The Big Sioux River is stained darker than my morning coffee from all the silt and manure that’s washed off the farmland upstream. I’m fishing below the spillway after leaving my sons to play at their cousin’s house. I caught a couple good walleyes at this spot years ago–that other lifetime before I was married. It feels good to be alone with my thoughts, but I’m pessimistic about my chances. It’s only April and the water seems cold. Plus that yellow sun’s pushing up in the sky towards lunchtime. I can smell diesel dust in the air from the semis transporting hogs to the meatpacking plant. I got my line wet, but I’m not exactly communing with the ospreys and bald eagles. I should have gone steelhead fishing. I didn’t make it up north last spring either because of the pandemic. Between the kids and work there’s hardly time for anything. I hadn’t seen my mother in over a year, so I made the trip south. Lake Superior will always be there.
There aren’t any salmonids in these waters unless someone’s chucked in a can of Star-Kist. I diligently cast a twister into the current. Occasionally I feel a bump, but when I set the hook all I reel up is a big scale on my hook.
Cyprinus carpio. The common carp was introduced to North American waters in the 1880’s by a misguided government bureaucrat named Spencer F. Baird. Long revered in Europe for their table fare and fighting prowess, rich people desired carp for their private ponds. I don’t mind catching carp but I’d never eat one, not even smoked. I visualize the whiskered marauders below the river’s churning surface, sucking up walleye eggs with their yellow lips extended like vacuums.
Dead carp litter the riprap around me along with a profusion of beer cans. The carp seem to stare with vacant, round eyes. It’s a bit eerie, like a postapocalyptic movie. I imagine dudes in radiation suits cresting the dike with Geiger counters. The landscape of South Dakota has been violently altered by European occupation. In 1838, when Frenchman explorer Joseph Nicollet first laid eyes on it, this was a “stream of clear, swift-running water meandering across an immense prairie.” Now, thanks to the cow and the plow, it’s basically a drainage ditch. In 2010 the city of Sioux Falls dumped 65 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the river when heavy spring rains overwhelmed the sewer systems. I figure I’m eating and shitting like everyone else, so I’m part of the problem.
The internal workings of one carp have been exposed by a scavenger’s pickings–bare ribs over a white swim bladder and a spinal column encased in pink gristle. A greenbottle fly crawls over the fish’s intestines. As I explore the riprap further, I find a decent pair of polarized sunglasses my son might like, some plastic lures and more dead fish. I identify a quillback by its distinctive dorsal fin, a buffalo fish and something that might be one of those invasive Asian carp you hear so much about.
I put away the smartphone I’d been using to take pictures and get back to fishing. I work at it for another hour, trying out different body colors until the paint is worn off my jig. As is so often the case, the fish seem to bite at two times—after I’m gone and before I’m there.
The state penitentiary looms from a promontory over the spillway. Like most of the historic buildings in these parts, it’s constructed from the same pink quartzite I’m standing on. “The Pen,” as it’s called by locals, houses 656 inmates. I can’t gaze at the Pen without appreciating my own freedom and pitying the men inside, which is probably why it was placed on such a high hill in the first place.
My father worked there briefly as a guard before moving to Roswell, New Mexico. My father enters my thoughts involuntarily whenever I fish. I regret that we could not have a relationship as adults. I could blame him for that or I could blame myself. I would be right in either case. But he is as dead as the carp on the riverbank.
I spent my entire childhood listening to my non-practicing Catholic mother berate my non-practicing Catholic father for drinking too much beer. After she had left him for good, I visited him one last time. On a coffee table in front of him, beside his divorce papers and a tumbler of Alka seltzer, was a small aquarium with a Jack Dempsey swimming inside. Jack Dempsey was a heavyweight boxing champion from the 1920’s. His name was bestowed to a particularly beautiful species of South American cichlid on account of its feistiness. The jeweled fish was like my father. It could only live alone.
Both my sons have aquariums in their rooms. I do my best to control the water quality. Sometimes the fish die anyway. My older boy had an Oscar for a few years that he called “Oskie.” The orange and black fish would waggle like an excited dog whenever anyone approached the tank. My son used to affectionally call Oskie a “garbage gut.” Just before Christmas in 2019 the switch to the power-strip got bumped off accidentally. With no heater the water got too cold and the fish died. My wife texted me something was wrong with the fish while I was at work. Neither one of them wanted to touch it. I arrived home to a horrifying sight. Oskie was suspended in the tank, pale as a ghost, those big googly eyes just staring at me with the skin already sloughing off. I don’t know what magic my family expected of me. Jesus couldn’t have saved that fish. My son insisted on having a funeral so I netted the 10-inch Oscar out of the tank, placed it in a bag and then the freezer like it was a corpse for the morgue. The boy grieved for two days, barely talking in his room with the lights off, before he broke the frozen ground and buried his pet. He even made a gravestone which is still there alongside the house in my wife’s perennial garden.
My son’s aquarium sits at home, empty once again. I bought him new fish to add to the tank, some orange platys. They must have had a virus because after they died all his other fish, including a really beautiful angelfish, died too. Water quality is a tough thing to control. One virus can fuck up everything.
The sight of dead fish always fills me, for some inexplicable reason, with guilt. Maybe I’m just sad that someday I will die, that my children will die, that we are all made for death . . . none of us anything more than sushi in the riprap. As parents, we create panaceas for our children. We quarantine them under glass and decorate their tanks with pretty castles. We create sugary myths like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Gradually, they learn of the world’s pollution and come to accept its necessary evils. They learn to swim in the river along with the carp.