It was one of those hot, muggy Minnesota nights, when the air was so heavy it was stifling. I was returning from a fishing trip to Pickle Lake, Ontario and was sailing through the darkness on a remote north country road. I hadn’t seen another car for many miles, and the next town was still forty minutes away. It was late at night, my shirt was clinging to my sweaty back, and I was ready to stop. Up ahead a lonely light glimmered through the trees; no doubt a late night oasis for the thirsty traveler. Being a devout teetotaler, I pulled in, thirsting for an icy soft drink.
The bar was a rustic log affair nestled between a trio of gigantic white pines. I wondered how many thirsty loggers these majestic patriarchs of the forest had seen over the years. I shooed the mosquitoes from the screen door and pulled it open. The room was dimly lit, and I could just barely make out a bartender behind a long bar.
“Out pretty late tonight”, he greeted.
“Yeah, just coming in from Canada”, I said.
“Umm, fishing?”, he replied.
“Yup. Caught some real dandies, too.” Of course, I was willing to brag if the fellow was willing to listen.
“Now you take old Mattie over there”, the bartender said as he gestured toward a smokey corner of the room. “He has some real fish stories, and I don’t doubt most of them are true. Go on over and talk to him.”
Over in the corner was an old fellow hunched over a sweaty glass. He wore an old sweat stained cap, and his square jaw was covered with short white whiskers.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting with old-timers who remember the days of endless stands of red pines, poaching deer for the larder, and when northerns and walleyes were usually over three pounds. I walked over to his table and asked if I could sit down. He gestured me to a chair.
“I understand you are a fisherman,” I started.
He gave me a long look, took a long pull on his mug and set it down.
“Sonny, he began. I’ve caught fish bigger than you. I’ve caught bushels of brook trout on nothing more than a piece of red flannel. And I’ve dealt with the oldest, the meanest, and the smartest northern in Minnesota.”
He stopped long enough to swallow down the rest of his beer.
“I’ll tell you how smart this fish was. I was fishing pike over in Deadman’s Bay and was having no luck at all. I could feel a big fish was near though. Ya see, the hair on the back of my neck stands up whenever a big pike is around. All of the sudden I see this chipmunk inching out on this log toward, of all things, an acorn. Now how an acorn got out on this log I didn’t know, but just when the little feller gets a hold of this acorn, the biggest northern I’ve ever seen comes up and grabs the chipmunk and disappears with hardly a ripple.”
Old Mattie must have seen the twinkle in my eye, but he went on without missing a beat.
“But that’s not the best of it. For the next few minutes I sat trying to figger’ out how to catch that old pike when I sees this big, scary looking shadow come up by the log. Suddenly the same fish sticks his head right out of the water and squirms up on the log and sets another acorn there!”
Like a wild-eyed evangalist, Mattie stopped and glared at me as if to challenge my disbelief. I stopped, my now warm can of pop half way to my mouth.
“Well, that’s quite a story”, I said. Actually, there wasn’t much else I could say!
“You betcha! And you’ll never hear another one like it!”
Now, I didn’t doubt that at all.
Mattie seemed to lose his fire and once again stared into his empty glass. I got up without disturbing him. The bartender gave me a knowing nod as I stepped out the door. I noticed the night air was cooler as I looked up at the winking stars.
“Imagine”, I thought to myself, “somewhere out there is a northern smarter than I am.”