Fishing an Island

By Leslie Ann Coates

The downrigger cable hums an ascending scale as the boat increases speed to a steady three miles per hour. There isn’t enough wind to roll the water, but the occasional wake from a distant party of water skiers lifts and rocks the slow-moving boat. The smartphone topographical map indicates a series of underwater islands. On the starboard side, opposite the downrigger, trolls a big billed deep diving lure. The morning sun is still low in the sky leaving plenty of time before heat and light chase me back to shore. 

I check the horizon for boat traffic, map for direction, graph for depth, rod to the left, rod to right, repeat. The drone of the outboard washes over every movement, drowning sounds as though the whole activity is underwater.  It is easier with a partner, because the driver can check the traffic, course, and depth, as the partner looks backward, watching the rods. Growing up, I was the partner for my father. We were new to boat fishing back then and often drove around the lake for what seemed an eternity under the blazing Kansas sun without so much as a strike. I swore I would never troll again, but here I am now. It would be great to have my son with me, but he doesn’t have much interest in fishing anymore. 

Years ago, we tested our football spirals in the fading daylight until street lamps provided our only measure of safety against the incoming ball. River would always want to punt, sending me to chase wherever it sliced. By the end of the day, I was tired and wanted nothing to do with running or chasing and it took some effort to restrain my exasperation. Other evenings, we would walk Pippin, then solid red and just a puppy, to the museum lawn at the end of the street. Training recall, we would call him back and forth between us until swarming mosquitoes forced a retreat home. River and I would sit at the kitchen table after supper drilling mental math, me doling out M&M’s for each correct answer. What is seven plus four? Eleven. One green M&M. What is thirty-seven plus eleven? Forty-eight. A brown and two reds. Now, he is a senior in high school planning to study mathematics in college.

A submerged island appears on the right side of the depth finder’s screen with a few red and yellow tell-tale arches indicating fish along the bottom. There is no way to tell through sonography what species of fish is being transmitted to the screen, but based on the context I assume they are the hybrid bass locally known as wipers. My heart quickens. Nothing is certain; everything is possible. 

In his toddler years, it was work to take River fishing. Just as we would settle in with tied knots, baited hooks, and floating bobbers, a new discovery would pull his focus: A rock perfectly shaped for skipping; a stick built for whopping; sand designed for scooping. Snacks ruled at fifteen minute intervals. Occasionally, we would luck into a few crappie and bring them home. Even from an early age, River enjoyed fresh fish from the fryer. 

My father took me as a child, too, but by my teenage years, I had become a self-sufficient fishing companion. We would burn every drop of light from the sunset before returning home, and I would rush to my room and speed through any assignments due the next morning. Eventually, I was fishing alone and regularly finding fish, reaping the benefits. If River goes these days, it is a kind gesture. He busies himself with a book or a writing pad. We have long conversations regarding his recent suppositions. We make jokes, bad puns, and eat junk food. Mostly, I go alone.

When trolling deep divers, bouncing the bottom is a tactic paramount to catching fish. Snagging and losing the lure is always a possibility, but the bait hitting the lake floor draws attention attracting fish to the noise. I know my lures have arrived at the top of the island by the erratic rapping of the rod tip, and I watch and measure the risk and reward of either losing a lure or catching a fish. Three or four solid bounces and the rod slams into a solid 90-degree bend and the line begins to peel from the spool. I pick up the rod and a substantial fish surges against the pressure. For a moment, I relish the feeling of hefty weight on the rod and the overall wash of triumph. Then, moving to action, I put the boat in neutral and with one hand crank the downrigger weight out of the deep. The braided steel wire would be an easy breaking point should the fighting fish find it, so clearing it is an important step. I also manage to reel in the second line. It is enough business for four hands. Now, fully present to the fighting fish I glow with adrenaline, shameless and laughing out loud. If I lose the fish or if it breaks my line, there is no one other than myself to groan at the folly. I fight the fish to the gunwale and net it into the boat. I free the hook and hoist the fish, displaying it to no one. The long silver and white body with broken lateral stripes down each side measures twenty-three inches, two inches beyond the legal minimum. I slide the fish into the live well for tonight’s dinner. Later, after the first batch is pulled from the fryer, he will creep up the basement stairs to snag a few filets and perhaps stick around to hear the story of catching it.  

Scanning the horizon and comparing it to the map, I plot my approach to the pod of fish feeding over the underwater island. I reset the downrigger, clipping the line to the release and lowering the cannonball to twelve feet. I release the deep diver on the opposite side of the boat and situate the handle in the rod holder.  I check the horizon for boat traffic, map for direction, graph for depth, rod to the left, rod to right, repeat.


About the Author
Leslie Alan Coates is from Salina, KS. He holds a BFA in Theatre from Emporia State University and an MFA in Musical Theatre from San Diego State University. He is a hunter and angler who writes poetry and prose about the natural world.