Dateline – July 9, 2010 – Osnabruck, Germany.
Catching the 990th species was hard work, and regrettably, it’s likely to be equally hard to read about it. To quote a Monty Python skit – “I’ve suffered for my music – now it’s your turn.”
It was a complex weekend – personally, culturally, meteorologically, and hygienically. The Reader’s Digest version is that I caught one (miserable) example of a fish that doesn’t grow very big to start with. But as always, there’s so much more. So plough on, brave reader, or drop it in the spam folder if you’re not a relative. This should certainly be interesting to review – especially if you’re a therapist.
The plan for the three days in Germany (July 9-11) was not complicated. My good friend and German guide, Jens Koller, had set up a modest agenda targeting one new species each day – the invasive Kessler’s Goby in the Rhine River on Friday, the Crucian Carp in a private lake 4 hours north on Saturday, and the common if plentiful Ruffe in some impossible-to-pronounce canal on Sunday. It all sounded so simple – but of course, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. At least we actually got licenses, which takes reams of applications, several photos, and a note from the local Burgermeister.
Jens Koller (and a monster perch)
Jens Koller is a passionate fisherman and a singularly uncomplicated guy. He says exactly what he feels, loves to be in the outdoors, and gets great joy from helping others learn to fish. Jens has not only found me some wonderful catches in Germany, he has also been my guide to add Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Poland to my country list. (Each quite a story on their own.)He has not had all the best breaks in life – he survived kidney cancer about 5 years ago, pulling through despite a grim prognosis and treatments that sounded positively medieval. His wife, a lovely woman named Brigette, had to go through a series of delicate neck surgeries to solve a pinched nerve earlier this year. And yet, you will never meet a more upbeat, positive person than Jens.
(That is, until he gets behind the wheel of a car. Once there, his sunny disposition gives way to a dark side that is capable of assembling rich and creative compound swears, which, in German, can exceed a paragraph in length, and often simultaneously assail the offending driver’s skill, manhood, ancestors, children, and pets. And so road trips with Jens are certainly never dull – and can often be quite an education. Especially for me, considering that I am known as one of the calmest, lowest-key drivers ever – a veritable Gandhi of the roadways.)
And so we started on Friday poking around various Rhine River venues to catch a Kessler’s Goby – a voracious eastern European immigrant that I had been led to believe positively carpeted the bottom of any body of water, including rivers, lakes, and roadside puddles. In honor of my visit, it completely disappeared. Certainly, the blazing heat might have had something to do with it – it must have been 100 by 11am – because NOTHING was biting. And so we had a lovely tour of the riverbank and saw some scenic locations while sweating and gasping for breath.
That evening bears some mention because it contained an event that was touching even for me. July 10 – the next day – would be my 47th birthday. The schedule had worked out where this was the only weekend I could fish in Germany, so it wasn’t like I was forced away from home. But still, it’s still always strange to spend a birthday away from family or friends, or at least I imagine it would be if any of these people spoke to me. So in the late afternoon, Jens and I bailed out on the hopeless fishing and headed for Pforzheim, home of “Big Fish Angelmarkt,” www.bigfishangelmarkt.de/, a fine tackle shop run by a man named Wolfgang. Now, Wolfgang probably views my visits like Christmas come early, because, like many fishermen, I have a deep and irresistible need to buy more equipment. I will never use most of it, but it gives me great comfort to have it all in my garage, ready, just in case I should ever need a rig for a spotted artic wolf-eel on short notice.
In any case, as I was piling the counter high with various exotic halibut jigs, just in case, Wolfgang came out from the back of the store with a brightly wrapped package. “I understand it is your birthday tomorrow.” Wow. And it continued. When we got to Jens’ house, there was a card and several more packages waiting for me. And when we sat down to dinner, the best surprise came out – grilled pork chops, fresh sausages, and piles of handmade sauerkraut – a home-cooked favorite meal of mine which I don’t get often at home because Marta correctly fears the digestive implications of same. My hat is truly off to Jens for his bravery in serving a meal of this type the night before a long road trip. In a small car. On a hot day.
The birthday card from Brigitte and Jens
I awoke on the 10th – my birthday – just like any other day, stumbling out of bed with an assortment of zoo-appropriate noises. The hardest part about getting old is making sure to never, ever confuse toothpaste with Preparation H, and yes, there is a story behind this statement, but this is not the time for that story. I stumbled into the guest bath and took what would turn out to be my last shower for 38 hours.
We piled into the car before dawn and headed out for Onsabruck, 4 scenic hours to the north. As Jens yelled charming greetings to other drivers such as “Gehen Sie von meiner Straße, Sie Sohn eines Igels und eines Franzosen! Ihre Mutter trägt Armeestiefel und Ihre Kinder und Haustiere sind nicht zu unterscheiden!!”, I was able to take in castles, sweeping suspension bridges over 1000-foot gorges, and beautiful green rolling hills, dotted here and there with a scenic if roasting village. By the time we got to Osnabruck, it was again a hundred degrees. And even though the car had air conditioning, we still kept the windows down for most of the drive. (Figure it out. ) We pulled up at a tackle store and met the owner, Andreas Risse, who also ran the lake where we would be fishing. A great guy, he was very interested in helping me add to my species total. He kept up a reasonable conversation in passable English – certainly much better than my German, which consists of food items, fish names, and “You’re doing a fine job, officer.”
The lake was a lovely private corner, shielded by woods and looking positively fish-laden. I set up shop in a shaded opening recommended by Andreas, and set to fishing. The heat had slowed things down a great deal, but I did manage a bunch of roach and a lovely grass carp. There was a bit of a false alarm when I caught what was possibly a crucian carp, but it turned out to be a large Giebel, which I had caught before.
A solid grass carp – a bit of excitement in the heat
And after the fishing concluded – pretty much when the Red Bull ran out – here was one final surprise to the evening. Andreas and his family had grilled up a rather spectacular birthday dinner – brilliant steaks, sausage, chicken, and some sort of sour-cream/cucumber/herring thing best left for the others. The only difficult part of the night was convincing them that I could not possibly finish one more sausage. And so it was, thousands of miles from home, I celebrated my birthday in pleasant summer twilight surrounded by lovely German frauleins. Life is good.
Most of them are 15 years old. Don’t even think it.
It was close to 11 when Jens and I finally pulled up at our unfortunately-named accomodation for the evening. I usually trust Jens with these details, but he had failed to mention that any hotel in this area would lack air conditioning. Normally OK, but with this weather, it would be a hardship.
We knocked on the door. Our host, a faintly sinister little man, limped upstairs and opened our rooms. They had been tightly closed all day. Heat blasted from them like an oven set on “Clean.” (Actually, I once accidentally set the oven to “Clean” rather than “Broil” when I was making a couple of steaks for a date back in Columbus, Ohio. The meat, when finally rescued, had assumed the size, shape, and consistency of hockey pucks, and we were off to Hungry Hunter for dinner while the smoke cleared out of my apartment.)
Staying at the Hotel Wacker was bad enough, but it turns out the village where the Hotel Wacker is located is named – and I am not making this up – Hilter. Calm down, read it slowly. That’s right, Hilter. You’d think they might have changed it just to be on the safe side.
Talk about a double-take
And so we were left with one day to try to get a new species on the board. I woke up on Sunday morning exhausted, as I caught just a few hours of an intermittent, sweat-soaked nap in the Wacker Sauna. A shower was out of the question, because even the cold water was too hot to stand. And so I did the best I could with a clean towel, hand sanitizer, and a bunch of deoderant, but Jens and I must have been somewhat gamey by this stage. To add insult to injury, it was also pouring rain as we got up. But after a series of Red Bulls and a serious pep talk, I was ready to go chase the heretofore elusive Ruffe.
The Ruffe, known as Kaulbarsche in German, and oddly, as “Pope” in the UK, is a smallish perch relative that is very common and can be quite a pest wherever it is found. To this stage, I had apparently never fished someplace where it was found, because I had never caught one. But Jens assured me that this unpronounceable canal was simply loaded with them and that I would grow tired of catching them in just a few minutes. This place was supposed to be the ultimate “Ruffe neighborhood.”
Jens was guiding large group of beginners in a brave attempt at a parboiled zander, so he had the tackle shop owner, Andreas, take me float fishing with small baits on the edge of the canal. This sort of tactic is generally a slam dunk for all types of smaller species, but the relentless heat followed by the barometer drop had really put everything off. After about an hour, the float twitched and I swung up … a roach. Damn. So back went the bait. After an unacceptably long period of time, another roach. Normally, these would come one after the other, but it was just plain slow. 20 minutes later, another bite. My heart stopped as a swung a small, perch-like creature onto the shore, but it was too perch-like. In fact, it was perfectly perch-like, because it was a perch. So back it went. Another roach. Another small perch. A roach. And then it happened – another perch-like critter that was not quite as perch-like as the other perch. At last, a Ruffe. At that stage, it was tough to get really worked up over something 4 inches long, but I probably did anyway. OK, I celebrated like I had just won the lottery, whooping, fist-pumping, and barely keeping my clothes on. The Germans all stared at me politely.
Me, Andreas, and the elusive Ruffe
And then, in the blazing heat of mid-afternoon, Jens and I packed up and did the reverse road trip so I could catch a train for Paris. With weekend traffic and the windows wide open, we made the Mannheim train station with only minutes to spare, but then the train was an hour late. (I had great privacy on the journey, since no one would stay anywhere near me, as I likely smelled like a rendering plant. ) The fishing had been a bit difficult from a species perspective – well, OK, pretty much a disaster – but the kindness of complete strangers in making me feel so very welcome did make up for a small part of it.
Next up – 4 interminable business days in Paris, where there will be no fishing, followed by a weekend in the UK, which has 2 days on the water planned – a saltwater adventure on the south coast, and a day of pike fishing on the Thames west of London. And then a week in Norway! Life could be worse. Except for those 4 days in France. Would I finally snap and kill a waiter? Stay tuned.