Monday, November 29, 2004

Is God a Muskie?

My dad is a serious angler. He learned the craft from his grandfather, and has been pulling fish out of the lakes of northern Wisconsin for most of his 60 years.

He passed his love of fishing on to me. Some of my most cherished memories of time spent with him are of the two of us on Broken Bow Lake, fishing for bass, crappies and bluegills. These memories are especially important to me because of the circumstances of my upbringing. My parents are divorced, and I lived away from my dad starting in first grade. I spent most of my summers with him in Wisconsin, and while I think we handled it well as a family, as I got older I began to resent the time spent away from my friends and my life in Utah. It was nothing against my dad, but all things considered, I would have preferred to be in Salt Lake City.

But I always enjoyed fishing with him, even when I was a bitter, brooding teenager.

Earlier this year my dad called me one weekend to tell me about a big fish he had caught. He had been out on the lake by himself, casting for small mouth bass with a small repala on eight pound test line. He was working his favorite spot, a sandbar off a point across the lake from his house.

Not long after he started fishing that night, something big hit his line. It wasn't a three or four pound small mouth. It was much bigger than that. Much, much bigger. So big, in fact, that it took him thirty minutes of considerable skill and sweat to get the fish to the boat. It was a huge muskie--much too big for him to bring out of the water. The net he had with him was small, built for bass fishing, and he couldn't get it under the fish one handed anyway. Dad looked around for help from other fishermen on the lake, but it was empty, with the exception of one boat too far away and too ill equipped to offer him any assistance.

Determined not to lose the fish with the lure jammed down its throat, my dad somehow got the boat motor started. He crept slowly across the lake back to his house, dragging the fish behind him. He saw a neighbor as he approached the pier and hollered for help and a net. The two of them finally got the fish out of the water and unhooked it -- all 47 inches and 25 pounds. Man and muskie were both exhausted, but my dad really wanted to let this fish go. He has always been a catch-and-release fisherman.

He stood in the water with the fish for twenty or thirty minutes, trying to revive it. But it was clear that the long fight had taken its toll. My dad eventually gave up his efforts to throw the fish back and hauled him up to the house. Catching that fish was a feat worthy of a trophy, so he took him to the taxidermist -- something he had never done before in a lifetime of fishing. But he seemed more resigned to keeping this fish than proud of his accomplishment.

Fast forward five weeks. Keri and the girls and I were in Wisconsin for our annual summer visit and dad and I went out on the lake to fish one calm summer evening. After a little action with the small mouth bass, my dad, fishing again with a repala on eight pound test, got another huge hit.

I actually saw the fish take my dad's lure. It was a quick flash of silver. The body was long, the nose pointed. Incredibly, he had hooked another muskie. I scrambled for the net (we had one built for muskies this time) as my dad struggled to again bring to the boat another fish he had no business catching. As he pulled it in, the fish jumped. It was Loch Ness Monster huge.

Twenty minutes later, I put the net under it after my dad finally got him to the boat. We were both exhilarated. This fish was just as big as the one my dad had caught a few weeks earlier, perhaps even a little heavier. We planned to release him, as always, but we wanted first to take it back to the dock and show the girls. They had never seen a fish this big. I had never seen a fish this big!

But it was clear that this fish, like his cousin a few weeks earlier, was exhausted. He was listless after a long fight with a skilled angler. "Chris," my dad said, "if we take him back to the house, we'll lose him." He was right.

So we unhooked him. We held him in the water, rocking him back and forth gently to allow him to gather himself. Then we let him go. He swam away slowly, staying on the surface. We watched him for five minutes, then ten. He stayed shallow, moving slowly. We followed from a distance, both of us nervous that he wasn't going to make it. Then, with the flair he showed when he leapt out of the water as he battled with my dad, he flipped his tail and dove.

"Wow," I said. "That was amazing."

My dad looked at me. "This was better," he said, comparing this fish with the other, "because you were here with me." His voice was thick with emotion. There were tears in his eyes. I was overcome with a feeling of love at that moment. Love for my dad. Love for nature. I felt peace and contentment.

Weeks earlier, my dad had caught a fish that would now hang on a wall in his house and would be the source of many a boastful fishing conversation with friends and family. Really, though, he wasn't particularly happy about that. He wanted to let that fish go. All he wanted from that first muskie was the brief moment of communion with nature that catching a fish brings to him. But alone on the lake, he couldn't have that, and I think he felt selfish and destructive -- even regretful.

Nature gave him another chance. With two of us in the boat, we had that cherished moment of communion, and we returned that great fish to the lake. It was a reminder of how connected we are to each other -- a demonstration that spiritual moments are intensified when shared with those we love.

According to the Mormon theology that I believe, God is not a muskie. He is not in everything and all around us. He is, in fact, an exalted and perfected man. But I felt God on Lake Vandercook that night. I saw God in my agnostic dad -- in his respect for nature, his reverence for life, and his love for his son. I saw Him in the majesty of that fish.

The Spirit was strong and I will remember that evening on the lake with my dad for as long as I am alive.