In Pursuit of Northern Pike by Mark Usyk
10:30pm. I sit in silence under the light of my tying bench, my wife and kids asleep, the rest of the house dark. Bear paces back and forth from one end of the house to the other, his nails clacking on wood floors, stressing out over whether he should be curled up on his dog bed in our bedroom where Holly is sleeping or sitting by me in my fishing room as I tie yet another bait fish streamer meant to entice the long slime missiles I’ve made it my goal to catch on the fly this year. I’ve tied most likely upwards of 30 streamers of different sizes and colors, and lost 3 of them to my intended targets, but not one yet has brought me my Northern Pike I am so intent on hooking into and landing this year. In fifteen minutes I’ll have to be out the door and on my way to work, a loud and grungy factory midnight shift waits ready to greet me with open arms and broken equipment needing to be repaired. This will be my last quiet minutes of today. In the driveway my Toyota sits patiently, the heavy orange plastic canoe strapped to the rack. The fighting butt of my 7wt rests on the dash while the tip nearly reaches out to the tailgate through the back window. I have not even left for work yet but I’m already geared up to chase my mythical unicorn first thing in the morning.
As I pull out of my neighborhood my eye lids are already heavy. I put all my windows down and turn on the radio. Wanting to crank up the tunes and keep myself alert, the speakers blare as Motley Crue Shouts at the Devil. The cool wind and the wailing guitar wake me up and bring my mind back to a younger me. Long hair, ripped blue jeans, I remember crouching in the tall grass on the edge of the pond next to my parents’ house as I stalked Largemouth Bass with a spinning rod. Life was easier, and given the fact that I have been skunked for the past week and a half as I have pursued my long toothy game fish, the fishing seemed easier back then too. The song ends and I’m snapped back to reality as something less energetic flows from the speakers and I search the stations for more energy and more memories.
The night drags by painfully at work. Thankfully nothing is breaking on the graveyard shift, but unfortunately nothing is breaking on the graveyard shift. I have nothing to do but watch the clock and think of Northerns waiting in ambush in weed beds and under log jams. 8 hours feels more like 12. By the time I’m standing in the locker room I can’t get out of my coveralls fast enough and out the door. I smile an impatient and fake smile as I wait in line at the time clock to punch out. I can see the orange canoe on my truck above the other vehicles in the parking lot through the doors. You guys need to move faster, you just don’t understand…I have fish to hunt.
While I fought to keep my eyes open all night (or all morning if that’s how you want to look at it) the fresh air and the sun filled sky have now given me my second wind. My fishing wind as I’ve come to call it. As I pass the guard shack on my way out the gate I turn on the radio, this time for nothing more than something to make the drive go by faster. I hang my arm out the window and watch the front of the canoe vibrate, it juts out over the hood and cuts the wind like a wedge as Tom Petty is Running Down a Dream through the truck’s speakers. I turn it up, my foot pushes the gas pedal down a little farther and the fur and feathers of the streamers stuck in foam sit on the dash and dance in the wind blowing through the cab.
I know I should only stay an hour or two as I push off from the bank and the boat glides out into the barely noticeable current of the slow river, so I hope to make this a quick cast and catch adventure so that I can get some sleep before doing it all over again tonight. I cast to every fishy looking undercut bank. I cast to every side of every submerged tree I pass, and I strike out each time. Not so much as a follow or even the movement of water being displaced from below to hint that I might be any closer to my victory. I finally find myself along the very stretch of river that I lost my first streamers to weeks ago when I realized that I would indeed need some type of a steel leader or extremely heavy mono leader to fend off the vicious teeth of the water’s apex predator. I inspect my streamer. It looks great. Perfect. It looks like a small fish, the only thing missing is the neon sign with the blinking arrow pointing to it that reads “Eat Here.” I replay the fish in this spot in my mind from weeks ago when I was so close to my win yet so far away. I see my white and red furry creation slap the water and begin to sink. As I strip it once and it jerks forward and then turns slightly to the side it appears. Launching from the river bank it covers the distance in the blink of an eye, perhaps faster. Gills flare, the mouth opens, and the fly is inhaled. As the fish turns back to return to its ambush position I lift my rod. The hook is set! The Pike fight’s to continue its turn, the rod bends. I can feel life through the green hybrid material the rod is crafted from. I smile and breathe out a “Yes!” My buddy Brian sits in the other end and as I hear him say “There ya go!” the Pike gives a head shake and just like that the rod goes limp and the game is over. I stand in the canoe as my heart pounds and just stare. So close.
This time I am ready, a steel leader between the streamer and the mono is my defense. I cast. Just like the first time. It slaps the water and begins to sink. Just like the first time. I give it a couple good strips, it looks perfect as it jerks forward and pauses, showing off the profile of a wounded bait fish just right as it hovers in place and then begins to sink again. Nothing. I stay in this spot for what seems like an hour. Casting. Pleading. Come and get it. Take a bite. Take a swipe. Take a look. Just show me something and I can go home and go to sleep. But nothing. It’s bad enough that I haven’t caught anything in a week and a half, let alone a Pike, but it’s not for a lack of trying. I want to feel something on the end of the line so bad at that moment that I almost think it wouldn’t be so bad if I hooked myself on the back cast. At least then I would feel some tension on the line.
Pulling back onto the pavement I turn on the radio for the ride home. It looks like I’ll only be getting about 3 hours of sleep today since the plan of staying for an hour or so got shot about 4 hours ago. I hit the search button and it stops on the next station. The Dire Straights want their MTV. I turn it up. As I crank up the volume and the wind dries the streamers on the dash I move my head to the rhythm. “I want my…I want my…I want my MTV”. I don’t want my MTV…I want my Pike. I’ll try again tomorrow morning. And the next. And the next.