Today looked like it was going to be a great day. A trouble-free day for hanging out; for taking what comes my way. I guess, given my lot in life, I should have known better.
The first official day of spring was a couple of weeks ago, but it feels like we might finally be turning a corner. Warmer, more predictable weather might be here to stay. The air temperature, as I’m about to learn, is around 80 degrees. The water is where I like it best: right around 58. The sky is baby blue, with small patches of wispy-white clouds.
I’m doing what I do this time of year: alternately holding in the same place, then moving quickly to chase fish. I’m favoring shallow areas because that’s where the water is the warmest and where the underwater plants are beginning to emerge.
Occasionally the wind creates ripples on the surface, but it is mostly calm. This makes me a little nervous, or at least it should. Stealth is important, critical even. Especially this time of year, at the beginning of the spawning season for so many fish. There are so many things to see and sense; so many potential distractions.
Eggs, for example. They’re everywhere. Millions of them. Some in cone-like nests. Some in milky webs attached to fallen trees. Many more hidden in hollowed-out sections under the bank.
And fish. They are everywhere too. Fish working to fertilize all those eggs. Fish trying to protect the eggs and nests.
And, of course, those of us trying to take advantage of all this activity. My own spawning season having already come and gone, I can afford (or so I thought) to focus on the opportunities at hand.
I’m above a medium-sized rock, holding in perhaps two feet of water. Movement below me and to my right captures my attention. I react, but too slowly. It’s gone before I have a reasonable chance to assess what it was and whether it can be caught.
So, I maintain my position and try to study the bottom of the pond. I can clearly see two craters lined with small, lightly-colored pebbles. Bluegill nests, most likely. But are the bluegills present? To determine whether they are, I have to remain nearly motionless and watch intently.
I’m not so much looking for the fish itself, but, rather, for evidence of its presence. Perhaps a flash of reflected light in the water column. Or a dark spot in the bottom of the nest. These dark spots are often the shadows of fish hovering above.
Or, most telling of all, a vibration.
I’m concentrating so hard that I don’t notice the shadow that passes over me. Consequently, I have no warning of the attack, of the searing pain I feel first in two spots along my back, and then, a second later, in multiple places along my side.
Hot needles are gripping my flesh, the initial points of pain being drawn together. I’m yanked suddenly, violently, upward. The area around me goes from refreshingly cool to unnaturally warm, and I can feel a strange sensation of expanding, of losing my equilibrium.
Before I can even contemplate what is happening, I am overcome with seizures. My body twists rapidly from head to tail: first right to left, then left to right, then back again. The pain in my back and sides intensifies, becomes nearly unbearable, then subsides a bit. The grip loosens and is gone. Air rushes around me as I plunge back into the coolness.
I dart immediately to an area surrounded by plants and try to rest.
Sometime later (how much, I cannot say, but the sun has not traveled far across the sky), I am aroused by a vibration off to my left. Unable to help myself, I lash out, snapping my jaws closed on a small object as it passes by.
“What now,” I have time to think as I feel the object pierce the upper part of my mouth. At least this time there is no pain. Not much, anyway. But I am yanked again. This time, forward, and then upward.
No contemplation is necessary. I recognize the sensation this time.
Back to the surface I go, where who knows what fate awaits me.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by a pickerel I caught recently. As I was unhooking it, I noticed marks on its back and sides. At first, I thought it had been attacked by another fish, or perhaps, a turtle. But as I looked at it more closely, it became obvious, from the pattern and condition of the wounds, that it had been recently grabbed by a bird of prey. As I released him, I said aloud: “That fish has had a rough day,” and I vowed to try to tell the tale from his perspective.