Adorned in their Easter finest, families cruised down the road en route to small-town churches for Sunday service.
In similar fashion, I had donned my best fishing clothes - ratty jeans and an "All My Heroes Smell Like Fish" T-shirt - and headed for open water.
The game plan was simple: find water, go fish. But what and where and how didn't really matter - it was the why. The itch that needed to be scratched. The urge to be outside breathing fresh, country air. To hear the birds and the water rushing, to feel a cool breeze and the warm, April sun on my ghastly pale face.
Or maybe it was Vitamin D deficiency.
In any case, my wife, Erin, was working another 12-hour shift at MeritCare, so I was left to my own devices. On a frigid winter day with me trapped indoors, this would spell trouble. But with calm winds, open water and temperatures in the mid-60s, I could think of no better activity than fishing.
Yes, I realize it was Easter Sunday, but before you go all fire-and-brimstone on my blaspheming behind, hear me out. I am a religious man. Maybe not shaking-the-rafters-with-my-born-again-testifying religious, but I believe in a higher power and the infinite beyond. This happens regardless, however, if I spend the first decent day of spring sitting on a rigid pew or casting a line from a sandy shoreline.
Besides, didn't Jesus snag a bunch of Apostles from their jobs as fishermen? You know, the whole "fishers of men" thing. See? Even Saints like fishing.
I rest my case.
Traveling east from Fargo toward the lakes country of Minnesota, I had my sights set on the area around Ottertail Lake. The 13,725-acre body of water had recently shed its last bits of winter ice, and the rivers coursing to and from it were teeming with life.
Or so I thought.
Though I was shooting from the hip as far as planning, I couldn't help but imagine what likely fish would be biting. Maybe panfish, I thought; crappies and sunfish mostly. There always was the possibility of catching a wayward walleye, though with the season closed it would immediately be released.
Roughfish, however, were the most likely takers, and suckers in particular. In my mind, I pictured schools of the bottom feeders surging upstream for spawn: the Midwest equivalent of Pacific salmon on their marathon trek back to the shallow streams of their birth. Though suckers mat not be quite as graceful or pleasing to the eye, with a downturned pout of a mouth and bland, mottled grey coloring, it doesn't detract from the fact that they are excellent fighters, as well as table fare - depending on who you talk to. I knew the chance of a sucker run was slim - it was a lot earlier than most years - but with ice dispersed and the temperatures rising, anything was possible.
From an aerial view, with its many rivers dangling like severed arteries, Ottertail Lake could be a giant organ hastily harvested from Paul Bunyan on his deathbed by some nervous doctor. Deciding to travel clockwise around the lake - for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea at the time - I made it to the first creek.
The waterway proved a dud, as did the following few. I systematically hit every viable spot to fish around the lake with nary a bite. Even travels farther East to the Leaf River proved fruitless, though I did spot some suckers lying at the bottom that quickly scattered as I readied a cast.
Was God smiting me for my insolence?
Eventually meandering back to Ottertail, I stumbled upon a dam toward the south of the lake. This spot looked promising, complete with a wooden fishing pier and crystal blue waters. In the churning current, I spotted what looked like ciscoes or whitefish, their black forked tails and silvery sides gleaming in the sunlight.
A quick flick of the wrist and a chartreuse and orange jig was sent sailing into the water. I felt a tap and set the hook, only to feel disheartening nonresistance.
After re-baiting with another piece of nightcrawler, I again attempted a cast toward the dam. This, too, came up empty thanks to another bait-stealing fish.
A change in tactics proved fruitless, too: bobbers weren't panning out, nor were a plain hook, worm and slip sinker.
I was just about ready to throw in the towel when I spotted something in the water - something large. A mammoth log of a creature eased out of the central maelstrom and rested like a tiger coiling for a pounce. It was a musky, large and ominous. The schools of fish that had hung around dispersed like hippies from a teargas grenade. The mighty gator of the northland loafed in the slack water, barely moving a fin.
I realized then that I had been holding my breath.
The musky eventually edged back into the frothing current, vanishing as quickly as it had appeared into the swirling blue waters.
It was a sight to behold, one not often seen even by fisherman targeting the apex predator. I took it a sign from on high, maybe even as confirmation for my decision to fish in lieu of church. That musky was the proverbial burning bush. This was what God would want. Not to sit in some stuffy, poorly ventilated congregation, dreaming about being outside, but to actually get out and enjoy the magnificent splendor made by Him for our enjoyment.
I packed up my things to leave. There was no topping that. And going home fishless didn't hinder the day's enjoyment. Just being outdoors with nothing to do but soak in the surroundings was fulfillment enough.
Can I get an Amen?