On a early spring evening, just as the tide goes slack low, you can see bobbing headlamps on the sandbar at the mouth of a certain New England river. Packed into tight groups the anglers will be sharing stories of the outgoing. If all went well, headlamps will be focused on the roughened pads of thumbs. Lipping stripers during a good evening eventually scours the thumb to the texture of well used sand paper. The same happens on a good day of largemouth or smallmouth fishing. Bass thumb isn’t a problem, it’s a badge of honor.
During those weeks of early spring fishing in New England, the lakes of northern Saskatchewan are still locked in ice. But each day is longer than the last and the snow and ice soon yield to open water. By the time you arrive on Reindeer Lake in mid-June, the water is still so cold that the air temperature over open water is ten degrees colder than back at the lodge. The pike are on the move. While they don’t mind the deep, cold water they know that the bait will be in the shallows and creek mouths. Anglers know this too.
When the pike fishing is slow your movement around the sharp bits of a pike is intentional. You put on the glove, you use long-nosed pliers, maybe even a grip of some sort. For the grip and grin you don’t put your hand too far in behind the gills. You pay attention when the fish thrashes. But then things heat up. There’s whoops of joy. There’s cursing.
A front passes in the morning. While the skies are clearer and the rain has stopped, the wind is up. The long run to the sweetest spots will take you across open water heavy with wind-driven chop. The guide does what he can to minimize the pounding on the hull and the soaking spray but there’s no avoiding the fact that your destiny and the winds are at odds. You hold on. You lean into the jarring bounce. You turn your head when the spray bounds over the bow thankful for your G3. The misery is sweet. You smile. Your buddy smiles too.
Through the morning the fishing is slow. It’s impossible to see the fish in the disturbed surface so you’re prospecting all the likely spots. That means lots of casting. The wind, always blowing in the wrong direction, makes the whole thing begin to feel like a chore. Between the two of you, you have about twenty fish to the boat. All are bigger than any pike you’ve caught back home but none are in the running for biggest of the trip. Maybe not even biggest of the day.
The guide works hard to find better water. Easier casting. More willing fish. You spend more time on boat rides than you do casting but it’s been a good week, so you don’t mind the respite. And you trust your guide. Otto has been fishing this lake since before you were born and he’s proven his fishiness.
You have high expectations for a place nicknamed Slaughter Hole. The boys on the other boat were there earlier in the week and had good results. You cast through the belly of the bay and neither of you gets a touch. Otto let’s the wind control the drift and soon you’re beached on the shore of a small cove. The wind-driven water has stacked the bait up against the shore.
The strikes come. The fish come. Soon you and your buddy are regularly doubled up and Otto is busy going from one to the other unhooking fish. You get a small one. It’s hooked on the lip. Otto is with Mike. You grab the leader and bring it to hand. Then Mike calls out for you to look at his fine specimen.
You swear the pike know when you’re not paying attention. A thrash of pike lips rake your thumb opening tiny slits. The blood mixes with the water on your hand. It’s horror movie stuff. Your curse a bit. Otto scoffs when you show him. He’s too polite to say something like “Call me over when you have a real wound, princess.” He shows you his hands. They’re the rough hands of someone who has worked a full life of honest labor. They show the many scars of many fish.
The fishing continues to be fast for the next hour. You unhook more fish and your inexperienced hands pay the price. Otto gently mocks you as the wounds pile up. He offers you his glove. You demur. You gladly pay the price because you’ve boated more fish than you deserve. It feels like an honest trade.
On the plane ride home you rub your forefinger over the incised surface of your thumb. Your knuckles bear the prick marks of a quick bite. The pads of your fingers bear testament to where your hand slipped behind the gill plate. You have a story to tell but the man sitting next to you wouldn’t understand. He’s not part of your tribe. He wouldn’t recognize this badge you wear.