A breeze from the north meets our bow as two foot waves gently caress the hull in a splish just barely audible over the engine’s throaty chortle. We are on our way out of the harbor, the sun is warm and bright. The passengers chat in nervous excitement. Is it Red Skies at night, or morning? It is? Well then what about that song, you know the one? An old man sits in the back of the boat alone, holding his rod between his knees with his head hanging down; contemplating, meditating.
Ed Poling is my fishing partner for this trip. He’s whimsically singing, “Hail Calypso”, very off key. “You’re showing your age.” I say. “Nobody remembers Bob Denver songs!” He looks at me with a raised eyebrow and says, “That’s a John Denver song! Bob Denver played Gilligan! Who’s showing his age now?” I feign being shot; the message “You got me!” is understood. We both have a good laugh.
Ed’s my cousin, in the loose sense of the word. That means we’ve both forgotten how we are related, but we are kin. I see him every couple of years, we just always seem to run into each other. We keep saying we have to get together at something besides funerals. We keep saying we have to go perch fishing some time. So, I called him up and gave him the ultimatum to be here on the dock this morning or he is no longer my…whatever he is, twice removed.
The big walk-on perch boat must be 60 years old, and was likely a commercial net boat back in the hey-day of the Lake. She has a welded steel hull, steel sides and steel plank roof, but she floats with grace and style through the smooth morning waters of the Western basin.
The whine of the shaft grows lower and the engine throttles back as we hear the anchor chain dropping its load down to Lake Erie’s muddy bottom. The deck hand tells us we are at thirty one feet of water and the fish are two cranks off the bottom, consulting the fish finder. We all drop lines, baited with emerald shiners all the way to the bottom and slowly take up on our reels, one, two cranks.
Almost imperceptibly slowly, the line tightens and the tip of my pole bends ever so slightly down. There is a vibration in the rod like somebody jangling a chain in my hand. The tug could be confused for having fouled or snagged my line, but I know it’s not. This where the lake stops being a hole in the ground filled with water and it shows itself as a giant living thing teeming with a treasure trove of yellow perch, the North Coast’s unofficial favorite lunch. I lean back as if drawing on a fifty foot rubber band, and then come to the rail, reeling in as fast as I can.
The man next to me has one too as I see him jerk up, setting the hook. An impossibly long ash dangles from his cigarette as he’s forgotten everything except the task at hand, the perch. “Fish on!” he cries as he is echoed by the Captain, “Fish on! Shady side!” and a deck hand scurries up with a dip net.
On the sunny side a twenty-something girl stands next to her graying father watching their rod tips, jigging and bouncing their minnows off the bottom. They have come to re-connect, with each other and with their past. She remembers the days when she wore pig tails and he would take her out on the windy lake to seek perch. Every father dreams of taking his son fishing. But when he has only daughters, he finds what a blessing fishing with your little girl can be. It was then as it is now, today.
The Lake Erie Perch is the great equalizer of North Coast. On this boat one man is young, and the car he parked in the lot has many miles and leaks oil. When the boat comes back in, he is on his way to work his shift in a restaurant. The old man who sits next to him drives a snazzy import, and he goes to work only when he wants to check on things. They have only one thing in common, one thing that makes them friends and equals, and it is perch.