Fort Frances, Ontario, is unseasonably cold this year — even for the unforgiving belt along the Canada-Minnesota border. The rain pours, seeping into every seam of my gear. My dad and I are approaching our eighth straight hour in the boat. Bad weather is manageable, but only if the fish are biting. No whining, I remind myself. My numb fingers can hardly grasp the leader as I switch out my lure yet again. Maybe a spoon this time. My dad and I catch eyes through the torrents pelting Lake Manitou. Genuinely content, I offer him a big smile.
I’ve never been a girly-girl. Maybe that’s why I took so naturally to a canoe and a fishing rod when my father first brought me out on the lake. I must’ve been just 5 or 6 when I hoisted my inaugural smallmouth into the boat. There’s a photo in the family archives that captures the strain in my tiny forearms, my grimace of exertion in place of a smile. I suspect my dad has taken my photo with nearly every catch since — no fish too small to make him proud.
He used to take me to a fishing store in Northern Quebec and let me pick out one lure as a treat. I had no idea what I was doing, or what tackle to choose based on my desired fish. And he was green then, too. All of our knowledge would come later. I knew only that I loved the ritual, spending time with him and catching memories as much as fish.
Every year, we’d spend a week fishing those calm waters of western Quebec. I was a cheeky youngster. I would secretly throw stones off the boat and act surprised at the splash. I wanted him to think a lunker had jumped nearby. I did this over and over. (I wonder how many years he humored me, feigning shock to play along.) When I was 13, the strike of a northern pike caught me off guard while I was being silly. My hands slipped. My father’s brand-new rod was gone before I even realized what happened. He should’ve been angry. Instead, he went to our shed and unearthed an ancient snorkel, mask and flippers. The search was unsuccessful.
When I was 27, my relationship of seven years ended terribly, just a few weeks before a fishing trip with my father. Part of me dreaded what was coming: the two of us on the lake, trapped in a canoe, with no way to hide my pain. His own marriage had ended somewhat recently, as well. I was too young and self-involved to know how to comfort him.
“So, how are you doing, hon?” I vaguely remember him asking. I don’t know what I answered. I probably glossed over whatever was true. Certainly, I didn’t ask back. Perhaps the relative silence of fishing was a salve to us both. It was then that I realized our canoe was safe territory. There was nothing to fear.
Now our annual fishing trip is my point of pride. I love watching the faces of acquaintances when I mention I’m going fishing up north. They don’t expect me, a 31-year-old woman working in communications, to speak intelligently about tackle, line and techniques. During a shore lunch on the French River a couple of years ago, I stole a few moments to cast off the rocks. I felt the eyes of a fellow lodger as I tossed my line.
“Are you a guide?” he finally asked.
“No,” I admitted. “Just here fishing with my dad.”
The fellow nodded solemnly. “Great cast,” he said. I thanked him. My dad taught me, I thought. Both this and other things.
The wind whips Lake Manitou into a chop. My dad breaks the silence when he hooks a gorgeous northern pike. The strike was on a Mepps No. 5, the hot lure of the day. I unclasp my leader once more to make a change; patience has never really been my strong suit. Our guide finds a rag to towel off our seats, though it hardly matters. For a long moment, he looks at me across the bow. “I don’t think I know a single man who could’ve held out as long as you today,” he yells through the sheets of rain.
I wiggle my numb fingers, catch sight of my dad again. I toss out my Mepps, brace myself for a strike and shout back truthfully, “There’s not a single place I’d rather be.”
Another hour on the water, I’m guessing. We’ve got plenty of time.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Anglers Journal