Remembering George Vukelich

Fifty years after the Fisherman's Beach was published, the book's re-release stirs memories of a life well lived and a legacy cherished.

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Roger was screwing the cup back on the thermos.

“You know what I’m afraid of,” he said, “is maybe it’s too late already.”

“Too late for what?”

“The fishing. For lake trout.” Roger lighted a cigarette and leaned against the bulkhead. “You know the trout have been falling off the last coupla seasons. Nobody knew what was wrong at first but we got it pretty well pinned down now. It’s the lamprey—goddamned saltwater eel from the Atlantic. They hang on the trout like bloodsuckers and kill them.” The smoke came angrily from his nostrils. “And that friggin’ chief of the Conservation Department says, ‘Oh, no, it can’t be anything like that. You commercial fishermen are just taking too many trout and we’ll have to control you a little closer.’ Too many trout, my ass!”

“Can’t they control the lampreys?”

“I dunno. But right now all they’re thinking about is controlling the commercial fishermen. That’s why I said maybe it’s too late already. If the trout go—” He clamped his left hand on his right biceps and brought up his arm slowly. “It won’t make much difference whether I’m on this rig or on Dussault’s rig. Both are gonna be worth shit.”

“Now, come on,” Germaine said. “It can’t be that bad. This is the greatest lake-trout water in the world.”

“Well, this season is gonna tell the story. If the trout don’t come back this season—I dunno. We’re screwed.”

“The Conservation Department always seemed to know what was going on.”

“Crap,” Roger said. “They don’t know their ass.”

In the distance now, Germaine could see the spile tops that anchored their pot nets sticking up like thin fence posts. Above them, gulls were rising and falling like sail planes. He looked off to the left and there against the dark forest was the Old Man’s house, proud and white above the boiling surf.

“You can head us for the nets,” Roger said. “I’ll get the boys up.”

* * *

They were snubbed up broadside against the spiles of the pot net. A pot or pound net differed from a gill net in that it could be compared to a huge rope cage from which fine-meshed lead nets were strung like fences along the bottom. The theory was simply that fish confronted by the lead nets would follow them along seeking the end and would be channeled into the narrow funnel of the pot. As the sides of the pot rose on the spiles high out of the water, the fish couldn’t swim out over the top of the trap and they couldn’t swim through the cable-like mesh of the sides. They swam in a watery prison that extended from bottom to surface and very few ever retraced their entrance routes and escaped through the funnel. The simplest of funneled minnow traps operated on the same principle. Once the lead side of the pot net was lifted, the funnel was sealed and the fish inside were forced to the surface as the net rose under them like a floor. At the surface they were scooped out and flung into the hold of the fishing tug.

A gill net, on the other hand, was a less sophisticated device. This was simply bottom-weighted with lead sinkers and held relatively perpendicular in the water by cork floats along the upper edge. Fish attempting to swim through the mesh were caught and hung up by their raky gills.

Old Man LeMere fished with nets of both types. The pot nets, or course, were stationary and barring disaster their locations were not changed during the season. The gill nets offered more mobility, could be picked up easily and could be shifted if their sites were unproductive.

In the old days when Germaine had fished with the Old Man the pot nets and the gill nets bulged and sagged with big lake trout and he remembered that the catches had run into thousands of pounds for a single lift.

Now as he watched Gabriel and Raphael crank the pot net on the hand windlasses, Germaine knew that it was a poor haul. A few dozen fish were boiling around, thrashing. They were lake trout but it was a poor haul. Germaine knew it would not weigh more than a couple of hundred pounds once the fish were gilled and gutted.

Gabriel held the net; Raphael shoveled out the fish with a long-handled scoop and dropped them into the tug’s fish hold.

Roger came up to him then, shaking his head and getting out his cigarettes.

“We might as well rest and smoke,” he said. “Rafe can get them.”

Germaine wiped his wet hands on his woolen navy cap. He picked out a cigarette.

“Two hundred pounds,” Roger said, “if we’re lucky. That pays for gas, but not for us.”

They smoked and watched their brothers silently.

“What’s the matter?” Germaine asked. “These waters used to be jammed with lake trout. Big big schools.”

Roger nodded.

“The snakes from the sea,” he said. “The goddamn snakes from the sea.”

He leaned forward and yelled to Raphael who was turning with the scoop net.

“You got one, Rafe?”

“Yeah,” came the answer.

“Come on,” Roger said, and they clambered over to the scoop net. In the bagging depression a small lake trout was gasping out its life and as it flipped and flopped Germaine saw a dark foot-long eel streaming from the fish’s underbelly. He bent closer to see and he saw that the eel was actually fastened to the fish like a leech or bloodsucker.

“That’s a lamprey eel,” Roger said.

Germaine shook his head in disbelief.

“They hit the trout in the open lake and then just attach themselves and bleed the fish to death.”

The water washed heavily into their gunwales and the gulls wheeled over the fish ground and sat on the spile tops and the four fishermen stared down at the little scoop net.

Roger got out his small gill knife and half cut, half pried the lamprey loose from the trout. “That’s the business end,” he said.

Germaine saw a scar hole the size of a half-dollar rasped right into the fish’s body. Fresh blood and gore were still coursing out of two nail-like holes.

“That,” said Gabriel, “was caused by this.” He had picked up the lamprey and had forced the sucker-like mouth open and Germaine saw the lethal rows of teeth.

“In all the years I fished with the Old Man,” Germaine said, “I never saw an eel like this.”

“You goddamn right you didn’t,” Roger said. “Because it’s not fresh water. It’s a salt-water eel. From the Atlantic. The Atlantic Ocean.”

He nodded to Gabriel and his brother dropped the lamprey; Roger threw down the knife and pinned the eel to the deck. In an instant he had cut this way and that and the eel lay in a dozen different bloody pieces. He picked up the cuttings and flung them into the water and the gulls wheeled down from their spile tops and after the water boiled briefly the pieces were gone and the water was empty.

“It doesn’t do any good,” Roger said, wiping his knife. “But I feel better. They’re snakes from the sea and I hate every goddamn one of them.”

He lit a fresh cigarette on the stub of the old and waved his hand.

“All this water. The Great Lakes. Ontario, Erie, Huron, now Michigan and soon Superior. All this water filling up with the goddamn snakes and not a man on earth can stop them now.”

They picked up their pot nets and they reset them and strung them tight and secured them. Then Germaine turned the tug southward for the Two Rivers harbor and from the wheelhouse he watched his brothers gilling and gutting out the fish in the hold and throwing the offal into an oil drum and his mind was on the scar holes in the trout bodies and the lamprey eel and its sucker-like mouth and the raspy rows of lethal teeth.

All this water, filling up with the goddamn snakes and not a man on earth can stop them now.

Germaine couldn’t keep his mind off the Old Man. Michigan was always the Old Man’s lake. He worked the fish grounds off this shore. He built up on this beach with his own two hands.

At the dinner meal the talk would be of fish, of the disappearing lake trout. It will be a hard season. It is not only here. All along and down the beach the talk would be the same. No fisherman is safe from the snakes from the sea. The trout fisherman will end on the beach. Some of them soon … this season. Ontario, Erie, Huron. This season they are farmers. They are beached. Sold out. Moved. Working in the cities.

The old days are gone. The fish are lost. This morning a few hundred pounds. The Old Man will not catch his weight in fish.

The Old Man LeMere and the lifeblood of his business going into the bellies of eels. On the deck, the brothers put away their pocket stones and knives.

The Old Man will end on the beach so very soon. There is no fighting the snakes from the sea. They will drive him high onto his own beach. They will drive him even as they drove the trout before. They will kill him, the Old Man. Even as they killed the trout.

In the pilothouse, Germaine kept the bow, like a knife, into the Two Rivers Point.

– From Fisherman’s Beach by George Vukelich. Reprinted by permission of Vince Vukelich and the Vukelich estate.



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