Wisps of rim-lit clouds settled on the horizon. The air was perfect, and the light breeze felt wonderful. Nino trolled the five-horse Johnson with the patience of a model ship builder. Setting the choke just so to keep the motor from stalling, he circled around the west side of the small island that the lake was named after and headed for a point off its far shoreline. The island was centered within the lake, and the deepest hole was beyond the drop-off he was searching for. Tall cabbage weeds peeking just below the surface were dissipating, indicating he was near. He’d brought along the wax worms in case the walleye and bass weren’t hitting. He pulled a fat night crawler from the cool, moist dirt in the bait box and threaded it onto the snelled hooks of the crawler harness. He checked his drag once more and cast to the left of the boat.
He slowed the engine down to its lowest speed. Holding his rod parallel with the water, he let out twenty yards of line. He looked into the island’s interior, wondering if there really were deer on it as Aldo had told him. Nino had been coming up since he was six and the only wildlife he’d seen there was the resident osprey that perched on the tall dead pine at the island’s eastern side.
Just then his rod bent in half, forming an upside-down U.
He set the hook hard and pulled straight up. Feeling the tension, he knew it was a good one. The rod bucked once, and he kept with it. His heart started to pound harder, growing quicker as he felt for the net. His frantic search came up empty. Sweat formed on the back of his neck as he saw Aldo’s cabin, small across the lake.
“Oh, that’s perfect. You stupid mamaluke … ”
In his haste to get out before nightfall, he’d left the net on the dock.
The fish went on a long run, and Nino kept the rod tip up as he’d been taught. Finally he started gaining on the fish, bringing it to the surface with steady cranks of the reel handle. Slowly, the shape of the fish became clearer, and the bronze walleye looked enormous—magnified by the water—in the fading light. Seeing the boat, it ran again, but the fish was spent.
“Minchia, look at you,” he whispered.
Nino used body English to coax the fish next to the boat.
He pulled high and steady on the rod with his right arm and lifted the fish out of the water; he gilled it with his left hand, trying to avoid the walleye’s razor-sharp back teeth. It flapped its tail when the air hit it, and its unblinking, milky eye looked as big as a pearl from a cocktail ring. As Nino hoisted it up to eye level, a cloud of perch fry flew from the walleye’s mouth, hitting his cheek like a spray of tiny silver arrows. He laughed out loud, reveling in the kind of moments sportsmen are sometimes blessed with.
He threaded the point of a nylon stringer through the gill, made a loop and held the walleye in front of him. It swung, thrashing side-to-side. The scales glowed an iridescent gold. The fish’s lungs were engorged with air after being lifted from such depths, and Nino always wondered what was going through a fish’s nut-sized brain when it realized it had been caught. Did it know such things? Did it feel foolish or something akin to panic or regret? The thoughts left him and he felt silly for thinking them. He admired the fish once more and tied the stringer to an oarlock, returning it to the safety of the water. It slapped its tail and settled below the surface.