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My Father's Magic Bag

I love to fish. I learned that love from my dad as he showed me how to do it over the course of his life.


I wrote this essay seven years ago in the spring of 2013. That day, 3 April 2013, was not quite 10 years after my dad passed away on 3 November 2003. I knew that when I wrote it, but what I didn't know was that my mom would die of a heart attack just five days later on 8 April 2013. Anyway, Father's Day 2020 seemed like a good time to pay tribute to my favorite fisherman of all time.

P.S. If you really want to get the full effect from this, you should listen to Merle Haggard sing Jimmie Rodgers while you're reading it. My dad and his best buds loved that album and it was always a part of the milieu when we were out on a fishing trip. A couple samples are included here.

Merle Haggard Sings Jimmie Rodgers

My Father's Magic Bag

If someone put this unopened canvas bag down on a table in front of you, you’d never guess it was sold in the early- to mid-1990s at Cabela’s as a tackle box. With its aqua blue sides, black zippered top, Velcro security straps on the handles, and the clear plastic nametag holder on the front, it looks more like a small travel valise. If you turned it around, though, and saw the yellow, green and red Bass Pro Shops patch that says “XTreme President 370” in bold white lettering, you’d think right away that it was full of fishing gear.

It is.

My dad's magic bag sitting on my workbench

My dad's magic bag sitting on my workbench

On the left side, as you’re looking at the logo with the largemouth bass jumping out of water, red gill showing, white teeth prominent, there’s a sewn-on mesh pocket that contains a pair of long, skinny pliers with orange rubber handles. On a fishing trip to the Missouri River’s Sakakawea Reservoir near New Town, South Dakota in the summer of 1999, one of my dad’s friends, who was sitting in the bow of the boat and had just caught a small walleye, hollered, “Hey, Larry, got a needlenose?”

“In fact, I do,” Dad said. “They’re right here in my bag. Hang on.” He checked our position in relation to the shore and the other boats in the area, leaned over to his right—without even looking down—and produced the orange-handled pliers, tossed them forward. “What else ya need?”

“I’m good, now. Thanks.”

The last time I saw the small white box of spinner blades that’s in the same pouch, it was sitting open on the dining room table at my parents’ house. My dad was sitting at the head of the table, meticulously hand-tying night-crawler rigs, adorning them with the colorful teardrop-shaped pieces of metal. “Last year, purple was the hot color,” he said to me as I walked into the dining room and sat down in the chair beside him. There had to be 50 completed rigs lying out on the table, each rolled up secure in its own small Ziploc baggie. He continued working, tying, packaging, was still at it when I left after visiting with my mom for an hour or longer.

On the right side of the bag, there’s a larger, zippered pocket. Here, there’s a tube of Banana Boat SPF 50 Maximum Sunblock. It feels greasy and the smell of it conjures images of Dad’s shiny freckled hands, face and neck. I can still see the white cream stuck in the high, rounded part of his ear. He doesn’t know it’s there and I laugh out loud remembering it now, though I smiled inwardly then. “Anybody else need sunscreen?” he says. He always had extra.

There is a capsule in here, too. It looks like a giant Benadryl—about the size of a Coke can—only it’s green on one side, white on the other. Triniservice Federal Credit Union is printed on it in delicate script. Inside, there are half a dozen neon band-aids and an eyeglass cleaning cloth. The plastic is brittle, a small green piece of it breaks off when I snap it back together. Mist-spray bottle of Neutrogena Healthy Defense, Oil-Free, UVA/UVB Block; a can of Deep Woods OFF!; a palm-sized pair of wire cutters; a 1000-foot capacity Shimano reel spool; and a black vinyl case with two pairs of plastic clip-on sunglasses. Dad was nothing if not prepared.

This Magic Bag is Version 3.0. At least. It might even be 4.0 or 5.0. Dad had several over the years. That’s all I know for sure. That, and the origin of the name, of course. See, Dad’s Magic Bag was famous among his friends and brothers with whom he would fish frequently. It didn’t matter much what people would ask for, really. Deck of cards and poker chips? Got ‘em in the bag. Swivel snaps? Got ‘em. Rat-L-Trap lure? Got that, too. Shot of Jeremiah Weed whiskey? Just happen to have some right here. After witnessing this on several fishing excursions, my dad’s older brother Bert coined the term Magic Bag. My dad was all over that, adopted the moniker immediately, and never called it anything else from that point on.

I remember Version 1.0 of the Magic Bag. It was a dark blue vinyl backpack with black cloth shoulder straps. The bottom of it was made of light brown suede leather. I saw it for the first time in 1988 on a fishing trip to the Oahe Reservoir in Pollock, South Dakota. The trip was the Second Annual Cain Boys Fishkiller Reunion, a yearly event started by my father after his mom’s funeral in Iowa in 1986. He believed that he and his brothers—Bert, Dan and Steve—should make a pact, agreeing to meet and go fishing every year at a predetermined spot somewhere along the Missouri River. Since his brothers all lived in eastern South Dakota or northwestern Iowa, and he lived in western South Dakota, they would rarely have occasion to see each other after his mom died, so this was his way of ensuring they kept in touch regularly. My dad also invited on each of these trips his cohort of retired military friends. The second Fishkiller Reunion at Pollock was my first—and one of only a small handful I’ve been able to attend since. I can still see my dad stepping arthritically from the dock into the boat, the Magic Bag slung over his left shoulder. As he settled into his seat behind the steering wheel, he laid the Bag next to him on the starboard-side floor of the boat, where it would remain handy throughout the day. As he put the outboard motor in gear to head out for our fishing spot, one of his friends asked him to pass the Magic Bag back.

“Whaddya need?” my dad asked.

“You never know until you look,” came the reply.

“Well, you figure it out, let me know. I’ll pass it back to ya.”

That day, my dad produced from the Magic Bag a Styrofoam container of worms, two tubes of military-issue sunscreen, a dozen or more of his night-crawler rigs with colored spinners on them, a pair of locking surgical forceps, a 12-inch by 12-inch plastic bag containing a folded up rain poncho, a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich and probably several other things I did not see. Most of these he gave to other members of the boat party; he ate the PB&J himself, a personal reward for catching a two-pound walleye.

Late in the afternoon, while the July South Dakota sun was high and hot, my dad delegated boat-driving duties to me so he could answer nature’s call in a coffee can. He returned to find me making a nonchalant grab for the Magic Bag. “Oh, no you don’t, Son,” was all he said as he grabbed the bag and jerked his thumb aft to indicate I needed to get out of the driver’s seat. “If you need something, say so. I’ll be happy to get it for you.” That was as close as I’d ever come to looking into any of the Versions of the Magic Bag. Until today.

In the capacious interior of the Bag, there are six large white plastic boxes. They are full mostly of lures: fish-shaped deep divers, shallow swimmers and in-betweeners. Most are sitting in individual trays, some are still wrapped in original packaging, have never been used. In the very bottom box there is a Number 7 Shad Rap. It is minnow-shaped and perch-colored, has black stripes on green sides with a yellow-orange bottom, and two exaggerated eyes painted on its forehead. Each two- or so inch long Shad Rap is “hand-tuned and tank-tested,” the Rapala folks will tell you. This particular lure has a clear, round plastic lip protruding from its front. It has DEEP RUNNER, RAPALA, IRELAND embossed around the semi-circle of the protrusion. Below and just behind the lip is a razor-sharp treble hook; another is attached to the butt of the lure. This—the Rapala Shad Rap lure—was Dad’s all-time favorite. He loved to troll with them, slowly, along rocky shorelines where the lunker walleyes roamed. There are probably 40 of them in here, of all different colors and sizes. That is no exaggeration.

My dad loved to fish. Some might even say he lived to fish. But I know it was more than that. So much more. 50 night crawler rigs? 40 Shad Raps? I don’t know if you’ve ever gone on a two- or three-day walleye fishing trip to the Missouri River, but here’s some perspective: 15 hard-fishing men couldn’t use 50 night crawler rigs in a month with every daylight hour spent on the water. There aren’t that many snags in the river, to start with, and there is probably not a single walleye on the planet big enough to snap the 30-lb test nylon line from which the night crawler rigs are constructed. Also, in addition to the 40 or more Shad Raps in the Magic Bag, there are hundreds of other lures, hooks, floats, bobbers, plastic worms and jigs in the front and back pockets and bottom pouch. It is fairly well bursting at the seams with fishing equipment and other paraphernalia.

When my military duties took me back on assignment to my home state of South Dakota back in 2002, one of the first things I did was go fishing. I loaded my truck, drove to the Black Hills some 30 miles away, hiked into the woods around Deerfield Lake, and fished. Alone. I caught my limit of eight trout in less than an hour and went home proud and satisfied. I carried the feeling of accomplishment with me throughout that day and all through the weekend. I had reveled in the splendid solitude of the Black Hills, the majesty of the Blue Spruce trees surrounding the lake, the familiar tug of a brook trout on my line. I had added to my own personal memory collection another chapter in the enjoyment of living, had prevailed, had achieved victory in the challenge between man and water-bound creature.

Ye old fisherman, my dad.  He loved to fish, loved to help others catch fish, loved to give.

Ye old fisherman, my dad. He loved to fish, loved to help others catch fish, loved to give.

If you were unlucky enough to not catch something for an entire day, you were the luckiest guy alive. Next day, Dad would make it his personal, not-gonna-quit-until-we-succeed mission to put you over fish, to provide you with the best seat in the boat, the best lures, the best bait, an always-full beer.

My dad would never have done that; never did do that. For him, the splendor was found in giving and sharing, the joy in camaraderie. He stayed up late nights making the many crawler rigs until his fingers were stiff and his eyes were sore so he could give them out like Easter candy to the needy and less prepared in his boat. He had hundreds of lures of all colors and shapes and sizes because one never knew what his handy-dandy Color C-lector might say was the hot hue for the day. He was prepared, though—and maybe even anxious—for someone in the party to ask for a chartreuse Shad Rap, a red-and-white Rat-L-Trap, or perhaps a hammered nickel long-blade spinning lure. As Boat Captain, he took it personally if people in his party did not catch fish. If you were unlucky enough to not catch something for an entire day, you were the luckiest guy alive. Next day, Dad would make it his personal, not-gonna-quit-until-we-succeed mission to put you over fish, to provide you with the best seat in the boat, the best lures, the best bait, an always-full beer. Until you caught a fish. And then he’d give you shit about it because it was so small. If you came back at him, said something like, “Oh, I don’t know, I think that’s a better fish,” he’d immediately retort, “Better than what?” He’d laugh, and smile with his mouth wide open and you could see lines of saliva connecting his top and bottom canine teeth. Evenings, he would break out the purple felt Crown Royal drawstring bag full of red, white and blue poker chips, and a brand new box of Bicycle playing cards. Always Banker and always-first dealer for some of the most complicated and stupid dealer’s choice poker games ever invented, he was in his glory even when his own transparent bluff got called to the tune of the biggest pot of the night. He’d make some damn bet that didn’t make any sense for the cards he was holding, toss a chip into the pot and say through a giant grin, “The price of poker just went up, gentlemen!” When the group sang encouragement to the next Jeremiah Weed shot-taker in the party, Dad’s voice was always loudest and proudest:

Here’s to brother Jim, brother Jim, brother Jim

Here’s to brother Jim, who’s with us tonight

He’s happy, he’s jolly, he’s with us by golly

Here’s to brother Jim, who’s with us tonight...

No, Dad lived not for the fishing, but for the being with friends and family. It bothered him if he couldn’t give or if what he was giving wasn’t accepted. He was in his glory when he could fetch you a minnow or pass you a sandwich from the cooler. As he was transitioning from this life to the next, late in the fall of 2003, he gave away his ice auger, his electronic fish-weighing scale and all manner of outdoor gear to visiting brothers or friends. “I want you to have this,” he’d say. “I insist.” Most tried to resist; none could. If you knew him, you knew you could not deny him one of his greatest pleasures, particularly at a time like that. Before he departed, he’d parted happily with every fishing pole he ever owned; he passed his favorite on to me. I think he would be happy to know I have used it on many a trip since he gave it to me nearly 10 years ago.

I am glad he left the Magic Bag on the shelf in his garage. And I am glad it rained today.


On the afternoon of the day I delivered Dad's eulogy in November 2003, I sifted half-heartedly, almost disinterested, through a lifetime of accumulated possessions in his garage. Tools and lubricants, pesticides and tomato cages, rubber hoses and vintage air pumps did not seem viable keepsakes. The $199 mountain bike I bought for him years ago, hanging from the ceiling and covered with cobwebs, would not fit into the car. The antique telephone stand from Grandma Gwelda’s house, one leg broken, the other hopelessly wobbling, would not survive a 1,000 mile drive strapped to the roof of the Honda. Lawnmower, leaf blower, a single boat oar, 13 coffee cans, two dozen Mason jars, a rake, a scoop shovel and a pair of well-worn leather gloves—none seemed to say, “Take me, I will remind you of your father forever.” Then, on the bottom of the white plastic Storage Solution shelf from Target, hidden behind the gold crushed velvet chair in the south corner, I found the green and black Bag with the yellow and red “Bass Pro Shops” emblem sewn onto it. Though he had never said so, I was sure he would have wanted me to have it, was certain he’d left it there for me. I took it from the shelf, and immediately put it in the trunk of my car. As we were preparing to leave the next morning, I told Mom that I took the bag. “That’s fine,” she said, waving her hand from right-to-left in a motion that confirmed her indifference.

This morning was cool and wet here in Moscow, Idaho. The rain was pelt-pelt-pelting the asphalt driveway. Pregnant clouds obscured completely the view of Moscow Mountain. To my left, in the grassless, northern part of my yard, a cock pheasant was pecking at the ground. Alone and majestic, his orange and brown and green feathers were nearly unseen because the vibrant red circle around his small, black eye drew me in, demanded my attention, made me stare at it and it alone. He abruptly ended his feeding, with one eye considered me standing in the middle of my open garage door, jumped and beat the air with his wings, ca-ca-ca-ca-cawing a warning as he flew away. Unseen hens check-check-checked their acknowledgement. Then there was quiet. Nothing but the rain.

I was planning to go fishing today. Alone. I had risen early, dressed quietly to avoid awakening my wife and son, tip-toed shoeless down the stairs, made and drank coffee without opening the blinds. As the garage door began to move upward—revealing my first view of what the day had to offer—I felt my shoulders slump. I knew it would be several hours before I could share my disappointment with anyone; my wife and son would take advantage of this lazy Sunday morning to sleep in. I swept the floor, dumped a dustpan full of sawdust into the trashcan, and spied the Magic Bag on the shelf above my workbench...

Merle Haggard Sings Jimmie Rodgers

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