Matt Keenan: Call me Ishmael, this is one whale of a story

07/03/2014 11:22 AM

07/03/2014 11:22 AM

Matt Keenan is on vacation this week. This column originally ran in 2007.

This is a fish story, but unlike some, this one is not prone to embellishment. Not one bit. And it goes like this.

The home where I was raised in Great Bend, Kan., is still in the family. One reason why it’s special is that it’s on a lake. It’s actually a pond, and the locals would say it’s a sand pit. But it has been around since the Stone Age, and growing up there 40 years ago, we fished in that thing every day. And over the years we caught huge fish there.

In 1972 my older brother Tim caught a state-record fish, a 36-pound fish called a buffalo head. We also caught catfish, flatheads, largemouth bass, you name it. We had countless broken fishing lines, witnessed stray dogs disappearing from the water surface and observed huge splashes at dusk and dawn.

So my sons have heard these stories and seen the photos, but have shown only passing interest. So fast forward to July Fourth 2006. As we always do, we loaded up the Suburban and headed west. My three sons brought the usual collection of non-Keenan tag-alongs, two kids, then eighth-graders named David Barnthouse and Christian Orscheln. Part of the negotiated agreement was that we would fish the pond hard, which included setting trotlines — long lines with a billion hooks.

For two days we battled snapping turtles, bullhead and perch, but caught nothing significant. We checked the line on July 3 and came up empty. And as we dropped the line to the lake bottom I felt the magic of the sand pit was gone.

Later that day we drove past the point where the line extends deep in the water. The road sits above the water surface, maybe 15 feet, so you can look down directly into the pond. My youngest son said, “Let’s check the line.” Near the lake’s surface, directly over our line, was a large shadow that was stationary. It was the shape of a fish, something resembling a Great White.

My uncle Bob — who also lives on the lake — happened to walk by at that moment. Uncle Bob is 84 and has caught fish all over the world. His stories would make the late Harold Ensley sheepish. Bob also has a penchant for speaking precisely. He stared at the shadow, narrowed his brow, and said, “That fish weighs 50 pounds.” But what he said next still gives me chills: “And it’s on your line.”

What followed thereafter does not lend itself to precise recounting here. Details can prove elusive when five kids and a middle aged man all run at the same time. What is clear beyond doubt is this: There was a mad dash to the paddle boat, which was resting on the shore. This paddle boat is to watercraft what the Yugo was to automobiles. It leaks horribly and for 362 days of the year it sits empty and gathers rust.

And then comes the Johnson County invasion. And in that moment, caution wasn’t just tossed to the wind. It was drop-kicked into the next county. The boat was designed for two passengers. At 2:36 p.m. on July 3, it had six.

There was no time for a life jackets. No mothers were there to scream, “Stop!”

We paddled to where the line was attached to the bank. The Orscheln kid grabbed the line and began to pull it. There was immediate “pull back” — like tug-of-war with something seriously PO’d. And as we paddled over the hot spot, there was a swirling of water, yelling and cussing — yes, cussing. Every bad word had the word “holy” as a prefix. It was OK. God understood. We were about to come face to face with Satan himself.

Uncle Bob was standing above us on the bank, watching all this unfold. He was barking out commands: “Don’t horse it! Don’t horse it!” — meaning, go easy and don’t try to challenge it. And as the beast rose to the surface, the shouting stopped. Breathing was enough of a challenge. It was, without question, the largest freshwater fish in North America. It was not 4 feet. It was closer to 5. A carp. Its girth was beyond estimation. Bigger than anything at Cabela’s or Bass Pro.

By now the boat was tipping at a 45-degree angle, water was pouring in and our guardian angels were earning combat pay. The fish was swirling water, and as my 15-year-old son extended the net, I knew this endeavor was hopeless. It was like shoehorning a whale into a wet grocery sack.

Just when the net brushed the head of the fish, it tore loose of the hook and disappeared. And for about two seconds, no one said a word. We had just let Bigfoot, Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster escape.

Looking back, for those six or seven minutes, five Johnson County teenagers and one 47-year-old were transported back to the glory days of 1972. To a time when three Keenan boys spent every summer day on that pond, with a fishing pole and tackle box, looking for the next state record.

That event, however brief, is something no Hollywood producer could ever script. And the next day, as we pulled away from the Keenan homestead, my 14- year-old son looked at me and said: “When we come back, we are going to get that fish.”

Freelancer Matt Keenan writes alternate weeks.

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