The Last, Best Christmas Present
“A week, maybe two—six months tops if you’re lucky,” the doctor said.
“Lucky?” the man responded. “I’ve never been lucky in my life. Why start now?”
“I’m sorry, but your condition is untreatable,” the doctor explained. “It’s too far advanced now. We can’t do much for you except give you some drugs to lessen the pain and make the last few days of your life as comfortable as possible. Any strenuous activity now will only make it worse. You should go home and rest.”
“Rest? Very soon, I’m going to be resting for a mighty long time,” the man snapped. “What difference does it make whether I go now, next week or six months from now? If I’m only going to live a few days, I’m going to LIVE those days. I’m going fishing one last time if it kills me, and I don’t care what you or anyone else says about it.”
Ignoring the advice of his doctor and the objections of his family, the Old Angler called his favorite bass fishing guide. Booked solid, they had no openings. However, they usually close for the holiday each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. For such a good customer, though, they made an exception and scheduled a trip for Christmas Eve.
“I’ve been a bass fisherman all my life,” the Old Angler told his hosts as he arrived at the fish camp on the lakeshore the evening before his scheduled angling adventure. “I’ve caught plenty of bass and won several tournaments, but I’ve never caught a largemouth bass weighing 10 pounds. I’ve always wanted to catch one in double digits, but so far, my best fish weighed slightly more than seven pounds.”
“Well, we should have plenty action tomorrow, but this lake is more known for numbers, not giant bass,” the guide remarked. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do for you. We’ll catch some fish and have a good time.”
On Christmas Eve morning, the guide awakened the Old Angler with a steaming cup of coffee prepared just the way the old man liked it. Across the lake to the east, shadowy flooded timber in silhouette began to glow with faint pink coronas as the sun lightened the horizon. Above, sparkling stars still shining brilliantly like they did 2,000 years earlier promised an excellent, if chilly, day for fishing.
“I haven’t eaten bacon in years,” the Old Angler told the camp cook. “My doctor said it’s not good for me, but he’s not here today, and I feel lucky! Please make me a big plate full of the greasiest, fattest bacon you can find with lots of salt and hot sauce and a biscuit with a heap of butter on it.”
“You got it,” the cook replied handing him a heaping plate of hot pork.
After breakfast, the Old Angler climbed into the boat with some help from his guide. The guide taped tubes to the Old Angler’s nose so he could breathe. Then, the guide placed a portable oxygen bottle beside the Old Angler. Finally, the Old Angler asked the guide to hand him an antique rusty metal tackle box still sitting on the dock.
“You won’t need your tackle box today,” the guide advised. “I have plenty of baits for us to use. We’ve been catching a lot of bass on soft plastics and jigs around the humps. We’ll probably also do some flipping around the trees and working crankbaits or spinnerbaits along the ledges. I have all the tackle you’ll need.”
“I know, but this tackle box is special,” the Old Angler replied. “It was my father’s box, and I haven’t used it for many, many years. It’s full of memories. Each bait in the box tells many stories, but my favorites are topwater poppers. I just love to watch a bucketmouth bass smash a lure on the surface. Even if I don’t open it, I’d like to bring it along with me. It won’t take up much room.”
“No problem,” the guide replied. “I’ll just put it in the locker for you.”
For several hours, the Old Angler and the guide canvassed the lake looking for fish. Burning a lot of gasoline with little to show for it, they tossed nearly every type of lure the guide could pull from his immense tackle collection. They fished shallow and deep, but nothing worked.
So far, the only “catch” happened when the guide hooked the Old Angler’s oxygen hose with his lure while casting, nearly hurtling the frail old man from the boat. After reattaching the oxygen hose, they stopped to eat a little lunch. Undeterred, the guide vowed he would find fish that afternoon or die trying.
“We haven’t caught anything all day,” the Old Angler said. “Do you mind if I throw something from my old tackle box? I’d like to use my favorite topwater bait.”
“Help yourself,” the exasperated guide replied. “We haven’t had a strike all day with anything I’ve recommended. It’s not really the time of year to throw a topwater bait in this lake, but whatever you throw can’t do any worse than what we’ve been doing already.”
The Old Angler pulled out an ancient, badly scarred wooden popper. Most of the paint disappeared from it long ago, leaving only a few black flecks on bare discolored wood. Only a few threads remained where once brilliant yellow feathers streamed off the back of the wooden plug. Rust had already consumed one of the three treble hooks and nearly closed the nose eye.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” the guide frowned incredulously. “That’s your favorite lure? What is it?”
“It’s a one of a kind bait,” the Old Angler told the guide. “I call it, ‘The Christmas Special.’ You see, we used to have a tire swing hanging from an old oak tree in our front yard when I was a boy. A hurricane came one year and broke the branch off so we lost the swing. My dad carved this plug with his pocketknife from a piece of the old branch, attached hooks to it and painted it. Then, he gave it to me for Christmas that year. We didn’t have much money for toys in those days, so it was all he could give me. I haven’t used it in decades, but I’d like to try it today.”
“Go ahead,” the guide replied. “Let’s see what it can do.’”
The Old Angler tied on The Christmas Special and tossed it toward a grassy tree-lined shoreline. It landed next to a stump and sat there until the large concentric rings faded. Then, the Old Angler jerked the rod, making the popper gurgle on the surface, sending ripples hurtling across the placid water. Soon, the plug disappeared into an explosion of foam and frosty mist.
“Got him,” the angler shouted. “It’s a big largemouth bass!”
“Looks like 8 pounds, 3 ounces,” the guide remarked after netting and weighing the fish. “Congratulations. This beats your personal record. Want to have it mounted?”
“No. It lived a long time in this lake,” the angler replied. “It’s close to the end of its life. Let it go to live out its last days swimming freely the way God intended it to do.”
The Old Angler threw The Christmas Special toward the shoreline again. Cast after cast, bass smashed the lure with fury while the guide couldn’t buy a strike on anything he threw. Eventually, the guide just stopped fishing altogether and kept the net handy as the Old Angler caught bass after bass, releasing each one to fight again another day.
“This has already been the best fishing day of my life,” the Old Angler remarked as the sun approached the western horizon. “Just one more cast and I’m done.”
Once more, the Old Angler tossed the ancient wooden popper toward a grassy point pockmarked by several stumps. The lure sat motionless in the water for a moment next to a stump, silhouetted by the sun setting directly behind it. The wrinkled hands of the Old Angler popped the rod once more and the lure disappeared into another frothy swirl.
Breathing and heaving heavily, the struggling Old Angler fought the fish harder than any other fish he hooked that day. Each time he pulled it close to the boat, it ripped off more line from the screaming reel. Eventually, the Old Angler subdued it, pulling it close enough to the boat for the guide to net it.
“That’s a giant bass for these waters! It weighs 10 pounds, 4 ounces. I think that’s a new camp record,” the guide exclaimed! “Might be a lake record!”
Frayed from restraining so many fish that afternoon, the line broke and the battered lure fell from the fish’s mouth into the bottom of the boat at the guide’s feet. After releasing the large bass, the guide turned to shake the hand of the Old Angler and congratulate him, but instead saw the old man crumpled on the bow deck of the bass boat. The guide tried to revive him, but couldn’t so he called 911 with his cell phone.
Soon, an air ambulance helicopter equipped with pontoons appeared and landed in the water near the boat. The medics and the guide placed the Old Angler in the helicopter, and it disappeared into the darkening sky for the flight to the hospital. At the hospital, the Old Angler’s family gathered to await the news. Shortly before midnight, the doctor came into the waiting room to summon the family.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the doctor explained. “He doesn’t have much time left and wants to see everyone. Come this way, please.”
“We told you not to go fishing,” The Old Angler’s eldest daughter scolded the man stretched prostrate on the emergency room examining table. “We knew you weren’t strong enough for such a trip. We told you something would happen if you went fishing.”
As the clock tolled midnight, the pale Old Angler smiled. Grasping the hand of his youngest great-granddaughter, he turned to the family and said: “Yes, something did happen today. I received the best Christmas present of my life.”
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