– Hellbender

A few years earlier I had spent the weekend on a fishing trip at Roosevelt Lake, centered in the state of Arizona, staying near the great town of Punkin Center, in a trailer park, with Mugs and Willie.  The Segers were best friends with Mom and Dad at the track.  Willie, a Valet and Mugs, a Teller.

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They owned a small aluminum boat with an even smaller motor mounted to the sturdy plywood-backed stern.  Today, the boat’s home is in Colorado and Mugs, at a spry 90 years, still owns it and uses it to pull ice-fallen elk out in the winter’s ice in a private pond which I named, ‘Tuhaye Pond’, translated in Paiute Indian language, ‘The Good Pond’.

The underpowered motor chugged along the center of the lake with Willie at the wheel, Mugs, in her custom made bow seat, and me, seated safely on the middle plank.  When the Tonto Creek is flowing well, the lake can reach it’s maximum depth of 350 feet and become almost two miles wide in its widest point.  Slowly we’d plow through the waves down the middle of the Tonto creek channel which is a big part of the lake’s length of twenty-two and a half miles.

They taught me together how to troll.  With lines out seeking the bottom Lunkers we would talk about everything.  Every so often one of them would shout, “Fish!” as their rod bent to breaking, the line would tighten to the sharpness of a boning knife.


Willie would never cut the engine when either Mugs or him announced the strike of the fish.  The struggle to bring in the quarry, the Largemouth Bass, became more like a Tombstone’s, Big Nose Kate’s Saloon brawl than just a fish fight.  I’d go for the net, heart pounding five times faster than normal, eyes focused where the tight line met the water.

Anticipation adrenaline poured into my blood as the flash of the underbelly of the captured fish appeared only feet below the surface.  Everyone was quiet up to the point where I netted the violently thrashing fish as Mugs thrust her hand into the net and gill-grabbed the lake’s hidden prize.  “Nice one,” she spouted and threw it in the cooler near my seat.

WHIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz! The line would sound instantly as she two-handed cast her yellow two-treble-hook Hellbender back into the water at 90 degrees of the traveling boat.  Peeling off almost all the line with her hand, she’d lock the reel and as soon as the line tightened, the deep diving lure would catch and make its descent to the bottom of the murky channel.  If Willie was the one who hooked the fish, he would look over his shoulder as he raised his rod to cast his yellow lure to make sure I was safe from the treacherous threefold hooks.  WHIIIIIIZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz! His rod would flex as the line would sing.


I, on the other hand, was equipped with lures I could afford.  A couple of spinners, a couple of small but thick-lipped Rapala, a large spoon-face green-spotted back with a white underbelly, Jitterbug, that I still have today.  I’d bought the infamous lure in Salem, New Hampshire when Dad and I worked at Rockingham Park in the 60’s.  In the bottom of the box was a small bottle of salmon eggs along with a small plastic bag filled with its accompaniment of tiny gold-plated curved egg hooks I had used in Oak Creek in Sedona the summer before with my brother-in-law.


I attached the big-billed deep-diving Rapala to my line using Mug’s fisherman knot she had taught me.  I let it drop into the moving water and watched knowing the lure would descend into the darkness below.  The line fed out on its own and when I thought I had enough line out to get down where the lunkers  hid out, I caught off the bail of my Mitchell 300 open face.

We chugged along above the narrow for another 30 minutes when I felt the fierce tension on the line.  The lunker had mouthed my lure for sure and wanted to take my rod and reel into the depths of his home.  I tugged as hard as I could, trying to mimic Mugs’ form and yelled, “FISH”!

Willie pulled up hard on his rod and swung the tip over the motor to the other side to avoid entanglement as I forced out another warning, “Fish, I have a fish!”  Mugs, whose rod was on my side of the boat behind and outside my line yanked hard on her’s and raised the end of the pole as she swept the tip of the rod over mine and over my head like a seasoned Samurai.  Willie cranked hard to get his line in while adjusting the speed slower to help me fight the behemoth, water-logged Butterball.

The motor continued to steady.  The wake and where the line met the water crossed directly behind the boat.  ‘Splash!’  Moby Dick exited the water with the force of Plutonium 239, leaping, (now I’m not exactly sure of this, but it seemed like), 16 to 18 feet into the air trying to expel the sting of the Rapala’s hooks.  “Fish!” I screamed again.  I imagined Mugs, to my back, was readying the harpoon; Willy was awestruck of the Chuck Box’s size and couldn’t move.

I fought hard for what must have been the next 6 to 8 hours to pull the Bucket Lip to the side of the boat where Willie was ready with the net.  Swooping the crossed nylon through the bubbling water he engulfed the thrashing trophy and lifted it high into the air so all boaters within the 22 and a half miles of lake could see my trophy.  I tried to gill-grab the fish but the Rapala’s threat was too much for me.  Mugs reached in, pulled the barbs from its mouth and tossed it in the cooler.

“That’s a huge one Billy.  She’s a real Beefer!”  She patted me on my back and Willy gave me a high five or something similar as I do not really remember when men were allowed to do that kind of thing.  I had become a man that day.

“I say we head in and clean our catch and have a real fish fry tonight.  We got a couple of Crappie we caught on live minnows in the trees at the river mouth we too can fry,” he planned.

Willie reeled in his lure, hands free of the motor controls, and once in all the way he secured his yellow Hellbender in the second eye of the rod, cranked the steering handle around and headed to the dirt landing where the truck was waiting with the trailer.  I stared at the lapping water as we sped toward home as proud as I had ever been.  The sky’s cloud’s reflection glistened, sparkling in my eyes, which were filled with pride.  I had landed a Big Shot, a truly Big Shot of the loch called Roosevelt.

I looked up at the end of my rod where the medalist Rapala hung and knew then I would never, ever have a more magnificent and splendid lure.  Willie pushed the sturdy nose of the boat up and into the gravel bank of the landing using the force of the motor and Mugs jumped out to get the truck.  Reverse engine back into the water as we waited as she backed the trailer into the lake.  Skillfully Willie steered the boat onto the trailer and in seconds we were heading back down the road to the single-wide lake home.

Something is different about the taste when eating your catch.  Everything is caviar.  In those days and possibly still today, Mugs was a world-renowned fish fryer chef.  I had heard rumors, Red Lobster had tried to recruit her in their beginnings but she was better than that.  We dipped deeply into the tarter sauce and ate everything we could fry.  Crunching the last of the homemade coleslaw and cleaning up, we went to bed so we could get a head start in the morning to get back to Phoenix.

This fishing trip was one of the best trips ever, as so it seemed then.

Time travel time

Two maybe three, years later and I find myself, much more the wiser of a fisherman.

It was Friday, after school, and I was doing absolutely nothing.  Gary, my best friend, and I were in the back bedroom of our house looking at absoulutely nothing and talking about something that had happened during the day at school which really meant nothing, when Dad walked in dressed in his usual, brown slacks and white shirt, tracker outfit, he wore every day.

“You guys want to go fishing?” he asked.

Gary looked at me like he just won ten free Blakely gas station drinking glasses.  “Sure,” I responded with excitement.


“Great.  Willie said we can use his boat.  We’ll leave early in the morning.”

Yellow black-spotted Hellbenders came to my mind instantly as I knew Willie’s boat was at Roosevelt Lake just waiting for me to pull on the cord to start the engine and head into the trees at the mouth of the infamous Crappie yielding Tonto Creek.

“You know what Gary.  Mugs owns the best lures this side of the Mississippi River.  She’s got one yellow Hellbender that can catch anything.  She’s used it for Marlin fishing before and landed a monster,” I boasted as  Gary’s eyes got wider.  “That baby can catch anything.”

“Does she have two?”

“Nope, just one but I’ll let you use it after I catch a few Big Boys.”

Gary and I sat in the backseat of the white Chrysler as Dad drove to the lake.  He had fastened a hitch attachment he rented from U-haul to pull the boat and trailer to the water’s edge.  We stopped at Punkin Center’s store and loaded up on minnows.  Dad bought three huge bobbers.  I knew where Mugs stored the tackle box filled with yellow Hellbenders and I was sure I could borrow a couple.  Heck, we were fishing partners and how tighter can two people get?

The hook-up and off-loading went surprisingly smooth and Dad fired up the powerful 5 horse Evinrude and pointed it toward the depths of the fish-enrichened river channel.  Gary led the way sitting in Mugs’ chair as I sat in my normal position on the middle wood plank with Mugs’ tackle box underneath.  The morning air was brisk and I pulled up the collar of my jacket as I leaned to the side to see around Gary.  The boat planed more than usual as most of the weight was at the stern.

I turned around to look how Dad was doing.  He had hold of the steering with one hand and his collar of his thin jacket to seal off the wind.  His hair had so much Brylcreem the wind didn’t effect the style.  ‘A little dab will do ya’, was not in his vocabulary in those days.  We could use it as Crisco for frying the eggs in the morning if we needed to do so.  His ears and nose were bright red from the cold’s sting.

We reached what appeared to be the middle of the lake in only minutes and Dad slowed the motor.  He glanced back to see where he was and looked forward at me without asking approval of the position of the boat.

“Looks perfect,” he announced as he shut off the motor.  I had expected to be trolling at this time and wondered what in the hell was Dad going to do?  The huge cottonwoods leading into the Tonto Creek channel were a couple of miles away and looked like dead brush on the horizon.  Dad grabbed two bobbers out of the paper bag and tossed them one at a time to me.  I handed both to Gary.  Gary looked at me with a questioning grin.

“Hand me the minnows, Billy.  Let me show you how this is done.”  Dad pressed the button on his silver closed-face Zebco and pulled out some line.  With six feet of loose line in the bottom of the boat, he clicked on the gargatuan red and white float.  Dad shoe-tied his line to an oversized hook which immediately killed the minnow and flung the bobber and bait to the side of the boat maybe twenty feet or so.

He set his rod against the rail and looked at Gary and I.  We were both dumbfounded of his choice of fishing spots and his technique.  The water’s depth was around 150 feet deep and obviously vacant of any sane fish at the surface.  The lapping sound of the small waves shook me out of the shock.

“Dad, if we’re not going to troll and use minnows, we have to go to the trees and fish there,” I said as I pointed to the distance.  Dad turned around and looked as Gary nodded affirmably saying only, “Uh, huh.”

He turned back to us, “If there’s fish over there, then there’s fish right here,” he said, pointing down at the water.

Gary muffled out a negative tone, “Uh uh.”

“See, Gary thinks so too,” I said in a convincing squealish voice.

“This is fine.  Let’s give it a try.  We’re already here.”

Flustered with Dad’s decision I reached under the seat and opened Mugs’ tackle box and grabbed the deepest diving Hellbender she had.  I knew I would have to cast far and crank fast if I was even to get the lure down to 20 feet.  Gary grabbed one of my Rapalas.

Quickly I tied the famous Fisherman’s knot, Mugs had taught me and reeled up the line so a couple of feet were left with the mighty yellow crawdad lure hanging as to say, “Eat me.”  Gary was still tying his on.

I stood up and cocked the rod behind me and readied for the cast of a lifetime.  Getting my feet and legs in an athletic stance, I took in a deep and strengthening breath.  My eyes focused on the target in the water 100 feet out.  Dad’s bobber caught my attention momentarily as it rose and fell with each wave.  I clicked the bail of the reel open and held tight to the line with my casting hand’s index finger.  I thrust my shoulder forward and two-handed cast the rod with the force of a lumberjack yielding an axe.

In an instant I would be releasing the pressure of my finger holding the line.  Knowing exactly when to release is something only the best fishermen know.  It takes talent and timing.  The instant was nearing as my cast was going to be so accurate, I could feel the movement in slow motion.  The line tightened suddenly and I heard a manly whimper as I was lurched backward from the seizing momentum.

I heard a huff sound as I turned to see what I had snagged.  Dad’s eyes were fixed and filled with fear.  The Hellbender’s rear hooks had impaled his ear flap about an inch above his fattish lobe during the forward lurch of my cast.  The return motion fastened two of the front hooks deep into the small dimple of flesh underneath his nostril.  The points of the rear hooks were through and through but the ones in his lip didn’t come out.  His ear was pulled forward and was closed tighter than a manhole lid.

Gary looked up at the same time and mumbled, “Uh oh.”

Dad grabbed the line and pulled hard enough to rip the rod from my hands.  I stumbled forward and kicked over the minnow bucket letting out all the flopping silver fish.  He grabbed the line between his hands and snapped the monofilament apart.  He moaned again.

The little silver flasher attached to the Hellbender’s rear hung down from his ear like jewelry.  Crawfish earings dangled as he turned to the motor and stood up hurriedly and pulled the cord.  He hadn’t said anything yet and I think it was because if he did, the pain would be worse if his lips were to move.  The motor fired on about the fifth pull and Dad sat down cranking the handle to full acceleration.  His bobber tailed us for the first few seconds and Dad reached down, keeping his head upright, grabbed the rod and tossed it into the wake of the boat.

The bobber was no match for the weight of the rod and reel and quickly disappeared into the depths of the strait.  I sat still, facing Dad.  He stared at me with vengeance in his eyes and a two-trebled-hook, black spotted lure attached to his reddened face like a large yellow leach.  Blood had reached his neckline as occasionally a slurpy droplet of red would catch the wind and disappear.

Instead of ramming the boat into the shoreline, Dad got out in about six inches of water to get the car and took off his jacket.  His brown leather office shoes were completely submerged.  The lure remained securely fastened to his face like a Koala Bear baby to its mother.  Dad backed up the car close to the water’s edge and got out to load the trailer by hand.  Gary and I had already pulled the boat up and out of the water because we knew he didn’t know how to back up a trailer very well.

Dad grabbed hold of the bow and Gary and I picked up the stern.  The speedometer had pegged a couple of times back to the trailer park and I still think we may have been moving when he dropped off the trailered boat.  Gary and I sat quietly in the back staring at Dad’s bloody collar and the sharp tines of his yellow-bellied hitchhiker.  You could tell he was in a lot of pain as his Brylcreem was melting and moving down the back of his neck.

The normal two hour drive took only an hour as we came over the rise past Fountain Hills and could see the city in the valley.  Tires screached to a halt in Good Samaritans Hospital’s emergency parking lot as Dad slammed the shifter into park and hustled into the doors of the waiting room.

The two of us finally started to talk, “No way!” Gary spouted, “Did you see how the hooks went through his ear?  He is going to kill you for sure,” Gary informed me assuredly.

Dad wasn’t in the ER very long.  We saw him through the glass talking to a nurse and holding a wrapped towel under his arm.  He was wearing only a t-shirt and no where we could see the bloodied dress shirt.

“Nice knowing you.  Does your Dad own a bull whip or a gun?  You are so dead.”

Dad came outside with his head bandaged heavily and very professionally I might say.  A large square of gauze was held to his head by another bandage that crossed over it and then across his forhead and back around his neck.  Two small bandaids covered the stitches under his nose.   He tossed the towel on the seat and it jingled as it hit the upholstery.  We instantly knew it was Mugs’ marvelous Hellbender.  Dad closed his door and paused a moment then looked down at the towel then back up through the windshield and shook his white-covered head.

We pulled into our dirt driveway without saying a word.  Dad moved the lever into park and got out and went inside our home.  The screen door slammed shut by itself.  Gary and I moved forward so we could see the towel still wrapped around the lure.  I leaned even further, reached down and loosened the towel so we could see it.  There was the most fantastic lure in the world.  Blood stained but still in remarkable shape although the doctors had cut off all the hooks.

With our chins resting on the back of the car seat, we mesmorized at the wonderment of Mugs’ yellow black-spotted big-billed Hellbender resting peacefully after it’s ordeal.  I think it was glowing.  Gary broke the silence again.

“You were right Billy.  That thing can catch anything.”

The End

“The best part of life starts at the head of the stretch.”

The WiseGuy


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