A Muskie Fisherman's Fate
the pain started in his chest and spread into his arms and back. He recognized it,
of course. His next–to–last thought came: now he would never catch that world
record muskie that he wanted so badly. And, as his eyes lost focus on the red and
black bucktail, his final thought was that he would probably be seeing a lot more
of those colors in the Hereafter.
Joe's mind went blank as his heart gave out, and his body pitched over
the side of the boat and into the lake. His fishing buddies pulled him out of the
water immediately, but it was too late. Joe was already facing that great Fishing
Judge in the sky.
A guy like Joe –– a muskie fishing truck driver, undereducated and overweight –– didn't rate Saint Peter, of course. In fact, it was the temporary Third Assistant Judgment Angel in the Muskie Branch, Sub–section of Fishermen, Department of Male Sportsmen that was assigned to Joe's case.
Joe stood in front of the Angel's desk, still dripping from the lake, and still clutching his muskie rod. On the Angel's desk was a computer terminal, an Orvis catalog, and two large pushbuttons, one white and one black. The Angel was studying the computer's screen in silence.
Posted on the wall behind the Angel Joe saw a printout of the statistics on the fates of fishermen for the last century. They terrified him. Only one fisherman in a hundred was accepted Up There, the rest were banished Below. It made Joe's knees shake worse than when he caught his lifetime best forty–pounder.
The Angel frowned as he examined the data on the computer's screen. From the Angel's appearance – – a pinched English look, rimless spectacles, a pipe in his mouth – – Joe got the impression that the Angel had been a fly fisherman in his day, and not a muskie angler. In fact, he would have bet money on it. That thought didn't help Joe any.
"So it's a gambler you are, Joseph," were the Angel's first words. "Card player, beer drinker, and worst of all, a fanatical muskie fisherman." He punched some buttons on the computer. "Let me see here ..... yes, you belonged to Muskies Inc., too"
Joe was beyond defending himself. "Yeah, they do all go together, don't they?" was his feeble response. His head hung down, and he watched the water drip off his chin and onto the Angel's rug.
Another thought came to him. "Well, I contributed some of my winnings at church....."
"Once at Easter and twice at Christmas, it says here on page eighty-six," observed the Angel, examining some more data on the screen. "No other record of church attendance since you were little. But you always found time for muskie fishing on Sundays, didn't you?" He pointed at Joe with his pipe. "And please refrain from dripping on my rug."
Joe wiped his chin off, and decided he better let the church thing pass. "Uh, as for the muskies, I did release 'em all except for that forty-pounder."
The Angel ignored him.
"There is much more in here, Joseph, much more. Sneaking into the movies as a child, failing college after one semester, the precious little time you gave your wife and daughter, that sordid business with the secretary from the front office, your driving record, much more." The Angel turned the computer off and looked up at Joe over the top of his glasses. "Is there anything you wish to say in your own behalf before I pass Judgment?"
Joe realized that Eternity hung in the balance, but he had always been better with a muskie pole than with words. "Well, I loved my family, no matter what, and I worked hard on the job, and that secretary stuff never got serious, and I stayed out of jail, and........," he trailed off.
"And I released my muskies!" It was the best Joe could offer. A spark of dignity welled up in him. "I'm proud of that. Do what you have to do." He straightened his back and lifted his head to face the Angel and his fate.
The Angel leaned back in his chair, and stared off into the distance. "I believe you did release those muskies, Joe, I believe you did."
He looked back at Joe, with a hint of resignation in his voice. "And the Rules leave me no choice." With that, he reached over to his desk, and as Joe watched in horror, the Judgment Angel pushed the black button, slowly and with finality.
Joe instantly found himself on a dock at the shore of a lake, standing next to a black fishing boat. The Judgment Angel was nowhere to be seen, but approaching Joe was a short, fat, bearded man, dressed in a black cape, pants and boots. The man held a large cigar in one hand and a piece of red computer paper in the other. A lump bulged in his cheek.
Joe couldn't help looking for horns on the man's forehead. They weren't visible in the bushy black hair sticking out from under the man's red "Daredevil" fishing cap, but Joe knew they must be there.
The man stopped in front of Joe and spit a brown stream into the lake. Part of it dribbled down his chin and lost itself in his black beard. The man ignored it as he stared at Joe.
He finally spoke. "This here's a muskie lake, Joe. Biggest Muskie in all Creation's in here." He waved at the lake with his cigar and spit in the water again.
Joe gaped at him.
"The name's Sam. I'm your guide."
He held up the red paper and studied it. Joe could see his own name written in large black letters at the top.
"You been sentenced to Eternity on the lake, fishing that muskie." Sam crumpled the paper and threw it up in the air, where it vanished in a puff of red smoke. He grinned at Joe. "But you know what Joe, you ain't gonna catch it. You'll see it, git follows, might even hook it every once't in a while. But Joe, you ain't never, ever gonna land the Big One. Believe me."
And with that Sam leaned forward, slapped his knees, and started to laugh uproariously, which immediately made him choke on the tobacco chaw. The laughs disintegrated into coughs, wheezes, and belches, and more dribbles down the chin.
"Just like a typical muskie guide on earth," muttered Joe to himself, instinctively reaching over and pounding Sam on the back. It gave him an opportunity to ponder his fate. Devilish, absolutely devilish. He was doomed to hunt forever for the Biggest Muskie in all Creation, with no hope of ever catching it. That was just like earth, too. He never caught the Big One there either.
Sam recovered, belched one more time, spit into the lake and said, "Thanks. Time to go." He climbed into the boat.
Clearly, Joe had no choice but to accept his fate. He handed Sam his muskie rod and also started to step into the boat. Sam immediately dropped the rod into the water. "Sorry about that," he said and grinned at Joe again.
"Torture's starting," thought Joe. They fished his rod out of the lake, and Joe got in the boat. Sam started the motor and they cast off. Joe noticed other boats with guides and fishermen also leaving. An elderly man wearing old fashioned clothes waved to Joe from the next boat. Well, the Angel's statistics were right, he sure wasn't the only fisherman here.
As they left the dock, Joe was surprised to see Sam open a cooler, take out two bottles of Budweiser, and hand him one. Before Joe could think of a question, Sam looked at him and said, "Drink up. You did on earth, no reason to stop now. You don't have to worry about sinnin' here, feller!" And he laughed again as Joe twisted off the cap and took a timid pull from the bottle.
It was Budweiser, no question. Joe recognized it instantly from a lifetime of close association. He also realized that this apparent pleasure was going to become some special form of torture, but he didn't care. He took a longer pull. What else could happen to him?
He found out. Sam plied him with beer and unlikely sounding muskie stories as they tried various spots around the lake. For the first four hours of fishing there was no sign of Creation's Biggest Muskie. At that point, Joe had a follow. It wasn't the Big One, but it wasn't bad either. On the next cast Joe caught it, a twenty–pound class fish. Joe got the muskie to boatside, but lost it when Sam mishandled the net and knocked Joe's bucktail loose from the muskie.
"More torture," thought Joe, "But at least I'm used to that. At times on earth I would have sold my soul for even that amount of action." His stomach sank as he realized what he was thinking.
Around them, Joe could see the other black boats with their guides and fishermen. By now, he had found out that it wasn't necessary to ask a question Down Here. He just framed the thought and Sam explained immediately.
"Muskie guys, just like you. All chasin' the Big One. That feller over there," Sam pointed with his cigar to a boat in the distance, "Name's Louie. Been here thirty-two years. You'll meet him tonight. He's famous for....."
Joe was saved from a story about Louie, sure to end up with Sam laughing his fool head off and choking, by a strike from a muskie. He brought this muskie, bigger than the last one, to boatside also. To his surprise Sam netted it cleanly. They measured it – – 42 1/2" – – and released it. Within ten casts he caught another one, bigger yet at 45", also brought in and released with no trouble. Sam could obviously find good fish spots.
Joe was getting confused. The torture seemed to be mighty spotty.
The thought was apparently enough for Sam. They quit for the day and headed back to the dock. As they pulled in and tied up, Sam waved up the hill with his cigar and said, "Dinner's in an hour. Poker game starts after that." And he started cleaning up the beer bottles and cigar butts from the floor of the boat.
Joe climbed out onto the dock and started toward shore. "So I guess I survived the first day Down Here," he thought. (At that, Sam glanced at his retreating back with a twinkle in his eye, but restrained himself to a belch.) The worst part had been Sam's bungling of the first muskie, but the other two had been handled decently. "But I suppose the dinner will be burned and the card game rigged," thought Joe in expectation of further torture. It was funny, though, he didn't feel bad at all.
Before he could puzzle out his feelings, his thoughts were interrupted by a fisherman and guide coming in off the lake. Joe stopped to wait. The fisherman, the elderly gentleman who had waved at him that morning, looked mighty happy as they pulled in.
When they got closer, Joe realized that the fisherman was the famous "Louie" that Sam started to tell him about. Joe thought that Louie looked vaguely familiar, maybe from somewhere back on earth, but he couldn't really place him. But even before they got to the dock, Joe could hear Louie shouting "I got him! I got the Big One! I finally caught him! I got the record both places now, on earth and Up Here!" Louie was glowing with excitement as Joe helped him climb out of the boat.
Joe introduced himself, as a flood of questions ran through his mind. Was this another special torture? That he would have to face other fishermen who could catch the Big One, but not him? And what was this about "Up Here?"
Louie calmed down for a moment and looked at Joe. "You say your name's Joe? You're new here, aren't you? Glad to meet you." With that he shook Joe's hand and started to turn away.
The confusion on Joe's face stopped him. He turned back, put his hands on his hips, and faced Joe.
"Who's your guide?"
Joe pointed to Sam, still puttering back at the boat.
"Sam's not a bad guide at all, find's fish real well," said Louie. "A little crude and clumsy at times, maybe. But he is a liar. All muskie guides are liars, even Up Here. They can't help it. If we didn't have a shortage of good help, the Angels wouldn't allow 'em in. And Sam sure likes jokes. Bet you got the line about not catchin' the Big One."
He smiled at Joe and patted him on the back. As he strode off he threw a final remark over his shoulder, "Black's the best muskie color, you know, Joe. And there's always a Bigger One out there for every muskie fisherman."
Understanding dawned on Joe. His knees started shaking for the second time that day, but for infinitely better reasons.
Sam came by him on the way to shore. "Took you a while to figure it out, didn't it?" He laughed, spit in the lake, and continued on, "Hurry up or you'll miss the poker game."
But Joe had one final question first. He shut his eyes, concentrated, and found himself on the wet spot in the carpet in front of the Third Assistant Angel's desk.
The Angel, clearly startled, looked up from his Orvis catalog as Joe appeared.
"Here again, are you? I am closed for the day, and tomorrow I go back to the Fly Fishing Branch. Make it quick, I will answer one question."
As usual, Joe didn't even have to ask it. The Angel replied to his unspoken question, not unkindly, as if the answer should have been obvious to any muskie fisherman, dead or alive.
"Joseph," spoke the Angel, "There were the stories, the loons, the shore lunch, and some other matters.
You released your muskies, Joe, you released your muskies ......
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Last Modified: February 26, 2004
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