The following short story is republished due to popular demand)
Early one morning an old man left the warmth of his bed to enjoy the cool morning air on a lake near his home. He rose before the sun, packed a small lunch, grabbed his rods and reels and opened the creaking cabin door to the world that lay outside. He enjoyed living in the Adirondacks and the sessions he spent on the large lake near his cabin; always peaceful, never boring.
Reaching his boat at the end of the rotted dock, sarcastically named “Time’s a-Wastin,’” the old man heaved himself in and rowed out to the center of the lake to work for his dinner. The red and white plastic bobber slowly undulated in the morning mist in time with the soft ripples of the rowboat’s gentle rocking. To increase the chances of catching his dinner, the old man skewered a second nightcrawler and dropped him into the water. Surely one of them would lure his meal close today.
As the fisherman settled into the slow rhythm of a morning spent fishing, he had time to reflect on the virtues that made a skilled fisherman. Undoubtedly, an Appreciation of the area was paramount; a respect for its secrets and history. Also, he must know, through time, trial, error and observation where the fish might congregate.
Just as zebras on the Serengeti are attracted to a watering hole oasis, so too will his prey be attracted to certain parts of his lake. Where is the water warmest? Coolest? Shadiest? Is there a particular aspect of the shoreline that would attract one type of fish over another? All these characteristics the fisherman applied in choosing his spot this morning. And this morning, in the cool misty air of the valley, he would go to the center of the lake where the water is deepest, coldest. The old man also knew that there were reasons, known only to the fish, for their actions. Perhaps the algae is particularly tasty on the western shore near that fallen log? Who could say?
The fisherman chuckled to himself as he realized he pondered on how a fish might ponder about where to find his morning meal. Irony was the surest sign he might be on to something. Was it worth wondering how a fish thinks? The old man quickly concluded that of course he wanted to know what would attract a fish, but only if that fish was worth keeping! He also reasoned that it would be good to know how to avoid those fish that were not worth keeping and, most importantly, how to tell the difference between the two.
After some time the fisherman’s gaze wandered across the water inquiring into the quiet stillness of the shoreline, he noticed some unprovoked ripples in the water. These ripples were not caused by his own motion but rather seemed to come from below. It was obvious to the man that there were actions taking place beneath the surface that he could not see, but only infer…Fish. And if the ripples were any indication, they looked sizeable. Or maybe simply a smaller, inconsequential fish closer to the surface. just pretending to act like his bigger cousin? The fisherman wouldn’t know which until it showed itself and he could see with his own eyes and render his own judgment: big fish or little fish?
Instinctively, the fisherman glanced at the bobbers floating on the water. Just because he thought he saw indications of a fish didn’t necessarily mean they would come up and bump his bait. Who can discern the hidden impulses and decisions of a fish from the depths? No, he would need to be patient, a virtue he knew he needed to work on.
Of course, if he knew he was assured of a catch, perhaps his patience might be better? Of course, having two hooks in the water was proof enough that he didn’t trust his luck and that no catch is ever assured. So, to pass the time, he cracked open the warm, worn thermos he brought and poured a small amount of the coffee into the plastic cap as he settled into a quiet morning on the water.
Not completely unexpectedly, the bobber on his right side dipped below the water. At first, the bobber only dipped beneath the surface once and haltingly. But just moments later, it completely disappeared and the old man heard his reel unspooling; a hit! The fisherman quickly poured his coffee over the side of the boat, set the cup between his legs and grabbed the bouncing rod. He immediately arrested the line from paying out and began the job of reeling in his catch.
He loved this part. The anticipation, the excitement, the unknown mysteries of what he hooked. It all quickened his pulse. Why this happened, he simply didn’t know. He’d been around this lake long enough to know that the fishing was good. He knew there were fish in this lake. Why was catching them so exciting? Perhaps it was the mystery of it all. Sure, the old man knew that he had a something hooked, but just what it was was anybody’s guess until it broke the surface. Sometimes he wondered who had more fun, he or the fish? Just who was catching whom?
And that’s when the line went slack. Did he lose his fish? Very quickly the old man realized that the fish was still on the hook, but was instead heading towards the boat, not fighting to get away. What kind of fish was this? A fish that wanted to be discovered in the murky water?
“That’s a switch…” muttered the old man.
The old man quickly took in the slack and re-engaged the fight with this strange fish. With that, he caught a glimpse of it just below the surface. With one hand, the old man grabbed his net and heaved the fish out of the water and dumped it onto the deck of his small boat.
The fisherman set his rod down to one side along the length of the boat and relaxed for a moment to admire his catch. It was a good-sized Pike, from the looks of it. He knew they were good eating. His father had taken him fishing on the St. Lawrence when he was a boy and he still remembered how good Pike could taste.
His mind quickly raced forward, imagining what the next several hours might bring: Presenting his prize to his wife waiting for him at the kitchen table. He knows he will clean the fish, knowing full well that she knows how to prepare it, but will want nothing to do with the slimy creature. Only after he has filleted his catch will she prepare it. Is there wine in the house? White goes with fish, isn’t that right?
At that moment, as he watched the fish hop around gasping to breathe on the deck of his rowboat, the other rod started signaling that a second fish had bitten on his hook. Now the old man truly was surprised. Of course he’s fished long enough to know that there is more than one fish in a lake, but to catch two in such close succession was rare indeed; a true embarrassment of riches.
The old man grabbed the second rod and fought the second fish into the boat. In short order, the second fish was also unhooked and thrashing around on the deck of his boat next to his brother from the lake. This latest addition to tonight’s supper table was also a Pike. It shared most if not all the expected characteristics of the Pike that he was familiar with. The long pointy snout, the murky, dirty and mottled green color all told the old man that he had hooked two fine Pike.
The old man’s boat had a live well. A live well was a water filled chamber under a seat where he could store the fish he caught and keep them alive throughout the day. Before he decided to place his newfound abundance into the live well, he sat and watched them as a pair for a moment. He thought to compare them and their actions considering their shared situation.
In all his years of fishing, he had never been presented with the opportunity to compare two fish at the same time right next to each other as they gasped to breathe. Was one fish aware of his kin sitting right next to him on the deck? Were they communicating their predicament to each other? Planning their escape? Or was it possible that one fish was plotting against the other? Was there any tie whatsoever between the two fish?
The fisherman was a bit surprised at this particular train of thought. He of course knew that there were sizable schools of fish in this lake. But just because that two fish shared similar characteristics didn’t mean they were both from the same school. By watching these two fish instinctively gulping the air in a mad search for water, the old man saw that the two fish didn’t seem to “know” each other at all.
He felt that, if the fish might know each other and were from the same school, wouldn’t there be some outward coordination between the two? But every action taken by these two fishes seemed to be completely uncoordinated in their efforts to return to their homes. Both were working to extract themselves from their predicament on their own. Neither were attempting to help the other to get out of the boat and back into the water. Neither fish “knew” the other.
As the old man made this new and unexpected conclusion, he opened the well and dropped both fish inside for safe keeping for the rest of the day.
Once the fish were safe within the well, the old man didn’t immediately reset his hooks. He already had the problem of dinner solved and he wanted to ruminate a little on his new insight. Was it possible that two similar looking fish from the same lake might not know each other?
It was at this point that the fisherman realized that if he continued thinking about one fish ‘knowing’ another fish, he might sour on eating either of them later, so he stopped his reverie and decided to enjoy the scenery. When he looked up and across the lake he noticed a small aluminum skiff far off in the distance that seemed to be motoring his way. As the boat came closer, the old man recognized that it was a Park Ranger undoubtedly curious about this morning’s run of luck.
Letting this line of thought play out to its natural conclusions, the old man started questioning his initial impressions of the two fish he had so recently caught. They appeared to be the same, but their actions didn’t reflect it. Were they both pikes? This question simply wouldn’t go away and, with a Ranger nearby, the old man felt it prudent to confirm for himself that he had indeed caught two Pike. So with a grunt, the angler leaned forward over to the water well, opened it and peered within. The fish smell was strong and heavily well ingrained into the enclosure after so many years of use. The smell filled his nose.
The live well was dark but not completely without light. As he looked within and with the motor of the Ranger’s boat getting louder, he looked closer now at the two fish, but this time the old man was not distracted by their thrashing, they had calmed down and quite docile by now; completely unaware that butter and breadcrumbs awaited them later.
As the fisherman looked closer and breathing in their fish smell, he focused on one of the fish, the right one. Its head was exactly as he would expect a Pike to have. Its mottled stripes were also correct and agreed with the fisherman’s own experience. The dorsal fin was right where it was supposed to be and the right shape; yup, this was a Pike all right and the old man knew it. He’d seen them before and he was looking at one right now.
Then the old man shifted his gaze to the other fish sliding alongside the first. The color and striping were extremely similar to the Pike. But when he looked closer at the second fish’s dorsal fin, he noticed that its shape was just…wrong. It was close, but just not quite right. It was a bit more pointed than the Pike’s. What? Was this second fish not a Pike?
No. The second fish wasn’t a Pike, and once the fisherman was able to compare the two side by side in the dim morning light of his live well, he could see it plainly; it was a Muskie. Similar fish, but definitely not the same fish.
Looking up and seeing the Ranger closer still, the old man knew that Muskies were limited to ‘catch and release.’ He couldn’t take this one home, no matter how much he wanted to. And with a Ranger nearby, mores the better to hurry up and set this fellow free. And what’s the use of holding onto a fish that will only cause problems?
So the fisherman reached in to the live well and put his hands around the thick and heavy body of the Muskie. The old man grunted a little as he lifted it out of the water, he was a big one. He then lifted him up and over the side of the boat, took one last look and said,
“You almost fooled me, Muskie. But not today.”
And with that, he slid the fish back into the dark water, the morning mist having since burned off with the rising sun. Looking up, the fisherman searched for the Ranger on the lake and noticed that he was no longer in the area.
“Just as well,” said the old man, “I didn’t feel like making small talk with a small-town fish sheriff anyhow.”
It was then that the old man turned to the real Pike left in his live well, the real McCoy. Before shutting the lid he looked down to the remainder of his day’s catch and said,
“Well, Pike, looks like it’s just you and me now. If you hadn’t shown up, I would never have realized I had a Muskie aboard and I’d be staring at a hefty fine from that Ranger. You two look so similar that I had a hard time telling the real thing from the impostor, even after all these years. I’m sure he’s not a total stranger though, you do live in the same lake, after all.”
“Let’s get to it, shall we? Times a-wastin’…”