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Hunting Muskie: Rites of Passage – Excerpt from the title story “Hunting Muskie”

“Go big or go home,” Norman declared, as he rigged his eight inch Lil Ernie Deep Diver.

“You think it’s still out there?”

“We’ll see.”

Norman had hooked into a huge muskie in exactly this spot a few summers earlier. He had battled it for ten minutes before it spat the lure and escaped.

Tom watched as Norman cast his Lil Ernie far out along the rock ridge that ran below the surface. He cast his own line on the other side of the boat as the look in Arianna’s eyes flashed in his mind again.

“I’ve got cancer.”

Norman made the announcement as he cast his line a second time.


“Kidney cancer. Renal Cell Carcinoma, if you want to know the official name for it.”

“My God, Dad.” Tom let his line go limp in the water. “When did you find out?”

“Does that really matter?”

“Well … they can operate, right? You can live with one kidney. Lots of people do.”

“It’s already metastasized. It’s in both kidneys.”

“Damn. When do you start treatments? You’re going to need help. I could take a leave of absence.”

“Chemotherapy? I’ll tell you the same thing I told the Oncologist. I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend what time I have left feeling like hell warmed over.”

“But you can’t just give up. You’ve gotta fight it.”

Norman cast again.

“The sixth island from the head of the lake. An oval island, remarkable for its evergreens.”

“Yeah, I know. Catherine Par Traill describing Black Island in one of her stories. I remember everything you taught us. Are we going to talk about this or not?”


“Then why even tell me?”

“Muskie take their prey head first. One gulp and that’s all she wrote.”

“So we’re talking about muskie behaviour now?”

“At my age, Thomas, cancer is like a muskie. Once it has got its teeth into you, you’re not getting away. Why would I even want to? Your mother is gone. Benjamin is gone. You live 2,000 thousand miles away. And I’m too old to keep coming up here. I may be stubborn. But I know when it’s time to bow out gracefully.”

A wave of guilt assaulted Tom. He had become too absorbed in his own life, and its fraying edges, to see that his father’s life was unraveling to the end of its spool.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t know it was so hard for you.”

“I’m not complaining. If one of us had to go early, I’m glad it was your mother who went on ahead. I would not have wanted her to be the one left behind. But Benjamin … A father should not outlive his son. It just isn’t right.”

“Even still, I think you should reconsider. There are–”


Norman reefed back hard on his pole. It bent like a bow as line went screaming off the reel.


“Bet my life on it. Nothing else runs that fast. There’s the head shake. Get your line in. We’re in for a battle.”

“Do you think?” Tom asked, reeling in as fast as he could.

“We’ll know soon enough.”

Norman cranked hard on his reel to make up ground. The muskie started another run, dead straight for thirty feet. It broke the surface, erasing all doubt, in a majestic, gravity-defying leap.

“My God, it’s huge! A four footer, maybe.”

“Oh, you beautiful thing! I’ll have you in this boat if it’s the last thing I do in this life.”

Norman glanced at Tom with a grin on his face even as he winced at the effort.

“I’m glad you’re here to see this, Thomas. This is how I want you to remember me. Not lying in a bed waiting to die. Out here hunting muskie.”

Tom saw his father’s life, and his own, in a new light. Muskie were the stuff of legend—the fish of ten thousand casts. You could go your whole life without hooking one. But when you did, and the hook was set deep, a muskie would always claim the dignity of fighting to the end.

“Give her hell, Dad. She won the first battle but this one is all yours.”

Folle Avoine. Steeped in history, witness to the fall of one culture and the rise of another, too wild to be bridged, too maternal to give up her dead. As good a place as any to bow out gracefully, Tom decided, and, for that matter, to start anew.