My father handled chickens, not fish.
His wholesale poultry business was within footsteps of Lake Michigan’s lakefront, but Morrie Yellen spent his days overseeing deliveries of whole or cut-up fryers to restaurants and grocery stores. He could eyeball a fresh capon and estimate its weight to within an ounce — but I never saw him do the same with a trout.
Why then, when he died at age 93, did a pair of longtime fly fishermen show up at his visitation on a mission to corner his grieving widow with an urgent appeal regarding fish in the Pere Marquette River?
They surely had no clue that it was my mother, not my father, who had introduced me to the pleasures of fishing. On summer days, she would pack bag lunches, bring along some windbreakers and a transistor radio, and take me to the nearby lighthouse pier in my home town of Waukegan, 40 miles north of Chicago. We would rent bamboo poles, purchase a bucket of live minnows, and settle in among the perch fishermen along the half-mile concrete pier.
Mom would calmly watch the tip of my pole, whispering, “There’s a nibble, be ready!” — but then go into hysterics when I hooked a fish. Now, six decades later, I’m convinced that when my own heart races with a hookup, I am merely channeling the exuberance which ran through her veins.
I don’t recall when, or why, our outings ended. I suspect it had to do with the invasion of the alewives in the 1960s. They stacked up dead, in smelly, silvery piles, on beaches or against piers. The solution? Transplanting chinook salmon from the Pacific Northwest into the lake. As hoped, the salmon feasted on the alewives, while producing an added benefit — a sportfishing bonanza.
Fishermen came from around the world in pursuit of salmon in the lake and its tributaries, like the Pere Marquette in Michigan. The chinooks, or “kings” as they’re known, can be as long as baseball bats and as heavy as a couple of bowling balls. That’s why the only fishing trip I religiously commit to every year is three days of floating on the Pere Marquette, chasing kings.
In the months before my father passed, however, it looked like his illness would disrupt my plans. He had been in and out of hospitals all summer, struggling with diabetes, kidney and cardiac issues, and I had been at his side through it all. But by early September, he appeared stable enough that I was comfortable telling my six fishing pals that they could count me in for our annual October outing.
Then, three days before the trip, an early morning call brought the news that my dad had died overnight. While consoling my mother and dealing with my own grief, I remembered to shoot off an email, backing out of the trip. A burial was planned for Sunday, with a visitation Monday night. There was no way I could leave at 5 a.m. the following morning to go fishing.
The visitation was well attended, but not so crowded that I didn’t see two of my fishing companions arrive, and head straight toward my mother to plead their case. They told her that three days of fishing was just what her son needed to ease the pain of his loss. And of course, that Morrie would have wanted me to go.
Mom, without pause, agreed. Then they sheepishly worked the room, introducing themselves and gently lobbying each of my four siblings with the same request. Soon, despite my objections, my friends were telling me where we would rendezvous in a few hours for the five-hour drive north.
The salmon run on our first day was a little disappointing. Too many hookups with beat-up fish that were tired, done spawning, and close to death. That night, Johnny, my fishing guide, asked whether I’d be willing to take a chance the next day. He would row us several hours downstream to a hole that just might be packed with lively kings, fresh out of the lake. We would lose half a day of fishing, and could still come up empty. I said what the hell, let’s risk it.
We put in at 7 a.m. While Johnny rowed, I took in the gentle twists and turns of one the world’s great rivers. We chatted some, but mostly, the peaceful glide of the drift boat, the spectacular fall colors and the comforting warmth of the sun gave me a chance to contemplate my dad’s life, and his passing.
I imagined him here with us in the drift boat. He would have filled these hours with nonstop chatter about the adventures and misadventures of his children and grandchildren. If we were lucky, he would include some stories of the Great Depression, and his missions as a B-17 bombardier over Italy in World War II. He would have also surely reminded me that when he was a boy, his father once saved him from drowning in the Waukegan harbor.
That last episode might explain why he had never joined me for a float down a river. But then again, I had never invited him, until today.
Johnny’s bet appeared to be a loser. Around noon, we rounded a bend and found two drift boats at the hole where we hoped to find those fresh kings. But the boats were moving on, leaving lots of fish behind. I had a killer afternoon, landing and releasing a dozen or so kings, most of them 15- or 20-pounders with lots of fight.
That afternoon still holds up as the best few hours of salmon fishing I’ve ever experienced. For that, I’ll always be thankful to my two fishing buddies who plotted my last-minute escape. But I’m even more grateful that with my late mother’s blessing, I had those last few hours on the river, with Dad.
Larry Yellen is a former investigative reporter, anchor and legal analyst at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32.
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