|The first time I ever fished for whitefish in the canal was with Matt Drost, a fellow student from Lake Superior State University. The night before, we had been hanging out in Moloney's, a bar that sits across Portage Street from the Sault Locks. Around closing time, Drost mumbled something about plans to go catch whitefish in the morning. This caught my interest, and I asked if I could go along. He tugged at his bushy sideburns for a moment and then said it would be great if I joined him.
Figuring that we'd be getting up early, I gave Drost my number and headed for the door. Drost called after me. "The only thing is," he said, "I'm leaving now. I want to be sure to get the good spot."
"Now?" I said. "It's not even two in the morning."
"Well, not exactly now. But I'll pick you up in 15 minutes."
"Where are we gonna go?" I asked. "Ashmun Bay?"
"No, man, the power canal. Where it dumps out of the dam."
Reminding myself to act like the kind of person I want to be, I said, "Great. Let's go."
Sault Sainte Marie, a northern-tier border town surrounded by water, unproductive farmland, and national forests, is not on a typical nine-to-five office schedule. It has about 16,000 residents, and aside from the roughly 3,000 students from the university these are mostly teachers, loggers, miners, Forest Service workers, members of the Coast Guard and merchant marine, or prison guards from the nearby penitentiary. The only rush hour in town coincides with the closing of the bars; it starts at 1:30 a.m. and lasts until 2:30 a.m. College guys in Chevy S-10 pickups cruise laps up and down the strip, yelling at girls. Police drive slowly by. Boyfriends and girlfriends get in arguments next to cars, make up, and drive home. Then, suddenly, the busyness ends and the streets go empty. The town doesn't make any sound at all. It is my favorite time of night. It is an excellent time to think, and fishing is usually what I'll think about.
As I walked home to grab my rod and some warm clothes, I recalled a time I had tried to catch brown trout in the power canal, and the time I'd tried to catch whitefish on nearby Ashmun Bay. Truth is, I hadn't had the best of luck in either case. I'd fished the canal when my brother, Matthew, was visiting. We took our rods, climbed up on a big slab of concrete, and tried with all our might to land a cast in the middle of the canal, where fish were sucking up mayflies. We had a theory that these browns were the size of vacuum cleaners.
My brother back-cast so hard that he hit a slab of concrete behind him and broke his brand-new rod. Two kids watching us got into a fight. The bigger one trounced the little one and then rode off on the poor guy's bike. An older man pulled up in a truck to tell us that the water is poisoned and that we'd get sick from those fish. I told him that these fish came from Lake Superior, and that Lake Superior was one of the most pristine, healthy water systems in the world.
He drove away. We decided that it was impossible to reach the fish, and left.
I'd been even more unsuccessful on my first whitefish outing. My roommate, Danny, and I had decided to build a spearing shack, hoping to spend our deep-north winter huddled over a propane heater while swigging Boone's Farm wine and spearing fish. We nailed old sheets of plywood to a frame built out of disassembled oak shipping pallets.
We put our shanty on Ashmun Bay, which is on the Saint Marys River above the rapids between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Several hundred yards from shore, I sawed a hole into the ice with a chainsaw. We positioned the shanty over the hole and tuned in Border Rock, WKLT, on a portable radio. Danny dumped two baggies of boiled macaroni and a jar of maggots, which we'd purchased at a local gas station (where you can usually find whatever leaf worms or night crawlers or maggots or leeches or spawn sacks you might need in the milk and soda coolers), down the hole for fish chum, and we watched the current carry them out of view before they could sink. Danny went outside, took an ax from the sled, chopped a small hole 20 feet upstream, and dumped more chum into that hole. Luckily, much of it settled on the riverbed below our shack.
We waited several hours. A large pike swam by, uninterested in chum. A school of menominee swam by and I tried to drop the spear on them but they moved out of its way. Several times I hallucinated Atlantic salmon beneath our hole. They are the Holy Grail of the northern Great Lakes, and I've always lusted to have an encounter with one, but Danny assured me that I wouldn't see any on this side of the Sault rapids.
Soon, one whitefish swam past too quickly for a clean shot. A few hours later another whitefish came through. He was about as long as from my elbow to the tips of my fingers. He lingered around picking up macaroni and then seemed to fall as close to asleep as a fish can get. Danny held the weighted spear directly over the fish's back and let it slip from his hand. The fish wiggled frantically on the spear's tines but quickly tired, and Danny pulled it up. I looked at it for a long time, then tossed it out into the snow next to all the yellow spots we had made by drinking Boone's and relieving ourselves. After another couple of hours it was too dark to see into the water, so we left the shanty—pretty much forgetting about it—and went home. Later we baked the fish with paprika and lemon, and the white flaky flesh was delicious.
Toward spring, it came to my attention that we'd be subject to a hefty fine if we didn't get our structure off Ashmun Bay before ice-out. Danny and I went out, and after two days of chopping and sawing, we got our structure torn down and burned it on the ice. With the death of the shanty, I figured that I would resist any future inclinations to go after whitefish.