I caught the biggest bluegill in the county from this lake. She was eleven inches, and for my catch I won a $25 gift card to the local bait shop. I put her in my bait can and Dad drove me into town to enter her in the contest, but first, we stopped at Grandma’s house, to show her the fish. At the bait shop, the owner’s wife measured the bluegill. Dad and I returned to the lake to release the trophy panfish. The following weekend, Dad almost surpassed my catch, reeling in a nine inch bluegill. No one in the area could beat it, and my name was announced on the AM outdoorsman radio hour.
The wholesomeness of my youth was had at the edge of that very dock. I caught my first largemouth bass there. I used to catch bullfrogs and painted turtles, too, when the fish retreated from the afternoon heat. I’d collect the skulls of small animals that met their demise by the shoreline, clean them, and decorate my aquariums with the bones. Those lily pads around the dock serve as a crypt for so many fishing lures I bought at K-Mart with Christmas money. One evening, I fell out of the boat, and Dad nicknamed me Splash.
Doc, who lives there, got his name not because he owned a lake with a dock, but for his PhD in chemistry. He and his wife never had kids, so Dad and his brothers were the woodsy roustabouts who shared their adolescent years there, catching snapping turtles and bullhead on the weekends. They were city boys then, recent transplants to the country, relishing the expanse of an unmarred Earth. What’s so grand about Doc’s lake is how it never changed as the rural roads morphed into suburbia. Not even the locals could tell you how to get to this pristine woodland, and I’ll never disclose its whereabouts. It’s a secret, even if I’m not welcome there anymore.
Had to be at least fifteen years ago. Fourth of July weekend, Dad took me and my sister out there for the first time. We met Doc and his wife, Helen. As Dad and them wax nostalgic, I was transfixed not only with the view of the lake from their dining room window, but the aquarium in their house too. The open water had me dizzy with ideas of what I might catch. The highlight of the afternoon was Dad and my sister taking the row boat out. They didn’t realize the plug was open and almost sank. I didn’t catch anything that day, but couldn’t wait to return the next weekend I’d spend with Dad. If I recall, visitation was every other Sunday.
Over time, I grew close to Doc and Helen. When I expressed interest in golfing, Doc gave me a set of clubs for my lessons. Once I got my drivers license, I’d go to the public course and golf alone, tuning my swing with every wood and iron in the bag. I haven’t golfed in about four years, or when I moved to Chicago.
Our visits to the lake dwindled when I began to work more. I’d say the last time Dad and I fished there was at least seven years ago. The fish weren’t biting as much, and most of the catches were bait fish that had been tossed in the lake by a careless fisherman, probably a relative. They flourished in the lake and I’d say they screwed up the ecosystem, out-competing the bass and bluegill fry. When the fish we wanted to bite wouldn’t bite, we’d take the boat out and hunt turtles. By “hunt” I mean we’d simply net them and take pictures of our haul before releasing them back into the lake. I’d lean over the bow of the row boat, extend the net towards the waters surface, and Dad would quietly row towards the log where a group of turtles were basking. One day we caught six turtles. We lined them up on the sandbar and took a photograph of them as they scurried back into the water. I think part of the reason we caught them was to watch them run free at the end of the day. It was oddly cathartic. When they disappeared, we’d leave, and in time, we never returned.
Today, I happen to be President of the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. It’s a furtive drive from the lake, and being Father’s Day weekend, my head was full of nostalgia. I decided to return, if only for another moment to watch my reflection in the steady ripple of the lake.
Helen passed away a few years ago, but I was almost certain Doc would still be there. He is. I drove through the wooded path, nervous as to who might greet me. I know my Dad’s relatives still fish and duck hunt there, but they wrote me off after Dad’s wake, disappearing faster than exes and estranged friends. I wanted to be alone, but if not, I hoped for a warm welcome. The garage was open, and Doc’s John Deere Gator was parked inside.
I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Like old times, I simply walked down the hill towards the lake. The sandbar is completely overgrown with weeds now, and the lily pads are bigger than I remember. The mating pair of swans, a fixture like the derelict pontoon boat tied to the dock, are still around, their brilliant white feathers never tainted by the murky water. The dock was rickety when I stepped onto it. I didn’t make it to the tip of the dock before I heard the rumble of Doc’s Gator enter the dissonance of birds chirping and fish gulping bugs at the surface.
He moseyed down the hill and stopped on the overgrowth of the sandbar. He asked who I am. I reminded him. He asked how Dad and I are, and when I reminded him that Dad had passed away, he amended his question, directing it solely to me. Despite finally recalling who I am, he seemed suspicious of my presence. Out of the woods appeared his nephew and grand-nephew, neither of whom I’d met before. We introduced ourselves, and the three of them began talking about the lily pads, questioning their inception and why they’re so big this year. The nephew, in matching Cubs shirt and hat, kept on and on about those lily pads, dominating the conversation in a way that smelled of nervousness. Rather than enjoy the tune of nature, he filled it with words. It angered me because I wanted to sit at the dock in silence, even for five minutes if I could have the chance. But he kept on about the damn lily pads, like he was gonna put on a pair galoshes and chop them down himself.
A lady appeared from the evergreens at the top of the hill. Apparently some family friend, who knows my Dad’s relatives well, but I’ve never met her. She came to drive Doc somewhere, and joined in on the conversation about the lily pads and how big they are. She claimed that the lily pads are cutting the oxygen supply, and Doc said he would spray ’em. I tried to interject, but the nephew promptly broke the brief silence, and continued talking, this time about the swans.
They went on and on until Doc said it was time for the lady to take him wherever he had to go. He invited them in the house for something to drink. He told me to come out fishin’ sometime. That was his way of saying goodbye.
Once I walked up the hill, I took one hard look at the waters of my youth. It’s the only relic of my upbringing, a place that’s bigger than photos or knick-knacks, that continues on as I remember it.
Doc and his nephews and the lady entered the porch for a seat, and poured themselves glasses of water. I got in the truck and left. On the way home, I thought of stopping wherever I could get a fishing license. I’ll be needing one if I fish anywhere but Doc’s lake.