Minnows and Murder
By Carole Lynn Jones
“Yep, I got the shiners, and I marked my new spinner and put it in its place of glory in my tackle. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture I sent you, but it has one heck of a green and pearl color scheme. It’s going to catch me a big one. I know it,” Jack said. He laughed his boisterous Jack laugh, which always seemed too large for his five-foot-eight body and mild demeanor.
“We’re all set then. I’ll see you tomorrow, 7:00 a.m. sharp,” I said.
“It’s a plan, my man, Donny. And, whatever you do, don’t forget the lemon-pepper seasoning for our after-party. We’re going to win this year. I found us a great spot, no one else knows about. I spotted a new rocky point. I can’t believe we never fished it. The ledge drops off pretty deep. I’ll bet that’s where the big ones are hiding.”
The next morning, I pulled into the overflow parking at Lake Hatch’s #1 boat launch at exactly 6:35 a.m. There were several empty trailers in the lot already. Early morning anglers. The rain the day before had cleared out, but it was unseasonably cool for June. Today’s forecasted high was 65 degrees, with only a 10% chance of an afternoon shower. Perfect weather for walleye fishing.
I unloaded my tackle box and rods, picked up my rain jacket with one hand and my gear with the other, and walked down to the banner-decorated wooden pavilion. The walleye tournament rules hung on the pavilion as they do every year; printed on yellow paper with a green border so you can’t miss them. I briefly reread them, to make sure nothing had changed. One to two anglers per team. The team must fish from the same boat. No fishing before 8:00 a.m., and all fish must be alive when brought to the weigh-in station by 3:30 p.m.
This was my fourth year of fishing in the tournament. It was my second year of being in a team with Jack Richardson. My first year I fished solo and caught one seven pounder. I was proud of that fish, but it paled compared to the teams that brought in an average of twelve to thirteen pounds of walleye. My second year, I got “skunked” and didn’t catch a single fish. Talking afterwards that second year on the shore was when I met Jack. He had fished solo that year and took second place with two walleyes weighing 10.8 pounds. He was a seasoned angler who had grown up in Erie and had spent his childhood in the water either swimming or fishing. We hit it off immediately. Both recently divorced and finding solitude on the lake. We joked about how we were glad that we liked to fish, because at least we knew how to cook fish. No more pretending that we wanted to take pasta-making classes and eat fettucine alfredo. He invited me to a fish fry that evening. The dinner guests were me, him, and his dog, Moulson. Moulson is a seven year old, large black lab, whose eyes glimmer with kindness.
“My wife’s lawyer drew up a divorce decree that gave her everything but my dog. I couldn’t sign quick enough.”
We had fish, cold beer and an after-dinner conversation that consisted of “Good dog, Moulson. You found another stick for the fire.” and “Can you hand me another beer.” We’ve been friends since.
“Hey, Donny, you think this is your and Jack’s year?” Steve Puller, the tournament director, walked over and clasp a hand on my shoulder.
“Hi ya, Steve. It could be. We’ll see later today,” I answered. I placed my gear down on mine and Jack’s usual picnic table meeting spot and shook Steve’s hand.
“You have to know how to fish to catch them,” Bob Dugar said as he hopped out of what appeared to be a brand new deep-v. He and his fishing buddy, Rod Johnson, who never have a nice thing to say about anyone or anything are the “alligator gar” of our walleye tournament. Their appearance is large and their tongues are fierce, but as Jack told me one night “Neither Bob nor Rod has ever attacked anyone in public.” Good fact to know. Rod used to be Jack’s fishing partner. He is Jack’s ex‑wife’s second cousin. Jack told me that Rod became bitter and mad at the world after he lost his job. I think Rod was always bitter and mad, and Jack is too good of a guy to see it. When Jack’s wife left him and the friendship between Rod and Jack dissolved, Bob and Rod, who both live lakeside, started fishing together.
“Where’s Rod this morning?” Steve asked, trying to divert the conversation away from Bob’s remark.
“Not here, apparently.” Bob said as he tied his boat to the dock and walked off.
“Does that guy ever have anything nice to say?” I asked.
“Not that I’ve ever heard,” Steve answered picking up a cup that someone had littered and putting it in the trash barrel.
Dave Morris pulled into the parking lot, throwing gravel from the big tires on his old Ford F250. He jammed the truck into reverse and propelled his trailer and Mercury boat down the concrete launch ramp.
“Watch yourself, Donny, truck coming fast down the launch,” Steve said.
I jumped backward into the grass. “Man, if he ever loses his job as a “ridesharing” service, I can only bet he would make a great monster truck rally driver.”
Steve chuckled. “Hey, Dave,” he hollered. “Five miles per hour on the ramp, buddy.” Steve was the only one who could get away with talking to Dave like that. Basically, talking to Dave at all. Dave Morris was a regular at the tournament. Last year, I saw him get into a screaming match over his idea of boating etiquette. Jack told me at the time to stay clear of him. I had never witnessed it, but I had heard that he and Jack had words in the past. Jack is on the small side, thin, and a jokester. Dave stands at about six foot two and is about 250 pounds of muscle. Dave Morris wasn’t the type of guy you wanted to get into an argument with. Rumor amongst the angler community is he had done time for assault.
Steve and I silently watched as Dave backed his boat trailer into the water, tied his boat to the dock, hopped in his truck and gunned it back up to the parking lot, ignoring Steve’s five miles an hour request. Steve shook his head and walked away.
I checked my watch. It was 7:05, Jack was late. I had known Jack to be half an hour to an hour late when invited to my cabin. His longstanding excuse was always a fish he couldn’t get on his line. This time was different. He had never been late to meet up for fishing, especially on tournament day.
Rod Johnson walked down the ramp and threw his tackle box into Bob Dugar’s deep-v.
“You’re late. What’s eating you?” Bob asked.
“Nothing. Let’s go.” Rod responded untying their boat and shoving them off. He turned, his eyes bore down on me, and then he said something to Bob. I couldn’t hear their conversation over the motor. Bob put the boat in reverse and, ignoring the wake zone sign, sped away from the dock.
At 7:15, I called Jack’s cellphone. It went straight to voicemail. “This is Jack. I’m on the lake. Leave a message.”
I tried again at 7:20, 7:25, and 7:30. By 7:45, I gave up calling. I picked up my gear and carried it back to my car. Jack must be sick or have trouble with his truck. That could be the only explanation. I didn’t want to think that he had a vehicle accident. I could drive back to my cabin, hook up my boat, and get a late start fishing, but I couldn’t do that to Jack. There had to be an explanation.
I drove to his cabin, which was about 10 miles from the lake. Along the way, I called his number several times. No answer. When I arrived, his truck and boat weren’t there. Moulson was tied out in the yard with access to his extra large, timber, insulated dog house should the weather turn bad before Jack returned. The cabin was silent. His mowing tractor sat beside the locked garage. His yard freshly cut. Jack kept his cabin and yard immaculate.
“What kept him from putting the tractor away, Moulson?” His response, a bark, and tail wag. “Where is he?”
I peered in the kitchen bay window. Two pots, several dishes, and his large metal spatula sat piled in his countertop drying rack.
“Jack,” I sillily hollered out. No answer but the wind. Perhaps I missed him on the road. Maybe he took a different route. I tried his cell phone again. No answer.
I jumped back into my truck and sped to the boat launch, ignoring the 25-mph limit on County Road Five.
Steve was the only one in the area when I pulled into the lot. It was now 9:15. He sat at a picnic table, looking out onto the lake.
“Steve, any sign of Jack after I left?” I called out when I was about 25 feet away. He turned around, drew his breath in, and pursed his lips.
“Did Jack show up after I left?”
“Donny, I hate to be the one to break this to you.” His voice trailed off as he stood and looked down at the ground, the heel of his boot kicked at a large rock.
“What? What happened to Jack?” I grabbed his shoulders. “Tell me, please.”
“The Fish and Game Commission called it in about ten minutes ago. They found his boat out on the lake. He’s gone, Donny. He’s gone.”
“What? Gone? Where?”
“They aren’t 100 percent, but preliminarily it looks like he was in the water, got tangled up with the prop, and drown. He was floating next to it. Leg tangled in a rope. Otherwise, we might not have found him.”
“What, no way. Jack was on his high school swim team. He didn’t drown. He is such a careful angler. There is no way he got near the prop when it was active. I don’t believe you, no.” I sank down onto the table and put my head in my hands.
“I’m so sorry, Donny. I know he was your buddy. He must have illegally gone out on the lake either late last evening or early this a.m. They found his truck parked down at #3.”
“No, this can’t be true. Someone had to do this to him. I need to call the police.” I reached in my pocket for my cell.
“The cops have already been out there. They are ruling it accidental.”
I left the lake and initially drove to launch #3, but turned around when I saw Jack’s lone truck down the hill in the parking lot. I went to Jack’s, picked up Moulson and with my new seventy-five pound black lab partner riding shotgun, I stopped at the store for dog food. The rest of the morning and early afternoon, I walked aimlessly around my property, Moulson on my heels. Nothing added up. At 2:00, I couldn’t sit around any longer. I locked Moulson in my house, giving him a stern warning not to chew anything until I could give him instructions of what was of value to me and what furniture from my former wife and life he could have at.
I needed to go back and see Steve. Perhaps he had heard something new. My gut told me someone Jack knew had done this to him. There was no way he had drowned or been fishing illegally. I needed to settle the score for Jack.
Steve was at the pavilion, weighing in the anglers’ catches. A few of the guys murmured “hello” and “Sorry about Jack,” when I walked over.
Dave Morris stood out among the crowd. He was next in line to weigh his fish. When he pulled his fish out, he had three walleyes on his stringer. Two small and one large fish.
“Man, that’s a heck of a catch for a one-man team,” Steve said. “Dave’s moved to the lead with a total weight of 14.73 pounds,” he announced.
“I think they should question him about Jack,” I said a little too loud to the young guy next to me with a ballcap on that said “Grass and Bass.” He backed away after my comment into the crowd of five or six guys standing around the weigh station. He whispered something to them and they all turned to look my way.
“You got a problem?” Dave Morris asked.
Steve stepped between me and Dave. “No problem, Dave. You are our leader as of right now. Donnie is just upset about his buddy.”
“Yeah, I was over that way this morning. I saw them bring his boat up,” David Morris said. He didn’t offer a handshake or words of sympathy, but he did slightly nod his head at me.
Bob and Rod pulled in at 3:25. They ran up to the weigh station. A broad smile on both their faces.
I moved over next to them. “Where did you catch those, Bob?” I asked.
“It’s none of your business,” Rod said. They both laughed.
“I’ll throw you a bone, I found us a new spot, and we used minnows.” Bob fist bumped Rod.
“These fish look almost dead,” Steve said. “When did you catch these, Bob?” Steve pulled out his clipboard and pen and began to write.
“Yeah, I’ve been having trouble with my live well.” Bob answered quickly.
“You should cut them open, see what’s in one. I bet you don’t find any minnies,” I shouted. The rest of the fisherman looked at me. Some had pity in their expression, some looked confused.
“Now, Donny, I know you’re upset but you can’t go picking fights and accusing every guy that brings fish in to weigh today. Jack drowned. We are all sorry.” Steve put his hand on my shoulder.
“He didn’t fish this year? He drown?” Rod asked.
Steve checked his watch and then answered Rod, “The authorities are looking into it, but yes, it appears that way. You guys are in second with today’s total.”
“Reweigh them. I know we got first,” Bob said.
Rod picked his fish off the scale and placed them back in the bag. “Forget it, Bob. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Put them back up there, Rod!” Bob screamed. “Jack’s dead. It’s a shame, but the guy was a loser, anyway. We are winners this year.”
I leapt forward, anger from my friend’s death coming out in me. I went for Bob, but missed, and knocked Rod to the ground. When he fell, his fishing box flew open. Lures, spinners, hooks and jigs fell out. A bright green spinner with the initials JR lay amongst the tackle.
“Why do you have Jack’s brand-new spinner in your box?” I asked. “It’s his, I know. He engraves his initials on everything.”
Rod scrambled to his feet and looked around at the group of guys who had formed a half circle around his tackle box. Steve picked up the spinner and inspected it. Rod ran toward his truck. He was about 15 feet from it when Dave Morris tackled him. He pinned him down in one heck of a wrestling move, until the police arrived and took him in for questioning.
Rod confessed to being at Launch #3 the evening prior, where he ran into Jack surveying the lake. Rod stole the lure from Jack’s open tackle box. Then, he convinced Jack for old times sake to take a ride in Jack’s boat. Out on the water, Rod attempted to convince Jack to be his fishing partner again by showing him a shoreline fishing spot he had recently had luck at. When Jack refused, Rod said he got furious. He picked up the anchor and swung it at Jack. Knocked unconscious, Jack fell into the water. Panicked, Rod dove into the water, but instead of helping Jack, he swam to shore, jumped in his truck, and took off. What he didn’t know was when he had knocked Jack out of the boat, he had become tangled in the anchor rope attached to a cleat. The anchor held him under and caused him to drown.
Two weeks later, Moulson and I went back to the lake. The sun was setting, and the water was calm as glass with a magnificent blue and red sunset. From my captain’s chair that Jack had given me to replace my old worn out one, I threw out one last cast. Jack had been one heck of a friend, and one hell of an angler. I knew fishing on the lake would never be the same, but I am glad that I helped bring Rod to justice, and I am sure Jack was looking down on me when my cast of his bright green spinner pulled out a nine pounder. For tonight’s dinner, Moulson and I are having “Jack style” pan-fried walleye. His plain and mine with lemon-pepper seasoning.