Lake Berryessa is a big lake formed by the Monticello dam just east of California’s Napa Valley. When I was a kid, my parents used to spend time with Bill’s parents boating and fishing on Lake Berryessa, in an area known at the time as Spanish Flats. It had a dock, a bait shop and general store with a pier for boat fueling, a gravel road that led to those things, and I’ll be damned if I can remember anything else about it.
When I was a kid, summers usually meant at least one extended trip to Lake Berryessa. It probably wasn’t more than a few days, a week tops, but it always felt like a really long time. And the ride up there seemed long and boring too. We took long, winding roads up through the Napa Valley, passing under tree-canopy covered roads lined with ancient oaks and other deciduous trees. It was up and down hills all the time, my father towing our red Caravelle ski boat behind us with the big V-8 engine of the Bel Air station wagon laboring over the meandering blacktops.
I don’t remember the sweltering heat, but I know it was there. The lake can get warm in summer — like, 75 degrees, so you know the sun just bakes the water. That was a drought time for California, complete with water conservation mandates and penalties. We were even asked to recycle bath water, if you can believe that, and to avoid showering whenever possible in favor of baths. The legislature also wanted us to bathe less frequently, but most folks just flat ignored those stupid things.
I wasn’t more than 8 or 9 at the time. I didn’t know how to swim yet, so the summers were spent in either a Mae West style, bright-orange choker of a life vest, or, if I could convince my parents to allow it, in one of Bill’s ski vests. The foamy interior was covered with a thick, paint-like covering to keep it water tight, and the pressing of the non-breathable surface on my skin made me sweat and itch. My swim trunks were usually not well-fitting either, so every time I stood up or sat down there was a ceremony of adjustment that had to take place.
During that time, there were still rumors and discussions about the specter of the Zodiac killer, who murdered a young couple on the lake a few years earlier. He’d never been caught, and many of the trips to the lake were tainted for me by the fear that my overly-paranoid mother exuded. She was particularly afraid of the prospect of sleeping on the boat, but the lake offered no other alternative. It wasn’t like there were 5-star hotels rimming the area or anything. So many a night I drifted off to sleep with every sound shooting a startled burst of adrenaline through my veins. The pitch black and deathly quiet finally would overtake me and I’d sleep. In the morning, I’d awake, still alive and with both parents whole and intact.
Most of the time on the lake was pretty enjoyable, though. My mother’s alcoholism hadn’t really started to be a problem for me yet. At least, I can’t remember it being one. Maybe she was less of a raging lush when she was there, or something. All I know is, Bill and I would do things and hang out there and have a good time.
Fishing was a major thing for my dad. He would go off by himself, either to the end of the dock where the boats were moored, or by the shore somewhere in a relatively secluded area. The Spanish Flats area was in a lagoon off the main lake, so you could wander past the dock and get to a little bay where the road didn’t run. Sometimes he went there to fish. My mother was more of a skier, though, so he didn’t get tons of time to fish. He had to drag her around behind the ass of the boat and watch to make sure the idiot didn’t drown or lose a leg on a log.
One day, Bill and I spent our afternoon fishing too. We went to the bait shop, got some worms or nightcrawlers, and headed off to a quiet place to cast our Zebco-equipped rods out into the stillness of the no-wake area of the resort. Of course, neither of us knew a lot about fishing. Bill was mostly a city kid, from the urban sprawl that is supposed to be San Francisco’s southwest suburb area. I was a goofy, unathletic dork who couldn’t manage to hook a fish even when I did get a bite. So needless to say, we didn’t catch much but the blistering rays of that blazing sun. We ended up coming back to the dock with a styrofoam container full of dead worms and a better tan, Bill with his well-muscled bare chest and me pulling and adjusting the sweaty life jacket and tugging endlessly on my shorts.
Bill was complaining about it to my father, parroting things he’d heard from his father — the water level was too low in the cove, the pollution was up from all the boats, the fish population was down due to whatever … stuff like that. The dusty, dry wood of the dock kind of echoed his sentiments under his bare foot while he tapped his toes impatiently, sort of ticked that we got nothing.
My father just chuckled at him. “You want to catch a fish, Sweet William?”
My father called Bill “Sweet William” as long as I could remember. I have no idea why, and I don’t think Bill did either. Most everyone else called him “Billy”, but my dad always had to be different. They teased each other and Bill would play practical jokes on them — that’s probably where the nickname came from now that I think about it. Bill was always doing something shifty and mischievous.
“Well, yeah, that’s why I fish,” he said, being ever the smart-aleck.
“Well, I can get you a fish, then,” my dad said. Bill looked at him suspiciously.
“How? I told you nothing bit. Nothing.”
“Need the right bait,” my dad said wryly.
“Worms aren’t the right bait?” Bill said, even more suspicious. “Don’t all fish eat worms?”
“Not all of ’em,” my dad said. He was sitting on one of those aluminum framed chairs with the nylon webbing that you saw at picnics and beaches, the ones that folded down into a small footprint to fit into the car, and pinched the hell out of your fingers on their way. Beside him was the cooler full of our food for the trip. Just a short car ride away was a general store, so for extended visits you could go get more supplies, but we usually lived out of the coolers when we were there. He was rummaging around in there for something, and when his hands emerged, wet from the melting ice inside, he held a piece of white bread and a can of 7-Up.
“What’s that for?” Bill said, his attitude becoming curious and inquisitive. My dad had his attention now. Mine too.
“This is your bait, boy,” he said patiently. As he spoke, he took the bread and mashed it violently into a tiny ball of dough that was so compressed and mushy it held its spherical shape in his palm. Bill leaned over to watch as my dad took his rod, found the hook, and poked it through the doughy glob. Holding the hook over the water, he pulled the tab of the can of pop off the 7-Up and poured the fizzy, clear syrup over the ball of bread. When the bubbles died he did it again, and finally a third time. The little doughy ball was wet and sticky with the soda.
“There ya go, Sweet William,” he said. “Take this and cast it off the dock just about anywhere, and I guaran-damn-tee ya you’ll catch somethin’.”
Bill looked at him sideways. “You sure? With this?”
My dad nodded slowly. “With that.”
Bill shook his head incredulously. “Okay … if you say so.”
My dad settled his bulk into the tiny chair more fully and it complained about it while Bill strode down the dock a few paces to an empty berth. He looked at me, and I shrugged. He shrugged back, then he pressed the line release button on the Zebco and the little ball of dough dropped into the water and vanished into the murky, aquamarine water. Just a few feet below the surface it vanished from view.
Bill sighed and sat down at the edge of the berth, plopping his chin in his palm with an I-feel-like-a-complete-idiot-for-fishing-with-a-dough-ball look on his face. “This is so dumb. How can you catch a fish with a –”
He never finished his sentence because his line snapped violently taut and the Zebco screamed as line was torn viciously out of its spool.
Quick as a wink, Bill jumped up and took the rod in both hands to steady his grip. “HOLY SHIT!” he burst out, “I’ve got a BITE!” I stood with him, eyes wide through my thick, horn-rimmed glasses, adjusting my ski vest over my skinny torso and fixing my swim trunks again.
He tugged on the line, firmly but not too hard, trying to set the hook. The instant he did, whatever was on the other end fought violently back, bending the tiny rod into a parabolic U-shape that dipped sharply toward the still surface of the water.
“Damn!” he cried, “it’s heavy! Doyle, help! Help, Dad!” he was calling for the men to assist him. I knew then that, whatever he’d caught, it must surely have been the size of a Buick. If Bill couldn’t handle it alone, it was Monstro the Whale.
His father poked his head up from the deck of their boat, and watched. “Whatcha got there, Will?” he said, smiling.
My father sauntered over with his hands in his pockets, laughing. “Got a bite, Sweet William?”
“Holy crap, what IS this thing?” Bill said, “I can’t even reel it in!!”
My dad reached for the fishing pole. “Here, give it here,” he said. Bill obediently passed him the rod, and he watched as the line swirled and zig-zagged over the surface while whatever was hooked frantically swirled about to escape.
Slowly, patiently, my dad began to draw the line up. He would allow the pole to dip toward the surface, then draw the pole back up and simultaneously wind the reel and retract some line. He’d repeat the process, and tell Bill and I to let the fish get some slack, then tighten it so he can’t go back toward the bottom, then do it again. Some kind of redneck crap like that. We weren’t really listening. We just wanted to know what the hell it was.
Finally, with a dramatic and heart-stopping splash, the mysterious captive breeched the surface of the water and showered us all with spray. Bill was shouting excitedly as my father handed him the pole again.
“You bring ‘im in, Willie,” he said, smiling. “He’s a big ‘un.”
Bill was all grins as he struggled with the beast, its flashing scales and spiny fins breaking the water’s surface as it fought to dive to the safety of the deep again. Bill pulled heavily, grunting with the effort as the big fish rolled over on its side as it tried to sound, its brass-coloring gleaming in the midday light. He called to his dad who was bringing a net, saying to hurry, his arms straining against the struggling giant that would not surrender.
His dad got on one knee, laughing and shaking his head, and my father was rolling in hilarity next to him. Bill’s dad scooped down with the fishing net, and when he tried to gather the monster in, he stopped laughing.
It wouldn’t fit in the net.
It was too big. Bill was panicking, his body leaning back as he struggled to hold the pole, still bent over and occasionally touching the water’s surface.
“Dad, Doyle, what do I do? What do I do?” he said urgently. “I can’t hold it up much longer!”
I put my hands next to his on the pole and offered whatever pathetic measure of strength I had in his effort to keep the fish from ripping the pole out of his hands. I could see the sweat dripping from his hairline in exertion, and he smiled briefly at me, grateful for the help.
My father and Bill’s dad reached down together, and with one of them holding the end of the rod and the other clutching the line tightly, they grunted and heaved.
And Monstro finally cleared the surface of the water.
As they lifted it free, Bill wound the line in, making it possible for them to set the huge fish on the dock’s shaded surface. It arched its body frantically, its empty, staring doll’s eyes staring blankly as it bent into a C-shape and then suddenly contracted into a U-shape, slapping the slimy, spiny fins and tail on the dry wood.
A monster carp, lurking just below the dock the whole while. Not an eating fish, but certainly fun for sport.
Bill was ecstatic! He shouted victoriously as he stared at the leviathan. It was three feet long if it was an inch, and was so thick the body breadth came nearly halfway up Bill’s shin. The scales were the size of thumb nails, and the sharp fin splines could puncture skin. The raw-meat red gills fanned out then collapsed as the fish gasped for oxygen and from exertion. My dad bent down and somehow managed to remove the hook from the fish’s lip. Its tiny mouth worked opened and closed as if in relief from the pain.
“There ya go, Sweet William,” my dad said, patting him on the shoulder.
“Thanks, man!” Bill said, “I’ll never doubt ya again! You really know your fish!”
My father laughed. Bill’s dad rumpled his hair affectionately. “Good work, son. Let me get the camera and we’ll take a picture of you with it.”
It was only a moment before he was back with an old camera (even at that time) in his hands. He fussed with it for a moment, the fish continuing to pound against the dock angrily with its arching, straining body.
“Okay, Will, hold the fish up so we can have a look at it,” his dad said.
“I can’t,” Bill said disappointed. “It’s too heavy.”
“All right, then put your foot on it instead. That’ll help give it some scale.”
“Okay,” Bill said happily, and he dropped the pole on the dock next to him. I moved aside so the shot could be just Bill. I was always camera shy anyway.
Bill balanced on one leg, lifting his right foot off the ground gingerly over the fish. He slowly and gently lowered the sole of his bare foot onto the slimy skin of the hefty fish.
The fish didn’t like the victory celebration.
It slapped faster than ever before, faster than lightning, and when it did, the spiny, sharp tail poked Bill’s foot hard. He yelped as blood oozed from the tiny wound, and the fish lashed out again. He wailed in fear and jumped aside.
The fish twisted its huge body in mid-air, in an amazing display of strength and athleticism, and with an effort that cannot be defined in earthly terms, it literally danced on the dock, flipping back and forth from one side of its body onto the other …
… and managed to get off the dock and back into the water before any of us could react.
There was a huge splash, a whipping of the water into a frothy foam, and then silence. Bill watched, his face fixed in horror and shock, mouth agape.
We stood there watching for a long time before my dad came back over.
“There are other fish, Sweet William,” he said.
Bill just nodded, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye.