Rick Wehler shares the story of his first fishing trip to Canada, many years ago. I must comment with discretion regarding Rick’s fishing ability, as he has many vicious squirrels in his employ, and will not hesitate to send them my way if I’m not careful! 😀
Thanks for the memories, Rick!
A Borrowed, Black, 1958 Ford Thunderbird
From West of Witty Minne-Sconsin Stories and Femails
Rick A. Wehler
It took a while to write this story about a 1958 fishing trip with my father and his friend because I had to rely on my memory. When a thought popped in, I’d write it down before I forgot it. Later, during moments of clarity, I’ll separate fact from fiction.
Today, I decided it’s unlikely that Marilyn Monroe came along, and the wind on the lake blew her skirt up.
Dad: Ricky, it’s time to get up.
Ricky: It’s still dark.
Dad: Get up. Frosty will be here soon.
It was 4:30 a.m. on a July morning in 1958. Dad and his best friend, Frosty Williams, both thirty years old, had borrowed a black, 1958 Ford Thunderbird from the Minneapolis car dealership where they worked as salesmen.
Dad: Ricky, we’re heading to the Canadian border fishing and camping. It’s a long drive. We’ve got to get going.
I was excited to be included in the trip even though at eight years old, I’d never been fishing or camping. I downed two bowls of cereal while Dad and Frosty loaded a holstered pistol, a bottle of liquor and other contraband into the Thunderbird’s excuse for a trunk.
I sat in the backseat of the modern sports car while Dad and Frosty occupied the front bucket seats that were separated by a center console with a built in ashtray. I didn’t question the lack of fishing and camping gear.
Before I knew it, we were cruising due north on a two lane highway, leaving Minneapolis well behind. I gazed at the long, flat, empty road ahead in the early morning light from between the bucket seats and through the Marlboro cigarette smog that filled the cabin.
Dad: Ricky, read the speedometer.
I rubbed my stinging eyes, looked over his shoulder and read, “104!”
Dad: That’s right. This machine can fly!
Frosty: It’s starting to float.
Dad laughed and slowed down a bit.
Sometime later, we left the paved roads well behind too. Up ahead, the horizon was far off; the sky, pale blue. The scattered clouds reminded me of Mom’s mashed potatoes, without the gravy.
Dad turned off the main dirt road and meandered through many a bumpy, wooded, back road until we arrived at a lodge on the southern end of Crane Lake.
Dad had reserved a tipsy, aluminum boat with a beat-up motor, filled with enough fishing and camping gear to keep it steady on the big lake. We motored along close to the rocky, inlet strewn, shoreline until we entered the Little Vermilion Straits on the Minnesota/Canadian border.
We followed the strait until Frosty pointed and said, “There’s the island dead ahead.” As we approached he commented, “Oh, someone’s already camping there. We’ll have to find another spot.”
Dad followed Frosty’s directions until they spotted a rock outcropping bordered by trees that jutted into the strait. We pulled up onto shore at dusk and unloaded the gear. Dad and Frosty erected a floorless, canvas tent, unrolled army blankets, set up a campfire pit, uncorked a bottle of booze, poured a little into two camping cups, and handed me a warm bottle of Bubble-Up.
We sat by the campfire and looked out over the water as the full moon’s reflection stretched across the strait, bouncing on the waves. Even at my age, I was stunned by the beauty. We donned our lack of swimming suits and floated on the waves within the moon’s reflection. I slept soundly on the rocky ground wrapped in an army blanket.
The next morning Dad said, “You woke in the middle of the night, sat up, pointed at the tent door and screamed ‘a bear!’ Frosty and I jumped out from under our blankets, and Frosty unholstered his Ruger pistol. There was no bear, so we all settled back down.”
That was news to me. We hiked up into the woods and found a border marker between the two countries; left foot in the U.S.A., right foot in Canada.
Later that morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, we climbed aboard the now roomy aluminum boat and headed out hunting for a fishing spot. Dad and Frosty had purchased a few dozen sucker minnows as bait. We stopped at a likely spot and Frosty gave me some fishing instructions.
Frosty: Ricky, this is a casting rod and reel. See this hook? I’ll stick a minnow on it. Good. Now put the rod over the edge of the boat, let the reel spin and the line sink to the bottom. You’ll know because the reel will stop spinning. Then crank until the count of three and stop. We’re fishing for walleye. So you’ll see the rod tip pulled down a little when they’re nibbling. The third time the rod tip goes down, put your thumb on the reel and pull back hard. You’ll know if you have something. Then just start cranking the handle.
We didn’t have any luck that morning and headed back to camp. As I sat on the shore eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich; I fished with my rod lying on the ground, holding the line in my hand, and dipping the hooked minnow into the water. Minutes later, I saw a giant head reach for the minnow. I pulled in the line and the head disappeared. I couldn’t imagine what it was.
Ricky: “Dad, Dad, come here, hurry.”
Dad and Frosty ran over expecting a problem.
Ricky: Dad, there’s a giant head down there.
Dad: Dip your bait in again.
Sure enough, up came the head. Frosty ran to the tent and returned with his Ruger pistol. He took careful aim with the pistol in his right hand resting on his raised, left elbow, and fired at the head. It disappeared and didn’t come back, so we returned to camp.
After lunch, I looked towards the shore, and there was a giant snapping turtle crawling along the rocky shore with a blood trail behind it. Frosty came up, took his shooting stance, and shot it again, twice.
Frosty: That’s a monster. It’d make for a great dinner.
Ricky: You can eat those?
Dad: Sure, if we had a pot big enough to cook it.
Frosty picked it up and pitched it into the lake.
We climbed aboard the boat, leaving the fishing gear behind, to do some sight seeing. Dad, up front, spotted a loon, and with Frosty at the tiller. We gave chase. That loon turned on a dime, several times, and Frosty did much the same with our shallow-hulled boat while Dad reached forward with the landing net. We all shouted with excitement; including the loon that finally gave us the bird, dove beneath the surface and escaped.
Late afternoon, near a big rock that stuck up out of the water, we found a good fishing spot. Dad and Frosty caught a few nice-sized walleyes. Then I had my first bite. I did just as Frosty instructed: let the rod bounce three times and pulled back hard. I had one. I just kept cranking as the rod bent into an upside-down U and jumped to and fro.
Dad: “I’ve got the net. Slide your rod this way.”
Together we boated my first fish ever!
We caught several walleyes in that spot and then headed to camp. Dad and Frosty cleaned the fish and fried them over the campfire in a big iron skillet, sissling with the bacon grease that Frosty had saved from breakfast. Never, ever, in my life had I tasted anything so delicious. What a change from our meals at home that consisted of anything cheap, especially mashed potatoes.
That night went by peacefully, no bear sightings, and we were out early, fishing on our hot spot. We caught several walleyes once again but disaster struck. The stringer broke loose from the boat and sunk to the bottom with all of our catch. Dad had always been a top-notch swimmer, a competitor as a teenager. He could still swim three lengths of the pool at the YMCA underwater without taking a breath. Dad stripped down, not feeling the need for a swimsuit in the wilderness, and dove all around the boat, celebrating as he surfaced, by holding the stringer of fish high above the water.
I continued to follow the successful fishing technique I’d learned from Frosty. Wham! No three rod jiggles, just wham! I jerked my rod back, it slammed forward and bent over the edge of the boat. I tried to reel but the reel wouldn’t reel.
Frosty: Ricky, it’s ok; wait a minute. When the line goes slack a bit, then reel.
I followed his advice and within a few minutes, the biggest fish I’d ever seen broke the surface. The water splashed as it struggled; first on its left side, then flipping over and diving again. It was a ways away from the boat as it fought. I reeled and reeled.
Frosty: Play it Ricky.
I didn’t know what that meant and kept reeling. The fish jumped into the sky, flopped back down onto the waves, splashed like crazy, and bit through my line. My rod jumped backwards. I was afraid that I’d done something wrong.
Frosty: That’s ok. It’s not your fault. We should have put a wire leader on your line that the fish couldn’t bite through.
Ricky: What kind of fish was that?
Frosty: A northern pike. They have really sharp teeth.
Ricky: How big was it?
Frosty: At least fifteen pounds, a monster. There’s more of them out there and you have a wire leader. So go get’em.
No northerns but we caught so many walleyes that we ran out of minnows. Dad put a Marlboro butt on his hook, laughed and sunk it to the bottom. Immediately, he caught a fine walleye. Frosty still had a minnow on his line and landed a walleye at the same time. Dad and Frosty both slapped their catches and managed to get the fish to cough up half-eaten minnows, our new, successful bait.
We dined like kings again that night; stayed up late, after the moon set, and floated on our backs in the quiet waters beneath the unbelievable, swirling masses of color, pink, green, yellow and blue, that are the Northern Lights.
The next morning, we packed up and headed home. On our return trip, I bathed in the memories of our adventure as we flew through space and time in a borrowed, black, 1958 Ford Thunderbird.
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