Anglers

Mark Putzi

Featured Image: Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

I.

Years ago, when I was just a sprite, my family would go during the fall of the year to where my uncle lived one hundred miles north of Milwaukee on the outskirts of a small town on the edge of a lake that on the map looked like a tremendous teardrop faltering from the eye. I remember the journey, always swift by car, the window open, and wind blasting my extended hand opened like a sail until the North turned into jacket weather, and I was forced at the insistence of my family to do what I considered wrong, to withdraw my hand, roll up the window, and encase a small fragment of the wind. I felt somehow a thief on doing this, or a murderer. Suffocating the air, I slowly pulled at it with my lungs, until it was gone, the luscious air from outside, until the cold was gone.

Halfway to my uncle’s on Green Lake there would be, on certain days, thousands of geese in Horicon, and the cars while going through that long straight dissection of the marsh which I always considered an engineering miracle (How was it possible, all that stone supported by water?), the cars decelerated or pulled onto the gravel embankment so their passengers could watch the birds at various altitudes rake the sky with curious wedges and undulating lines.

I was a very religious child. Whenever we’d been entangled in that ponderously slow marsh crossing, I’d search our vehicle afterward for evidence of divine intervention, of God’s hand in the miracle of creation. I traced the veins of the wings of slaughtered insects pressed into the radiator and thought of fly fishing, of tying flies, and of the Wright brothers. God had promised I would be a fisherman. In order to glorify Him, I took my rod and reel and worms with me, and set out alone for the lake at three in the afternoon when it was too late to catch anything, and there I was and there will always be in my mind, that tranquil place, the place where fish rise to take the bait and turn their sterile lives into turmoil for just minutes, to fight for minutes, and take the breath out of themselves while breathing water.


The fishing could be great or terrible during the fall. Wind and cold could drive fish into deep inaccessible hollows, or an overnight rain could wash down tons of insects, slaking my quarry. If someone asked, I often told them I’d not been fishing at all but drowning worms. Or it was possible I could raise a stringer so heavy both my arms would be required to steady its slow rotation underneath the vantage of a spectator. To criticism I had no “keepers,” I would exclaim “eating size” or with a contrite heart I would lie as my Uncle Zach had instructed me that I’d been told to throw the big ones back for him.

He’d been a fisherman all his life, Uncle Zach, but for some reason I never understood why he had never been an angler. When I brought up the subject of trophy fishing with him, he said, “What? What the hell is trophy fishing?”

“You know, how they cast with artificial lures?”

“I’ve seen what those guys do. That’s not fishing. That’s target practice.”

“But Uncle Zach,” I said, “they make a fish bite at nothing.”

“That’s right. Five hundred bucks for a tackle box full of nothing. And what’s to show for it? Maybe a bass. And I’ve caught a million bass on nightcrawlers.”

II.

Once when I was very young, my uncle had gone off goose hunting, and I’d fished all day with no luck. It was autumn: a cold afternoon with high clouds hurtling eastward and the sun out west fighting them off in orange bursts. I walked to my uncle’s farmhouse with my stringer empty, rolled up inside my tackle box and held together with a rubber band. I hunted wild asparagus along the side of the road as I walked.

Half a mile up the road, I saw the white farmhouse, and the big gray barn which I knew contained a trio of junked Chevrolets dating from the thirties and forties, rusted out with tires flat, windows broken to their sawtoothed edges, seats rotting and engines stripped, rabbits nesting inside their chasses. I was forbidden from the barn, but I’d sneak in through a wide chink between the sliding doors which had fallen from their tracks, and I’d imagine what it would be like to restore one of those old roadsters and have it mint. I’d parade up and down 32nd Street, hands perched at ten and two o’clock on the knobby laminated steering wheel.

After a dinner of spaghetti and venison meatballs, candied yams, buttered bread and boiled potatoes I was ready for bed. Sleep drew my eyelids top and bottom together and filled the kitchen with a heavy smell of almonds. But when my Uncle Zach arrived from the hunt with a duck and two geese I forced myself awake. I remember my father and mother were there in the kitchen with my baby brother Timothy. The rest of the family, including my grandmother, my brother John and two sisters, were all in the living room watching television with two cousins who were both girls: Bette and Geraldine. My Aunt Sylvie came down from upstairs, asked my uncle if he wanted dinner. He said he would eat later, then asked me if I wanted to learn how to “dress” game birds. I knew he meant clean them, so I asked him why he said “clean” fish and “dress” birds, and he told me to observe.

My uncle set water boiling, melted wax into it and dipped the birds, pushing them down into the soup pot with a wooden spoon. He laid them out on a Sunday paper on the kitchen table until the wax began to cool and bleach around their feathered bodies. I watched them turn milky, then solid white and thought they really were being dressed. Thanksgiving was a week away, but inspired by the brilliant white of the birds, I thought of Christmas, of snow-blistered headlight beams, of silver and green and red and gold and white and royal blue ornaments, most importantly of a mechanical hockey game. I thought of all my mother’s hiding places, all my grandmother’s as well. When I found a toy I didn’t like, I prayed it was intended for my brother. Then I remembered the Christmas Eve at Uncle Bart’s. “What should we do? Take him to the hospital?”

“Wait until morning. Then if his fever’s down . . .”

Uncle Zach grabbed and pulled off handfuls of feathers fused together in the wax and dumped them like corn shucks into a paper bag on the floor. He tore down layer after layer, ripping up from the tail, and the birds, lifeless except for their sparkling black eyes, emptied of their plumage until all the dimpled white skin underneath had been exposed. Then my uncle took a pliers and began to pull one by one the many pin feathers. I touched an entry wound where one of the birds had been shot along its side.

“You can’t use the lead shot no more,” said my uncle, watching me. We were standing there, my father and mother and aunt and myself. Both my parents and Aunt Sylvie had had plenty to drink with dinner, so it seemed my uncle talked to no one in particular. “It’s a pain,” he said, working the pliers and extracting what looked like a glass sliver, “you wait till the damn birds nearly light on your gunsight.”

“You use only steel shot now?” I asked.

“Yeah steel shot only. If they catch you with lead shot, you pay up to a thousand dollar fine. They say before a lot of birds died getting winged of blood poisoning. Now they say with the steel shot there’s more chance a bird survives. But you can’t hit a house after twenty yards with steel shot. What’s the difference if less die when one blast from a shotgun hits a whole flock!”

“Didn’t the blind help?” asked Aunt Sylvie. She crowded his right shoulder, and he turned away from the birds and acknowledged her briefly, smiling.

“The blind? Sure, but you sit there and wait,” he said turning back to the birds. “It’s a good thing I had that twelve-pack with me, or I’d have been bored out of my skull. What pissed me off worse, there was a whole flock not twenty-five yards straight in front of me out on the water. Back and forth swimming just teasin me. If I’d had my .22 rifle, I could have shot them all. Pop! Pop! Pop! Just like that! But it’s a good thing I’d left that .22 in the car because fifteen minutes later Willy came along.”

“Who’s Willy?” I asked.

“Oh the game warden,” said Aunt Sylvie.

Uncle Zach put down the pliers, took up his pocket knife and started digging for pellets inside the bird’s chest.

“The other thing I hate,” he said, “you have to get every single pellet out before you cook the bird. With lead shot at least, when you miss one or two, you might get a surprise, but you don’t break your teeth.”

One after another, he rolled the steel pellets onto a china plate. Each pellet was about the size of a sixteenth ounce split-shot sinker. They rounded the plate and stuck together in a row like they were magnetized. A double track of blood ringed the plate to trace their path. I reached for the pellets that together looked like a caterpillar, but my uncle grabbed me by the hand.

“Leave those alone,” he said, “I’ve got to clean them off and repack them.”

“You pack your own shells?”

“Didn’t I just say? Honey,” said Uncle Zach, “I can’t see a damned thing anymore. Does that look like an entry wound?”

“It’s melanoma, dear,” said Aunt Sylvie.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Skin cancer,” said my uncle, “most of the birds have it now.”

“They say its harmless eating,” said Aunt Sylvie, “but we cut it out anyway. Who wants to take chances with doctor bills? You can go broke.”


My lesson would continue outside. I followed Uncle Zach, the three birds twisting at his sides as he pulled them up by their necks and exited the back doorway. I zipped my jacket, and hearing the wind blowing stiffly, pulled the hood up over my head and tightened on the drawstring. Underneath an old willow tree that was hollow and crawling with ants despite the cold, on the edge of the gravel drive, my uncle took out his pocket knife and cut the heads and feet off the birds. Then he slit open their bellies. One by one, he reached inside and pulled out their entrails, separating from each handful the liver and the heart. The smell nearly knocked me out. I tried to stand upwind, but my uncle made me bend down beside him over the birds.

“If you’re gonna be a hunter, get used to how an animal smells,” he said.

“I don’t want to be a hunter.”

“You fish, don’t you? That’s hunting.”

“I never caught a fish that smelled like that before.”

“That’s cause you’re catching baby bluegills. Catch a big old catfish once and puncture his swim bladder. Then you’ll have a good whiff of what fish are.”

He called inside to his wife to bring out a garbage bag.

“Before rods and reels or even cane poles, the Indians fished with bow and arrow. So hunting and fishing are really close companions. The Indians, they still fish that way. For everyone else it’s illegal.”

“I know. I read in Sports Afield all about bow fishing. They say it’s still legal in Alaska, and when I grow up I’m going up there and try it sometime.”

“Ha,” said my uncle, laughing, “with Joe the way he is, you’ll never get close.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Never,” he said again as if he were pointing to a blackboard, explaining about the intersection of two parallel lines. “You’ll never learn the first thing about it. He’ll never even teach you to stand up in a boat. He don’t know himself.”

Aunt Sylvie emerged from the house with a garbage bag folded up in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. My father was with her, walking easily, carrying a cocktail glass that contained whiskey over ice.

“You want to hear something, Joe?” said Uncle Zach. “Your kid says he wants to bowfish in Alaska. What do you think about that?”

“Well it’s a little far to go, but you have to admit, the little guy’s got a great imagination.”

“I think he’s reading too many outdoor magazines. You’ll have to watch him next time you take him to the barber shop.”

“Maybe so Zach, but I think he’s onto something. Why don’t we all go fishing tomorrow and grill up some bratwurst.”

“If that’s what you want. But it’ll have to wait until after the girls get back from church.”

“That’s right,” said Aunt Sylvie, “tomorrow’s Sunday.”

“I’ve got some venison sausage in the freezer. We can boil it up in the morning,” said Uncle Zach.

“I’m low on nightcrawlers,” I said. “Can we get some redworms, Uncle Zach?”

“Sure. The bait shop is open Sunday.”

“No,” I said, “can we go behind the barn?”

“The mulch pile? No, Billy. Porky used that all up in his garden last Spring.”

“You mean the place with the pitchfork?”

“That’s right Bill. You won’t find any redworms in there now. There’s nothing there but dirt.”

My father stood with the light against his back, and already I could see he was beginning to be a very fat man. He stretched out, with his hands on his hips, his great belly arching in front of him, and bulged slightly above and beneath the belt which held his pants above the ground. With my eyes, I traced the massive shadow he cut in front of him that led right up until it pressed against the house. And then suddenly he slapped one arm with the other and said, “Damned mosquitos. Seems like every time the sun goes down they leave everyone else alone and come straight for me.”

“The sweeter the juice,” said Uncle Zach.

“I suppose you’re right,” said my father smiling. “They’re having themselves a little party. My blood is twenty proof.”

“It’s not just that,” said my uncle, “or we’d all be slapping ourselves.”

“Well one thing’s for sure. If we do anything Sunday, we’re getting mosquito repellant.”

III.

The next morning, I went outside to feed the dog, while Sylvie made fried ring bologna and onions. Boots was a really smart animal, a shepherd who would draw you in by scrunching down low to the ground and wagging his tail up high above his head. Then when you were close, he’d suddenly jump up, circle you with his chain, wrapping it around your legs so you couldn’t get away, and pouncing, fixing his paws on your shoulders and licking your face. He had done this to me more than once, so by now I had learned to let him capture me, hold him up and dance in a direction opposite to the tension of his chain, waltzing my way with him in my arms until I could step free. Then I’d race him to the swing set, thirty feet away, just beyond his reach, and I’d swing while he barked and tried to pull himself free of his tether.

After my father finally awoke, finished breakfast, showered and dressed, we piled into the station wagon, and headed off for the Inlet, a body of water split down the center by US Highway 30, a marina to the West dotted with taverns, to the East Hattie Sherwood Park, where Uncle Zach had heard the bluegills were biting. Sylvie and her daughters and my brothers and sisters stayed behind, and grandma was sleeping: They weren’t fishermen. We parked on the gravel bank, got out and were immediately blasted by a cold and steady wind coming in off the water. I knew I couldn’t cast into this for more than fifteen feet or so. I pulled my hood up, tied it tight around my neck, and grabbed my gear from the back of the station wagon. Zach did the same while my father and mother pulled out the Hibachi, charcoal and a cooler. We walked across a small bridge with a railing on either side to the island, roughly circular, about two hundred feet long. Then holding our heads down against the wind, we trudged to the north shore of the island where Zach had heard the fish were schooling. He took his Mitchell 300, baited his line and cast out as far as he could, some thirty to thirty-five feet until the wind knocked it down. I did the same with my Zebco but couldn’t get half that distance. Within a minute, he had a bite and pulled in a bluegill, roughly half a pound, handsize he liked to call them. He handed me his empty bucket and asked me to fill it with lake water, which I did, then I ran back to him. The fish went into the bucket.

“Uncle Zach,” I said, “I can’t cast that far. Could you cast for me? They’re too far out.”

“With that thing? Shit. I couldn’t do any better than you.”

“Then can I use yours? Can we take turns?”

He laughed. “Sorry kid. This is my rod and reel. You want to reach the fish? Get your own!”

“But Uncle Zach!”

“Sorry kid. That’s life.” He shrugged.

He filled the bucket. With every cast he sang, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.” By the time he got to the word “die” he’d have a bite. He kept piling them into the bucket until you couldn’t see the white bottom of the bucket through the fish. I tried several casts with my Zebco . . . nothing. Finally I just gave up, checked on my parents who were grilling the venison sausage, setting up a picnic table with their backs to the wind.

“Mom! Uncle Zach won’t let me fish!”

“He’s fishing alright,” said my uncle, “he just can’t catch anything. He doesn’t have the magic touch . . . I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy . . . ”

“Mom!”

“It’s alright, Honey. Here, have a sausage.” She set a paper plate on the table, weighed it down with the sandwich and a pickle and chips. A wind gust blew the chips everywhere. “Honey,” said my mother, in a lower tone to my father, “this is crazy. Let’s get out of here.”

“Oh no you don’t,” said Uncle Zach, “I’m on a hot streak.”

We ate our lunch as best we could, discarded the coals in a public barrel designated for that purpose, picked up and loaded the car. Uncle Zach told us to come back for him in a couple of hours. Back in the day, there was no limit on panfish, and he was going to play his luck until it ran out.


I never went fishing with Uncle Zach again. I respected what he did that day, the equivalent of him bowfishing if he’d been Oneida like some of his neighbors. Instead, he was 100 percent Polish, and when he died after many years from complications of his lifestyle, Aunt Sylvie liked to tell a story about his burial. “He wanted to be buried in his Polish hat,” she said. She described a Tyrolean hat inscribed “Kiss me, I’m Polish,” with a long narrow feather running across the front of it. She said she looked everywhere in the house for it. At the time, they’d left the barn house, were then living in a bungalow about fifty yards from the water, but not a good fishing spot, the only public access was always choked with weeds, a rickety pier that wobbled back and forth as you walked it. She poked around for about an hour in the house. Then she gave up, wondering if they might have somehow misplaced it when they moved. She went to Butch’s where all the Boomers in town went to get drunk. She let the locals there console her for a few hours, let them buy her drinks until after sunset. She drove uneasily home in her Cadillac and when she pulled into the driveway, hit the button on her automatic door opener. In the lights, she saw the hat with the inscription staring at her from the top of his workbench, the feather looped over it, curling there like the exaggerated upper lip on the face of a sad clown. “I knew I’d looked there,” she said. “He kept everything there, so why wouldn’t I? How it got there I have no idea.” She said that night she felt his presence in her bedroom, despite that for the last several years of his life he couldn’t make it up the stairs because his leg had deteriorated with the bone cancer. “I felt him standing over me,” she said, “but when I opened my eyes, he was gone.” I’ve seen his Mitchell 300 in their garage since that time, still clamped up against the old Ugly Stik with the line now brittle, coiled over and about, an old red and white bobber hanging from it and the hook stuck in the cork of the rod’s handle. I could take it if I wanted it, have it for myself I’m sure. But leaning up between the two-by-four studs, it’s found its place, will be there still when I no longer remember what it’s for.


Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1990. He has published fiction and poetry in numerous small press magazines including The Cape Rock, the Cream City Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Modern Literature, Meniscus and Griffel. He has fiction forthcoming from Black Scat Magazine, The Coil and Griffel. He lives in Milwaukee and works as a retail pharmacist.