A Lake in the Woods - Bob Butz
About The Author
Book author, essayist, freelance magazine and copy writer...
Bob Butz was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Afflicted by an after-school obsession for catching the bottom-feeding fishes that lurked in a tiny, scum-covered suburban sewer pond he frequented as a boy, he entertained dreams throughout childhood one day becoming America’s first professional carp fisherman. Then, throughout early adolescence and despite an inability to make fire without the aid of a box of matches and copious amounts of lighter fluid, he spent a brief period plotting to run away to become a mountain man.
After avoiding a life of petty crime and prison by taking refuge in the woods, he managed to graduate from college with a creative writing degree. This set him up perfectly for a series of dead-end occupations—waiter, licensed movie projectionist, Indian Echo Caverns tour guide, retail clerk, and chief worm-packer for a Harrisburg-area bait and tackle shop—while he wrote a multitude of forgettable articles and stories for a number of regional and national outdoor magazines.
After moving to northern Michigan in 1995 for an editorial position at The Pointing Dog Journal and The Retriever Journal, two national sporting dog magazines, Butz eventually abandoned the steady paycheck, health insurance, and retirement plan for the non-paying title of “contributing editor” to Sports Afield magazine. His by-line has since appeared in such magazines and periodicals as the New York Times, GQ, Land Rover Journal, National Wildlife, Outdoor Life, Men’s Journal, and Field and Stream. He now writes on a wide range of subjects ranging from adventure travel, nature, people profiles, the environment, and whacky outdoor news.
Butz is an award winning book author and essayist and a regular radio commentator on eco-political topics for Interlochen Public Radio. In 2006, his book Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma received a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. www.bobbutz.com
Every angler has a story about their first great fish. I met mine—a carp—when I was eight, maybe nine, and never fully recovered. I also never actually landed the thing.
Things pretty much went downhill from the second it surfaced and sucked down the booby-trapped slice of Wonder Bread I set to floating with a #6 baitholder hook buried in the crust. Up close, the fish was all eyes, lips, and head. I remember heaving backward against the sudden weight of the thing and slipping wildly, my feet skidding on the muddy bank like Yosemite Sam slipping on a banana peel.
Somewhere in the course of trying to stay connected to the fish I ended up in the pond up to my neck, a green beanie of algae on head. My rod fractured at the butt section and my Zebco reel, I swear, blew a bearing and smoke started pouring out. Finally, when I pounced on the fish with my landing net and tried on my hands and knees to heave it onto dry ground the carp was so heavy it bent the net’s handle double then punched through the bottom like a cinder block before flopping back into the murk.
I stood there a long time, until the ripples were gone, just staring. Then, splattered with mud and tendrils of scum, I collected my things and vaguely remember stumbling home where my sorry appearance, broken tangle of equipment, and incoherently babbling caused my mother to leap the conclusion that Scotty Miller—a scabby, pock faced, canker-blossom who lived at the top of our street—had thrown me into the neighborhood dumpster again.
Whenever someone asks me—Why carp?—this is the story I tell. It’s a familiar story of the one that got away. But what hasn’t escaped me is that, in a figurative sense, I’ve been trying to catch that fish—in the same sort of place—ever since.
For me, it’s never been enough that a fish be simply “big” or that they be so plentiful and full of fight that my arms are sore from doing battle with giants all day. I live in northern Michigan, which if you haven’t heard is something of a Shangri-La of carp fishing. The fly fishermen love the place because there’s over 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline where in summertime carp come to spawn by the tens of thousands in azure blue water that in snapshots might be mistaken for the bonefishing flats of Belize. There are over 36,000 miles of rivers in this state and, I’m guessing here, probably a bazillion marinas and boat harbors scattered up and down the coast where carp as big as submarines can be found.
All that water and all those big, Great Lakes fish so close to home. But these days when I have time to spend fishing, I’m usually found on the bank of a little lake in the woods near my house. By Michigan standard it’s hardly more than a swampy sinkhole, a couple acres of still water lined by cedars and tall pines. It sits anonymously at the end of a dusty two-tract and by the end of June is covered by thick mats of lily pads.
The lake has a name, but I’ll never tell. The only other fishermen I’ve ever seen here are ones who’ve taken a wrong turn. They might climb out of the truck long enough to give the map a quick look and a turn. A few have even taken the time to ask, What do you catch in here? But at the word carp, they always make a face before asking for the quickest way back to the main road.
Even some of my carp fishing friends have wondered why I spend so much time in a place where the largest fish I’ve landed so far has barely moved the scale’s needle a couple hash marks past two. One of the things I love about small waters is the fact that you just never know. That’s a big part of the magic of fishing the solitary sort of places that others overlook; every time a fish makes a run, there’s that electricity.
When fishing small waters, at least for me, when the line starts to twitching there’s an amplified sense of surprise and anticipation. And, of course, there’s that feeling that comes with connection both to the golden memories of a fish and a boy I used to know.