Chapter 1 The Plan
The plan was hatched in Donnie Carlson’s storage area.
His house sat at the corner of Boyer and Everett Ave. E where Everett sloped about 75 yards down to Portage Bay and dead ended at the remains of a rickety dock surrounded by Cattails and Lilly Pads. The dock had once been the sidewalk for a houseboat community that had been displaced by the building of the 520 viaduct.
Donnie’s house was built on the hillside with the main floor at ground level on one side and the exterior basement door at ground level on the opposite side. A deck off of the living room extended over the basement door and the deck supports provided the main framing and footprint for the storage area. The walls were enclosed using translucent corrugated fiberglass panels. Access from outside was through a light wooden door that was held shut with a screen door hook.
The area was used for storing outboard motors, oars, life jackets, seat cushions, fishing poles, reels, nets, tackle boxes, lawn mowers, rakes, garden tools, large mysterious olive drab colored canvas things of unknown purpose. Interesting artifacts were stacked, slung and hung everywhere in this 8’ x 10’ space and emitted intriguing smells that really got the juices stirring in this young boy. The mingling scents emitted by jars of salmon eggs, cheese bait, vinyl seat cushions, well-aged fishing creels, air-dried kapok life jackets, motor oil, gasoline, dried grass, army surplus pup tents with just a hint of rodent pee filled me with wonder. My God, what a magnificent smell. The light that filtered through the fiberglass paneling played across salmon flashers, trout lures, odd floats and old jackets that were suspended from the rafters. This was a cathedral and any boy who entered was overwhelmed by the possibilities. It was in this temple that Donnie unveiled the prize given to him by his Grandpa.
In his hand he held a trident spear tip. I gazed at four sharp prongs, each finished with a barb, all set into an elongated cap designed to fit over the end of a shaft. He held it out to me and smiled. It was beautiful, dangerous, wicked, perfect! I was transfixed. What more could a boy want? Without any idea of how I would use it I knew that I had to possess one and I needed it now.
“Where did he get it?” I asked.
“Grandpa had it in some of his stuff”, Donnie replied. “He calls it a frog gig”.
“For killing frogs?”
“Yeah. I guess”.
I could picture the spear and I could envision throwing it at some prey but I couldn’t see getting lucky enough to get a frog before it made a hasty escape. Donnie could read my thoughts and when I looked up from the trident he was smiling that smile of his.
“Carp! We’re gonna spear carp” he said, and suddenly I could see it. It was a National Geographic moment. Young savages on Portage Bay, stripped to the waist, armed only with spears, challenging the carp in their swampy element.
Kings of the Sea.
Life was good.
Chapter 2 The Prey
Carp are big goldfish. They are butt-ugly, bottom feeding, boney fish that most folks choose to not eat. They do get big, though. Five pounds was typical while twenty pounds was not unusual at all. We would go to Montlake Cut at first light on a summer morning and those babies would be jumping like crazy. Big fish breaking water left and right. We fished for them with fairly light spinning gear and used canned corn for bait. We would throw a handful of corn out to chum the waters, bait a hook and cast it out. After propping our poles on an appropriately shaped stick we would light up our secret stash of Rum Soaked Crooks and watch the sun rise. Carp, drawn by the scent of the corn would vacuum everything they could find off of the bottom of the canal and when they sucked up your baited hook it was “Fish on!” They put up a very good fight but their mouths are soft so you had to develop a very nice touch. The twenty-pounders made good sport and would take a half-hour to land. At 25 cents a pound they made the smelly bus ride to a fish market in the International District worthwhile.
A 20 Pounder
They have a strange spawning ritual. They go into the shallow waters of the cattails and thrash around. It’s amazing the ruckus they make. The females lay their eggs and the males go in to break up the sticky mass and do what males do. Donnie’s plan involved spearing them from the boats while they were in the throes of thrashing.
Chapter 3 The Fleet
Donnie and I kept our boats at the foot of Everett Ave. They both rested upside down in the grass at water’s edge next to the remains of the dock. They were our faithful companions always ready to transport us on another adventure. Donnie had an 8-foot pram and I had a 10-foot dinghy, both were home-built. In characteristic generosity the Carlson’s allowed me to leave my boat there and store my seat cushions and oars in their storage area. I could come and go as I pleased. These two boats would allow us a larger group of hunters so we set out to assemble our team.
8 foot Pram
Chapter 4 The Young Savages
Donnie attended Seward ElementarySchool up on the crest of north Capitol Hill. He was a natural athlete who I met through Little League. He carried himself with confidence and wasn’t cowed at all by us “older” boys. His parents taught him to hunt, fish and swim, gave him survival skills, a boat for exploring and allowed him space to stretch.
We thought that it would be easy to assemble a team but not everyone we approached shared our vision. Anyone who saw the trident was nearly overcome by its raw coolness but few were really interested in the stench of dead fish or the activity that made them so, however, Fritz and the twins, Don and Tom were curious.
Fritz had moved to Montlake from Fairbanks and he had been around plenty of fish. He knew more about catching Arctic Grayling than spearing carp but his family had a runabout so he was comfortable on the water and he never did anything stupid.
The twins were the wild cards. They didn’t look alike or act alike and didn’t know anything about boats. They bickered a lot and often threatened each other with bodily harm but I never saw them actually go to blows. Their single Mom worked hard to support the family (Don, Tom, Jean and George) and they didn’t have as many opportunities as most of us. They were usually game for anything new but unpredictable.
Don and Tom Naes
Donnie, with his Grandpa’s help, had finished mounting the spear tip on a shaft and once we laid eyes on the finished product we were all hooked. That spear tip had an odd effect on us. It was like a crystal ball that allowed us to see into the future. The future held blue skies, hot summer days, cattails and young Swamp Savages doing battle with the killer carp.
We had to have spears.
Chapter 5 Materiel of War
Trips to several sporting goods stores proved fruitless as nobody seemed to know the first thing about “carp spears” and it wasn’t until we entered “Seattle Sporting Goods” on Roosevelt Way that we found someone who had even heard of a frog gig and actually had one for sale. Fritz snapped it up. It was discouraging how much he paid for it as it was clearly out of my price range. Don, Tom and I needed another plan, so for us it was “Come one, come all to Saint Vincent de Paul”, where every pair of golf shoes came complete with all 18 holes.
Saint Vinney’s was located on the southeast end of Lake Union and was an easy bike ride from Montlake. It was built on the water, open to the elements and the olfactory sensations were intense. A mix of creosote coated pilings, musty bedding, damp clothing, books, magazines and fresh water marine life either assailed or welcomed you. This was a place where it seemed that anything could be found. A kid could wander all day in search of treasures and feel welcome. It was here that I first found the January 1917 edition of National Geographic and read about the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. I hid that particular magazine so that I could return again and again to reread it and ponder its meaning. Looking for a spear at St Vinney's, though, turned out to be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Little thought had gone into organizing the piles of “merchandise” and nobody knew where we should look for spears.
St Vinnie's Grand Avenue
After a frustrating search we came to the conclusion that nobody had had much use for spears in Seattle for a long time and there weren’t many being donated to the needy. In fact, if there were any spears there at all we couldn’t find them. Tom found a wooden flag pole that had a fancy pointed tip. He thought that maybe it could be sharpened some more but when we discovered that it was molded from plaster-of-paris we talked him out of it. Don didn’t find anything inspiring and I came away with a heavy, rusty, steel barbecue fork.
My fork didn’t have any barbed tips and one tip was badly bent. It had a giant handle with a large loop on the end, weighed a ton and was probably better suited for bludgeoning a carp to death rather than spearing it. It came closest to what I was looking for, though, and it was in my price range. The twins went home empty handed.
I took my barbecue fork home and cut the loopy handle off. Next I threaded the round part of the handle, cut the bristle end off of a broom, drilled a hole in the end that I ran a tap into. I screwed the threaded end of the fork into the broom handle and came out with a fairly respectable weapon. It was still heavy but I figured that would make it better to throw. I put the bent tip in a vise and tried to straighten it out but ended up breaking it off. Most of that tine was still there so I got out the file and sharpened it.
Don and Tom wound up liberating two steak knives from their silverware drawer at home. A rake from their backyard and the kitchen mop were also appropriated for the war effort. Their business ends were dispatched with and the knives attached. Tom applied the skills he acquired in Wood Shop by breaking the wooden handle halves off of his knife, opening a split in the rake shaft, pressing the knife into the split, drilling a hole through the whole mess, tapping a nail through the hole and bending it over. He wrapped some light wire around the shaft to keep the blade on straight and finish the job.
Don, on the other hand, was content to simply tape the steak knife to the side of what had once been the kitchen mop. It was really shaky looking and Tom convinced him to at least wrap some wire around it. He started wrapping it tightly but soon lost his focus when he dropped the spool and finished by loosely winding on the tangled, remaining mess. It wasn’t pretty and resembled a dead, baby possum on a stick more than a weapon designed for death. His older sister, Jean, was really pissed at him for destroying their only mop and threatened to tell their Mom. It was clear that she didn’t have an appreciation for what was at stake here so Don responded to her in the way he often did when they didn’t see eye-to-eye.
He said, “Jean, All I have to say about that is…” at which point he farted loudly, deftly sidestepped her retaliatory right-cross and ran from the house with his spear.
Chapter 6 First Engagement
We met at Donnie’s house and examined each other’s spears. We took turns hefting each of them and feigning throws, commenting on the feel of each as though we were experts in the art of building and throwing spears. Mine was the heaviest, Fritz’ was the lightest, Tom’s was a solid effort, Donnie’s was a thing of beauty while Don’s was…………..well, it was unlikely that any carp was going lose its life to that spear. We teased him unmercifully at which point he said “All I have to say about that is”……………………..
With that it was time to set sail.
The twins jumped in Donnie’s pram while Fritz sailed with me. We rowed out along the pilings left from the houseboat dock, each stroke of the oars stirring up a muddy swirl from the featureless shallow bottom. Forsaking the line of pilings we veered for the cattails that stretched between Donnie’s house and Montlake Playfield. From about fifty feet out I heard the characteristic splashing and looked to Donnie in the next boat. He glanced over his shoulder towards the sound, located it, smiled and nodded to me. We pulled on the oars adjusting our course as we glided in.
Donnie's House and Remains of the Houseboat Dock Today
Don and Tom were getting agitated and arguing about who got to stand in the bow and make the first kill. They jockeyed for position and argued, as only twin brothers can. On their feet now and elbowing one another for the advantage the pram rocked wildly, threatening to throw them all in the drink. Fritz looked at me with disapproval and I backed away. No sense being in the middle of a train wreck. The carp, caught up in its ecstasy and oblivious to what was happening in the rest of the universe, continued to thrash. Donnie, an exceptional swimmer but not interested in a swim, screamed at them both to shut up and sit down ending this game of musical chairs and leaving Don smugly at the bow. The honor of the first kill would be his.
Red-winged Blackbirds darted and called, blue dragonflies flitted about and the tall cattails shook violently as the fish thrashed away, its brown back clearly visible above the water. It looked to be about five pounds. Don stood up slowly and threw his spear. It wasn't even close. Tom, delighted that he would get the first kill, laughed out loud and took aim. His mighty heave missed high and the carp continued to thrash unaware. Donnie backed out and I moved in closer to give Fritz a shot. Fritz knew his way around boats and being a big guy realized that there wasn’t much future in standing up in one so small. He threw from a seated position. Close but no cigar. It was close enough, though, that the carp figured out that something was wrong and dashed for open water.
Defeated in our first engagement we nosed the boats into the reeds to recover the spears. Donnie made a comment about the inaccuracy of the throws.
Out of the blue, as if issuing an excuse for failure, Don quoted Piggy’s line from Lord of the Flies, “But I can’t see without me specs”.
Without hesitation, Fritz shouted “Sucks to your specs, Piggy”.
We all laughed and gathered the spears. Don’s steak knife was now very crooked and loose after a single throw. That made us laugh all the harder. Tom told him to wind the wire tighter around the handle but Don just grabbed the wire Possum and gave it a twist. Now his spear tip looked like a baby weasel on a stick and I told him as much.
He just said, “My auntie says it’s my asthmar”.
To which I replied “Sucks to your asthmar, Piggy”!
In spite of the joking and good cheer we were all coming to the brutal realization that just because we had visualized throwing a spear, it didn’t make us good at it. This was a harsh reality that none of us would verbalize. Instead it was unanimously decided that we would hunt on foot. We would wade into the swamp and meet the beast like men.
Chapter 7 We Meet the Beast
We rowed to The Cove, which was adjacent to the Montlake off-ramp of SR520. It was completely lined with cattails, about 25 feet wide at the mouth and wound its way back to the edge of the playfield, where it narrowed to about 6 feet. The cattails here were often active with spawning carp. The plan was to stretch across the mouth of the Cove and advance towards the playfield, herding the Carp into the narrow “Killing Ground”. The water began about chest deep at the mouth and gradually became shallower. We could hear at least two Carp thrashing around about half way to the playfield.
We started several feet apart and didn’t make any secret of presence. No sir, we were coming right into the heartland of the Carp Kingdom and we planned to make it a fair fight. Donnie began to chant, ”Kill the Carp, Spill its blood, Make it bleed! Kill the Carp, Spill its blood, Make it bleed!” We all picked up the chant and waded forward. We were now pretty close together when the fish population rose up and faced the challenge. Fifteen to twenty Perch and Crappie charged right at us in their panicked flight for open water, bumping up against our legs and slithering past. It felt strange and put an abrupt end to our chanting. Then came the heavy guns. At least half a dozen Carp appearing to be in the ten to fifteen-pound range could be seen approaching rapidly. Though our spears were poised for throwing, thrusting or whatever we never got off a single offensive move before they were upon us, banging into our legs. Few made it past without making contact and being struck by a speeding, fifteen pound Carp was an altogether different experience and not to be taken lightly. Don was hit so hard he was knocked over, cursing and grabbing his calf. I had to jump out of the way to avoid his swinging spear shaft and jabbed myself in the right leg, just above the knee, with my own Barbecue Fork-of-Death. Though I dodged Don’s spear, Tom didn’t see it coming and was struck smartly across his right ear. He grabbed his head and started cursing.
It happened so fast that Fritz and Donnie didn’t know what to think. Our whole right flank had collapsed into disarray when faced with that withering charge. One minute we were confidently chanting and marching to battle and the next instant it was all over. Those fish took us out in about two seconds. They knocked Don down, I took myself out with a self-inflicted wound and Tom fell to friendly fire. I was particularly humiliated for shooting my foot off in combat.
We retreated to the camp we had built at the entry to the cove to tend to our wounds. Blood was oozing from the bright red puncture wound on my lower thigh, Don had a long angry scratch that was dripping blood and Tom’s ear was a brilliant red. Though the skin on Tom’s ear had not been broken he kept asking Don how many stitches he would require because he said was going to kick Don’s ass once for every stitch. I knew that my wound would mean a trip to Dr Lawson’s for a tetanus shot and I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t like Lawson or his needles. Don’s long scratch from the carp scales continued to bleed. He stared at it like a mule looking at a new gate, not comprehending how a fish could have done so much damage. He vowed revenge saying, “My leg. Look at what that damn carp did to my leg. I’ll kill his ass. I swear to God, I’ll kill his fishy ass”, only to be greeted with a chorus of “Sucks to your leg, Piggy”!
Chapter 8 Coronation of the King
Donnie and I had yet to test our spears though you could say that mine had been “blooded in battle” even if it was with my own blood. Tom continued to complain about his ear until Don shouted, “Sucks to your ear, Piggy! Look at my leg!”. Angry and dejected we boarded the boats to row across the bay to the yacht club for some pop.
About midway along the shore between The Cove and the yacht club was a shallow area with a patch of cattails. Passing within fifty feet or so we saw the tops of the weeds moving erratically accompanied by the characteristic splashing of the spawning dance. Without a word we stopped the boats and observed the spectacle. Donnie, determined to get the “kill” told Tom to switch places with him at the oars and for Don to shut up and hold perfectly still. Donnie crouched cautiously at the bow and told Tom to take them in slowly. Tom dipped the oars silently and inched the boat towards the splashing beast. Fritz and I glided alongside. Donnie signaled for Tom to stop when he was within ten feet. We had a good view from there and could see that this was a twenty pounder. Its brown back fading to orange sides and belly were magnificent as it rolled and thrashed in the shallow water.
Donnie raised the spear over his head, drew back and threw it. Expecting nothing we were shocked to see the spear shaft shaking madly and waving through the air, tracing circles, arcs and figure-eights. Its movement mowed down cattail and anything else that got in the way. It was so unexpected that I don’t think any of us understood the meaning of it at first. When it sunk in that we had actually speared one we all went berserk. Donnie, fearing that his boat was about to tip over from the surge of activity, slid over the gunwale into the relative safety of the waist deep water and waded towards the beast.
Following his lead we all jumped out of the boats prepared to avenge our earlier defeats. Taking only our spears we set the boats adrift. Donnie had gotten a hold of his spear and looked as though he wasn’t sure what to do next. I had a clear opening so I buried my barbecue fork-of-death into the side of the trashing fish. Donnie, realizing he was in danger from an errant throw, stepped back and allowed the remaining savages to advance. Tom, Don and Fritz were splashing forward through the muddy water when Tom threw his steak knife tipped weapon for a strike. Tom had begun chanting “Kill the Carp! Spill its blood! Make it bleed!”. “Kill the Carp! Spill its blood! Make it bleed!”. Donnie and I had joined him. “Kill the Carp! Spill its blood! Make it bleed!”.
It was at this point that Don realized that his steak knife had fallen off leaving him only a wire sculpture of a tailless weasel and a wad of tape on a stick. Furious that his weapon had failed him at such a critical time but intent upon counting coup, he swung the shaft back over his head with both hands preparing to strike a blow. On the back swing he whacked Fritz soundly on top of his head. At the height of the back-swing the wire weasel had flown off the shaft and high into the air. The wad of tape, jarred loose upon impact with Fritz’s skull, dropped into the water, caught the summer breeze and sailed off to parts unknown. Fritz was reeling from the blow as Don brought the mop handle down on the great fish and raised it to strike again. This time, with Fritz out of the way, he had a much smoother swing. As we chanted “Kill the Carp! Spill it’s blood! Make it bleed!” Don struck again and again. The water, at first just muddy, was now taking on a distinct red tinge as was the froth created from his repeated and frantic blows. When Don finally considered his job done Fritz jumped in and jabbed the twisting fish with his professional frog gig, administering the final but lethal injury.
We stopped chanting and looked at the sorry remains of the carp. Its blood mixed easily with the water and mud of Portage Bay. Looking up we could only grin each other. We were all soaked and dripping with mud, blood, bits and pieces of cattail and fish scales the size of quarters. It was perfect. A hot summer day with blue skies, cattails and young Swamp Savages fresh from battle with the killer carp. We started to chant again, “Kill the Carp! Spill its blood! Make it bleed!” “Kill the Carp! Spill its blood! Make it bleed!” and still impaled on our four spears we slowly lifted the twenty pound mass up over our heads. More water, mud and blood ran down our arms, dripped on our heads and painted our bodies.
Finally, Fritz shouted, “Hail! King of the Carp!”
We all thought about it for a moment and liked the idea. “Yeah. King of the Carp”. It rolled off the tongue with ease and seemed fitting. The Young Savages, Marauders of Montlake, The Pirates of Portage Bay back from battle to crown the King of the Carp.
One by one we worked our spears out of the carp until only Tom’s remained. Tom buried the non-business end of his spear down into the mud of the shallows where the King had been “crowned”. He said that his spear was the throne of the King of the Carp. We nodded in agreement and left the large fish hanging there impaled on a spear made from a rake and a steak knife. The boats had drifted over towards The Cove so we took our leave of the King and swam to retrieve them.
Once we were all back in the boats Fritz grimaced as he gently felt the goose egg growing on the top of his head and said “My head really hurts”.
To which we all replied loudly, “Sucks to your head, Piggy!”
The King’s reign continued through the summer and fall. Poised on his throne overlooking the bay he was master of all he surveyed and whoever passed paid homage and was reminded of our victory. Whenever we saw him we would recount these events. He brought peace to the realm, as we never took up arms against the carp again. His influence was often experienced throughout the bay, as the stench of his decay borne by the breeze would greet our nostrils. We would look at one another and shout "Hail! King of the Carp!"
He didn't age well. He became more bent, twisted and shriveled. His throne became more tilted and tipped dangerously with the passage of time. His “influence” lessened. One day he was simply gone. The time of his reign had passed and with it our memories of that campaign. We all grew and had new adventures, new friends, new memories.
Mouth of the Cove
Every now and again, though, I smell the combination of warm lake water and dead fish at some stage of decay and I remember the time when we were perfect savages, dripping with blood and muck, fish scales and cattails and I say to myself, “Hail! King of the Carp”.