Herman V is
probably dead, or close to it, by now. There is nothing we can do, my father
and I. Like the owners of a sick goldfish, we can only stand by and hope for
the best. Herman V is now entombed in a minnow bucket hanging by a dull wire
beneath a couple of feet of ice into the clear, quiet water of the lake. The
shiny bucket with its network of uniform round holes suspended over the gloomy
lake bottom reminds me of a lost space capsule. It's hard to imagine. You'd
have to see it yourself.
The ice and wind
and drifting snow on the surface are deceiving. Underneath, the lake is
tranquil and alive. The weeds have lain down for the winter and the fish have
gone into a metabolic slowdown, but they wander occasionally. We know. We've
seen them through the hole in the ice inside the darkened shanty. The lake
bottom glows when the sun comes out from behind the clouds. And it darkens when
the sun is hidden. Do not be deceived by the thick cover of ice and the
snowdrifts. The lake is alive. It breathes with the sun.
Herman V is a
suckerfish, about seven inches long, which we use to decoy northern pike into
the shanty hole. Hermans I through IV were also sucker decoys. They have since
passed into sucker-decoy heaven. Alas, I fear, so too has Herman V. He was not
looking so well last night when I gently lifted him from the open water of the
hole and dropped him into the minnow bucket. An area just in front of his
caudal fin, or as almost everyone says, his tail, was swollen. A sure sign of a
failing fish. He had not been very active the two previous days, hanging
listlessly above the weeds, on a hook and line.
A hook? A hook
through his back, and you wonder why he is listless, you say? No, no, that's
not it. If you hook a decoy properly he will live for days, weeks even, and if
you remove the hook gently the wound will heal itself. This I have seen many
declining health began the day he was cornered by a two-foot-long northern pike
under the ice, out of sight of the shanty hole. My father had just opened the
shanty for the morning when he saw the flash of the pike's tail beneath the
ice, to the shoreward side. He had just put Herman into the water after the
long winter night's confinement in the minnow bucket, and Herman, as he was
wont to do, was eagerly exploring the new day. For the first five minutes he
would swim around and around the hole, spending long periods out of sight
underneath the ice, probably looking over the neighborhood to see if anything
had changed during the night. Or for some fish reason. Probably just glad to
get out of the bucket. After these preliminary exercises, he would hang
straight down, finning and moving constantly, seemingly intent on the serious
business of luring a pike into the hole.
Some decoys take
their job seriously. They really do.
The morning of the
"accident" a pike was waiting in the shadows. After seeing the huge
tail and no Herman, my father grabbed a spear and got down on his hands and
knees to look under the ice. Many of Herman's delicate scales were softly
sinking to the lake bottom, like a snowfall. (That significant detail the mind
photographs during an emergency.) My father jabbed at the pike, touched it, and
never saw it again. Herman was lucky. His scales were ruffled; in fact, he had
a bald spot on top of his head, but that was all. Not a single cut or slash
from the pike's needle-pointed teeth. His skin was unbroken.
What was broken, I
fear, was his spirit. For the next two days he forsook his morning swim and
hung straight down, barely finning, barely moving. Not "working," as
they say in the "shandies" of northern Michigan.
In a way, you
couldn't blame Herman V. He'd been attacked by a fish maybe 10 times his size.
We really didn't begrudge him the lethargy of the next two days, but we weren't
pleased either. Not a single pike came through the hole. We had to work Herman
like a puppet, lifting the line and letting go. He'd fin and make a token move
for a minute or so, then quit, hanging there morosely like a drowned rat.
We'd gotten Herman
III, Herman IV and Herman V from a live-bait dealer in Standish at the price of
three for a dollar. Naturally, we expected results.