It had been a frustrating autumn evening, one that felt right, but had resulted in no fish. I was on my third lure change already.
He appeared suddenly. I had my head and head-lamp down tying on a bait; all of a sudden he was standing right beside me, peering into my tackle box. Where he came from or how he arrived unnoticed at my side, I have no idea. He was just there.
An old gentleman with thick glasses, a well-worn seed corn cap sat on top of his white hair; a holey, hooded sweatshirt hung on his shoulders. As I spot-lighted his image in my headlamp beam, I smiled. In his right hand he held an old, black and orange Skyline graphite rod that I had not seen in ages; recognized the classic cream and green spinning reel attached to it too. He held the rod and reel in his right hand, stood inside a pair of Red Ball waders. Those waders belonged in a museum, I had not seen a pair in years, and could not believe he had some that old and used that were not leaking.
“Walt is my name”, he said. “Walt McSander, those are some fancy lures in your box, how do they run?”
I started explaining how they wobbled when retrieved, ran a few feet deep. . . .
“I know all of that”, he growled. “What do they do when you stop reeling?”
Again I smiled, this old guy knew his stuff.
“Well, they suspend, hang in the water.”
“Like these?”, he asked as he grinned mischievously and pulled a couple of boxes out of his wader pouch. He held a couple of classic Rapalas. But, these were no off-the-shelf Rapalas, I recognized the holes he had drilled in the sides to add weight, to make those old balsa lures neutrally-buoyant.
“Yep, exactly like those.” “But I quit doing all the work to doctor those baits when Rapala finally figured out to make ’em that way.”
We made small talk while I finished tying on my bait. Walt asked if I minded some company? “No, please do, I ain’t catching ’em anyway”.
He waded a few yards to my right and started casting. It was a cool, clear, still night. We could talk back and forth like we were standing side by side.
Walt asked if I had fished there much? Spent a lot of time on that spot and others just like it in the fall, I told him. He mumbled something about few “whippersnappers” being willing to fish after dark, willing to put in the time and effort to figure out how to catch big fall ‘eyes. Said he was surprised to see me when he arrived.
In return I wanted to know how many years he had fished our spot? “A long, long time” was all he said.
We would talk for a bit while casting and reeling, casting and reeling, trying to catch a fish. Walt told stories of cold nights, frog migrations, northern lights, walleyes swimming between his legs, big fish caught, big fish lost. The kind of stuff all anglers talk about when they get together.
I lost track of time, all I remember is that a bank of clouds eventually drifted in front of the moon. A breeze stirred, owls hooted, and a pair of foxes barked back and forth. Walt got quiet, it was almost as if he could sense it, feel it coming in the air. Now the fishing was serious, full concentration, expecting a strike on every cast.
I heard Walt grunt and a fish roll on the surface at the same time. Then there was splashing right in front of him before it was quiet as he scooped up the fish. Soon there were almost imperceptible ripples as he slid the walleye back in the water.
I thought it strange that he never turned on a flashlight.
A few minutes later it happened again, he caught another fish, and then another. The more he caught, the harder I fished, but I just could not make it happen.
Finally, in frustration I broke the silence, “What color ya using?”
“Color don’t make no difference”, Walt hissed.
And then he hooked another fish.
I did not know what to do, but I knew standing there as Walt caught fish was driving me crazy. I sure was not going to quit until I also caught fish.
Walt hooked another one and I could tell this time it was a big fish. It took him longer to land her, she wallered in the water in front of him.
I kept casting, my mind searching for answers, what was he doing that I wasn’t?
The silence broke as Walt again appeared as if by magic at my side. He was holding a big fish, “Knew they would be here tonight, I followed ’em in”. I quizzically looked at him, turned on my head lamp and whistled at the 30-incher he cradled to his chest.
“Nice fish” was all I could say, I was too frustrated at that point to say anything else.
I turned and made another cast.
Walt whispered, almost inaudibly, but I heard him loud and clear, “Slow down, just fast enough to make the bait wobble.”
At that point if he would have told me to stand on one leg and hold my mouth just right, I would have done it. He obviously knew something I didn’t. About three casts later I felt that satisfying “thunk” as a fish inhaled my bait. I laid the steel to her and was very pleased to feel life on the other end, but also weight, a lot of weight. I played the fish carefully because I was afraid it might be the only one I caught that night. Turned my headlamp on, and scooped her up in my rubber-mesh landing net. It was a big walleye, maybe the biggest I had ever caught, a twin to the fish Walt had just showed me.
Thinking he was still standing by my side I turned to show the fish to Walt. He was gone, disappeared. I quietly said his name a couple of times, “Walt”, “Walt, look at this one.”
Nothing, he had vanished. There were some ripples on the water, that was all.
I shrugged my shoulders, took the hooks out of the fish, set my camera up, turned the timer on, got a couple of photos, released the fish, and went back to fishing. With Walt’s tip etched in my mind, I caught a couple, three more respectable walleyes. I knew I could catch more, maybe even another big fish, but I was tired and satisfied, it had been a good night.
Before heading for home, I stopped at the Quick Stop/bait shop on the nearby highway. I needed a Dr. Pepper and Mars bar; it was my usual stop after an evening of fishing. Working the midnight shift, the clerk was alone and bored, a guy that recognized me from previous nights. He struck up a conversation and asked if I had done any good? I gave a vague reply so as to not give away too many secrets and find my spot occupied by umpteen “Johnny-come-latelies” the next trip.
I mentioned to him the strange, old farmer with coke-bottle glasses that showed up and fished with me that night. I wondered if he might know that old farmer? I assumed he was a local.
“What was his name?”
“Walt, Walt Mac-something I said.” I could not recall his last name.
The clerk looked at me strangely, and then walked over to the counter where all the fish pictures, “hero-shots”, recent and old, were kept under glass. He pried up the back corner of the glass top, slid some yellowed newspaper clippings around and finally pulled one out. He laid it on the counter and pushed it towards me.
It was story, an old newspaper article. I started reading. It told about a gentleman, son of homesteaders who farmed in the area, whose real passion was fishing the area lakes. On an autumn evening back in ’85, Walter McSander had slipped out after supper to wade and fish. He never came home. Searchers found his old, beat-up Dodge pickup, but a storm blew through the next day, and the wind howled out of the north for three more days.
I unfolded the clipping to see the bottom half and there was a black and white picture of Walt, seed corn hat, old holey sweatshirt, thick glasses, holding a big walleye, eyes reflecting, teeth showing. I blinked, could not believe it. Looked closely at the date on top of the clipping–Oct. 31, 1985.
The clerk spoke, “They never did find his body”.
I looked up at him. Eyes opened wide, blood drained from my face. I could not speak, just picked up my pop can and candy bar, turned and walked out. . . .
You might think an encounter like that would scare me away from nighttime fishing excursions. It hasn’t. I have caught way too many big walleyes and other species after dark to walk away from it. Standing in the water casting late into the night, Walt is always on my mind. I am constantly reminded of his fishing advice. I turn to look for him frequently, usually when the night feels just right–the wind, the waves, the moon, the smell in the air, the sounds. . . often just before a big fish eats my bait. He is still out there, and one of these nights we will meet again.