Steady, boy, steady. The old man put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder as he reeled in the fish. It was his first fish and the man felt panic and hurry pulse through the boy. Steady, he said again.
I’m okay, the boy said. He handled the reel well, letting the bail pull in the line evenly. The old man saw that the line moved smoothly through the water and admired the boy for not jerking back on the rod and losing the fish or catapulting it into the boat. It’s what he had done with his first fish. He’d wrenched the line so suddenly that he crashed against his father and nearly knocked them both out of the boat. They watched the fish rise in the air, spit out the hook and slap back into the water, a long, shimmering Northern pike. Biggest pike I ever saw and my idiot boy lost it, his father said every time he told the story. Trophy fish and Stupid here threw it away.
The old man brought his attention back to his grandson. A big walleye was now visible six feet out, coming closer as the boy reeled him in. The man picked up the net. Steady, he said.
The boy nodded and in a moment the fish was alongside the boat. The man dipped the net in the water and brought it up. A nice one, he said and laid the fish in the net in the bottom of the boat. It was a beautiful walleye, nearly two feet long, with gold and green scales that flashed in the early morning light. The white belly trembled and the big, hazel eye stared back. Its dorsal fin caught in the net for a moment, then the long body was suddenly free and flopping across the bottom of the boat.
The man put a hand to steady the fish and lifted it from the gills. It was hooked just inside the lip. He started to take the hook out, but the boy stopped him. My fish, he said and slipped his hand under his grandfather’s to take it. I’ll do it.
The boy was a quiet one, a listener and watcher, and the old man knew he’d heard his father—the old man’s son—say nobody could fish in this family unless they baited their own goddamn hook and strung up their own gd fish. Made people laugh and, as the boy’s father pointed out, kept women off the lake. That morning he’d bet the boy his week’s allowance that he’d get skunked. Need muscle to pull in a big one, he’d said, and I’m not paying for any goddamn perch.
The boy braced the heavy fish against his body and slipped out the hook.
The old man offered the stringer. You want to do this? He was already planning how he’d pull up to the dock and send the boy on ahead with the fish while he tied off the boat. The boy would hold up his great walleye to show his father—his first fish, a big one, a real keeper. His mother would take a picture of the two of them, the boy with his father, the father holding up one end of the stringer as if he’d caught it himself. The old man was happy.
The boy looked at the stringer, shook his head. No thanks, he said. He held the walleye out from his body, then leaned over the side of the boat, and lowered it into the water. A brief flash of gold, and it was gone.
But your father? the old man said
Tell him we were skunked.
©2011 Kathleen Coskran