Rapture on the Water

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
A package from old neighbors back in Hibbing, Minnesota, recently landed on my desk. The box was bulky but light, and when I first opened it and saw only packing peanuts, I wondered if they had sent me an empty box as some kind of joke.

Then, as I stuck my hand deep into the peanuts, something bit me. My husband stifled a yelp when I separated the peanuts and pulled out my late Uncle Howard’s taxidermied muskellunge fish head, complete with gawping mouth, rows of razor-sharp teeth, and a head that was larger than our three-year-old’s. I sighed with rapture.

Growing up in northern Minnesota, I learned to fish early —no matter that my parents were Korean immigrants, or that my mother didn’t know how to swim. Fishing was something that occupied every Hibbingite from summer into fall. I even remember school field trips whose sole purpose was to fish.

Our adventures began when my parents rented a small cabin and an Alumicraft rowboat. Captaining the two-seater, my father wore a billed cap with a fighting marlin embroidered on it. (Uncle Howard back in Hibbing had instructed him that all men required a lucky fishing cap.) To Papa, who’d survived famine conditions during the Korean War, fish were fish: you ate them. At first he didn’t have a clue about the differences between an ocean fish like a marlin and the sunfishes, walleyes, and bass we yearned for. But like all of us, he learned fast.

When my parents first moved to Hibbing, “Uncle” Howard and “Aunt” Marie Anderson took them under their wing. Aunt Marie taught my mom about Swedish hotdish, while Uncle Howard became our fishing guru; he’d bagged the ultimate fishing prize—a multitoothed muskie. He had its head mounted with its mouth open, so large we kids could stick our heads in, lion-tamer style.

When I was ten, my parents were able to purchase a cabin on Hill Lake, an hour’s drive from home and not far from the historic Mississippi River headwaters. Hill Lake was small and weedy, perfect habitat for northern pike. When not stalking this bigger game, my sister and I spent hours at the dock, pulling from the water sunfish that flashed in the sun like shiny coins.

Explaining the allure of fishing to the uninitiated isn’t easy. For us, part of the fun was the trip itself: the drive to the cabin, the stop at the bait store with its glories of nightcrawlers and leeches and its aerated, bubbling minnow tub. Fishing is part intellect and part zen. During the winter my sister and I would dream up schemes for outsmarting fish, even sending away for dubious “Spanish fly” products advertised on the backs of our comics (“Guaranteed to drive the fish wild!”).

But the zen of fishing was even better: the quiet of a glass-smooth lake early in the morning, with the only sound the creak of our oars or the eerie cry of a loon. Success meant a dinner of fresh-caught fish, but failure wasn’t half-bad either: bulgogi Korean barbecue, followed by marshmallow-roasting.

I now see how fishing also provided a way for my parents to ease into America, into a culture that must at first have seemed utterly alien. For us kids living in the blond mini-Scandinavia of northern Minnesota, the taunts of Jap and Chinaman were mitigated each fall when we were asked, “What did you do this summer?” and were able to respond: “Went out to the lake, ya know—fishing.” Just like everyone else.

Fall angling can be some of the sweetest, especially during a burst of Indian summer, a parting gift from nature before the Minnesota winter sets in. Although Uncle Howard and Papa have passed on, my sister and I spent the end of this year’s fishing season in Minnesota celebrating Aunt Marie’s eightieth birthday and teaching our nephew and niece how to fish out at the lake. At Christmas, I’ll show them Uncle Howard’s muskie head. I know both Father and Uncle will approve.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a children’s book writer and a visiting scholar in the American civilization department.
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November / December 2003