In many ways Felix was one of the most enlightened individuals ever aboard my boat. Like most clients who book my services, he was quite an experienced fisherman although had never succeeded catching the elusive musky and was counting on me to assist him in his holy quest. Our relationship began almost a year earlier when he called late one night and proceeded to interview me for the job and once satisfied that I possessed all the requisite credentials, he then blocked off three days in October, almost a year in advance. Most of my clients – businessmen, engineers, doctors, usually visiting the city on conferences – tend to book one or two days in advance if they suddenly find an opening in their schedules. The other unusual thing was that usually I’m the one who filters out prospective guests, lowering their expectations, whilst at the same time gauging the relative strength of both their physical and mental constitutions to determine if they have what it takes to endure a full day of hard work in adverse weather conditions and be satisfied with a day that at best will only mean a few fish. But he had done his research, disclosing that he had studied ichthyology in college, and was aware of the quasi-mythical status of the musky. It was clear he understood the mathematical odds and was familiar with the proverbial dictum that these fish were not so much caught as they were earned. But this elderly, articulate, soft-spoken and somewhat idiosyncratic old world gentleman from Malaysia was both funny and insightful, and furthermore was most certain, particularly after having the same conversation with other local guides, he would catch his fish with me offering assistance. While there was no deposit required to secure his reservation, a few weeks later a certified cheque arrived in the mail accompanied with a handwritten note thanking me for my hospitality and for convincing him to book three days on my boat. I sensed that it seemed really important to him that he catch this fish and that there was something he wasn’t telling me. It was only a few months later, when he called me one night out of the blue asking about the weather conditions in October, did he fully explain his personal situation and the importance of this trip. He loved to fish, travelling all over the world in search of new fishing challenges, although had never succeeded in catching a musky. But now he was dying and catching a giant musky was part of his bucket list that he was emptying before, as he so eloquently phrased it, “the currency of his life ran out”. But although he was dying, suffering from a variety of ailments that proved difficult for him to live with, he was neither bitter or angry about his circumstances and approached his impending death with both courage and equanimity, fully accepting his fate with absolute peace of mind. He was dying but decided to live. As he explained, his imminent death afforded him the opportunity to take control and plan out the rest of his life according to what was important to him – fishing and family. He was passionate about fishing and told me he had been travelling far and wide in the quest for new species and new personal records: a 45 inch pike with his daughter Mimi in Lac La Ronge, a 300 pound sturgeon in the Fraser river, a fifty year old laker at Plummers, a nine pound bonefish in Andros. A fifty inch musky was his next target and I was to guide him on his three-day quest to catch the unicorn of freshwater fish.
October rolled around and one cold morning at eight a.m. found myself in front of the posh Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal awaiting for my client to walk through the front door. When I had asked him who I should look for, he replied with a hearty, high-pitched giggle “a small and very old but dashing Malaysian with silver hair”. A man fitting this description soon shuffled through the front doors with a huge smile on his face. He looked like a well-fed Mahatma Gandhi except he had a full head of silvery hair and had forsaken the sari in favor of a ski suit.
“How are you man?” he called through the open car window. “Are you Ari the musky man?”
I pointed to the design on my shirt, a large musky, telling him “that’s what the t-shirt says!”
We drove for an hour until reaching the western tip of Lake St-Louis, somewhat of a misnomer as it was not so much a lake inasmuch as a wide section of the St-Lawrence river. The put-in was off the road, across from a farmer’s field. As we inflated the boat the farmer drove past in his tractor and waved to us with his hat in his hand. This ritual had gone one for decades before we actually met one another. There were three generations of family living in the large farmhouse, originally from France, they had come to Quebec in the seventies and were among the first organic farmers in the province. They were hard-working people and we used to see them in the fields before sunrise until long after sunset.
The weather on our first day was too nice to be good for musky. Zero wind, full sun, low pressure, and warm – the ingredients in a recipe for inactivity for clear water muskies. We fished hard through the day without even a follow. Felix worked hard through the day and cast like a pro, catching several pike and bass, but it was as though the musky were not even there, which was in sharp contrast to three days prior when doing some recon with a friend we saw seven fish, hooked five, and landed four although none was over twenty-five pounds. Felix understood the mathematics of the musky game and remained optimistic as we began our second day. The weather had changed, winds were blowing out of the West and skies were partially cloudy.
We got our first drop on a drifted live bait a little after ten o’clock. It was a quick take, followed a brief run before the fish suddenly dropped the bait. However, it stuck around and on the retrieve back to check the bait, slowly stopped the float a few feet away, and watched as a green shape rose slowly from beneath and inhaled the sucker minnow – fish on! I set the hook and handed the rod over to Felix who expertly brought the fish to boat after a few acrobatic jumps and some stubborn runs. The fish taped out at forty inches, a respectable fish, in mint condition without a scar, a magnificently patterned tiger musky, even rarer than the average musky – although it fell short of the fifty inch mark we were trying to best. Felix was overjoyed with his capture and we took a few photos before gently releasing the fish back into the river. He sat silently in the bow of the boat for a few minutes after, soaking in the moment, wild excitement still in his eyes which had grown youthful again, full of spark. A wide smile was plastered across his face, the look of both satisfaction and contentment with having finally checked off another fish from his bucket list.
“You have made me very happy, Ari”, he said, adding “the happiest this old man has been in a long while”
I’m not certain who was happier, him or myself, or the fish that had gained its freedom, but it truly was a moment in time neither of us will soon forget. These are the moments that make me love guiding, helping people realize their dreams and creating a memory within them that will last a lifetime.
“But now this old man needs to piss again, can you please take me back to shore for a moment.” He was type three diabetic and needed to urinate quite frequently, and almost every hour necessitated a trip to the shoreline.
We puttered towards a dock still in the water as Felix felt it would be easier for him to disembark my inflatable boat. This proved wrong as the moment he got had one foot securely on the dock stair, he was unable to lift his second foot over the chamber and slowly lost balance, pushing the boat away from the dock until he fell almost in slow motion onto his side, and almost rolling over into the water before I could reach over and pull him up on his feet. Only his leg was wet but he didn’t complain at all for the rest of the day. After this minor mishap we decided to break for an early lunch before fishing another stretch of the river where some big fish had been sighted a week earlier. On his third cast near a submerged tree, a huge musky inhaled his spinnerbait and the fight was on, only this time, after close to a minute, the fish got away. Felix was shaking from the violent encounter but was not at all upset with the outcome, rather pleased in a certain way that at least he had the chance to dance with the great beast. I had seen the fish as it came out from under the tree and watched its jowls widen as it inhaled the bait. It was easily over fifty inches and thick , certainly a healthy mid-thirty pound fish. But not all fish are landed, which is both the reality and salvation of this sport, otherwise if they were, we might lose interest and not fish that often.
We fished throughout the afternoon until well after sunset, usually the magic hour for clear water muskies, yet without another strike. The day passed quickly, our long silences punctuated by conversation about all and everything, but particularly about the details of his life, almost as if he was retracing the path of a long and winding journey that had brought him to his present state. He knew his day of reckoning was not far off and our conversation, more a monologue, had all the elements of a confessional, as who is better to confess to than a complete stranger who will not pass judgement. I listened with fascination as he recounted his early family life in Malaysia, the inequities and racism of “jati”, the caste system inherited from India and how his family was not part of the Dalits, or Untouchables. He was raised by a single parent, his father who worked as a military clerk. Although they were not poor, they lived modestly and eventually his father, suffering from personal issues and no longer able to care for all eight of his children, sent Felix to live with his Grandfather, an angry and abusive man who reigned with terror over him. It was safe to say Felix had an unhappy childhood. Sixty years had passed yet he still remembered the scent of after shave lingering on his face after his grandfather had slapped him in the face for accidentally breaking a dish.
Felix decided he wanted to fish another day even though he was tired. We had a long day and he was physically exhausted from the fishing and mentally exhausted from the weight of his memories under which he languished. Taking stock of one’s life, acknowledging both successes and failures, good and bad decisions, is an exhausting exercise, which is probably why most people avoid too much introspection. On the ride back to the hotel he fell asleep in the car as soon as we hit the highway.
Our third day turned out to be the best. The fish were active and within ten minutes of putting in we had our first follow on a spinnerbait which was almost converted by a figure-eight at the boat. There was no hesitation with the next fish, a nice twenty pounder that inhaled the bait and immediately went airborne when feeling the sting of the hook. As it was almost the same size as the fish the day before we unhooked it in the water and let it swim away without taking any photos. Felix then switched to dead bait, expertly working it along the edge of the weed line. A few minutes later a fish exploded next to the boat, right in front of his eyes, barely a few feet in front of him and almost caused him cardiac arrest. Even though the fish had missed his bait he was excited about just having seen the fish rise so violently. He was as excited as a child, his eyes sparkling with wonder and awe.
Not long after we finally had a big fish take one of our drifted baits, a large sucker minnow drifting beneath a float thirty feet behind the boat. The drop was instant and the free-spooling ratchet clicked loudly as the fish took the bait and swam away into the weeds. We waited a few seconds after it stopped, allowing the fish to turn the bait in its mouth before setting the hook. The rod bent to the cork handle as Felix battled the big fish. It was a heavy fish, refusing to rise to the surface, thumping deep under the boat. Felix was ecstatic and began to yell something in Malay. He gradually gained on the fish which soon tired and rose to the surface next to the boat, a large female with a head the size of a cement block. I reached into the water and scooped up the big fish and handed it over to Felix for a quick pictures. It measured 53.5 x 23 and weighed somewhere in the high thirties, perhaps even close to forty pounds. Felix was ecstatic beyond belief – he had finally realized his dream of not only catching a musky but a real trophy. We celebrated his capture with a few cold beers and some tuna sandwiches. A giant flock of migrating snow geese, miles wide and long, numbered easily in the tens of thousands, darkened the sky as they flew overhead on their way to warmer climes. Felix, overcome by the beauty of his surroundings and with the memory of his capture still fresh in his mind, turned to me and said with complete conviction, “Ari, if I died today I would be a happy man.” Then he put his hand on my arm and confessed he was tired, and with somewhat of an apologetic tone, asked if I minded bringing him back to his hotel. On the drive towards the city he fell asleep as soon as we hit the highway and didn’t awaken until we were downtown, in front of his hotel. We embraced like old friends on the sidewalk, both of us aware of the special bond and friendship formed between us and that in all likelihood we would probably never see each other again. Promises were made to maintain contact, co-ordinates were exchanged, and we parted company. Long after I pulled away from the curb and drove down the busy avenue I looked in my rear view mirror and saw him still standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel, a smile of contentment painted across his kind face, his wide eyes fixed on my truck until it disappeared from view.