Episode 3 – The Journey Downriver

By: Sarah Bodine

Volume 19, Issue 3, March 2024


See Introduction: Roscoe Fish Stories, January 2024

  1. See Introduction: Roscoe Fish Stories, January 2024, and Episode I
  2. See Episode 1: Roscoe Fish Goes "Boying"!  January 2024
  3. See Episode 2: How Roscoe Fish Got His Name, February 2024

Downriver to Bass Rock

After bouncing around in the lock, Roscoe and Rose were exhausted. They found a hiding place in a rocky outcropping along the lakeshore and slept all day. When they awoke, dusk was beginning to fall, and they were ravenous. In the turbulent water, Roscoe had lost his nymph net, so he volunteered to go out and search for supper.

“Take cover here, under these tree roots,” he advised Rose. “Keep watch for big-lake predators. Let’s be careful until we get our bearings.”

“Let’s make a warning system,” Rose suggested. “One bubble for caution, two for danger and three for – come back immediately!” As it turned out, this bubble communication system would come in handy later in their journey.

As he hunted around the reeds in the sandy shallows, Roscoe met other bass, who welcomed him and showed him the best feeding grounds for insect hatches and grubs. Stopping to snack on some particularly tempting larvae, Roscoe came upon a friendly rock bass named Rocky, who was curious to hear his story.

Roscoe told a shortened version of his adventures, and, after he finished, asked “What’s it like to live in this lake?”

Rocky warned against staying in Lake Ontario, with its gale-force winds and strong currents. “Move down into the island channels of the St Lawrence River,” Rocky advised. “I recommend my family place called Bass Rock, just off the Forty Acre Shoal. I’m going back there soon,” he continued. “I would be delighted if you would like to accompany me.”

Illustration by Sarah Bodine

While touched by such hospitality towards a newcomer, Roscoe explained that he would have to talk it over with his traveling companion. Rocky nodded and said, “If you want to come with me, let’s meet at Fort Ontario Park, near the top of the lock in the dark of midnight, just after the next full moon.”

Rose devoured everything Roscoe had foraged for her. After she had eaten her fill, she snuggled into the sand and listened to Roscoe’s story about Rocky and his friendly proposal. “I confess that, even though food is plentiful and tasty in this big lake, I will never get used to the turbulence and traffic of 12-mile-wide water. I like the idea of sunlit silence among peaceful islands,” she admitted.

So, the decision was made. While recuperating in Lake Ontario, Roscoe and Rose waited, watching for the full moon to wane. And, on the darkest night, they swam over to Fort Ontario Park, eager to meet Rocky and set out downriver for Bass Rock.

Rocky would turn out to be both a resourceful guide and a trusted friend. He had spent his entire life studying the weedy St Lawrence River, and he had mentally mapped the bottom structures, shoals, and shorelines from Oswego to Bass Rock. During rest stops on their swim, Rocky pointed out landmarks and advised about distances and swim routes. Starting from the foot of the St Lawrence River at the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario, he explained, the town of Gananoque to the east was about 28 kilometers (since they were going to Canada, they needed to learn the metric system of measurements). Bass Rock lay due south of Gananoque, so the town was an important landmark. They started out downriver. “We say downriver,” Rocky explained, “Because it is the direction in which the water flows and the River’s mouth opens up into the Atlantic Ocean.” They avoided open water and dangerous predators by hugging the shoreline of the lake. Only when they reached the safety of the narrower channels, beginning at Wolfe Island, would they need to traverse a deep-water section across to Grindstone Island. After that, they would head into the area called St Lawrence Islands National Park. Inside the park lay Seven Pines Island, which was the marker for their destination.

Arrival at Bass Rock

A few days later, after a happily uneventful swim, they arrived in the mossy shallows at the head of Seven Pines Island, and Rocky began to feel the tug of home. At the red and black buoys that marked the gut between Seven Pines and Bass Rock, he swerved into a gap beneath an overhanging ledge. Trailing close behind, Roscoe and Rose sliced through a narrow passage, curved around a tight bend and shimmied up through a pitch-black hole. One after another, the three fish wiggled out into a spacious cave to find Rocky’s mother in a watery, green kitchen, popping the last bit of worm sandwich into her mouth. Delicately wiping off her fins on a finely knotted mesh seaweed towel, she greeted them enthusiastically.

“Oh! Visitors!” she chortled. “Sit down, sit down! Rocky, find some rocks for them to sit on. A frappé St Laurent? You must be exhausted from your long swim.”

She busied herself with a counter-top contraption that swirled river water and seaweed together into a frothy drink. As they gratefully slurped their shakes, Roscoe and Rose glanced at each other with relief. They both felt at home in this deep, underwater shelter and were already enjoying life on the River with its gracious hosts.

Rocky’s mother made sure they were comfortable in guest resting rooms – single caves carved into the rock. She left them, pulling closed the swaying kelp curtains.

The travelers slept while Rocky’s uncle organized a foraging expedition, and his brothers prepared a water-lily-pad table in the communal sandbar designed for eating.

A few hours later, when Roscoe and Rose emerged from their caves, refreshed and hungry, they were greeted with a sumptuous meal of grubs, crustaceans, and night crawlers, each delectably presented in the center of a lily pad.

After supper, the rock bass family entertained their guests with stories of River life. As the evening wore on, the tales became scarier – horror stories about the nearby Forty Acre Shoal and the giant monsters that lurked in the depths. By then, however, Rose was exhausted and unnoticed by the revelers, slipped back into her cave behind the kelp curtain. Roscoe, however, remained wide-awake, riveted by the grisly stories Rocky’s father and uncles told about the notorious giant muskellunge. Late in the evening, Rocky's uncle brought out his prize possession.

For information about Skinner Spoons, visit this link: https://fishinghistory.blogspot.com/2012/12/voices-from-past-gm-skinner.html

“A long time ago,” he said, “I found this snagged under a rock at the Forty Acre Shoal.” He held up a shimmering gold curved object, almost as big as he was.

“It’s called a Skinner Spoon*,” Rocky’s uncle explained. “It’s dragged through the deep water in order to entice the wily muskie out of its den. See, here,” he pointed to the end of the spoon, “is a long piece of metal leader, which is attached to a swivel, allowing the spoon to twist and twirl and glisten in the water as though it were alive.”

“Wow,” Roscoe gasped. “What an enormous fish that must be, to want to devour this huge thing!” He himself had seen only miniature lures – tiny flies with sharp tails that had fooled some of his friends back in the Willowemoc, friends whom he had never seen again.

Roscoe tossed and turned in his sleep that night. In his nightmares, he imagined the giant muskie’s enormous mouth gaping open, as it chased the shimmering lure.

Looking out to the Forty Acre Shoal from the Admiralty Islands on a summer night.

The Forty Acre Shoal

Roscoe and Rose spent the rest of the summer at Bass Rock. Rose often lingered in the warm shallows, hunkering close to the bottom and waiting for a weather front to arrive that would stir up tasty water fleas and nymphs. She played a game of letting the flea land on the water, waiting for it to sink ever so slightly. Then she would raise her head, stick out her tongue and scoop it into her mouth. During the afternoon Roscoe also hid in the reeds to watch for food to swim by. With his sharp eyesight he could spot an unsuspecting tadpole from ten feet away and dart out to swallow it in one gulp.

Idly swimming along one afternoon, Rose found a dandy shallows on the north side of the Forty Acre Shoal. She had never ventured that far before, but she came upon a charming sunlit pool and settled in for a nap before finding her way back. In her dreams, a menacing shadow enveloped the entire sky, casting the pool in darkness. Waking with a start, the dream still vivid, she imagined that a rain cloud had passed over the sun. But then she remembered that the day had been cloudless. To her dismay, whatever was casting the shadow was still directly above her. Frightened, she lay perfectly still, hoping that it would move on, not noticing her. Just at that moment, a tiny flea floated down from the surface and landed on her nose. She let out a small sneeze. In the blink of an eye, she found herself face to face with the biggest jaw she had ever seen. Although Rose was not easily frightened, she had to gather all her courage not to flee. She knew that turning her back would make her more vulnerable. So, instead, she tilted her head to one side and said in her prettiest voice, ”Oh, hello. I haven’t seen you around before. My name is Rose. Pleased to meet . . .”

Meeting Quin

The enormous jaw turned into an immense head. A huge eye glared out from behind a dark, circular mask that came within an inch of her face. She gasped. This monster had no scales on the lower part of its cheeks and gill covers. To her surprise, out of the big toothy mouth came a soft cooing sound. “Hi, Rose,” the voice purred. “My name is Quin. I haven’t seen you around here before, either, which seems strange, because I live not far away, and I pass by here all the time. In fact, I was worried when I saw you lying there so quietly that you might be one of those nasty, silent fish with sharp tails that sting when you try to bite them.”

Relieved that the beast seemed friendly, Rose replied, “Oh, I’m new here. I came from the Oswego River up the fish chute . . .” and before she knew it, Rose was telling Quin the whole story of her journey with her friend Roscoe, about Rocky and his family, and about their quest for a peaceful life in the waters of the St Lawrence River. He listened, fascinated, and by the time Rose had finished, the afternoon was waning and the river cooling in the evening chill.

Realizing that the sun was almost gone, Rose turned to Quin and said, “Oh, I must get back to Bass Rock, because it’s Rocky’s birthday and we are having a big fish-a-que tonight, and I said that I would help serve.” Quin looked disappointed at this news, but quickly brightened. “Rose,” he said, “I have so enjoyed hearing your story. I wonder if you would like to join me tomorrow evening for a guided tour of my home at the shoal and afterwards a bite of supper on my local catch? I am a very good chef, if I say so myself.” Rose was thrilled at the invitation, as she had already become fond of this big, hulking, yet seemingly gentle and friendly fish. “But, if you decide to come,” he whispered, “I must warn you not to tell any of your friends. I want to be alone with you.”

And with this, he jumped clear out of the water, twisted around and hit the surface with a loud whack of his tail, throwing glistening droplets in a circle as big as the sky. Rose smacked her orange fins together gleefully, enjoying the display, and cried, “Oh, yes, yes. I would enjoy very much seeing the rest of your shoal with you.” “Meet me here, then, tomorrow at dusk?” Quin crooned. “Yes! See you then!” Rose turned back towards Bass Rock, swishing her fins so that her pretty gold scales gleamed in the setting sun.

At Rocky’s birthday party that evening, Rose waited until after everyone had finished eating and the small fries put to bed before telling the story of meeting the monster fish at the Forty Acre Shoal. Rocky’s relatives’ eyes grew wide, and they blew out clouds of bubbles. They could hardly believe she had survived an encounter with a muskellunge – the vicious giant of the River. While admiring her courage, they agreed that she was lucky to be there at all to celebrate Rocky’s birthday.

Then they repeated the scary stories that they had told Roscoe – stories of muskies eating muskrats, grebes, coots, goslings, ducks, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, and even turtles. Rocky’s uncle remembered that once, in late summer, when he was lying in the shallows waiting for a caterpillar to drop from a tree for a juicy snack, he saw, not ten yards away, a red-winged blackbird perched on an overhanging limb, preening its feathers. As he watched, a huge muskie surged out of the water, opened its jaws and splashed back down, swallowing the bird in one gulp.

“Muskies are starved in the dog days of August,” he explained. “They are desperate to put on weight against the coming winter with whatever food is available.” Rose was so sure that Quin was not like those other muskies that she decided not to let on about her dinner date with him the next evening.

The Dinner

The next afternoon Rose prepared for her date by fluffing out her scales and brushing her fins. Then she waited until everyone was napping and stole away from the rocky shelter of Bass Rock, heading towards the Forty Acre Shoal. Even though the day was warm, she shivered a little in anticipation. But any fears disappeared when she saw Quin streak out of the weed bed and skid into a full l80-degree turn, like a slalom skier at the end of a steep, icy run.

“Bon soir, chérie,” Quin sang out in his soft baritone voice. “How’s my pretty Rosey Perch today, eh? So glad you kept our rendezvous.” Rose blushed a bit, impressed with Quin's dapper manner and knowledge of the French language.

Quin dipped down his huge head and scooped Rose up so that she could ride on top, in front of his dorsal fin. She found a comfortable pocket behind his eyebrow and settled back to enjoy the tour, which he began with some history:

“This River was originally called Kaniatarowanenneh, or big waterway, by the Mohawk nation – a land species whom my ancestors feared yet respected,” Quin explained. “I have heard stories of their quickness – they could dip their five digits into the water and scoop up one of us before we knew what had happened. But only one or two relatives at a time disappeared this way in those days. Live and let live, we said. Today, the new land species drag many shiny things through the water, hoping that we are stupid enough to bite. My friends call them ‘minnow drowners’,” he sneered.

Rose listened, fascinated by Quin’s extensive knowledge of the River's history. From her seat on his head, she noticed that his skin magically changed color as he burst in and out of the weed beds and over the rocky shoal. At first his back shimmered like bronze and his body like silver, but when twisting in the sunlight, the stripes on his sides turned green. Then, as he plunged deeper into the water, he became mottled, almost spotted; and, as he dove into a dark hole, when she had to hold on for dear life, the whole top of his head glistened black.

After touring for an hour or so, Quin rounded a corner and skidded up in front of a sunken log, almost flipping Rose off into the churning water.

“Excusez-moi, ma chérie,” he murmured in apology. “You are so light, I almost forgot you were riding up there.” “Oh, don’t worry,” said Rose, who did not want to show that she was shaken. She slid down beside the giant head and tried to tread water, even though feeling a bit dizzy after the turbulent ride. "Where are we?" she asked, seeing nothing familiar on the River bottom. “Well,” he said, puffing out his gills with pride, “we’re home, chez moi.”

He shoved the log aside and motioned for her to follow through an opening that led down into his spacious deep-water den. Twilight had fallen, and it took a little time for Rose’s eyes to accustom themselves to the dark, but once inside she let out a gasp.

Above the entrance was a craggy rock ledge, where fast-moving water flowed in a shimmering curtain – like an underwater waterfall. Quin leaned forward, parting the sheets of water with his big head, to reveal a long, low cave. The barrel-vaulted ceiling was covered with moss that puffed in and out in the gentle current like soft pillows.  A length of gnarled driftwood took up half of the room, around which rocks had been set in sand, making cozy alcoves for dinner guests. A dangling chandelier made up of strands of shiny plankton showered the room in bluish light. A sumptuous snack of minnow delicacies and bluegill roe had been laid out. Dazzled, Rose hardly noticed an empty fish shape carved in the surface of the driftwood table.

Quin had vanished but suddenly reappeared out of a crevice below, which Rose imagined was the kitchen. He pointed to a rock alcove and urged her to make herself comfortable and to sample the delicacies on the table. In the pale blue light, she noticed the pockmarks around his mouth – scars – where she supposed hooks had entered and been extracted. Rose realized that the gentle spirit she had imagined was a fighter who had been caught and released many, many times.

Roscoe woke from a long nap just as the light was beginning to fade from the steep ledges of Bass Rock. As usual, he felt his stomach rumble with hunger, and his first thought was to invite Rose to go foraging in the shallows near Grindstone Island. But when he went to find her, Rose was not in her usual afternoon sleeping place. He returned to the kitchen where Rocky's aunts were preparing supper, but they had not seen Rose. He swam over to Grindstone, thinking that she had gone ahead, not wanting to wake him, but she wasn’t in the underwater roots of their favorite oak tree, nor was she hiding in the reeds along the bay. Roscoe began to worry. And then, in a flash, he remembered the previous night’s party – the story Rose had told about finding a new sunning spot near the Forty Acre Shoal and her encounter with the monster fish. Roscoe’s heart sank. There was no time to waste. He had to find Rose quickly, and he needed the help of Rocky and his family, because, right or wrong about his hunch, they could all be in danger.

Roscoe raced over to the craggy entrance to Bass Rock, where Rocky’s uncle, the most seasoned and wise of the rock bass clan, liked to take his afternoon snooze in a floating seaweed hammock. “It’s Rose!” Roscoe was speaking very fast: “I can’t find her. She’s missing. I think she might be with the monster. What should we do? Where does he live? We have to save her!”

*For information about Skinner Spoons, visit this link: https://fishinghistory.blogspot.com/2012/12/voices-from-past-gm-skinner.html

[Illustrations by Sarah Bodine, ©2024.]

By Sarah Bodine ©2024.

Sarah Bodine is a writer, editor, designer and book artist. She spent the summers of her childhood at her great-grandfather’s house, known as Cliff Cottage, on the Ontario side of the St Lawrence River near Rockport. The three Keats children were her cousins, and she often ran an outboard across the Canadian channel to spend the night on Pine Island. John Keats, fondly known as JK, made Roscoe Fish the main character in his bedtime stories, which were loved by all the children. To this day, the next island generation is forever looking for Roscoe under the boats in the slip.

[From the Editor: Again, for Episode 3, we send deep appreciation to Sarah Bodine and her Keats cousins. We split this Episode into two parts - Each is a story on its own.

Those of us who read JK (John Keats, Pine Island) books will smile and thank them for the opportunity to read more - even if in the imagination of Sarah and her cousins. Authors and readers will know that our TI Life articles are usually limited to 1,200-1,500 words - but this series of short stories about Roscoe may be longer - long enough for all young River Rats to want more! The good news is there will be 8 more Episodes!]

See Episode 1: Roscoe Fish Goes "Boying"!  January 2024

See Episode 2: How Roscoe Fish Got His Name, February 2024

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 3, March 2024, Fiction, Places

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