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Monday, October 4, 2004
Carp River, Mackinac County, Michigan
Grady Service, tucked beneath a canopy white cedars, sat on a low bluff watching the dark riffle through his thermal imager. Four individuals on the far bank were using long spinning rods, methodically arcing long casts across the gravel: They would cast, reef and reel, reef and reel, the classic Yooper salmon-snagger’s twitch. Testosteronal splashes told him not lures but spiders, large treble hooks with one-ounce chunks of lead soldered to them, a jury-rigged grapple used to foul-hook the Chinook salmon trying to spawn on the gravel beds below.
It was cool, first light, clouds rolling over, a hint of rain in the air, and he had watched at least six fish snagged, hauled to shore, and stashed. As it began to grow light, the snaggers gave indications of calling it quits before anyone could see them at work. They had come in at 4 A.M., two hours ago, and had worked quietly and efficiently the whole while.
While they collected their gear, Service moved west, hopped and slid down a century-old log slide and made his way across flat river boulders to the far side of the river. He cut east, climbed up into the woods, and searched until he found the carcasses of kings, gutted, eggs stripped out, meat tossed aside. Odd, he thought. That they took only the eggs. Most snaggers took the whole fish.
The snaggers were walking ahead of him, hiking east in silence toward the campground. The group’s aural discipline suggested professional violets, not amateurs. Violet was his term for violators of fish and game laws.
The campground was nearly empty. This time of year in the past it was often overflowing, but $4 gas and a stone-dead economy were keeping downstate fisherman closer to home this fall and mostly he was encountering homegrown outlaws. The four people went to a pale blue recreational vehicle and carried their gear inside. They had worked and departed in silence, good discipline, all signs of a veteran crew.
He gave them a few minutes to settle in, approached the door, and knocked.
It opened immediately and a light came on. The man before him had matted gray, more salt than pepper. He had bright blue eyes, an almost cherubic face, wisps of whiskers on a receding chin.
“What?” the man asked, squinting like he had just been awakened.
“Sir, would you please bring out the fishing gear and the salmon roe you just took inside?”
The man studied him, started blinking wildly, and broke a huge grin. “Hooy na ny!” he said. “No fucking way! I can’t believe this!” he said. “It’s you!”
“Sir, please step outside.”
“Okay, okay,” the man said, stepping down to the ground. He looked to be early forties,gaunt, leather-skinned, spry. “You don’t you remember Benny?”
The man was stalling. “Get the others out here with their gear – all of it. Right now! I’m not going to repeat myself.”
The man yelled something in Russian and there was muffled scrambling inside. Three teenage girls emerged, carrying rods. Service looked at the man. Russian? He probed his memory. He had once threatened a ticket to a 16-year-old Ukrainian immigrant. Had to be more than 20 years ago in the Newberry District. The boy had been serving as the lookout for a shining crew, his job to blink a red light if he saw a game warden coming. He had failed. Service had wrenched the light away from the startled boy and put him on the ground in almost the same motion. The crew had hired the kid in Macomb County, offered him $50 cash, cheap booze, and cigarettes for the weekend. The kid had been petrified and Service had let him off with a warning if he would agree to testify against the others, which he had. But the others had pleaded guilty and paid their tickets without protest. The kid had been spared court and a ticket.
“Baranov,” Service said.
“You got good memory,” the man said happily.
“They called you Blinky.”
“Da, I work light for slovachy – bastards!”
Service studied the girls, who sat down at a picnic table. All under 18, he guessed, but these days it wasn’t easy to judge.
Some professional crew, he thought. “Where are the eggs?”
“What eggs?” one of the girls challenged with a shrill bark and started talking to the others.
“Konchaj bazar, stop talking,” Service said menacingly in Russian. He had studied the language in college, retained smatterings, enough to operate rudimentarily.
The man turned to the girls and nodded at the RV. One of them went inside and came out with a sagging clear plastic bag, which she handed to Baranov, who held it out to the conservation officer.
Service set the bag by his boot. “A lot of charges here, Blinky. You’ve got possession of illegal equipment, taking fish by illegal means, improper disposal of litter. The fine on the fish alone is ten bucks an inch or ten bucks a pound, whichever I decide. I cut you a break that first time, and hoped you saw the light, but apparently you didn’t figure it out.”
“Many people do this thing,” the Russian whined. “Many,” he added.
“And many get caught. It’s against the law, ” Service answered. There was a silver spider attached to each line. “You got more spiders?”
“Inside,” the man said.
“Get all of them – and your mold too.”
He had not seen silver spiders in almost 10 years. The new generation of snaggers poured tubular molds that vaguely resembled lures and hung oversized hooks a couple of inches behind them. Some tried to skirt the law by using legal one-ounce rigs, but it was the way they used them that gave them away. They could always claim they were fishing legitimately, but a game warden only had to watch the retrieve to know what they were up to. Legal-weight torpedoes were a half-hearted subterfuge; spiders were blatant, in your face.
The same two girls went back inside and came out with a plastic tackle box and a cardboard box. “Open them,” Service said.
The tackle box held a dozen shiny spiders, the cardboard a mold and coils of pencil lead to be melted down.
“What’s the deal with the eggs, Blinky?”
“We Ukrainians believe the eggs cleanse our blood. Was, for long time you know, food of serfs and peasants before food of Czars and fucking Kremlin bosses.”
Service had the group follow him back to the fish carcasses. The girls scooped the gutted fish into the clear plastic bags and they all trooped back to the campground, where Service measured each of the six fish and took down names. The girls were Alexandra, Alla, and Anina. They gave their ages as 12, 14 and 16. It had been the eldest who challenged him. The others were quiet, calm, showed no nervousness. They were either used to this, or not aware of the trouble they were facing.
Service looked at them. “No school today, girls? It’s Monday.”
“Leaks in school roof,” Baranov said disgustedly. “Will open again Wednesday. The schools have no money. The people have no money. How much this will cost?” he asked.
“Six fish at thirty-four inches each, give or take, round it off to two hundred inches, times ten bucks, let’s say two grand in restitution — just for the fish. Additional fines and costs I can’t cite because each county has it’s own scale, but we’re talking illegal gear, illegal taking, and illegal disposal. I could write you for over-limit, but that’s moot because everything you’re doing is illegal. It won’t be cheap, Benny. I’m also taking the spiders, the mold, and your rods.”
“You leave us nothing to fish with,” the man protested.
“You weren’t fishing, you were snagging,” Service barked back.
“Okay, is mistake. Give us break, yes? Life is not so easy.”
Something in the man’s voice intrigued Grady Service. He was right about life being tough. Michigan’s economy was in the crapper, its unemployment among the highest in the country. “Why would I give you a break?”
The man shrugged.
“You had one chance from me already,” Service said.
“Yes, of course,” the man said disconsolately. “Benny does not forget.”
“Your English has improved,” Service said.
“My girls,” the man said. “They insist I must speak good American.”
Grady Service had lost his son and girlfriend last spring and the wounds were still raw. Baranov’s girls were underfed, dressed shabbily, dull-eyed, and looked hungry. The thought of his soon-to-be-born grandchild living this way made his stomach turn.
“Things tough, Blinky?”
“Michigan,” was all the man mumbled, and Service understood. He had recently seen college students in Houghton wearing T-shirts that said, “Michigan is Dying.”
“You got a job?”
“ No more. Fifteen years GM plant Nov, UAW. Job gone, pfft. Union, bah! Three years now, no work.”
“You a citizen yet?”
“Waiting list. With tickets, maybe now they say no, deport me to Ukraine, give my darling girls to foster homes. They are all born here, all real Americans – same as you.”
“Any arrests or tickets since I gave you your warning?”
“No, honest to god. Benny Baranov is honorable man.”
“Honorable, but snagging. There’s a major disconnect.”
“For food, sir,” the man said in a pleading tone. “For my family. You must understand.”
“Bullshit. You threw the meat away.” Sir? Violets who knew they were in trouble always adopted an obsequious tone.
“You would eat such rotting shit?” the man countered.
“No way,” Service said. “The fish are full of contaminants, the eggs too.”
The man shrugged and looked downcast, but mumbled, “But legal to eat, yes?”
Service asked for the man’s driver’s license, and sat down at the picnic table.
“You moved out of Detroit?” Service said, holding up the license.
“Capitalism: No work, no money; no money, no rent, no food. In Soviet Union they pretended to pay workers and workers pretended to work. In United States there is no pretense. No job, you starve democratically.”
The license listed an address in Onaway, which had a long reputation for hard-core DNR violators. “More work up this way?” The northern part of Michigan was even more depressed than southern regions of the state.
“More natural food north,” the man mumbled. “In the taiga.”
“You poaching your food?” Service asked.
“Sometimes,” the man admitted. “Girls must eat.”
There was resignation in the man’s eyes as Service wrote the ticket, tore off Baranov’s copy, and held it out. “You can call the court to find out the amount of the fine, and what to do. You have to pay it within ten days, but you can do it by mail. If you don’t pay, a warrant will be issued for your arrest and when we find you, we will take you to jail.”
The man took the ticket, folded it without looking at it, rammed it in his trouser pocket.
Service’s gut was churning. Was the guy hurting or was this a line of bullshit? He made his decision quickly. “Okay,” Service said. “Keep the rods, but fish legally with them. I catch you again, there will be no mercy.”
“Spasibo,” the man said, raised his arms, herded the girls inside, and closed the door. Service heard sobbing through the thin walls, cut spiders off the lines of the rods, took out one of his business cards, left it under a reel, collected the spare spiders, mold, fish, and eggs, and headed for his truck, which was more than a mile away, on the other side of the river. Poor bastard, he told himself as he hiked. But he didn’t make the choice for the man and there had to be consequences, or what was the point of the job? The salmon would die after spawning but someone had to assure they would have the chance to reproduce. Your job, your responsibility, he lectured himself. Nature had a way of balancing things; only man could permanently skew the balance, which made him wonder what man’s purpose was in the big picture and having had the thought, he said, “Bah,” out loud and kept hiking.
How did an out-of-work autoworker afford an RV that had to set him back at least a hundred grand off a lot?
This past summer he learned that his late son’s girlfriend Karylanne Pengelly was pregnant and due in late December. She was a junior at Michigan Tech in Houghton. He thought about the baby, and the prospects of being a grandfather, and told himself no way was his grandchild going to end up like Baranov’s daughters. Nantz had left him a huge fortune he didn’t want, and without consulting him. Whatever else, he was resolved to take care of his grandchild with what Nantz had left behind. He had a lot of regrets in his life, but this grandchild was not going to be one of them.