Kinship Radio Announcer Allen Jones has asked listeners to share their Christmas stories.
Well, Allen, you asked for it.
The following story is very long, spanning over four decades and hundreds of miles. It is amazing, unbelievable, even miraculous–and all true. (Except that my brother’s name has been changed to protect his identity.)
The story begins in the summer of 1969. I was ten years old and my brother was seven. We were vacationing on Sucker Bay of Leech Lake, at Rock Springs Resort.
We were with my mom and dad, my grandma and grandpa, and some aunts and uncles.
These were the glorious days of my youth, where my brother Bob and I would spend hours and hours playing on the dock at the resort. I still remember the color of the water under that dock. It was as if it were lit from beneath, glowing a deep, mysterious green that seemed somewhere between jade and emerald.
I’ve fished many, many lakes in my lifetime, but only Leech Lake has that particular color.
Bob and I would attempt to catch real fish off that dock, but mostly we just enabled pesky perch the opportunity to steal our bait.
The dock was for idle fish-play, but what we really longed for was to go out in the boat with the adults.
A vacation is all well and good, but taking fish back home seemed at the time to be the main objective. Grandma and Grandpa had lived through the Great Depression, so there was no such thing as “catch and release.” Unless it was just an impossibly small fish (like those perch we caught off the dock) it was cleaned and frozen and headed back home in a cooler.
Grandma even made us keep the rock bass, even if they were harder to clean.
So it was not often that “the kids” got to go out in the boat and take up valuable space that could have gone to more capable meat fisherman.
But, on one particularly beautiful evening, Bob and I learned that we would be allowed to join Mom and Dad in trolling for northerns.
We all piled into the well-worn 12 foot boat provided by the resort and dad fired up the old Johnson outboard.
Of course, Dad sat in the back running the motor. I sat in the seat in front of Dad, Bob was amidships, and Mom sat in the bow with Tina, our Dachshund, on her lap.
Soon, we were slowly sputtering around the north end of the bay, our spoons wiggling enticingly somewhere far behind the boat.
I believe I had on the classic red and white Daredevel and I think Mom was using a black and white Daredevel. Dad and Bob were using the “hot” lure that year, the Red Eye Wiggler.
As we rounded the tip of the bay, Dad caught a walleye.
This was considered an extremely good omen, as we rarely caught walleyes–especially while fishing for northerns.
With the walleye safely on the stringer, Dad headed the boat further around the bay toward “the Green Cabin.”
The Green Cabin sat alone on the other side of the bay from the resort. It was a legendary fishing spot.
Slowly we inched along, the old motor generating a soft blue cloud as the sun sank lower, just touching the tree-tops and tinging the sky with the first hints of evening pink.
Then Bob said, “Dad, I think I got a fish.”
Dad laid an experienced and unimpressed eye on the tip of the old green fiberglass pole in Bob’s hands.
“You got weeds, kid. Reel up.”
Bob sighed, hunched over the Shakespeare reel spooled with camo-colored 50-pound Dacron and began slowly cranking.
Nobody paid much attention as Bob slowly cranked until some minutes later when he said, “Dad, I really think I got a fish.”
Dad took one look at the rod shaking in Bob’s hands, then his eyes followed the line back to a point behind the boat.
“Gimme that!” he exclaimed as he grabbed the rod out of Bob’s hands.
Dad slowly reeled and reeled until this enormous fish was swimming right beside the boat! He moved to the center position, standing up in the boat as he brought the fish closer. (We were never allowed to stand up in the boat.)
It wasn’t even fighting. I can still see it calmly swimming beside the boat in the emerald-jade glow– the Red Eye Wiggler in the corner of its mouth.
Nobody said a word as we all wondered why it wasn’t fighting, until Dad said to Mom, “Hand me the gaff.”
Now, we normally didn’t have a gaff. We normally used a net, but Dad was a welder at work and he had made this enormous gaff for just such an occasion.
Mom handed Dad the gaff and he gently eased it into the water below the fish. Holding the reel in his left hand and the gaff in his right, he drove the point right into the fish’s throat!
The giant northern reacted instantly by pointing its nose down and away from the boat and lunging forward, it’s massive tail spraying Dad with an enormous quantity of lake water.
As the fish continued to power itself away from Dad, it actually started to pull him forward and the boat started to tip toward the fish! This may have had something to do with all four of us leaning toward that side of the boat to watch, but whatever the case, Dad let go of the gaff.
Now the fish was swimming slowly back and forth beside the boat with a six-foot long gaff hanging out of it.
There was what seemed to be an extended period of nobody knowing exactly what to do next, but eventually, the gaff fell out and sank to the bottom of the lake.
Amazingly, the fish remained hooked through all of this.
Dad may have had a set-back with the whole gaff incident, but he was a skilled fisherman and, when the fish had tired enough, he knelt down, slipped a hand under it’s jaw and eased it into the boat.
All four of us stared at the giant fish laying immobile in the bottom of the boat.
And then, one of our party decided the battle was not over.
Tina jumped into the bottom of the boat, went nose-to-nose with the fish, and began barking viciously.
This seemed to revive the fish, which began snapping at the startled dachshund and flopping violently.
Dad reacted quickly by opening his tacklebox, pulling out his filet knife, pinning the fish down to the bottom of the boat with one hand and plunging the knife three times into its head, right between the eyes.
Finally, the monster was subdued and we were victorious.
We motored back to the resort as quickly as the old ten-horse would take us.
Once at the dock, the fish was weighed and measured. It was 36 inches long and weighed 13 pounds. It was the largest fish anyone in my family could ever remember catching.
Bob stood in front of the fish-cleaning shack and Dad put it in his hands while Mom got out her Kodak Brownie and snapped a picture. The nose of the fish was pretty much even with Bob’s chin and the tail touched the ground.
Others gathered around to take pictures too, and Bob complained that it hurt to hold it up. “Just keep holding it,” he was told as more photos were taken.
When he was finally allowed to put the fish down, we could see the tips of Bob’s fingers were bleeding. Even in death, the monster had injured him with its gill rakers.
Bob still has the picture Mom took, and you can see the expression on his seven year-old face is a mixture of pride and pain.
Afterwards, there was much talk among the adults about having the fish mounted. We were not by any means a rich family and Dad was pretty sure we couldn’t afford it.
It was decided to wrap the fish in newspapers and butcher paper and freeze it whole.
A week or so after we got home to Owatonna, Dad verified that there was no way we could afford to have the whole fish mounted. But, Grandma’s next-door neighbor’s son was taking a mail-order taxidermy course and he had offered to mount just the head for a reasonable price.
I don’t think I ever heard the name of this young taxidermy student. He was always referred to as “the Sellner kid.”
I do remember being in my Uncle Orin’s basement when the giant fish was withdrawn from the freezer. We had been instructed to cut the fish’s head off exactly one inch behind the gills.
Uncle Orin accomplished this with Grandpa’s meat saw. The remainder of the giant fish was cut into one-inch “fish steaks.”
I do not recall ever eating one of those steaks.
Anyway, the giant fish head was delivered to the Sellner Kid, and Bob and I waited with great anticipation for the delivery of the mounted head.
After what seemed an eternity (I believe it took even longer than ordering Sea Monkeys from the back of a comic book.) the fish head was delivered.
The Sellner kid had not done a wonderful job.
The gills had been removed and replaced with red felt cut with a pinking shears. The mouth was open in a suitably menacing pose, but a large area inside the mouth had been filled with what appeared to be somewhat lumpy plaster of Paris. The wooden plaque to which the head was attached was a fairly thin piece of plywood, and purple felt had been glued to the back of the plaque.
All-in-all it looked like a kid who was taking a mail-order taxidermy course had done the job.
Nonetheless, Bob was, of course, quite proud of the fish head and it hung in his bedroom for many years. (It never occurred to me until I write this now that it was never, ever displayed in a location where guests might see it when they would visit our home. I guess that figures.
The story now fast-forwards to 1980.
In the ensuing eleven years, a lot had changed in our young lives.
Mom passed away from breast cancer just three years after we caught the giant fish.
Dad remarried several years afterwards.
I graduated high school in 1977 and left the house.
Boyd graduated in 1980, and enlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Germany and I didn’t see him for three years.
When he returned, the fish head was gone–sold at a rummage sale to clear away items that seemed to be no longer needed or wanted.
Now the story fast-forwards forty-two years from the date of the epic fish battle to December of 2011.
Bob is a successful Mechanical Engineer in Faribault while I am working for Minnesota Valley Action Council in Mankato.
We still go fishing together, but the fish head is something that has passed into the far, far recesses of our memories. Neither of us have thought about the fish head in decades.
Then, just three days before we are to celebrate our family Christmas, I walk into the back of the MVAC Thrift Store to have a business-related conversation with Heather, the manager. As I am speaking with her, I look down and see that she is dusting off a mounted fish head as she prepares it for sale.
I stopped in mid-sentence, a wave of old, old memories coming back.
After a moment, I say, “Can I see that?”
She hands it to me and I cannot believe what I am holding in my hands. It’s yellower and there are signs of some minor shrinkage, but…
Purple felt glued to the back of a plywood plaque. Check.
Red felt gills cut with a pinking shear. Check.
Lumpy plaster of Paris inside the mouth. Check
Traces of three knife wounds in the top of the head right between the eyes. Check! Check! CHECK!
“Heather, how much do you want for this?”
“How much do you want to pay, Dan?”
Now, keep in mind that this is happening in Mankato, 46 miles from the last known location of the fish head, 42 years after the fish was caught, 31 years since Bob or I have seen the fish head, and three days before Christmas.
If I had talked to Heather five minutes before or after the exact time I chose, I probably would have never seen that fish head.
I did not wrap the fish head in an elaborate package with ribbons or bows because I could not be 100% certain it was the fish head.
Only one person would know for sure and that was Bob.
I put that fish head in a plain brown paper shopping bag and told Bob, “This is either going to be really, really lame or the coolest Christmas present you’ve gotten in a long, long time.”
He took it out and was dumbfounded for what seemed like forever.
I couldn’t take it.
“Is it?” I asked.
“Yeah, Yeah. This is it,” he said, grinning but shocked.
“God wanted you to have that fish head, Bob,” I said.
And with that, the Miracle Christmas Fish Head was home.
It hangs on the wall of his cabin to this day.
And sometimes, it even looks like it is smiling.
So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. John 21:11 NIV