"Pete, you aren't supposed to go to the lake by yourself," my uncle called from the kitchen.
I stood on the landing leading to the backyard and down to the basement, my fishing rod in hand. "I know. I'm going to the basement."
I heard some laughter. "With your fishing rod? There ain't no fish there," he yelled back. He sat at the kitchen table with my other uncle. They were digging through their tackle boxes, getting ready for a trip to the lake.
I could feel the red heat rising in my face and my hand squeezed the rod hard. "I have a secret fishing hole."
I didn't mean to say it. It just slipped out.
They both appeared at the kitchen door and stared down at me on the landing.
"Heading to your secret hole are you?" Uncle Willie said.
Uncle Joe slapped his side and laughed, his belly bouncing up and down like waves in a big balloon. "In the basement?" His belly had stopped but a giant grin was pushing up his pudgy cheeks. "Never heard anything so ridiculous. Kid, we need to take you over to the lake and show you how to catch real fish. Maybe not a big one, like we usually get, but something your own size."
Willie nodded agreement, a great mop of hair brushing his prominent nose. His narrow set eyes joined in the laughter.
I looked down the stairs leading to the basement, but I knew I couldn't go there now or there would be more ridicule from my uncles. I grabbed the knob of the back door, but it stuck. I pulled harder. It opened hitting my foot and knocking the rod from my hand. I stumbled around it and ran into the backyard. A thickness formed in my throat and tears puddled in my eyes.
"Hey, you forgot your rod, big time fisherman," was all I heard receding into the background as I ran across the yard to my hiding place behind the garage.
My uncles were in their early teens and much older than me. They lived with Grandmother and Granddad because their mother had died and their father took off. No one knew where. Grandmother said they were jealous of me because I still had my parents and during the weekdays, I could go home.
Even though the uncles made me mad, I envied them each time they came home with bass from their "expeditions", as they called them. I knew without doubt that if I could catch a lunker, I would be as big and important as they were. As I sat on a small wooden box in my hideout, I made up my mind to embark on an expedition of my own.
It was early spring in Michigan, when the melting snow forms large puddles in low spots in the lawns and creeks run deep and fast with cold water. Lakes fill and overflow. All of this new water held a mystery. After all my experience, I was dead sure that fish and water naturally occur together. Therefore, whenever I looked at water, I could imagine this huge fish lying there waiting for my bait. Moreover, I was convinced that the catch of a lunker would show my uncles how big I really was. I knew just the place to find that fish.
I gathered the tools of my trade, a hook borrowed from Joe's tackle box, and the fishing rod I got for Christmas. Bait was a problem, because the ground was still hard and cold from winter. I had tried many times to dig for the large, juicy worms I needed to lure a big bass, but the shovel only scratched the surface and no amount of jumping up and down would push it into the ground. Luckily, I remembered Willie talking about catching a fish on a piece of bacon once and decided that would do. Grandma kept it in the fridge, and even though it was cold as I guessed the worms were, it was easily available. I had a difficult time trying to figure out whether to cook it, or not, but after a while it just warmed by itself and the problem was solved. Good thing, because I couldn't figure how to turn on the stove.
With my equipment, I proceeded down the stairs leading to the basement. It was like entering a cave, the dark walls soaked up the small amount of light coming from an old bulb toward the back. It had a musty smell from mildew and I was concerned what may lie in the shadows. At each step, I looked trying to get my eyes to adjust to the dark. After several more steps, I could see the boards stacked in the corner by the hole. The dark water was calm and the light reflected from it. I got up on my tiptoes so I wouldn't scare the fish as I approached. With a large piece of bacon on the hook, I tossed the tip of the rod toward the hole and let the line flow out. The bacon skipped over the floor, landed right in the middle of the dark water, sinking out of sight. I stopped the line and waited. It is during these early moments in fishing that the mystery escalates. All the senses of the fisherman focus on what can't be seen. Waiting for a sign. A tap on the line or maybe a movement. Time stood still, even my breathing had stopped.
Nothing happened. I kept the line taunt. Maybe I scared them away. I hunched over, keeping my head low so the fish couldn't see me, afraid to move.
I thought I felt a little tug on the line. The seconds crept slowly by. I felt it again. Every muscle in my body was motionless. There was a noise to my left and I jerked to an upright position. As I did, the rod started slipping from my hand. I thought I was dropping it, but it seemed to be moving of its own volition toward the hole in the floor. My hands fumbled for a better grip, but it pulled from my hand. I grabbed for it and only got air with one hand and the handle of the rod in the other. The tip of the rod plunged toward the hole. I pulled hard, but the rod had a mind of its own and kept moving toward the hole. I dug my heels in and pulled as hard as I could. There was a splash. As the water dropped away, the twisting, shining form of a fish came toward me as if it were attacking. I put my hands out, but it hit me square in the chest and knocked me to the floor. The fish flopped on my belly. I grabbed at it and a spine of the slippery back fin stuck in my hand. I threw the fish to the floor, the pain throbbing in my hand. I rolled over and threw my whole body on it. Under me, I could feel the fat, cold body of the fish. My body trembled and my mind was numb from the battle. I got up on all fours to look. There under me was the largest bass I had ever seen. I started screaming. My eyes kept looking at the fish and blinking wondering if I was seeing things. I grabbed it in my hands and ran for the basement stairs, water from the wrestling match dripping off my face.
As I went up the stairs, I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I started across the landing to go outside, but the door opened and my uncles clambered through with all their fishing equipment. The door almost hit me in the face, but I managed to step back in time.
"Hey Pete," Willie said. "What you doing there?"
"Nothing, you guys catch anything?" I was trying to stay calm.
"No, they weren't biting." His head hung toward the floor as if weighted down by a heavy boat anchor. "Can't remember when fishing was so bad."
The bass was behind the open door, still flopping in my hand.
"You been fishing in the basement again?" Joe said. I did not answer because I just couldn't get the words out. "Back from fishing at your secret hole, are you?" Both uncles guffawed. Willie waved his rod in Joe's face as he wobbled back and forth from the laughing. Joe leaned back hitting his head on the door casing. "Darn," he screamed and grabbed his head. The tackle box he was holding dropped to the floor spilling its contents. Boxes of hooks, spools of line, and those pretty Jitterbugs rattled across the floor like so many useless toys.
In the middle of the commotion, I had stepped to the side and the bass was in full view. Both saw it at the same time, but no sound came out of their mouths, just their eyes widening and their pupils getting bigger. It looked like the Saturday cartoons. Joe stopped rubbing his head and his hand dropped to his side as he bent over to get a better view. "Where'd you get that?"
I just stood there with a smile on my face, not sure whether to tell them or not.
"Where'd you get that bass?" Joe's voice rose to a shrill when he got to the word "bass". He sounded like a siren going off.
Willie stepped forward reaching for the fish, which I jerked back. His foot landed on one of Uncle Joe's Jitterbugs, squashing it like a cockroach.
Up the stairs behind them, I saw Granddad appear at the kitchen doorway. "What's going on?" His words were smooth and calm, but you could tell by their inflection, he wasn't happy. He never liked being disturbed from his Saturday baseball game.
"Pete stole this bass from somewhere and we're trying to figure out where," said Joe.
"Yaw." Willie's voice wavered as he shook his foot, trying to dislodge the Jitterbug hooks embedded in the sole of his shoe.
With Granddad there, I figured the sides where about even. My shoulders went back and I held my fish straight out in front of me. Since the fish was heavy, I had to prop my arm on the doorknob while supporting it with the other hand. With as loud a voice as I could muster I said, "I caught it in my secret fishing hole, in the basement." The fish flopped as if it were acknowledging my pronouncement.
Joe looked at the fish again, and then at Granddad. "That's bull. Make him tell us where he got the fish."
"There's no way you can catch a fish in a basement, 'less you're some kind of a magician," Willie chimed in, forgetting about the bug on his foot.
Granddad was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his face in a tight scowl. But when he heard Willie, his face began to relax, and continued into a smile. Then a little chuckle emanated from his throat, followed by another, and another. He stopped for a moment, but you could see from the expression on his face that it wasn't going to last. His mouth burst open and a loud laugh came out as he doubled over slapping his hands on his knees. I thought he was going to fall down the stairs, but he grabbed the door jam and righted himself, still laughing.
Both uncles were looking at each other and then up at Granddad. Each getting redder in the face, like they were going to pop.
Granddad calmed a little and cupped his chin with his left hand, the right still holding the door jam. "Well that settles it then, Pete's a magician," and he laughed again.
I had no idea what Granddad was talking about and he must have seen a strange look on my face because he looked at me and said, "Pete, have you been fishing in that hole under the boards in the back of the basement?"
"Yes," I said. My head dropped a little and I felt caught.
"That's all right Pete; I should have covered it better. My dad claimed he caught fish in there, but I never believed him. I thought he was playing a joke on me. Guess he wasn't after all."
The uncles were looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders. I could see they weren't getting it. Granddad continued.
"That hole is a cistern your Great-grandfather dug when he built this house. It connects to the lake and even the roof gutters used to drain into it. They used the water for everything but drinking. The level has been low for years though, so I guess the spring thaw put the lake levels higher, and the hole filled."
Granddad paused, walked down the stairs, and lifted the fish from my hand. "Wow, that's a good sized fish. I'd call it a lunker. What do you think, Pete?"
The pride swelled up in my chest. "Me too, Granddad, I'd call it a lunker too."
The uncles grabbed their rods and the remnants of Joe's tackle box and rushed past me down the stairs to the basement. When Willie snagged his rod on a beam at the bottom of the stairs and stopped abruptly, Joe ran into him. Both fell in a pile on the floor, but their feet were still moving and they quickly got up and ran out of sight. There was one more loud crash, and then everything became quiet.
I felt grown up, but I had to sacrifice something. My secret fishing hole wasn't secret anymore.
Craig Monroe holds a B.S. in Physics and an M.S. in Finance. He is recently retired from the Electronics Industry and is now following his passion of writing fiction. "My Secret Fishing Hole" is a recollection of his younger days in Michigan and his first story published. He has completed other short stories of various genres and is researching a novel on the cold war.