by Brandon Stillwell
It secretes a thick slime, so viscous it forms webbing between your fingers. Its body the color of decaying milfoil, is patterned as if worms have burrowed through its skin. Its eyes bulge and shine in the darkness. Its pupils are deep; they suck in wisps of moonlight and starry reflections that swim in the midnight water. A single whisker below the jaw picks up vibrations that quiver through the crushing pressure of the water. It lives in perpetual darkness, solitary and motionless. But not always.
During a few weeks in late winter burbot leave the protection of their deep-water trenches and congregate near mouths of rivers or other shallow bays. While most other fish loll about in a state of lethargy, the Burbot are invigorated by the winter water; they feed voraciously, forming writhing masses while spawning. Before the water can even warm in the morning sunlight, burbot slink back to the darkness that no light can penetrate, the darkness below hundreds of feet of water.
I twisted open the jar of pickled herring. The label stuck to the side read “Sturgeon Candy.” Floating in what looked exactly like (but did not smell anything like) pickle juice, were half a dozen herring — minus the heads. I didn’t want to reach inside. I knew the fatty liquid would stick to my fingers and soak into my skin. With no other bait, I slipped off my gloves and plunged my fingers into the brine, coming up with the body of a herring pinched between my pointer and middle finger. I hooked the herring through the back under its gelatinous spine. The soft flesh started to flake apart in my hand as the barb drove through flesh and caught on the other side of the skin. I gently maneuvered the lead weight and herring behind me in preparation for a cast.
Several silent seconds preceded the satisfying plop of bait striking water. I laid my fishing pole in the crook of a y-shaped stick jammed deep into the sand. Spinning the handle of the reel straightened the looping line until it stood taught, pointing into the water. The beam from my headlight illuminated my breath and obscured my vision. All I could see were tiny particles of moisture rising from my mouth like flocks of tiny black birds that swoop and dive through the air above wheat fields in summer, or the schools of needle-like fish that dart in waves and form patches of shimmering cloth. I let out a slow, controlled exhale and watched the particles dance in the freedom of the dark.
Many fishermen consider the burbot some of the best-tasting white meat of any freshwater fish, if you can get past its strange appearance and slimy skin. Some even call it poor man’s lobster. Personally, I had plans to fry it. Fillet out the bones, dip the meat in egg wash, flour, and well-seasoned panko bread crumbs — a perfect recipe for light and crispy outsides and tender, moist insides. Paired with an acidic remoulade to cut the oily taste, I imagined a finer fish couldn’t be bought.
I’ve tried dozens of recipes over the years, each calling for fresh-caught fish. There was bluegill chowder, trout jerky, baked walleye, grilled ginger sesame salmon, fish cakes, and pan-seared perch. Wanting to taste for myself how Burbot stacked up to the competition kept me motivated despite the cold and dark conditions in which fisherman target these creatures.
The night made of the air water; distances were distorted and familiar landmarks dematerialized, leaving only shadow and haze. I rose from my stool, unwilling to sit still a second longer. The beam of my headlight swept snow-topped boulders and driftwood, straw-colored clumps of dead grass and impressions of large claw-tipped paws in the fresh snow as I walked. I paced methodically, covering yards or shoreline, trying to comfort myself in knowing that I was alone on the river’s edge, despite the paw prints. I couldn’t stop the feelings of unease caused by the darkness flooding behind me as I moved.
I felt like a child with a blanket pulled up to my chin, squinting, straining to catch a thread of light, unable to soothe the fear of what lay outside my covers. Across the water, the outline of the mountains twisted and transformed; the absent pin pricks of light were the only indication that I wasn’t staring into the infinite, moonless sky.
As hours passed and my motivation sank into the dark water, it became clear that this trip wasn’t going to lead to any fried fish. My pole sat unmoved, frozen in place. I might as well have cast my bait onto dry land. Frustrated, I gave up on the idea of paying attention to my fishing pole, convinced it wouldn’t matter. I stood on the shore, the lapping water licking the tips of my boots. I felt five years old.
I remember as a child standing in the middle of the couch peering over the window sill and out into sky in front of our house. I would call to my mother and ask her if it was going to rain. Living near Seattle meant I hardly had to ask. After each rain storm I sat with my mother at the kitchen table, watching her stack several sheets of construction paper and cut out the silhouettes of fish. I ran behind the house to find the perfect stick as she punched a hole in the nose of each fish. After handing the stick (a slender one with a slight bend) to my mother, she attached a thin piece of white string to the tip and tied an unfolded paperclip to the end of the dangling string, fashioning a sort of fishing pole. I stretched my arms wide as my mother slid my coat on and opened the front door. We walked to the end of the driveway and stood in front of a mud puddle filled to capacity by the morning rain. She gently placed the paper fish on the surface of the water. I stood on the crumbling asphalt shore biting my lip in concentration as I maneuvered the paperclip into the nose hole of the first fish. I couldn’t imagine the puddle ever ending. No matter how many times I saw the dried, shallow dip in the road after a few days of no rain, once it filled with water, its depth was unknowable, the entirety of its contents a mystery to my young mind.
I hooked paper fish after paper fish, imagining each cutout I lifted from the water was not paper, but a slimy wiggling fish come from the depths of the puddle. I taught my mother how to hold the paper fish between her thumb and index finger, the same way my father held them in the pictures from his fishing trips. It felt like hours that I stood in my rainboots at the edge of the water. Eventually my father would come home and I would run in front of the puddle, waving my arms frantically to ensure he didn’t drive his car into the water. Even as a child, I had the notion that I wasn’t going to catch any living fish in that puddle, but staring down into that muddy water, I couldn’t help but imagine thin red, green, and blue shapes swimming circles through the cloudy water.
Henry David Thoreau wrote:
It is remarkable that many men will go with eagerness to Walden Pond in the winter to fish for pickerel and yet not seem to care for the landscape… They call it going a-fishing, and so indeed it is, though perchance, their natures know better. Now I go a-fishing and a-hunting every day, but omit the fish and the game, which are the least important part. I have learned to do without them (January 26, 1853).
I imagine Thoreau smiling slyly as he jots down his observations while watching a group of fisherman chip holes through the ice of Walden pond and pull out Pickerel. I don’t want to admit that he is right, that there is more to catch while fishing than just fish. He should have been out there on that ice with those fishermen — Thoreau wasn’t catching anything from the warmth of his cabin. Either way, he had to be right in order for me to salvage this winter trip.
I clicked off my headlamp and let the dark press itself against me. After a few minutes I could see the soft blue starlight reflecting off the snow. I lay down on the shore and looked up as the cold crept through my clothes and nuzzled against my skin. Orion’s belt was visible in the southern sky; I envisioned an invisible line of light between the three stars. I could never find the rest of him — his bow, his kilt, or his outstretched arm. Across from him, the big dipper appeared upside down as if all the stars of the sky had tumbled out and were carried by cosmic currents into every corner of the universe. Amidst the two constellations, the nebulous milky way stretched and glowed.
I’ve never been able to find the little dipper; it has hidden itself from me. Even as a child when my family would stretch out on sleeping bags and watch the stars together until we were wet with dew, I never could find that minor constellation, no matter how many times I followed the tip of my father’s finger into the sky. Earnestly I looked up for it, even as cold’s icy fingers — no longer nuzzling — began burrowing into my flesh and wrapping themselves around my spine. My focus darted between pin pricks of light until my eyes felt like ice crystals weighing heavy in my skull.
The world went dark as I stood up and clicked on my light. The stars receded into the vastness of the sky and the distant shorelines evaporated before the beam of my headlamp. I lumbered down to the water’s edge and reached for my fishing pole. My joints ached as I reeled in my line and watched the soggy herring slide across the sand, completely untouched.
I caught the starlight in the pools of my eyes, the cold earth in the hollow of my bones. I caught memories and sealed them in my mind before nailing them to these very pages. Even now I harvest thoughts and ideas from the night I spent fishing but not catching.
About the Author:
Brandon Stillwell is a native of the Pacific Northwest, a fishing enthusiast, an avid gardener, and an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction. He has since left the rainy mountains of Washington, at least temporarily, for the red rock and deserts of Utah. His memories of childhood and his experiences with the natural world provide source material for much of his writing.