Merlin's Drum

Milkriverdrumaug08_003_3 I have identical twin boys, and while they are more similar than not—in appearance, in personality and in their growing roster of likes and dislikes—fishing has always been a window into contrasts between them.

Even as infants, when I toted each twin in turn in a backpack carrier as I cast flies to trout and spinners to pike and bass, I always seemed to catch more fish with Merlin for company.

His brother Ellis may be more talented athletically, but Merlin is just fishier.

As those of you with young kids know, teaching a child to fish can test your patience, enthusiasm and skills, and it’s doubly challenging with twins. But they’re now reaching the age when they can handle most chores—baiting their own hooks, casting their line, playing the fish—without too much assistance. Still, they’ve never really caught a large fish on their own. Until last weekend.

The boys and I spent a sunny afternoon on the Milk River near our home in eastern Montana, drowning worms for anything that would bite. As usual, Ellis and I had little luck, but Merlin caught a couple of goldeye, then a colorful native sucker called a shorthead redhorse. He re-baited and threw his worm into a productive hole. Pretty quick he got a bite, then yelled for help. I didn’t know what he had on, but it was taking plenty of line and headed for a submerged tree, leaving large swirls where its tail neared the surface. I figured a big carp or maybe a channel cat.

I adjusted his drag and counseled him to keep his rod tip up, and Merlin masterfully regained line, letting the fish run when it wanted but continually working it toward shore. Merlin, whose mind can sometimes wander like a prairie stream, was single-mindedly focused as he fought the big fish.

Then I remembered that we had no net. How would we land the fish? It wasn’t pretty. It involved Dad getting wet, a pair of old pliers and a mighty heave up the bank, but we finally did it, and one of the biggest freshwater drum I’ve ever seen flopped at Merlin’s feet.

Drum are considered trash fish by a lot of anglers, but they’re remarkable native species, omnivorous, abundant and scrappy fighters. They have white, flaky meat similar to that of a bass. But the coolest thing about drum, sometimes called sheepshead, is their ear bones, or otoliths. They’re much larger than the otoliths of other species, and probably help drum detect food and danger in turbid water.

I was telling Merlin all about these features of drum as he gazed down at his trophy, which we estimated at about 10 pounds.

“What do you want to do with it?” I asked him. “Wanna throw it back?”

“No!” was his immediate answer. “Can’t we eat it?”

Sure, I replied, and then remembered a story a friend told me recently. His father is a taxidermist, and mounts the first big fish that any kid in the family catches. It gave me an idea.

“Hey, you want to put that fish on your wall?” I asked Merlin, and I told him I’d have it mounted for him.

“I dunno. I kinda want to eat it,” he said. “And I’d kinda want to see those ear bones.”

So when we got home we filleted the meat and dug out the otoliths, hunks of ivory the size of your thumb. I offered to have a necklace or a cool bracelet made of them but Merlin has stashed them in his treasure box, along with other favorite finds, cool rocks and arrowheads.

I hope he always has them, mementos of a late-summer day on the Milk with his brother and dad, his first big fish and a trophy he earned all by himself.—Andrew McKean