An Ode to a Fisherman

Wattered and faded by the passage of time—nearly five decades—the labels on the pill bottles not only revealed the man’s name, but also detailed his affliction and dosages.


Image 1 of 1

Illustration: David Goldstein

“Snyder Bros. Quality Druggist: Take one at 9am, 3pm and 9pm. For stomach ulcers.”

As if part of a time capsule, the bottom right corner was stamped with the date: September 29, 1962. Now, 48-years later, my cousin Jeremy and I carefully twisted off the plastic cap and emptied the containers onto his rigging table.

“What a great idea,” Jeremy said in an almost inaudible whisper as we huddled over the remarkably preserved contents. Dozens of antiques rested alongside our own gear. Mr. Ehlers’ tiny panfish hooks shimmered bright gold and flaunted needle sharp points. The small hooks looked out of place next to our oversized wahoo lures and kingfish rigs.

Mr. Ehlers was a fisherman, perhaps a great one and surely a very organized one. The pristine contents of his pill bottles, as well as the remarkable condition of the tackle box and its aged treasures, told us such. Weeks earlier Jeremy’s mom, an antique collector, was the highest bidder at a Minneapolis auction. Her prize that day was a metal My Buddy tackle box estimated to be 60-years old. Though not interested in fishing, my Aunt Gina knew Jeremy and I would be mesmerized with the relic.

When our package arrived in the mail we feverishly poured over its contents like archeologists on a new dig. Spoons, wooden lures, topwater poppers, bobbers and other vintage items neatly filled the three shelf box. The hooks, of course, were sorted by size in marked pill bottles. As we marveled at the contents, the dates on some of the boxes and fastidious manner in which everything was preserved and organized, we began to wonder about the owner.

We contemplated what was his best catch? His favorite species? Top lure? But other questions were a bit more profound. How bad were the ulcers? Had fishing, as his hook-filled bottles hinted, become more of a remedy than his medication? Was he forced to give up his hobby, knowingly leaving some of the lures unused and in pristine condition? Or did he pass away suddenly, unaware that his final fishing outing was just that? How did his meticulous tackle box end up at auction?

Of course, we could not answer any of these questions, and knew nothing more than his name, affliction and hobby. But the unknown was unsettling to us and there was a certain sadness about the sealed items Mr. Ehlers never had the opportunity to use. Jeremy broke the silence as he held up a packaged silver spoon. “I’m taking this fishing next time we go. I kind of want to catch a fish for this guy…with this lure he bought and never even got to open,” he continued.

That Saturday Jeremy and I raced offshore in search of dolphin. Unbeknown to me, tucked in Jeremy’s front pocket was a small orange box with a clear plastic cover. A picture of what appeared to be a northern pike was stenciled onto the package, along with an inscription that read Johnson’s Spoon, America’s favorite for all game fish.

It had been a slow summer for dolphin, at least for us. But this day was destined to be different. Ten miles offshore we found our Utopia—a thick weedline, scattering baitfish, diving birds and voracious dolphin. For the next hour we enjoyed the most frenzied dolphin bite we had ever witnessed, catching countless fish and keeping a few for the dinner table. With both energy and bait nearly depleted, Jeremy reached into his pocket for the lure he grabbed on his way out the door.

“This is probably the right time to try it,” he said while securing the lure with a loop-knot.

I reeled in my line and threw the remaining cut bait in the water as chum. A brightly lit pack of schoolies instantly inhaled the scattered pieces and darted about searching for more freebies. Jeremy launched a cast that sent the glimmering lure on a seemingly endless flight. When it finally splashed down, he engaged the reel and began its erratic retrieve. Within seconds the calm water was disturbed by a modest splash, and Jeremy’s retrieve interrupted by a singing drag.

It was hardly a big fish. Nor was it an epic battle, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Ehlers’ lure had caught a fish. On the way home we rehashed the day, but the conversation continued to circle back to that one catch. We marveled at how unlikely it was that a lure purchased more than 50-years ago in Minnesota, presumably for pike, would find its first fish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Jeremy retired the lure that day, adding it to a beautiful display case he created to showcase Mr. Ehlers’ fishing treasures. When I look at it, I cannot help but ponder if some day, many years from now my own fishing tackle may be gazed upon with the same sense of wonderment. And like Mr. Ehlers, will part of my legacy be that of a fisherman? I can only hope so.