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Line Kings

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By Paul Pekin

I was on the beach north of Ludington, and the lake was so blue and bright it hurt my heart. "They won't be in today," the man from Kalamazoo was saying. "This is too damn nice a day for steelhead. It's got to be cold so you can't stand it. It's got to be a wind blowing you right out of your socks."

Steelhead fishing, he said, is like life. Want something special? Pay your dues. And the steelhead is a special fish, bright as bullion, sleek as a torpedo, strong as a river--a rainbow trout that went to sea, exchanged its colors for muscle, then came back to give men onshore a chance. A salmon lives its cycle, spawns, and dies; the steelhead eats the salmon's spawn, leaves its own, and heads out for another round of life. What old man wouldn't admire that?

The man from Kalamazoo was in his late 60s, warmly dressed in a one-piece jumpsuit, chest-high waders, and a bright red knit cap. He was staying in a campground over in Scottville. "No sir," he said to me, to the lake, to the man fishing next to him. "I'm not trying it over there!"

The second man was also wearing waders and one of those billed caps with earflaps pulled tight over his bald head. He was even older than the man from Kalamazoo. "That's rough over there," he agreed. "Last year one of those hillbillies said I was in his spot, said he was going to kick me into the river. And I said, 'Come on over here and do it if you think you can.' Sure, I could talk that way--I was in the boat and he was onshore."

That's how things were before the state put an end to the snagging. When the salmon came up the Pere Marquette, snaggers from as far away as Kentucky and Alabama would be waiting at Scottville to drag them out of the river. A couple of good old boys working together could fill the bed of a pickup truck in a single night, every fish big enough to hang on your trophy wall.

"There was a fellow had a gun. He told me and my partner, 'You get out of this stretch, or I'll put a bullet in you.' So we went into town and got the police and brought them back. He was still there, and we had him arrested. But I don't go up there anymore."

"I don't either. If that's how bad they want them fish, they can have them."

The old men pretended to examine their lines. Each had waded out chest deep into Lake Michigan and cast out as far as he could. Each had walked back to shore, playing out line behind him. Each had set his long surf-casting rod into a holder driven deep into the sand. Now the rods stood erect, bowed, waiting.

"We fish for them all winter," the man from Kalamazoo explained. "Long as we find a place where there ain't ice, we can fish. The colder it is, the better they like it. They come into all these streams up and down the lake, come up to the breakwater, come in the surf. You eat these steelhead you won't want no salmon."

He and his companion seemed to know each other, but not real well. They talked of years gone by, and of people who had gone with them, and sometimes surprised each other with a bit of news. "You know that black guy that always fishes down on the south branch? He's got this one spot, never goes anywhere else. Someone else gets in his spot, he'll just sit down and wait."

"He's dead now."

"That right?"

"Two years."

"Well, he sure got a lot of fish."

"You know that guy Willie? The guy that's always down on the breakwater with his eight-pound line?"

"Sure I do. He'll be playing a fish up and down that pier for an hour and to hell with everyone else."

"There was this guy from Freesoil. Said, 'You come by this way again and I'm going to cut your line.' And Willie says, 'I'd like to see you cut my line.' I told him, 'Willie, he's not kidding you--he will cut your line.'"

"Cut his line and throw him in, that's what they should do."

A car pulled up on the road above, and a tall man clad in waders and a blue stocking cap climbed down the sand dune, rod in hand.

"Well, you fellows doing anything?"

"Ah, it's too darn nice," the man from Kalamazoo said. "I hear that. But maybe I'll get lucky."

The new man walked down the beach about a hundred feet and set up his pole. "You know what I hate?" the man with the billed cap said. "Some guy comes along after you been fishing for hours and never got a hit. Then he throws in and gets one right away."

I started to tell a joke. "Hear about the two guys fishing side by side? First guy never gets a bite and the second--"

"Happened to me," the man from Kalamazoo said. "Soon as the guy got his limit I took his spot. Then some new guy takes my old spot, and right away he gets a fish."

The new man returned, leaving his rod set up and bending toward the lake. I was hoping he would get a hit, just to see how fast he could run in his waders. "What do you think, fellows?" he said. "Do you think I cleared that sandbar?"

"Well, when you catch a fish," the man from Kalamazoo said, "you can ask him."

It seemed clear that no one expected he would have the chance.

"As far as these salmon go," the man in the billed cap said, "I'd just as soon eat a trout instead."

"Oh yes," the Kalamazoo man said. "My wife woulda took one like that one I got the other morning. My wife, she woulda broiled a fish like that and served it up with lemon and a little pepper."

"My wife," the new man said. "She's dead."

We waited, listening to the slow steady roll of the great cold lake.

"Leukemia," he explained.

"Yeah."

"Uh-huh."

"When did that happen?" I asked.

"A year ago last June."

I could feel the sun on my back now, warm and comforting. It was going to be a beautiful day. I imagined the sunlight entering the water, reaching down to where the fish were, startling them with their own shadows.

Traffic on the road behind us was picking up. When I checked my rod I saw that the waves had washed the bait almost back to shore. I reeled in and cast out again as best I could.

"You been by the park?" the man from Kalamazoo asked.

"I tried up there for the last four mornings," I told him. "I figured I might as well try here for a change." I told him I was from Chicago, that I came up to Ludington every year for the salmon, and that this time it looked like I'd be going home without any fish. "I'd be happy with just one," I said.

"But you'd soon enough want two," he said. We all laughed.

The man in the billed cap knew Chicago. He'd worked there many years ago and still remembered a woman he'd kept company with. "I was just out of the army," he said. "I'd been in the Pacific, and I hadn't been with a white woman in three years."

"You get into Pearl?" the new man asked.

"I was in all those places. Okinawa, Saipan. First day I got back I got so drunk I couldn't stand. Then I came to Chicago and met this woman. She lasted me a year, and then--well, you know."

He took off his billed cap and rubbed his totally bald head. He was over 70. I tried to imagine him with a woman. It was easier than you might think.

"Then I got this construction job over in Grand Rapids. Was an uncle of mine got me in. I was young and strong--what did I know? Made good money till I hurt my back."

"Ain't that what backs are for?" the man from Kalamazoo said.

"Seems so. But I should have hurt it before I went to the war. I don't care what anyone says, how they wouldn't have missed it for the world. I wish I had missed it."

"There was some good things," the new man said. "You ever go into one of those houses in Honolulu?"

"Stand in line like it was for a piece of meat?"

"I stood," the new man said. "And then I come home and got married. And now she's gone. I always thought women were supposed to outlive men."

The man from Kalamazoo walked over to where his pole was set up in the sand and stood quietly looking out over the lake. A breeze was making little whitecaps out on the blue.

Another car pulled up and parked on the road above. I heard the doors slamming, and then there was another man, about 40, climbing down the dune. He had a woman with him and a young girl. All three were hatless, wearing windbreakers and jeans. They were tourists, probably staying at one of the bed-and-breakfasts in town. Seeing how they were dressed made me realize that the sun could only get warmer.

"There's a fellow got himself some kinda woman," the man in the billed cap said.

I took another look. He was right. The woman coming down the sand dune with her man was a handsome creature with dark brown hair tied into a loose ponytail. The man was redheaded, and so was the daughter who came running ahead. The girl was about 11, but the sunlight brought out the color of her hair in a way that made you see the woman she would be.

"You want to see a big fish?" the man from Kalamazoo asked her. She giggled and ran back to her parents.

"Pretty little thing," he said. "Just like a new flower."

The other two men were watching the mother. So was I. She was the kind of woman men with money take for their first wives. Handsome, mature, slim, and desirable. She walked with her husband, holding his arm and letting the wind blow through her hair.

"Good morning," the husband said.

We all nodded and murmured polite words.

"Looks like it's going to warm up," he said.

I couldn't keep my eyes off that woman. Now and then a woman like that will come along, and I have to watch that I don't get caught staring. Luckily, she hardly noticed me. Of course she wouldn't. I was just another old man, exactly like the men I was standing with. We watched her and her husband and her little girl stroll down the beach. They didn't even ask if we'd caught any fish.

When they were out of earshot the man with the billed cap said, "Uh-huh. I bet that fellow don't even know what he's got."

"I'll bet he does," the man from Kalamazoo said. He took his rod out of its holder, reeled in, checked his bait, and waded far out into the lake. He was almost up to his elbows with the waves washing up his chest when he cast out, a long looping throw that sent droplets of water sparkling in the sun.

"Too damn nice a day," the man with the billed cap told me.

I sat on the beach-whitened log I'd tied my line to and watched the man and his wife and daughter walking along the beach. The beach here runs for miles, and you could walk it for miles, not that you'd see anything more interesting than a dead fish or two, some seagull feathers, and a few old men fishing. Still, it's a beautiful beach with those big high dunes, and the air does powerful things for your lungs.

The sun began to heat up. It had been cold enough for sweaters, coats, and gloves an hour ago. I began to take mine off. The man from Kalamazoo and the man with the billed cap stood by their rods, talking and sharing a thermos of coffee. I knew I couldn't drink that, given my prostate, but in a queer sort of way I was disappointed that they hadn't offered me any. I'm always wanting something I don't need and can't use.

I let the warm sun soak into me for a while, took a book out of my pocket and read some, thought about my wife back at the cottage, and wondered if she was out of bed yet. I felt sorry for that man whose wife had died of leukemia, even if he didn't seem terribly bothered by it. Maybe he was and he just didn't let it show.

Finally we saw the man with the wife and the redheaded daughter coming back. The daughter had her shoes off and was dancing in and out of the shallow water. The man had his wife's hand in his own.

I saw that the other men were watching them too, each in his own careful way, but anyone with an eye for it would have guessed what the four of us were thinking. She was a fine woman, very fine, and when she and her husband came by us we exchanged polite words again. Then they were climbing up the sand dune, and car doors were slamming.

"Well," the man with the billed cap said, "I guess I've had enough excitement for one day." He reeled in his line and packed up his tackle. A few minutes later the new man did the same.

I read a few more pages and then decided I might as well reel in myself. By the time I got back to the cottage my wife would probably be ready for an afternoon drive. Maybe we could visit that farm stand on Route 31. It was going to be a perfect day to do it.

Suddenly the man from Kalamazoo was walking toward me with a long silver fish hanging from the end of a stringer. He must have had it staked out before I showed up.

"Whyn't I give you this?" he said.

"You don't have to do that," I said, but not with a whole lot of conviction. It was a beautiful fish, at least eight pounds, fresh and solid. It was almost alive.

He put the stringer into my hand. "Tell me, what am I going to do with it? Your wife can cook that for you. Remember what I said. A little lemon and lots of pepper."

A few moments later he was packed and starting up the sand dune. Then he stopped, as if he'd forgotten something, and turned back. "Say," he said, "that really was a fine-looking woman, wasn't she?" He shook his head a little sadly, then smiled. After that he just kept on going.

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