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Three miles down, the Chippewa forked, the main channel surging to the right of an island while I paddled left into Meridean Slough. The densely overgrown banks closed in, sunlight filtering down through the branches. How one's passage of the slough goes depends on the vagaries of weather. In this dry spell, the water was low and the trip would be leisurely, broken only by the occasional need to walk the canoe over a sandbar. But a cloudburst could make the going fast and casting difficult, like trying to fish from a moving car.
I had another strike but failed to land it. This trip was growing less promising, resembling an earlier journey taken in the spring, when the Chippewa was still high from meltwater. The bowman on that run, a part-time farmer, came with two spinning rods and a bow and arrow-to use on scavenger fish, which he smokes. Like an aquatic Grim Reaper, he harvested the river while I emerged at the end of the day empty-handed. A meat fisherman, this fellow approaches angling as just another form of husbandry, like keeping goats and honeybees. I had pictured him returning that evening to his farmhouse, thumping the heavy catch in the sink and saying to his wife. "Food, Verna."
I was hungry.
I beached the canoe on a damp stretch of the island that had been trampled under deer hooves and ate my lunch on a sun-bleached log. My sandwiches had taken on the flavor of the Styrofoam cooler, and I dined quickly, washing the food down with more beer. Two wood ducks wheeled overhead, and I followed their trajectory with a hand shading my eyes, thinking it was a shame there was only one summer to a year, so few summers to a lifetime. The solution to that shortage, my wife said, was to move to the Sunbelt, a remedy I dismissed out of hand. Without the seasons there could be no longing, no sense of imperatives.
Back on the river, storm clouds gathering downriver in the west, I gave myself over to paddling. The air felt still and heavy, the way it does before rain. I could paddle for shore and shelter or fish and risk a soaking.
Ahead, a great blue heron stalked the shallows of the slough. I stopped paddling, but spooked by the canoe, the bird lifted from the water, its broad expanse of slate-blue wings pulling its great weight skyward. The heron circled twice above the river and then dropped out of sight behind the treetops.
The heron had been fishing the fertile mouth of a feeder creek, emerging from its own secret wanderings in the dense brush. I cast over the drop-off where clear creek water mixed with that of the amber river. A long shadow drifted behind the lure before dissolving into the depths. My mouth went dry. Time for only one more cast before the canoe would drift away. I flung the enameled spoon almost to the bank and retrieved it jerkily, watching for the shadow's return. The lure passed over the drop-off again, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the dark swirl of pike angle across the mouth of the creek. It struck.
I set the hook, and the fish ran sideways to the canoe, trying to shake the spoon loose. That tactic failing, the pike shot directly at the boat, and I had to stand up and try to keep my balance and the line taut so the fish couldn't snap it under the canoe. Finally the pike came on its side to the surface. Bending down, I slipped three fingers inside a gill and hoisted my catch aboard.
Now the real fight began. The fish, a northern pike, thrashed against the canoe ribs until I whacked its duckbilled head with the paddle. Its long, serpentine body went limp, but its eyes still glowered. The northern was as long as my arm, green with golden spots and a white belly. When I laid it in the cooler, its head and tail hung over the sides.
Meridean Slough ended as the island tapered off, it and the river rejoining in a broad, swirling confluence. Two more miles of paddling remained, and I kept waiting for the raindrops to begin, but the storm never came. I could see filaments of lightning over the hills to the south and hear the far-off rumbling. But I had a fish. Let it rain.