The Lure of Leland’s Salmon
Mary Beth Looby

Even now, several years later, I can still recreate that morning of racing across the water in the near dark, the boat jumping and rocking as it hit each new wave. The sky was just opening up, with yellow-grey streaks of light appearing on the horizon. Our little group was completely quiet, either still waking or just taking in the speed of the boat and the power of Lake Michigan. I could feel lake spray on my face as I closed my eyes and lifted my head to the wind, anticipating the morning ahead of us: We were after the big ones today, the King Salmon. Usually, it was my older brothers and brother-in-laws who got to make this trip, but today, after years of haggling, we women were being given our chance.

As dark gave way to light, the sky surrounding us was suddenly magnificent. I quickly snapped pictures of sky and water as it turned from solemn gray to fiery hues of red and orange. As an amateur photographer who occasionally exhibited photos, I knew that even if the fishing weren’t all that successful, I had already caught some great shots of a perfect sunrise as it spread across Lake Michigan, making back-lit silhouettes of other little fishing and sailing boats heading for open water.

Our boat was charging for some secret destination, parting waves of sunrise with great urgency. There would be no sign to mark the spot, but our captain would recognize his current favorite fishing hole when he got there. Everything was being readied for that moment, when we would begin trolling and sinking the lines.

It had been years since I had gone fishing. Fishing had been my Dad’s passion, and I can’t ever remember a time when we didn’t have fish, usually perch, in the house, either caught by my Dad through a hole in the ice or hooked two and three at a time from a fishing boat on the Saginaw Bay. Occasionally, when Dad went out on the big boat, he would take us along. We knew not to bother him too much while we fished. My younger brother Mark and I could thread our own crawlers on the hooks, but Joan and Ann, when they came with us, occasionally needed help. On a good day, we could throw our lines, triple hooked, over the side of the boat and bring up two or three squirming yellow perch at a time. If we got an especially big one, Dad would stop to give a quick smile of approval before returning to the serious business of catching enough fish to make the price of more than one boat ticket worth his while. By the end of the day, however, we had usually earned the price of our own tickets, filling pails with dozens of silvery-scaled bodies, bodies that went from frenzied to slack in minutes.

Now, as our boat slowed to a trolling speed on great Lake Michigan, I could only hope that I would still know what to do if and when I felt a strike on these big fishing lines, as tickets on today’s charter boat cost a great deal more than the ones Dad had purchased for us decades ago on the Saginaw Bay.

I didn’t exactly feel like we women had something to prove, because brothers Steve, Ed, and Mark had never returned from one of these early-morning trips with any great trophies; however, they had never returned empty-handed either. I was happy just the same that oldest sister Judi was with us, as she had always been the true fisherman of us four girls, even braving water snakes in her current home state of Alabama, just to sink a few lines with her son Steve. She had written us once, describing how, when she and Steve went to pull up their stringer of fish from the little lake by their house, along came a writhing black snake who had latched on for a free meal at their expense. Needless to say, they quickly let that snake have his feast. This never stopped Judi from fishing thereafter, but it did keep them from trawling the fish over the side of the boat again.

Now, here we were, Judi, her daughter Barb, and me, ready to prove ourselves. Judi and her family were visiting Northern Michigan for a family reunion all seven of us siblings would attend at our sister Ann’s cottage. There had been other such reunions, thanks to our kind-hearted sister Ann and husband Fred, but this was one of the few times Judi could join us, and the only time the men had relented and given up their prized seats on the chartered boat. The three brothers were reluctantly staying behind today to make room for Judi, her husband Tom, Barb, Ann’s husband Fred, and me.

Fred, gracious host that he was, didn’t fish, but helped the rest of us get situated. Tom and Barb fished first, patiently grasping the state-of-the art down-riggers with their twenty-pound test lines. Nothing happened for quite a while, so Judi and I relaxed, enjoying the sun and sipping coffee from spill-proof cups. Suddenly Tom got a strike, and we could hear the whiz of the fish taking out his line. Excitement filled the air as we watched Tom try to reel in his line time after time as the fish took it out again. Finally, he brought in a nice sized salmon that the captain’s mate quickly secured in a huge net. Tom had scored the first hit, and we knew we wouldn’t go home empty-handed.

I took Tom’s place, and it seemed like the boat rocked back and forth forever as Barb and I worried about our chances of ever getting a fish. The pressure was on, and just when we thought the fish weren’t striking, Barb screamed! Barb had grown in Alabama, and her sweet and distinctive Southern accent got our attention. “Unn-cle Frrr-ed, I think Ah got one—a big one! What do I do no-ow?” Everyone rushed to her side, yelling instructions and watching her pole take serious dips as the certainly large fish fought for his freedom. Barb, a nuclear nurse, was tiny but strong from lifting and moving patients, so she wasn’t about to give up. She held the pole clutched to her stomach as she reeled in line, back and forth, back and forth, trying to get the salmon to succumb. It took all her effort—and many long minutes--to fight that fish, but with a final triumphant turn of the reel, she had him. He put up a great fight as the mate, leaning over the boat, finally managed to scoop the tired salmon into the net. When the fish was on board, a flushed and proud Barb accepted compliments all around for her twenty-pound catch. “Mom and Daaad, Ah’m going to get him mounted for sure. Wait ‘til everyone sees this—they just won’t believe it!”

Barb had scored a victory for our side, and we women were on a high. Even if no one else caught a thing that day, we had a trophy, bigger than anything the brothers had ever snagged. We, Barb, Judi and I, even went so far as to exchange high-fives--several times. We clapped each other on the back and even did little victory dances, like football players in the end zone. We sipped our bottled water like it was champagne, savoring every bubble.

Judi took over the line at that point, and, true to her reputation, scored another nice hit. We now had three fine fish in the large cooler, with Barb’s fish sprawled on top like the big brother.

I wanted to catch a fish, as it had been so long since I had even held a fishing pole, but at least I knew the pressure was off. I felt what I thought were occasional tugs on the line, but I gradually relaxed at my station, reconciling myself to the idea that I might not catch one today. I, who had made the biggest push for a place on the boat this year, would have to go home fishless. Yet just when I let down my guard, I felt the biggest rush of my life! “She’s got a big one,” the captain yelled. “Just look at him take off!”

I was stunned. I never thought a fish could be so powerful, for it was sheer power that I felt pulling on the line. I had only the greatest respect for that superb creature who was now making his way as quickly as he could from the boat and the relentless line that held him. “Slowly reel him in,” they told me. I did, but each turn of the crank took tremendous effort, and just when I thought we’d get him, he’d take off again with a great jerk. The fish didn’t seem to be tiring at all, but I was. Fortunately, we had the advantage, as the captain started up the engine and drove the boat some distance in the opposite direction each time the fish made a run for freedom.

I felt every muscle in my neck, arms and shoulders tense as I held the pole and repeatedly tried to reel in the fish, only to feel and hear the rush of the line as he took off again. “He’s got to be a big one, Mary,” Judi said. “Keep working, girl!”

My stomach was sore from where the end of the pole was pushing in, and my arms felt like rubber. Each time the fish made another tremendous run away from the boat, the captain would drive us a little distance in the opposite direction. “He’s got to be getting tired, Mary,” Tom said encouragingly. Truth was, I didn’t think the fish was getting tired at all, for each time I tried to reel him in I felt that tremendous power at the end of the line.

The captain’s mate and the others were speculating on how big he was, maybe twenty-five pounds or more? He would be quite a prize for this crew to return with. “How are you doing, Mary?” asked Judi, coming to stand beside me. She must have seen my flushed face and wavering body, for she kept telling me we’d have him at any moment. Truthfully, I was ready to give up at that point.

I thought back to the perch I had once caught, and saw the big grin on my Dad’s face whenever we got a big one. Those were nothing compared to this monster who had me at the breaking point. Dad was no longer with us, but I felt like he was there watching the action. He’d be so proud . . . if I could just hang on.

“Judi,” I said, “how am I ever going to explain to the boys that I had to let this fish go?”


“You absolutely can’t! We’d never live it down,” she said, and for the last few minutes of that great struggle, my big sister got behind me and helped hold that fish.

“I think we’ve got him,” yelled a proud captain.

“Quick,” said Fred, “get the net over here, and whatever you do, Mary, hold on to him until we get him over the side of the boat.” The pole tugged tremendously as I reeled in the fish for what I hoped was the last time.

“Don’t lose him now,” I heard someone say as I staggered to stay on my feet. Thank God Judi was behind me, never letting go.

Everyone was in awe when they finally wrestled the great king salmon into the net (he barely fit) and onto the boat. He was a monster. At twenty-six and a half pounds and forty-two inches, he was a record fish, and he certainly more than made up for all the years when, working fulltime and raising a family, I had wished to go fishing but never had. Like Barb, I planned to have this fish mounted. I was elated, but too exhausted to celebrate this time.

Someone from the boat had called ahead, letting people in Leland and at Ann and Fred’s cottage know we had gotten a trophy catch. When our boat pulled in at the New England-like Leland dock, people were already waiting. There were my husband John and three daughters, looking proud as can be. “Mom, Mom, let us see your big fish!” the girls screamed. John took one look and said, “We’ll have to get him mounted.”


“Let’s see how big this salmon really is,” the brothers said, leaning over the large white cooler which my fish completely filled to capacity. Even they seemed impressed when they saw the king salmon, taking a few surprised steps back as they raised their eyebrows at each other. “Mary, that’s quite a fish,” one brother said.

Soon bystanders were surrounding us, asking the captain questions about where we had caught the fish and with what. “We went out a few miles and were fishing at around 90-100 feet deep,” the captain said. You can imagine my surprise when he proceeded to tell everyone we had used a hoochie-mama lure with an eight-inch spinner. “Well, isn’t that a bit ironic?” I asked Judi. “Maybe, but it worked,” she smiled.

Before leaving the dock, we took turns posing with the boat’s crew, our fish, and our families. Someone even suggested—probably the ever-teasing brothers--that I hang upside down next to my salmon, like Paul Newman had done with one of his giant fish. I declined that honor.

Eventually, business cards were thrust into my and Barbie’s hands, advertising high-quality trophy fish mounting. We decided, on the spot, to do it, despite the cost.

Now, whenever I look at my king salmon proudly hanging on my family room wall, it’s not the fish I value as much as that great yet humbling experience. I will never forget the tremendous strength of one of God’s underwater creatures, nor will I forget the unexpected admiration I saw in my brothers eyes—or the support of my three proud sisters. The men still had bragging rights--as the trophy salmon Fred had caught and mounted a few years before was still a little bigger than mine, but we women could now do a little bragging of our own.

I will always treasure that wonderful day on Lake Michigan, for it reawakened in me all the joy I had experienced as a child sinking her first line and getting her first strike. Despite the fact that I hadn’t been fishing for years, the trophy fish I caught didn’t seem to care that I was out-of-practice, a woman, or even that I was considerably older than the last time I had wet a line in Michigan’s waters. Surely the lure of Leland’s salmon is hard to resist, and it calls us all.


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