The Young Man and the Lake

In search of the pike that got away.

We have Lake Mary almost to ourselves, and despite pestilential winds that make me rethink that dream vacation to Tierra del Fuego, we're hooking bass like it's our job. The wife gets into a mossback right next to the shore, and even though it throws the hook right as she's landing it, I get a good glimpse. Six pounds if it was an ounce.

We slowly work our way around the shore, catching bass after bass, many of which are sporting fresh hooks ripped from the morning's other anglers. Even the noon hour, usually fishing's dead zone, brings success. But we're losing interest in hauling in two-pound largemouths. It's time to go after the big boys in Ladora.

A short walk up a hill along a well-manicured trail and Lake Mary, a quaint little cattailed pond with fishing bridges that practically whisper "Kids' Fishing Derby," gives way to wind-whipped, rock-dammed Lake Ladora. The dam, a large fall of riprap that punishes shoes, is where the action is. Right away I find a local property owner bait-casting for northerns atop the rocks.

"I've caught eleven today," Tom Brown says as though even he doesn't believe it. "Most of them are caught right here," he adds, motioning to the water directly in front of us. Pike like to cruise shallow areas, near dams, in weed beds. He stops, his voice drops. "There's one now."

He's right. It looks like a shadow at first, a submerged log, a dark reflection off the building. But upon closer inspection, it turns out to be three-dimensional -- and moving. He drops his big jerk bait right in front of it and gives a twitch. There's motion, interest and...nothing. "You just have to get it right in front of his face."

Good advice, especially for someone like myself, who has never caught a northern bigger than a hammer handle. I don't have any jerk baits, so I pull out one of the biggest lures I own, a yellow spinner bait that I bought at age thirteen and probably haven't tied on a line since. Not three casts in, it happens.

Pike aren't like bass. Bass hit quickly and forcefully and jump out of the water with lots of tail-walking and head-shaking. A pike bite is subtle for a millisecond, a nibble. Then, all of a sudden, your rod is bent in half and you're trying to reel in a nuclear submarine. I don't even think about my woefully inadequate six-pound test. I don't think about my drag, which I have stupidly forgotten to loosen to prevent a broken line. I don't think about the very real possibility of the gale at my back knocking me forward into the lake, which they say is not swimmable. All I can think is, I am the greatest fisherman the world has ever known.

In a silver-and-green flash, my northern breaks the surface. For one split second our eyes meet, and I gaze upon his prehistoric grimace, he upon my victorious gape. With a leap and a roll -- and, I swear to God, a look of disdain -- he breaks my line and absconds to the depths of Lake Ladora with my old yellow spinner bait still stuck in his mouth.

I sink down to the rocks, drop my rod and stare after the bastard.

Stupid fish.

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