Cooking Up Fish Tales

Four-foot waves hurled the defenseless canoes about like empty Styrofoam coolers. Torrential rain erased the paddlers from each other’s sight. The cacophony of breakers pile-driving a jagged shoreline drowned out the group’s impotent cries for mercy.
 
But a man among men in the lead canoe had a 41-inch northern pike thrashing…
 
No, let’s make that 44…
 
Okay… a 44-inch northern pike thrashing to the Ballet of Mythical Beasts across the whitecaps. His ultralight tackle withstood no more, disintegrating ’neath the strain. Devoid of conscious thought, the man plunged overboard, wrestled the fish into a bear hug and heaved it into the hull. Back aboard, he deftly took its measurements. And the fish—caught and released for another angler another day—apparated safely into the ancient depths of its home.
 
A big story. I like it because it isn’t mine. But I was there when it came to life.
 
From spring until early-fall, I drive wilderness shuttles for Ely Outfitting Company. The work is a great way to collect story ideas and meet fascinating people. The way I see it, when travelers return from an excursion into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, they’ve earned bragging rights. They’ve experienced an adventure many co-workers, family and friends have never had. So, when I pick them up, I try to offer a chance to embellish their stories for retelling. These traveling exaggeration seminars aren’t in my job description. But I hope they’re a fun, final addition to the Duluth pack of memories paddlers bring back from the wilderness.
 
A couple of simple questions can ignite a firestorm of raucous storytelling inside the shuttle. “What’s the first thing you’ll tell someone about your trip?”
 
Some people really get into it and craft some doozies. The group who conjured that first story did it before we arrived back at the shop. No telling how much more they threw on after they embarked for home.
 
One ex-Marine mapped a self-challenging solo across some wild terrain. For companionship and grit, he bungeed a Chuck Norris action figure to the front seat of his canoe before departing. Shortly into his story afterward, that rubber doll sprung to life. It spirited the guy up the rockiest, steepest portages and tenderly guided a lost black bear cub back to its mama.
 
Exaggeration basically means that nothing about reality matters. You can say anything—unless you genuinely want the listener to fall for it. In those cases, don’t bloat the plotline. Put a lid on becoming separated from the group, fragility from starvation and teetering on the gunwales of death. Just put more pounds on the fish and more fish on the stringer.
 
If the story is about a bear entering camp, correct paddlers who insist it be a grizzly. Compelling as grizzlies might be, northern Minnesota doesn’t have any. But maybe a wolf, moose or lynx would suffice better than a bear. Also, ask if they’d prefer drama, humor or cute. One couple encountered a beaver each night who was intent on filching the logs they had put up for the morning fire.
 
Finally, if quality overrides quantity for a fish tale, swapping out the species is a useful storytelling tool. A 14-inch smallmouth is nice. Changing it to a 14-inch crappie is a slab to behold. But for realism, don’t limit-out the harvest. If word gets around, there could be legal consequences.
 
from Woods Reader, spring, 2020
For more Woods Reader stories and audio recordings, visit woodsreader.com

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