WILSON: A story about the one that got away

If a person were to head southeast out of Luther, along Old M-63 (not the Old M-63 that travels east, past Howel Lake, but the Older M-63 that drops south, past Totten Lake), then meander west along one of the sandy two-track trails that head into the forest, that person might eventually roll up on the Little Manistee River. Deep in the woods, just a few steps up from the riverbank, one might also get lucky and stumble upon the fishing shack of Michigan’s greatest living fisherman — Olaf Baerbidahl III (those that know him call him “Trip” — short for “Triple,” since he was the third Olaf Baerbidahl).

Trip isn’t known for the prize small-mouth, mounted and hanging on his cabin wall (because plenty of anglers can boast of bigger trophies), or the mess of fillets in his freezer just waiting for Crisco bubbling in a hot skillet (because any piscator worth their salt has a freezer full of bluegill), or his ability to persuade a rock bass to attach itself to his hook (because patience is the best lure in any rodman’s tackle box). Trip is best known for what true fishermen do best — tell stories about the one that got away.

“The sun was right, the wind was right, and the feeling was right for a great day of fishin’.” These were the words that started most of Trip’s tales of fishing lore. “I was headed up to Little River, thinking I might donate some of my Social Security check to the casino.”

Trip enjoyed taking a spin around a slot machine and didn’t mind making an occasional contribution to the education fund for the local indigenous students.

“The sun broke through the dark about an hour earlier, I was in no hurry to give away a month’s worth of grocery money, so I decided to hit one of my favorite spots along Chief Creek.”

This was the point in most of Trip’s stories where he would pause, pull a half-smoked cigar out of his shirt pocket, and drag a Diamond kitchen match across the ass-cheek of his jeans.

“Now, Chief Creek ain’t known for serving up rainbow trout, and I ain’t never had any luck along that stretch of water anyway, but I had a good feeling that morning.” Trip liked to set the stage, hinting that his fishing adventures might not yield anything worth bragging about, but he was willing to take on the challenge regardless of the odds.

“I flipped a fly back and forth a couple of times, and dropped it close to the opposite bank.” Trip liked explaining his technique. “Big surprise to me, as soon as that fly hit the water a big’un bit, and bit hard. I jerked back, set the hook, and commenced to reeling it in.” At this point, Trip liked to draw on his cigar stub and pause for effect. “That boy was a real wall hanger, and was ready to put up a fight.” All good stories have a beginning, middle, and end — with a batch of complications stirred in, just to keep things interesting. “That’s when I saw the bear.”

Letting the suspense build, Trip would take another puff on his cigar and flick the ash.

“The big, ol’ black bear hadn’t caught wind of me yet, and I was hell bent on bringing in my catch — so I kept at it. That big, beautiful rainbow was swimming downstream, using the current to help spool out my line and I was stumbling along the creekbank, trying to reel him in.” Another pause and another puff. “Just as I was about to bring it in, the bear came out of nowhere, pushed me aside, and grabbed up my trout.”

Another pause to blow a smoke ring and let his words sink in. “I landed about thirty feet downstream and that mangy panda lifted my fish in the air like he was Brett Favre holding up the Lombardi Trophy. Just like that, a bald eagle swoops down and snatches the fish right out of his paw — leaving both of us without our dinner.”

“I could hear that bear cussing under his breath as he waddled away. Figuring I’d had a good morning of fishin’, I packed up my rod, got back in my truck, and went on up to the casino… where I lost everything but enough money for gas and a fillet-o-fish sandwich on the way back home.”

Larry Wilson is a mostly lifelong resident of Niles. His essays stem from experiences, compilations and recollections from friends and family. He can be reached at wflw@hotmail.com.