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WILTZ: Have you had a big one get away?

By Roger Wiltz

Daily Republic syndicated columnist

Sooner or later, if you do enough fishing, a good fish is going to get away. It might be a broken line or a straightened hook. Perhaps it was barely hooked and tore away. Maybe the netting was bungled.

I was trolling one afternoon on Saskatchewan's Kamatzi Lake. Betsy was with me. I had the second-best northern pike of my life alongside the boat, a fish that went at least 25 pounds. She appeared to be totally exhausted. In landing the fish, Betsy did everything right. She thrust the net into the fish head first. When she attempted to lift the big pike into the boat, she couldn't lift the fish out of the water as it was too heavy. Old Esox lucius rolled, a hook caught in the netting, and the fish was gone. I'm pleased to tell you that I kept my cool. Betsy had done her best, and she felt badly enough about it without me getting on her case.

While experiences like the one mentioned above can be frustrating, there's a lost fish encounter that will be far worse. I'm talking about those times the fish stayed deep and we weren't even able to identify the fish. We can probably guess what the fish was, but we will never know for certain.

I can remember a number of piscatorial escapees where I never glimpsed the fish. One was a huge fish on Spirit Lake north of DeSmet. It almost had to be a northern pike. Another was in a stock dam on the old county work farm south of Burke. It must certainly have been a largemouth bass. And then there was the brute I battled for over half an hour in the tailrace beneath Fort Randall Dam. I'm thinking big catfish. He finally straightened my hook.

Those of you with saltwater experience can cite memories far more illustrious than mine. But regardless of where or what it might have been, those fish we never caught a glimpse of will haunt our memories until our dying day. They are like old boyfriends, girlfriends, or job opportunities. From time to time, we'll wonder about what might have been, but we'll never know.

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Speaking of haunting old memories, a memory that has evoked fear in me for the past 65 years was partially put to rest this past week. I was a shy 6-year-old when my parents took me to the circus at Chicago's International Amphitheatre on South Halsted Street. For me, the primary attraction was probably Hopalong Cassidy, television's first cowboy. I was awestruck when I gazed up at Hopalong as he sat on Topper, his great white horse.

But Hopalong had nothing to do with my irrational fear. Near the end of the three-ring circus performance, our attention was called to the far left side of the circus floor. On the ground sat a large silver-colored truck on which a huge silver cannon barrel was mounted. The breech end of the barrel rested on the far end of the truck's bed. The muzzle hung well over the truck's cab and hood.

A ring of people, on foot, marched in a circle around the truck. One of them (I don't remember how a selection was made) was to be fired from the cannon! The thought terrorized me. When the ill-fated person was selected, he/she climbed up onto the hood of the truck and then slid feet first into the large barrel.

A long and tense rolling of the drums was eventually shattered by flames, smoke, and a thunderous roar! The body, now airborne, sailed high into the air and traveled the length of the circus floor. He or she landed in a raised net on the opposite end of the arena. I think it was the loud noise of the blast that so traumatized me. For years July 4 aerial bombs scared the heck out of me.

Over the many years the thought of that circus act has remained vivid. I've also pondered the mechanics of that cannon performance. Exactly how was it done?

This past week, dear friends, Betsy, and I took in the one-time winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus at Baraboo, Wis. It would be accurate to say that 95 percent of the original wagons, railroad cars, and props were on location. One particular display held models of the original equipment that included the exact silver truck and cannon. As the day progressed, we found an actual truck and cannon, but this one was blue in color. We asked an attendant about the cannon truck.

The attendant knew little about the cannon, but he directed us to a man who was knowledgeable. He was familiar with the silver truck and cannon I spoke of, as well as the circus that featured it. The firing mechanism of the on-site blue truck had been removed, and he could only tell us about the silver truck.

The silver truck's cannon was powered by giant rubber bands! A Model A Ford's engine and transmission wound the rubber bands. The act was eventually discontinued as it proved too dangerous, and he added that every person he knew who had been fired from the cannon walked with a limp.

In a general psychology class I learned that we best remember those things that were most traumatic. I'd have to say that the circus cannon, as well as those fish I never saw, fall into my personal trauma category.

One of my favorite fishing months is August. I like to go after cats in the Pickstown tailrace. Perhaps we'll take a look at how I'm doing in next week's column. See you then.