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"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.' "
"Maybe I 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?"
"Oh, don't blame yourself. It's just one of those things."
During this 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 tiring.
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 stove.
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 was coming.
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.