The cork went down almost instantly. It did not bob up and down, it was totally under water. I grabbed the reel on the end of the dock and fought the fish as hard as I could. The water level was a bit down that year at Compass Lake and I was by myself, so it was unlikely I could get the fish up on the dock alone.
I worked the fish back towards shore and just as we got to the shallow water, it broke loose. I did not hesitate. I jumped in the water and in one swoop I grabbed the fish and threw it up on the bank. It was a gar.
Many people are not familiar with this torpedo like fish with elongated jaws with rows of sharp teeth. While they are edible, they are not what you are trying to catch for supper at Compass Lake. Nevertheless, it was mine and it was almost two feet long. I was a young teenager at most.
My parents agreed to get it mounted. It wound up over the door to the room I shared with my younger brother, Ernest. Just under it was a massive rattlesnake skin that we had found at the edge of our backyard.
For all my life, up to that point, I had walked under two 10-pound bass that had been mounted and hung over a door at Compass Lake. One had been caught by my grandfather, the other by my Uncle Joe. While I had not caught a bass, I finally had a big ole gar to brag about.
A few years later, the gar slipped off the wall and broke into a hundred pieces. The rattlesnake skin was packed in a box, along with my other boyhood trophies and sent to my wife after we got married. I never knew what happened to the two bass that had always been on the wall of my grandparents’ cabin at Compass Lake.
A year ago, this past week, Uncle Joe died. This week would have been his 75th birthday. We now believe that he was one of the earliest causalities of Covid-19. His demise was sudden and tragic, but he did have time to leave one last request.
He left instructions on how I could access his two rented storage buildings. He told my sister that he had a bass that he had caught as a teenager at Compass Lake and he sure would like for me to bring that bass home to our own cabin at Compass Lake. It took a while, but eventually we found that big bass, just as I remembered it.
I have written in the past about having an uncle that was only nine years older than me. He was a dirt road sport. He worked in the oil fields, as a bartender in the Virgin Islands, restored boats of all kinds and had many other unusual jobs. He was an ex-Marine who wound up working for our company the last 12 years of his life.
He and I had our ups and downs, but eventually found our way back because of our fundamental belief that family is everything. He may have occasionally been known as the black sheep of our family, but he was our sheep. Our family.
Tonight, I am sitting on the dock in front of the firepit at Compass Lake. It is a place that we both loved more than anywhere else in the world. It is fittingly, his final resting place.
In our cabin, under a light at the bottom of the stairs, there now hangs a fish Uncle Joe caught more than 60 years ago. It has returned home. It reminds me of my boyhood days, and of my Uncle Joe. It does me good to know his final wish was granted. Happy 75th birthday, Joe. Rest in peace.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org