(This story was an entry for Clue #3 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! It was inspired by Afke van Herpt's 2011 October calendar art, which can be found here.)
A gust of cold wind blew as they hiked the final distance across the meadow to the eastern edge of Badger Lake. Red and gold leaves chased one another like bobcat kittens in the gust of that breeze, and a phalanx of geese flew by overhead, honking noisily. Windsong looked out across the grey water of the lake and shivered in the next swirl of wind, thinking that there would certainly be a hard frost tonight.
“Isn’t the bank too bare?” Evervale said, looking at the spot Newt had selected with open doubt on her pretty face. “There’s only open water here. There’s nothing for a frog to hide in. If we go over there,” she said, pointing toward the distant fringe of forest where it began to circle the lake, “where there’s more cattails and arrowroot plants and such, that’s better frog territory.”
Windsong was thinking the same thing, but Newt’s sunny smile remained confident. “This is good. Trust me. My father Turtle taught me,” he said as he set aside his fishing spear and a heavy wooden club. “The really big panfish are getting really hungry now, and they’re not used to seeing frogs here so they’re twice as likely to bite. Watch.”
Windsong shrugged and smiled at Evervale while Newt tied his new lure off to his fishing line, whipped his supple willow pole back, and cast. The lure sailed out over their heads in a blur of green paint, then splashed into the lake a good distance out.
It was Newt’s new lure which had brought Windsong here in the first place. He had carved a fair sized tadpole-shaped frog body out of a chunk of cedar, including two arching back legs and a pair of bulbous eyes. He had painted the eyes black and the body a bullfrog-patterned green, then asked Evervale to shape a hollow into head and belly, to help it float balanced so that the lure’s head bobbed along the water’s surface. Then he had come to Windsong, seeking to trade for the bone hooks she had carved during her last long hunt and promising her half of his first catch in trade. He had taken three of her hooks and bound two of the single-hooks on each of the frog’s carved back legs, then attached the treble hook to its chest.
“Now let’s see if we can catch the Black Bull!” Newt grinned at them now, as he gave his fishing pole a slight tug, so that the frog lure gave a jump across the wind-rippled surface of the lake.
The “Black Bull” was the nickname Otter had given to a massive panfish the youth insisted lurked in the north-eastern corner of Badger Lake. The big fish had evaded Otter’s attempts to catch it for more than two turns now, and the creature’s size, attitude and cunning had begun to take on mythical proportions as Otter’s defeats by the panfish had multiplied.
“My father Turtle always said you could catch a panfish with a frog lure just about anywhere...” Newt said, as he slowly drew in his fishing line, making the frog lure swim, then leap, then drift. “The water is relatively shallow here for a little ways, so a big panfish doesn’t have to come up very far to get an easy meal. And my father always said that an old panfish loves an easy meal.”
Evervale glanced aside at Windsong, her expression still dubious. It was common knowledge that the best place to fish with frog bait or a frog lure was among the cattails and water grasses. Windsong leaned against her fishing spear and shrugged. If the boy felt he knew what he was doing, she wasn’t going to argue with him. She was simply curious to see how well his handsomely crafted lure worked. The way Newt’s practiced pull on the fishing line made the fake frog dart and skip across the water, Windsong mused that if she were a fish, she’d be convinced.
“The real frogs are all melting away to their wintering holes to sleep away the winter,” Newt said. His lure had failed to draw a fish in its first trial, so he cast it out again as he talked. The youth’s cheeks were pink from the crisp bite of the wind, and it was clear that he enjoyed the opportunity to show two of his tribemates he was usually shy around some of what he knew. “The insects are going away now, too, so the fish who like to eat them are getting hungry. I made this a bullfrog-sized lure, because no small panfish is going to go for it that big. Only a great big panfish will strike that. I want old panfish around here like the Black Bull who sees a fine, fat frog popping across open water to say to himself -- ‘Look! A last taste of summer--’”
Something big and dark exploded through the rippling surface of the lake, making a full arch above the water before vanishing again, the frog lure gone in a single, massive gulp. Maybe fish had ears after all, Windsong thought, as all three elves jerked in surprise; Newt yelled in delight as his fighting pole was nearly ripped from his hands.
“Got it! I got it!” he yelled.
“Steady on!” Windsong said, catching Newt’s shoulder as the fish’s next lunge nearly pulled the youth off his feet.
“Careful!” Evervale cried. “It’s hooked! It’s hooked! Don’t let it go!”
And then the battle was on. Hand over hand, Newt dragged his line in, while the panfish thrashed and hammered the water with its tail, not giving up a finger-length without a fight. Windsong didn’t know if the panfish was Otter’s fabled Black Bull, but the fish at the end of Newt’s line was big enough and strong enough that not only was the youth in danger of having the willow pole torn from his grip, but that Newt himself was nearly dragged off his feet and off the bank into the lake. Evervale grabbed his shoulders to provide her own body weight as ballast, and when the fierce struggle rocked them both, Windsong grabbed on as well.
Slowly but surely, Newt coaxed it in, closer and closer to the bank. Sweat was dripping from his brow as he dragged the Black Bull within reach of shore. The big fish’s nose was almost constantly in the air now, and it hammered at the water with its powerful tail. “Spears!” Newt said through gritted teeth, his arms quivering from the strain.
Evervale let go of him and snatched up her fishing spear. The Black Bull lashed sideways against the taut line, and Evervale stabbed her spear home right between the giant panfish’s gills. At the same moment, there was an audible snap, and the triple-braid of Newt’s fishing line parted. Windsong felt Newt begin to tumble; at the same time, she saw Evervale jerked nearly off her feet off the bank. Windsong let Newt go and snatched up her spear, making a desperate lunge to skewer the big panfish as it fought to twist free of Evervale’s jagged bone spearhead.
Windsong’s blow jabbed into the fish’s wide flank just below the gills. Had the spear been a hunting spear it would have come loose almost at once. But the fishing spear was wickedly crafted with three serrated, barbed heads -- once hooked into prey, the spearhead had to be cut loose. Windsong simply hung on as the huge, thrashing Black Bull fought to drag her and Evervale both into the lake. It was like hanging on to a marshbeast bull. For a moment, Windsong seriously considered just yelling at Evervale for them both to let the monster go -- she fancied it was either that, or be dragged into the lake and drowned.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Newt scramble to his feet with his own fishing spear in hand. He plunged the weapon into the big struggling fish, and suddenly, they had it pinned between them just enough that the terrible pressure in her wrists and shoulders began to ease.
“One! Two! Three!” Newt yelled.
Windsong and Evervale didn’t ask for clarification. At the count of three, they each gave it their all, heaving against the fighting weight of the Black Bull. The bulk of the giant body broke the surface of the lake -- and then, somehow, they had it on the grassy shore.
“Hold it down!” Windsong shouted, while at the same time, Evervale cried “Club it! Club it!” Newt grabbed after his wooden club with one hand, and brought it down hard over the panfish’s head.
One blow wasn’t enough. But two was. The Black Bull stopped fighting, took a final gasp, and went still.
The three elves looked at one another, still gasping for breath after the battle. Newt was sweaty and grinning as he reached down the panfish’s gaping mouth after his frog lure. He had to draw his bone knife and cut the embedded hooks loose.
“Just like my father Turtle always said,” Newt said triumphantly. “An old panfish just loves an easy meal!”