Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Part Eleven: Bottom Feeders

Part Eleven: Bottom Feeders

Last July I joined two buddies on a fishing trip in Crivitz, Wisconsin, where my friend Dave recently built a cabin. Crivitz is a tiny, two stop-light town located at the intersection of US141 and the Peshtigo River at the southeastern edge of Wisconsin’s North Woods, about an hour north of Green Bay—which means it’s four hours north of Chicago.

Crivitz may be a mere four hours north of Chicago, but culturally it feels like traveling forty years back in time to the Nixon era. (Okay, so that’s true of most parts of Wisconsin outside Madison and Milwaukee.) Folks in Crivitz love their greasy 1950s-era supper clubs, feathered hairstyles parted down the middle Farrah-Fawcett-style (a.k.a. “the Farrah”), the lunch counter at Piggly Wiggly, BTO's greatest hits on cassette (i.e. that's Bachman Turner Overdrive for the unwashed), and Hee Haw reruns on CMT—and they are especially fond their Old Fashioneds served with Jim Beam or Old Grand-Dad, garnished with the standard orange slice, lemon twist and a pair of maraschino cherries. Let’s just say folks in Crivitz are, in their myriad old-school ways, “takin’ care of business,” as the Old Fashioneds are served generously and early.

Anyway, the morning after we arrived at Dave’s house—after sleeping off a (15-year, single malt) Balvenie-enriched hangover—we loaded up our kayaks, cheap beer, and fishing gear and headed toward a section of the Peshtigo River below the Sandstone Reservoir dam. After meandering through a narrow path carrying the kayaks above our heads we gently placed them on the banks of the Peshtigo River, which flows through downtown Crivitz on its circuitous route southeast toward Lake Michigan.

Bald Eagles and bears are not uncommon in this part of America’s Midwest, nor are Sarah Palin fans, noisy ATVs, faded NRA stickers on broken-down F150s, and other typical accoutrements of rural life. After spending so much time in Chicago, I find Crivitz a relaxing, unpretentious place to spend time, even if I don’t have much in common with the locals. Rural Wisconsin reminds me this Texpatriate of East Texas, only the accents are decidedly different and folks in the North Woods are not quite as openly friendly as my East Texas brethren—and Cheeseheads in the North Woods like to drink a bit more, not to mention a bit earlier in the day.

“I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

Of the three of us, only Nathan and I brought fly rods. Dave, an FBI agent and former Top Gun Naval Flight Officer, prefers spinner rods and Senko plastic worms to fly rods and hand-tied, artificial flies. Dave scoffs at our “silly” notions about the purity of fly-fishing. We counter that he prefers spinner rods because he never learned to cast with a fly rod. Nathan and I were bitten by the fly fishing bug early—as was Dave's brother Steve, who now lives in Idaho—while Dave was weaned on urban and suburban streams and lakes and prefers huge, exotic fishing lures to smaller, more elegant wooly buggers and elk caddis flies. However, while trout may be found in the Peshtigo, small mouth bass dominate this stretch of river, and as much as I hate to admit it Dave’s Senko worms and other exotic lures are much more successful on the Peshtigo when fishing for small mouth. In fact, Nathan and I kept our fly rods in their respective cases and fished nearly the entire day with extra spinner rods that Dave keeps at the cabin.

Fishing from a kayak—especially while trying to drink cans of Bud—can be challenging. However, the three of us enjoyed a productive morning catching approximately half a dozen fish each before lunch. In truth, Dave and Nathan caught quite a few more bass than I up to this point, but don't tell them I admitted that. I didn’t mind, though, as I enjoyed paddling down the Peshtigo on a warm summer day.

Following a brief rain shower—a welcome relief on a hot July day—I discarded the various exotic lures Dave had loaned me and tied a purple Senko worm on my hook. The worm descended into the murky water and within less than a minute I felt a tug on my rod. I raised the rod a bit to see if it was caught on a twig or a rock. The tug grew stronger. I began reeling in my line and felt the familiar, exhilarating feeling of a fish racing the opposite direction. However, given the tug on my rod it was clear that this fish was either enormous or very strong—or both.

A few seconds later, as Dave watched me attempt to reel in my catch, my line slackened and an enormous greenish-grey fish surfaced near my kayak before diving directly beneath Dave’s boat. This was without a doubt the largest fish I had every hooked. I looked at Dave and the first thing that came to my mind was Roy Scheider’s classic quote (as Chief Brody) from Jaws: “I think we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” In fact, the fish was so strong that it began swimming upstream and it pulled my kayak with it. And just as the shark in Jaws pulled Robert Shaw’s (as Mr. Quint) boat “Orca” all around the waters near Martha's Vineyard before destroying it and eating its surly captain, an enormous fish dragged me upstream at least twenty yards. I quietly prayed that I would avoid Robert Shaw's fate (i.e. getting eaten by my catch).

After a couple more brief views of the fish, Dave and Nathan concurred that it must be a muskie. I couldn’t paddle my kayak while trying to hold on to the rod as the muskie dragged me upstream. Dave and Nathan paddled alongside me on either side and helped me steer the kayak while simultaneously reeling in this enormous fish. After a ten-minute game of tug-of-war, I eventually beached the fish on a shallow sandbar. Once we got the muskie out of the water, our fingers in its gills, we noticed its prehistoric and menacing row of teeth along with a foul odor. It was a massive fish—at least 36 inches in length—and was extremely heavy and slimy.

The muskie, which is short for muskellunge (genus species: Esox masquinongy)—also known as a muskelunge, muscallonge, milliganong, or maskinonge (and often abbreviated ‘muskie’ or ‘musky’)—is a large, relatively uncommon freshwater fish found primarily in the rivers and lakes of the northern Midwest. Per Wikipedia (I know, it’s a lazy-man’s reference tool, but please bear with me as I’ve been out of grad school for more than a decade and my research chops ain’t what they used to be), “Muskellunge are the largest member of the pike family, Esocidae. The name comes from the Ojibwa word maashkinoozhe, meaning ‘ugly pike’, by way of French masque allongé (modified from the Ojibwa word by folk etymology), ‘elongated mask.’” Ugly pike, indeed! That was one ugly, menacing, prehistoric-looking fish regardless of its exotic French and Native American etymology.

Muskies, known to some as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” are opportunistic bottom feeders that prey upon anything that fits in their mouths. “Most of the diet consists of fish, but it also includes crayfish, frogs, ducklings, snakes, muskrats, mice, other small mammals, and small birds. The mouth is large with many large and hair-like teeth. Muskies will attempt to take their prey headfirst, sometimes in a single gulp. They will take prey items that are up to 30% of their total length.” (Ibid)

The progenitors of this bottom feeder were likely prehistoric. According to an old 1980 Sports Illustrated article I found after catching the fish:

“It is generally agreed that the muskie was once a saltwater fish, perhaps having its prehistoric origin in seas that covered southern Europe. Fossil species have been found there, but the muskie is purely North American now. Its natural distribution in the U.S. is pretty much a result of the ebb and flow of glaciers over North America. Muskies probably entered the Mississippi from the sea, moved upriver and then were isolated in the lake basins of the upper river region after the glaciers retreated. Seven-thousand-year-old muskie teeth have been discovered as far south as Oklahoma. Today, thanks to artificial propagation, muskies are found—or at least sought—in 23 states. People have at times made something of the similarity between the muskie and the barracuda—pointing mainly to their long snouts and their needle teeth. There is no taxonomic relationship. Yet the mighty muskie rarely fails to produce wide-eyed and farfetched comparisons with other wild and wily species of fur and fin. One dazzled angler wrote in an article entitled Tiger of Fresh Water, ‘When caught, the muskellunge provides a thrill comparable to that of a sailfish endowed with the ferocity of a barracuda and the cunningness of a fox’” (Sports Illustrated: That Muskie Madness, May 1980).

We released the enormous grey-green fish back into the Peshtigo so that he could continue feeding on rodents, small children and plastic lawn ornaments.

Into the Great Wide Open

Fourteen months later as I reflect on this malodorous muskie, a vicious bottom feeder that swallows its prey in a single gulp, I am immediately reminded of the upcoming Chicago mayoral race, a.k.a. the race to the bottom.

Just a few weeks ago Mayor Richard M. Daley—Richie to his friends and family, “sugar daddy” to the legions of cronies, businessmen and local politicians who, like ravenous Peshtigo River muskies, have fed from the public trough via the “Chicago patronage system” for more than two decades—announced he would not run for reelection after leading Chicago since 1989. And the madness began. Already, there are literally dozens of declared, semi-declared and undeclared candidates for mayor. (I’m still awaiting for Blagojevich to announce he’s running for mayor—don't underestimate him, this nut job is bold enough to run for public office from jail like Lyndon LaRouche or Eugene V. Debs.)

Virtually every second- and third-rate politician with a heartbeat from the Howard Red Line stop near the Evanston border to its terminus at 95th Street on Chicago's south side has formed a so-called exploratory committee or is searching his/her soul with help from Windy City leeches who will help finance the campaign in exchange for sweetheart business deals and guaranteed admission to the U of I law school for their academically underperforming, undeserving kids and grandkids. With a few notable exceptions, this motley crew more closely resembles the cast of Brubaker than a slate of legitimate candidates for mayor of America’s third-largest city.

Apart from its purely Ichthyological characteristics there are quite a few similarities between my pesky, Peshtigo muskie and the countless candidates campaigning for mayor of Chicago (and even then, let’s be honest, some of these pols even look like muskies). Indeed, much like the muskie, many likely mayoral candidates have made careers as bottom feeders (masquerading as Chicagoland politicians) who thrive on the city’s seamy underbelly where bribery, graft and racketeering are the tools of the trade. Most candidates have served as aldermen, state legislators, Cook County board members, CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) officials, Daley cronies, and other assorted elected officials in the City of Big Shoulders that continue to allow Louisianans the right to claim the title as the second most corrupt state.

(As I explained in Part Five) Illinois—and Chicago in particular—has a long, proud history of political corruption. Indeed, six Illinois governors, including Blago, have been charged with crimes, either while in office or sometime shortly thereafter. In Chicago—my adopted home—29 aldermen have been convicted during the last four decades. That has to be a record for any American city. (For context, we only have 50 wards in Chicago. Given how corrupt politics is here, I’m frankly surprised the number of convictions isn’t higher.)

Of course, my home town/state has little room to talk. Texas—and Dallas in particular—is rife with corruption. Nine public officials—including former Dallas Mayor pro tem Don Hill—were indicted on 31 counts of extortion and bribery in 2007. By my last count, five of the nine were convicted and imprisoned last year and another died before the trial. Indeed, when one thinks of Texas politicians it is easy to identify countless slick, corrupt politicians (from LBJ to Tom DeLay) as well as innumerable idiots and scoundrels (former Dallas mayor Laura “Run Dallas into the Ground” Miller and "Good-Time" Charlie Wilson come to mind, respectively). And, of course we will always have George W. Bush. As the kids like to say nowadays, "nuff said!"

Some Final Thoughts…

I'm not sure who will win this unique and historic election, much less who will actually run for mayor when the smoke clears and the mayhem and madness finally subside, but one thing is for certain: it is going to be an interesting, expensive, and downright amusing campaign season in the Windy City.

Meanwhile, from now on I think I’ll stick to fly fishing for trout and let someone else fish for muskies and other assorted bottom feeders.

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