had proven themselves faithful again and again, landing us perch, bass, sunfish, walleye, sheephead, and even catfish.
Weber, a recent transplant from the hills of West Virginia, Timmy, my next door neighbor and inseparable fishing partner, and myself found that there was one type of fish in the lake that refused to give in to the seductive wriggling of the nightcrawler; the carp. Carp were a unique species of fish and we were entirely oblivious to their existence until one spring after the ice had melted, when we witnessed some huge fish lurking around our pier. These fish were larger than any we had ever seen before.
“Look at that big ole fish!” shouted Weber, holding his Zebco 101 in one hand and pointing into the water with the other. “There’s a bunch of them! They look like sea monsters!” Timmy and I strained our eyes to see into the depths of the murky water. With the help of the sunlight, we were able to detect a large bright shimmering object moving slow and steadily underneath the water.
“That’s not a fish,” claimed Timmy, nervously backing up a step from the edge of the pier. “That looks like a submarine!”
Weber took their swimming near and around our pier as a personal challenge and began trying to get his bait directly in the path of the slow moving fish. No matter how hard he tried, the large fish repeatedly ignored his worms. “I’m going to catch one of those big critters even if it kills me,” resolved Weber, with the twinkling gleam of a fanatic in his eyes. Timmy and I were all too familiar with this look and knew that Weber would be possessed with nothing else until he managed to catch one of these fish. Weber had a one-track mind that (while traveling with a few empty boxcars once set in motion), was guaranteed to eventually reach its final destination even with a derailment or two.
We remained on the pier until the sun went down and failed to get so much as a bite from one of the large fish. “Let’s get up early tomorrow and get some advice from Big John,” suggested Weber, as we pedaled home on our bicycles. Fortunately, Weber’s 1890 model had a rusty basket on the handlebars that could hold all of our fishing equipment. While his bike wasn’t very fast, and the rims had a wobble that could be dangerously hypnotizing if one stared at them too long, it proved to be efficient at transporting our goods. Weber never complained about his capacity as pack mule and neither did Timmy or myself, for that matter. His bike was what we called a “Salvation Army Special”, which meant two things: first, that it didn’t cost too much because it was second-hand, or, in the case of this bike, third or fourth-hand; secondly, it was something of a spiritual bike because Weber could often be heard praying that the rusty chain wouldn’t slip off again or that his brakes would work for once. The following morning, the three of us went up to Big John\’s Bait Shop to get the advice of an expert. Back then, Big John knew just about everything there was to know and was quite generous in sharing his seemingly endless reserve of wisdom with us.
“Big John, there’s big fish swimming around down at Thompson’s Pier and they won’t take our crawlers. Some of them swim right under the pier, teasing us,” spoke Weber, before Big John even had time to remove the newspaper which he held in front of his face.
“Big fish, huh? How fast are they swimming and what do they look like?” asked Big John, cracking a smile at seeing the no-nonsense look of determination on Weber’s face.
“Well,” began Weber, “they look like submarines and swim slower than molasses in January.”
“Oh yeah, I know the type,” he answered, slowly rising from his old vinyl chair from behind the counter and hooking a thumb under each red suspender as he stood. He walked to the nearby display wall and picked up a small Mason jar off the shelf. “This here is all you’ll need, boys, cheese-flavored dough balls. I cooked them myself with lots of tender love and care.”
“Cheese dough balls? What kind of fish eats dough balls?” asked Weber, staring at the neon orange balls through the glass.
“Well, each year about this time is when the lake carp come in to spawn. You’ll probably see them for a few more weeks before they move back out to deep water,” answered Big John.
“What does spawn mean, Big John?” asked Timmy.
“Uh, err, well, it sort of just means the carp only come into shallow water once a year. Hey, have a whiff of these babies,” he offered, before twisting off the lid and holding the jar directly under Weber’s nose. Weber proceeded to inhale the contents through his nostrils, apparently enjoying the sumptuous aroma enough to move his nose in closer to the jar.
“Smells good! Like macaroni and cheese!”
“Yeah, lil’ buddy, I’ve been making these dough balls ever since I was about your age. There isn’t a carp in the lake that can resist my home cooking.”
“Hey, Big John, how do you make them?” asked Timmy.
“A fine chef never reveals his secrets, boys.”
“How much does a jar cost?” I asked.
“Well,” answered Big John, scratching his chin stubble. “How much do you have?”
“You mean altogether?” asked Timmy, looking at Weber and me shrugging our shoulders.
“Yes, altogether, how much do you have?”
“Well, boys, with all that money you may want to shop somewheres else,” responded Big John, before twisting the lid shut and placing the jar back on the shelf.
“Stop!” shouted Weber. “We need your cheese flavored dough-balls, Big John! I’ll barter you my bicycle!”
“Well, my heart bleeds turnip juice for you. It really does, but this isn’t no bike shop. How about if you boys agree to do a few errands for me and earn yourselves a jar? I want everything done right, though, no shortcuts or the deal is off, agreed?”
“Yes!” we answered in unison, not taking the time to consider what tasks he had in mind.
Big John’s “few errands” consisted of cleaning his minnow tanks, washing and waxing his truck, mopping the floor, cleaning out the inside of the bait refrigerator, sifting through a compost heap and packing worms into Styrofoam cups, mowing the lawn at his home nearby, and cleaning out the rotten leaves from the rain gutters on his house. Six hours later, we emerged from the bait shop with the fruit of our labors, a jar of cheese flavored dough-balls.
The following morning, the three of us packed our fishing gear into the rusty basket on Weber’s handlebars and rode our bikes down to Thompson’s Pier. As the sun began to rise, we could again see the shimmer reflected off of the large carp swimming below and around the pier. Each of us waited with anticipation, taking three different sides of the pier. The neon orange glow of the dough-balls could be seen through the murky depths of the water, even laying on the bottom. We sat and waited for bites, waiting for five hours.
“Geeze, this carp fishing stinks!” complained Timmy. “At least with worms I’d have caught a few sheephead by now.”
“I think Big John might have ripped us off,” I added, feeling betrayed. Timmy and I began reeling our lines in, the dough-balls untouched.
“Maybe the water just washed away the cheese flavoring. Maybe that’s why they aren’t biting on it,” suggested Weber, before taking a dough-ball from the jar and popping it inside his mouth. “Let me try one of the ones from your hooks and give it a taste test,” he offered, still chewing one from the ‘control’ group.
Timmy pulled the dough-ball from his hook and handed it to Weber, who popped it in his mouth and began to chew his second neon morsel of the day. “Nope, they taste just as fresh. Big John cooked ’em good, sort of like cheese curls, but more rib-sticking.” “Maybe so, but think about all that work he had us do and we didn’t even catch a fish,” stated Timmy, beginning to pack up his tackle.
“Yeah, that’s a good point,” answered Weber, tossing another cheese ball into his mouth. “At least he could have given us two jars. Uh, hang on guys, I think I’m snagged.”
As Weber began tugging at his Zebco 101, the pole doubled over in an arc. Suddenly, we heard the sound of his drag release going off at a slow and steady speed. \”Hey! I got something big! Real big!\” he shouted, furiously reeling as the drag continued its release. This was what we had been waiting for and we knew it must be a carp because it was unlike any fish we\’d ever caught. In fact, it was unlike any fish, pulling the drag out slow and steady like a slow moving torpedo. Weber realized, after twenty minutes of furious reeling, that he had his work cut out for him.
“Good thing I ate a few of Big John’s dough-balls to keep my strength up!” he muttered, as beads of sweat now could be seen rolling down his temples. Timmy and I weren’t certain about the veracity of his claim to stamina being obtained from dough-balls, but we were excited about his catch, nonetheless.
The large fish relinquished after a half-hour struggle and Weber was able to pull him closer to the pier, despite a few rebellious runs that easily pulled the drag. “You’re going to have to walk him into shore. Timmy and I will grab him in the shallow water,” I said, after seeing the size of the fish.
Timmy and I ran to the shoreline as Weber slowly walked the fish into more shallow water. We entered the chilly water up to our thighs, unconcerned about getting wet with such a trophy at stake. This was the biggest fish we\’d ever seen and the fear of having it bite an arm off flashed through my mind. Weber pulled the huge catch in between us and we made a desperate grab. Timmy pulled the flopping fish up with a bear hug and started running for land. He stumbled out of the water and dropped it onto the sand, where it made a thirty-pound thud. It wasn\’t pretty, but it worked. Catching a thirty-pound lake carp with ten-pound test line from a rusty Zebco 101 is never going to be pretty.
Things took a turn for the ugly when we attempted to transport the huge fish home. We weren’t too sure what to do with it, but there was little doubt that we weren’t going to take it home to show our families, friends and neighbors. The scales alone were bigger than half-dollars and the mouth was droopy, turned downwards with a mustache. The three of us stood staring at the fish as it gasped for air, matching the gasps of us trying to catch our breath. The carp looked like something from one of our textbooks that taught about prehistoric fish, except that this one was even uglier.
“That fish is so ugly that if God had seen it, he would have made eleven commandments!” observed Timmy. “How the heck are we going to get it home?”
“I reckon’ I can balance it in my bike basket, but you guys will have to carry the poles and stuff,” replied Weber, staring at the fish as Ahab once gazed at Moby Dick. Weber proceeded to pick up the carp in a bear hug, carried it over to his bike and placed the fish headfirst into the deep basket. The large tail protruded out of the top by about two feet. Timmy and I quickly gathered the rest of our gear and we began to ride our bikes toward home.
“Gosh durn it!” complained Weber, after the still living carp flapped its tail, slapping him in the face and momentarily blocking his vision. Weber compensated for this obstacle by leaning to the left or right to see around the active tail.
The sun was leaving the sky as we coasted down the sidewalk of Water Street, a busy thoroughfare. The traffic slowed as it passed, attempting to get a better view of our unique catch. One driver slowed down enough to yell out of his window, “Hey kids, what kind of fish you got there?”
“An ugly one!” answered Timmy, not realizing that the pole in his hand had inserted itself into Weber’s wobbling front wheel spokes.
When the pole spun around to meet Weber’s front forks, his front tire came to an abrupt halt while he and the fish continued traveling, airborne. The Zebco pole, made of fiberglass, proved its strength by not snapping or giving an inch. “Awwwwrrrrrggggghhhhhhhh!” shouted Weber, just before his body slammed and spun on the concrete. The thirty-pound carp continued in flight until bouncing into the center of Water Street, where oncoming cars were now squealing their brakes and swerving both left and right to avoid the still flopping monster fish.
Timmy and I left our bikes and ran to the spot where Weber had landed. He groggily rose to his feet, dazed and confused, before seeing that his trophy catch was in danger. Weber stumbled directly in front of an oncoming car and picked up his carp in a bear hug before valiantly carrying it to the safety of the sidewalk. The driver had locked the car’s brakes and had squealed to a halt before we even realized it was a police car.
“Just what in the world do you boys think you’re doing?” asked Officer Mowery, puzzled by the flopping monstrosity Weber still hugged in his arms.
“I’m just trying to get the fish that I caught home and I had a surprise wipeout, Sir,” answered Weber, his face hidden from behind the fish.
“Well, I don’t usually do this, but put it in the trunk here and I’ll drive you home before somebody gets in another wreck and kills themselves,” he suggested. Weber took the offer and Timmy and I took turns walking his wobbly bike the rest of the way to his house.
“My parents weren’t home so I put him in the bathtub with cold water until tomorrow when we can take him up and show Big John,” reasoned Weber, after we had finally reached his house. The carp was still living and now splashing water out of the tub, which was barely large enough to contain him. “He’ll be alright until morning.” That night, Timmy and I both heard a loud scream coming from Weber’s house, which was two blocks away from ours. Twenty minutes later, Weber stood in my front yard with the huge fish in a bear hug. “My mom won’t let him stay in my house anymore. What should we do?” he asked, yelling up to my open bedroom window. I looked out the window and could only see a large carp on two wobbly legs.
Fortunately, my dad agreed to put the fish in our freezer, provided that we wrap it up in trash bags and agreed to give the fish to Big John the following morning. Big John was only too happy to take the carp off our hands. He said he was going to put it in his smoker, but, before that, he was going to teach us how to scale it and gut it, which he did do, barking orders from a stool behind the bait shop as the three of us found ourselves involved in one of the messiest tasks ever attempted by eleven-year old boys.
“Will you pay us another jar of cheese dough-balls for cleaning the fish, Big John?” asked Weber, his clothes, hands and face covered with blood and scales.
Big John lowered the newspaper so that his eyes could be seen and said, “You boys should be glad I’m coaching you on how to clean a carp. Show some gratitude, for crying out loud.”
Timmy and I were simply grateful that he didn’t give us anymore dough-balls. We knew that our carp fishing days were over, although, now that I’m older, I might teach my son about carp fishing. First, I need to figure out how to make some cheese flavored dough-balls, of course, with lots of tender love and care just like Big John used to fix them.