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A Halloween night fishing on the Turkey River

  • 10/27/2016 4:15:00 PM
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By Brian Gibbs
From the September/October 2013 issue of 
Iowa Outdoors magazine
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Travel along as writer Brian Gibbs spends one Halloween night fishing Iowa's Turkey River for an elusive walleye. | Iowa DNRWhen I am surrounded by rooted friends and winged travelers, my hand holding only a graphite fishing wand, I am eternally grateful for life. 

If I should ever feel scared and alone, or undefinable in a world of 7 billion humans, let me always remember the friends found lurking along the Turkey River this Halloween night of 2012. Like the pileated woodpecker—king of the elms—his red-crowned head and black back leading me to my fishing destination.

May there be laughter in the musical horns played by the tiny masked avian bandit—the red-breasted nuthatch—who so wonderfully surprised me along my path today.

When a fisherman’s persistence permits me to catch a limit of walleyes, may I always be grateful by reflecting back on a third grade girl’s wish to me, “I want to catch a walleye—the fish of a thousand casts.”

If the casts of my life have all been thrown, let me be still, remembering the cheerful white ermine who nearly ran across my feet on his way to catch a drink down by the river. When vision has escaped me, let my ears and imagination capture the sounds of a late fall evening: the shameless sound of four-legged herbivores colliding together with their antlers, the deep vibrations of great horned owls calling into the woods for love, or the flamboyant howling and yipping coming from the coyotes—summoners of a full moon night.

As boredom and tedium creep into my weary mind, may I reflect back to the hard strike of that big-eyed creature, and the glorious excitement and the deep pull of something new, yet playfully familiar. In the dark depths of daylight, the fish was still. In the shallow sun, it awoke to feed on baitfish near the sandbar—a carnivore’s dinner under the stars.

I’d always heard the story that “big walleyes fish after dark.” Tonight, a plastic minnow and silver hook set the teeth in the fish’s jaws trembling. All at once, the fish’s head was shaking, sending deep tugs into my 6-pound test line. Human fingers quivering, blood circulating, mind running like a morning of too much coffee, like a dream you wanted true. I awoke by way of her giant white fins; they were glowing in the blackness of a still Halloween night. A treat indeed, the fish of a lifetime that I was about to catch.

Yet, every fisherman’s fantasy plays a trick—how to get the dream ashore.

Tonight, there was no dream catcher, no magic fishing net, and as the fight in this fish appeared gone, I took the plunge into 40-degree waters. I was shell-shocked in river up to my waist and could not find her fringed gills with my fingers. I tried to lift the fish by the back of her head. Too quickly, I realized it was a monster, too big for one human hand. Swiftly, I set my pole down to free the other limb. As I wrapped two hands around her giant, green-scaled spine, she broke loose, seemingly leaving only my line. 

After losing the fish, the journey back to the car was cold and long. The normally brisk 10-minute walk felt like an eternity. The time was filled mostly with shrieks of profanity and shivers of losing my pride. All these emotions, coupled with an eerie orange moon, made me feel I had been tricked into doubting the whole blessed night even happened. 

But it did, and if I am ever again coldly lost in waters of doubt, let me walk the native way. Let my entire naturalist senses be in tune to changing seasons. Let my spirit be at peace with the incessant movements of animals with whom I share this earth, accepting that I need neither photograph nor measure their greatness in inches or pounds. Finally, let me remember that when an autumn sun sets and love-light kisses clouds, when a great pumpkin moon rises, and when the river dances in moonbeams of ginger, a fish of a thousand casts will be swimming free.

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