The Secret Ingredients of Fishing

Feature Stories Summer 2017 Issue

The Secret Ingredients of Fishing

By Andy Radtke | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

Clements Fishing Barge, a series of thick wooden slabs, big as a floating road, jointed with arthritic cartilage of old tires and chain ligaments, dances ungainly over swells below the Mississippi River dam at Genoa, moored to the Minnesota bank. My back aches from hours standing and shivering in the stiff April breeze, eyes on my ultra-light rod tip—too wimpy to resist nature’s bullying forces: wind, current, floating detritus— so everything looks like a bite to my swirled perception.

Nearby, a baseball-capped, hooded, silver-haired head pops out of the cook shack and hollers, loud enough to be heard for 50 yards in every direction, “Cheeseburger!” then slips back inside behind a muffled slap of visqueened screen door.

I check the clock. One-fifteen, lunchtime for the three-dozen die-hards who paid $18-a-head at 7:00 a.m. for the blustery privilege of dropping three-quarter-ounce, feathered jigs to the slanting river-bottom where turned-on walleye gather to feast. I’m fishing the barge’s other side, my hook on the bottom for yellow perch, but my eye is on the walleye hunters. Every stinking cast they have something on the line.

Out comes the hoodie again. “Grilled cheese!”

It’s clear that everything here is about food. The burger for a semi-toothed dude who has the day’s lunker walleye curled uncomfortably inside a 5-gallon bucket at his feet. Night crawlers for perch. Minnows for whatever’s hungry for them: northern pike and stripers today. Milk-Dud-sized purple jigs— fake food—for “eyes.” Chips, peanuts, jerky, and bag lunches are passed between wormy hands. Grilled cheese for the surprising, life-vested four-year-old whose walleye-seeking dad has left her to reel in the open-faced perch lines, which she ACTUALLY DOES, with perch flopping on the hook, all by herself, to the admiration of all and the glowing pride of her distant papa. And, of course, fish, the food we are all here for.

Fishing is a gustatorial act.

At its very bottom, fishing is always the promise of intimate food. In daydreamed vignettes of my Grandma Lil, I am ushered into a Southern Wisconsin life of fishing for food. In her Sauk County farmhouse kitchen, grandma’s cellophaneskinned left hand, slick with fish goo, fingers straddling the stinging curses of whiskered bullhead, allows her knifing right hand to cut red-pearl necklaces. She removes their stubborn skin with pliers, guts rising in a floored bucket of blood. The thick fillets submerged in a bowl of well water, salted, refrigerated. Golden-brown and bone-white, tender breakfast gobbled in the irresistible aroma of hard-earned nourishment.

Fishing defies time, as if there were a taut line tied at one end to me, and at the other to Grandma Lil as a girl, piercing everything in-between. It’s my strange particle of quantum mechanics, at once residing at two distant points in family history, whispering instructions to each other like children.

Maybe you don’t fish. Then I should tell you more. Fishing takes many forms, but the core is the same. Each outing is a pulp of frustration wrapped in a tough skin of wistfulness. The exciting stories you hear are rare, and therefore misleading. If you’ve tried and found it boring, you are correct; it most always is. I’m sure every fishing excursion includes this line of dialogue: “Well, it doesn’t matter. Just being out here on the water is what I love about it.” That is only half honest. We also love the evasive thrill of the catch. For hours, a wavering razor of reflection cuts between our reliable world and a submerged world, mocking us. We toss worms, lures, jigs and minnows to break the plane between hope and ineptitude, praying for luck. Catching fish is as likely as winning at blackjack. Even with all the expensive equipment and boats, failure is certain.

Like every lost gambler I need the balm of platitude. Just being out here… Then a nibble. A tap (or was that a snag?). The slightest contact with a gullible gill and I’m hooked. Such a tweak can extend the afternoon by hours. They’re here and I’ve made contact. I am a clever pioneer. I’ll be a hero, a provider of food for my family. Then…nothing. Should I move to another spot? No! They are here. HERE. Right, here. That’s the inventory of fishing most days. Emptiness and regret. A quiet ride home. Loose plans for next time.

You are lucky to live in Southern Wisconsin because you can have this life if you choose it. The lower half of our state is a fishing Promised Land, bounded by legendary waters, from La Crosse to Milwaukee, Platteville to Green Lake. The Mississippi, Wisconsin, Rock, Sugar, Fox, Little Fox, Yahara, Baraboo, and Kickapoo. Hang around anywhere long enough and you will learn that every Southern Wisconsin town is drenched in fishing. Northwoods be damned. (Okay, just danged. Sorry, Northwoods, but this isn’t about you and all your freaky OMG fishing.) Is decent fishing the collective cultural payola for agreeing to exist so far from Vilas County? You decide, but consider that our southern-situated capitol city is pinched between lakes—lakes full of delicious fish. It is not a coincidence that crappie, bluegill, perch, walleye, bass, northern, musky and sturgeon are abundant in Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Wingra, Kegonsa. It’s intelligent design. Intelligentsia. Venture forth and catch your own to experience the best in primal dining.*

You never know.

The following happened at Indianford, on the Rock River north of Janesville. Below the dam in May, the water spills with a diesel roar and curls around, foaming at the corners of its mouth. One can jump the joke of a fence and walk out to the end of the crumbling concrete to toss a pinky into the deadly swirls. Spring crappie here are murderous. Irresistable, in other words.

One evening after I’d already caught a few, just as the humming street light came on, something big hit my jig, but I missed it. I tossed in again, and again got hammered. This was no crappie. I use very light tackle, so a large fish takes time. It’s a matter of properly adjusting the “drag” (the clicking backspin of the spool, so the line can give ground and tire the fish without breaking), which I did several times over the next 20 minutes. I had only a short-handled net, but my feet were three feet above the waterline. A decrepit, swaying iron fence meekly patrolled the edge—every other post detached from the crumbling concrete.

As the monster finally tired and started to rise, I maneuvered myself onto my belly, one arm holding the net and the other the bouncing rod. My upper body was extended over the roiling water, anchored by a knee hooked to that fence.**

Like that, I netted the ten-pound carp, wriggled the whole kit-n-caboodle up under the iron bars and got back to my feet, alone, I thought. Thirty yards down shore, a large man who’d struggled up from his lawn chair to watch, began to clap. I bowed. “Fantastic,” he yelled. I gave him the fish. I don’t know if he wanted it for food—smoked carp is very tasty—or if he had other plans, but he was happy to have it.

I was happy to hop back over the fence on the hunt for a few more crappie that I planned to eat, and that, honestly, I did eat with my folks.

*Always be sure to understand and follow all regulations, bag limits, and DNR consumption guidelines. For instruction on fishing and fish-cleaning techniques, YouTube is an excellent resource.

**Never, ever do this! (The author was young and foolish.)

Andy Radtke lives and works in Wisconsin’s ancient Driftless region, northwest of Madison. After ten years as resident of that city, where he attended the University of Wisconsin, waited tables at a west-side eatery and learned to make art, he moved back to his family’s retired farm in the rolling hills. Andy writes for family farmers in between bouts of picture making.

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