"It's his own
fault," my father lamented. "If he hadn't gotten under the ice, that
pike wouldn't have got to him."
This on the third
day after Herman's mishap. We were sitting at the kitchen table watching the
blizzard outside the window and listening to a radio description of the winter
of '77. In mid-January it was already a household word.
"I warned him
about it," I said. "If I told him once, I told him a hundred times,
'Herman, don't get under the ice. We can't help you there.' "
should have been watching closer," my father mused, "but who'd have
thought a pike would come in right after I made all that noise cutting out the
hole and starting the stove?"
blame yourself. It's just one of those things."
kitchen-table conference we discovered that Herman V was our favorite decoy.
We'd taken half a dozen pike thanks to him. The most important task of a decoy
is to move; it is movement that lures the pike up from the weedy lake bottom
for a closer inspection. Herman V had developed a penchant for swimming up
toward the ice and then lying over on his side and sinking, but still wiggling,
his shiny white underbelly flashing like a mirror reflecting the sun. Many
decoys merely hang there, working their gills and finning occasionally, but not
really moving around. They have to be puppeteered, which soon becomes
The next most
important task of a decoy is to tell you when a pike is coming so you can be
ready with the spear. A good decoy will do this by panicking and trying to get
the hell out of the lake. Surprisingly, many decoys either go into shock or
become so resigned to their fate that they do nothing. They fail to warn you.
As a result, when the pike enters the hole, the spear is leaning against the
shanty wall and you are lighting up a cigarette. On the other hand, some decoys
constantly call wolf and panic every five minutes. Another esoteric fish
reason, I suppose. When the wolf finally does show, the spear is still leaning
against the wall and you have a boot off and five cold toes spread over the
Herman V was
neither a sullen defeatist nor a panic-stricken pantywaist. When he did panic,
you'd better have the spear in the water and the adrenaline flowing. Something
The larger pike
usually come in slow and contemplative, rising from the bottom like a stalking
killer, rising without moving fins or gills or tail, rising for the strike like
a helium balloon. There is plenty of time to prepare, to have the spear into
the water and properly turned for the thrust. It is the smaller, anxious pike
that pose a problem, those under the 20-inch legal size limit. (Identifying
undersized fish is not much of a problem; they look as if their heads are too
big for their bodies.) The small ones dart into the hole from nowhere and
strike quickly, either shaking the decoy like a puppy with a sock or striking
and darting out of the hole before you have even time enough to grab for the
decoy line. There is nothing you can do to prevent this. For a decoy, it's an
occupational hazard. Fortunately, hammer handles (which is what smaller pike
are called owing to their size and shape) usually do not inflict serious
injury. The strike of a hammer handle is like a quick left jab, and a good
decoy has to take an occasional punch.
This proved to be
Herman V's only real fault, the thing that separated him from greatness, that
kept him from being a decoy's decoy. He simply couldn't take a punch. A single
left jab had seemingly ended a promising career.