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Walleye fishing Ballards Resort Lake of the Woods, MN

Part NINETEEN – continued from last week’s episode 

Using a final burst of energy Rusty’s head and upper torso shot above the water gulping for oxygen. Elbows on the shelf of the ice he chiseled away with the knife to secure an anchor and pull himself out.

Heavily weighted he kicked and splashed and thrashed his way out of the water while grasping the butt of the knife. Rolling over onto his back he realized the adrenaline would not last long. Stripping down and getting next to the Buddy Heater was his next priority.

Damp but managing… Rusty huddled by the furnace inside the fish house reflecting on the size of the creature that had drug him under water. Ahab had fought Moby Dick. Rusty’s only similar claim (not so much) was wrestling a channel catfish to the surface as a five-year-old.

There was one rule as the son of Doobie Flathers… When in a boat on a farm pond on a Saturday morning, “Shhhhh… Keep quiet… You’ll scare the fish.” The only noises came from the cast of a Zebco 202 or the historic crack of an aluminum tab off the top of an Old Milwaukee tube of grease (beer). Stink bait… Rotten cut clams… Chicken livers… Life was good.

When the channel cat tried to break the rod from his hands, young Rusty pleaded for help from his father. The more he reeled the more the line ripped from the spool. Father to son motivational encouragement worked wonders in this instance. From “I can’t” the battle quickly changed to “I can.” And that is what fishing on a farm pond can do for a five-year-old boy.

Rusty’s fishing prowess for big cats would never be next level compared to the local Friedelburg triplets who regularly soaked baits while perched on top the bridge of the Pine Falls River. Their techniques were double top secret and words of advice were few and far between.

Hats pulled low to keep their lids from flying off as trucks and cars roared past, they were unnerved by traffic. Rusty found it dangerous to fish atop bridge piers, but the captivating actions of the triplets were more than worth the price of admission, and he was gaining valuable insight into the world of channel cats.

A fraction of their age and unable to tell them apart he referred to them as “A”, “B”, and “C” when reporting to his friends on their heavily weighted fishing successes. “A” was the leader of the pack constantly waving his arms about and always dictating who was to stand and fish where. “B” oversaw hauling bait and wrapping thread around hooks full of liver. “C” was the runner who would race below the bridge, down to bank level, when fish were too heavy to hoist and were required to be hauled near shore.

The only time you would see the Friedelburg boys venture to town was on Saturday nights. Locals were under the impression there was an arm-wrestling match prior to departure and the winner was allowed to drive the tractor with the losing brothers sitting in the rear on the trailered wagon.

Rusty had put two and two together after a fair amount of reconnaissance and deduced that the driver was in fact the individual who claimed big fish rights for the week. The other fact he discovered was never to stand downwind of the brothers on the bridge. They bathed on Saturday’s only and on a windy day when they spat Union Standard tobacco there was always the chance of being splattered.

Longing to be accepted by the Friedelburg’s and become a member of their “bridge fishing club”… Rusty’s dream came to fruition one hot August afternoon. He had been visiting cousins Skip and Scoop when an above normal (but quite common) fracas broke out betwixt the two brothers. It was the standard name calling, pushing, shoving etcetera.

Only this time… The cousins went a tick further and amped their play to some legitimate all-star wrestling. When Scoop came off the top rope of the davenport there was a bone crushing delivery that crumpled both Skip and the coffee table on which he had landed.

Panic stricken all three boys raced to the barn in search of a replacement leg for the broken furniture. Their mother was at the market, and they had little time to lose before potentially facing a yard stick in her hand.

Rusty pulled the table saw from the corner of the barn while the cousins searched for a fresh strip of pine. If they were lucky, they might be able to cut a new leg for the table and have a fresh coat of stain on without having to face the music. Unfortunately, luck was not on their side…

When Scoop fired up the table saw the chickens inside the barn scattered like teenagers getting busted at an outdoor keg party. And within seconds they were not the only thing flying about!

In his haste to complete the project Scoop had opted to free hand the board cut which ultimately resulted in a finger going through the circular blade. The tip of his index finger, just below the fingernail, launched across the barn and shanked off a beam in front of the horse stable.

Rusty was awestruck at the speed of which the mangled finger traveled. Skip hit the floor of the barn and briefly passed out as he watched his brother step back from the table saw holding his hand in the air with blood shooting out like water from a garden hose.

At about this exact time Aunt Dolly pulled into the lane with the chickens running wild and it appeared to her one rooster perched on the front porch had something in his beak that resembled a finger! Soon Rusty and Skip came from the barn with Scoop in tow.

When the doctor told Scoop the end of the finger could not be sewed back on… Scoop told him to throw it in the garbage. Mildly upset (understatement) Aunt Dolly chose the glass-half-full attitude and hoped this would curb Scoop’s enthusiasm in relation to his nose picking addiction. Of which, at least now, he could only get half of a finger on his dominant hand twisted up into his nasal passage.

Rusty had other ideas… After all he had been the one to catch the rooster with the finger lodged in its beak. The tip of the finger was still fresh… It was packed in ice… There had to be a useful scenario.

“You can drop me off here,” he said to Aunt Dolly on their return from the hospital, as they approached the Pine Falls River bridge. The Friedelburg brothers were soaking bait as Rusty slid from the backseat of the station wagon.

Cautiously approaching the threesome, he produced the bag of ice containing the finger and handed it over to “B” whom he knew oversaw baiting hooks. Without so much as a peep the finger was accepted, removed from the bag, threaded onto a hook, and wrapped surgically with sewing thread to hold it in place. “A” handed the fishing rod to Rusty, waving his arms about, and illustrated a cast to the river lying below them.

The first SEVEN fish were magnificent! Rusty had never seen such fishing action in all his life! “C” simply stayed below the bridge, on the bank, and waited for Rusty to hoist one catfish after the other over for him to net.

It was shortly afterwards that a snapping turtle surfaced and successfully gnawed the finger from the hook, ending the incredible hook setting run. But man… SEVEN wonderful fish.

The following Saturday night Rusty drove the tractor to town with the three Friedelburg brothers sitting in the rear on the hay wagon. With a new John Deere hat that had been bestowed upon him… He tugged it down low, covering his youthful pin-sized-head, and was officially a member of the band.

Equipment-wise Rusty had not been appropriately prepared for a proper angler battle with this magnificent Mangrove Killifish below the ice. Proof of this creature’s existence would need to be accomplished in another manner… Along with an Old Mil or twelve.

A rematch was in order. But first, he needed to find Sally…

“Sniff… Sniff… Sniff…” When Sally came to… She lay on a cement floor bound and blindfolded.  Her gagged shouts reverberated into a deaf silence. She smelled fish guts and Rothmans (Canadian smokey treats).

Where was she? Who had her? Why did they want her? And what did this all have to do with the footage on the GoPro camera…

She had no answers and no way to escape.

–  To be continued –