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Fri, 31 Aug 2007

The Fishing Expedition

The pace of life in summer is much slower, much more languid than the other seasons of the year. The combination of heat and (usually) humidity seem to downshift one's metabolic furnace, moving everything to a lower and slower gear. Activities that call for great physical exertion tend to go by the wayside in favor of those events that demand less of one physically. (Granted there are those who will find the odd triathlon or criterium to compete in during August, but there's a good reason that things like marathons tend to be held in March or October instead of June and July.)

One activity that manages to stay psychologically manageable even in the warm weather is fishing. Ice-fishing masochists from Minnesota aside, there's something about the relaxed pace of casting a line or trolling slowly from a boat that makes fishing seem almost like the ideal summertime activity -- slow-paced, laid back, almost hypnotic in its rhythms. And having a body of water close at hand often gives you a handy place to keep your beer cool.

I learned to fish at an early age. My father had fished his whole life, as his father did before him, so when the time was right (age four or five, as I recall), Dad wasted no time in inculcating in my siblings and me with a love for fishing -- one of those generation-to-generation-to-generation things that often get handed down in families. We had the good fortune to live within walking distance of a small lake, so that was the starting point for our fishing education.

One Friday evening after supper, not too long after school had ended, Dad announced that he, my brother, and I were going to go out into the yard. "What for?" I asked. "We need to catch some worms so we can go fishing tomorrow." Not knowing how one actually went about catching worms, I was curious to learn more. So we trooped out to the garage to observe the preparations. First, Dad found an old coffee can with a lid, into which he put a small amount of potting soil. "To keep the worms in," he explained. Then he went back into the kitchen and came out again a minute later with a glass of water, a spoon, and a small tin container of the sort in which spices were sold. "What's that?" I asked. "Powdered mustard," Dad replied. Being only five years old, I couldn't fathom what Dad was possibly going to do with the mustard -- just another one of those mysteries of fishing, I thought. He mixed a teaspoon or so of the mustard into the water. "Now, let's go out and find some worms!"

As the sun was just starting to set, we went out into the front yard. "You have to get down close -- on your hands and knees," Dad explained, on all fours himself and pointing out a tiny mound of earth with an even tinier hole in the top of it. "That's where the worm lives, except he's way down the hole. Good thing, too, so he stays out of the way of birds and things that might want to eat him. Earthworms mostly come out at night, but we'll see if we can persuade them to leave a little early today." And he poured a trickle of the mustard-water down into the tiny hole. My brother and I waited expectantly, but at first nothing happened. Finally, after a minute or two, to my great astonishment, a plump earthworm about six inches long poked out of the burrow and began to crawl away on the ground, twisting and writhing as it went. "Gotcha," Dad said, picking the worm up and placing it in the coffee can. "Keep looking -- there might be more there," he added. We turned our attention back to the hole and sure enough, a few moments later, a second worm emerged the same way, which my brother promptly scooped up and added to the can.

This wasn't so bad at all, I thought, as the three of us spread out a bit and began searching for additional worm lairs. "But Dad, why do they come out when you pour the water down the hole?" I asked. "What do you think?" he replied. (Dad was always one for turning our questions back to us, seeing if we could either work it out for ourselves or find out how to look up the answer. This was obviously one of the "figure it out for yourself" kinds of questions.) But I had to admit I was stumped. "Um, we fill the holes up with water and the worms can't breathe, so they come out?" I guessed. "Well, that's a good idea, and that's certainly what happens when it rains and you see worms out all over -- they do get flooded out. But this wasn't that much water." I thought some more. "I don't know," I said after another minute's fruitless analysis. "It's the mustard," Dad explained. "It irritates them and they come squirming out to try to get away from it. Probably makes them feel itchy or like they're burning all over, so they come out of their holes to try to get away from it. Much easier than trying to dig them out of the ground with a shovel." I was duly impressed with this bit of junior-level chemical warfare, and went back to the hunt.

Soon our coffee can had a dozen or so worms in it, all of them trying to burrow into the handful of soil that mostly covered the bottom. "I think we're good," Dad said. "We'll put them away for tomorrow." He snapped the plastic lid back on the can, poked a couple of holes in it with a ballpoint pen, and put the can in the refrigerator in the garage. "Your mother would kill me if she found a can of worms in the refrigerator in the house," he added conspiratorially, laying on a bit of male bonding.

The next morning we gathered our fishing gear and set off on the short walk down the hill to the lake. Dad carried the can of worms and a small tackle box with our fishing supplies. My brother and I each carried our fishing tackle -- such as it was. Our rods were about three feet long and essentially consisted of a stiff but whippy metal pole about the thickness of a coat hangar, with a plastic grip at the bottom, and a simple plastic reel just above it. Hardly sophisticated, yet rugged and durable, which meant it was just fine for a five year old going fishing for the first time. We arrived at a small dock that jutted out about three feet into the water, and Dad began to set us up: hook tied to the end of the line, then a couple of small lead sinkers crimped onto the line about six inches above the hook, then a red-and-white plastic bobber about six inches above that. Then Dad reached into the coffee can and removed a worm, laying it out on a large rock next to the dock, and cutting it into small pieces no more than an inch long, then pushing the a piece onto the hook. "Okay, you're set," he said to me. Then he showed me how to gently cast the line out into the water with a kind of gentle underhand swing. There was a tiny "plop" as my line settled into the water, baited hook suspended about a foot below the bobber, which sat placidly on the surface.

Now began what was, for a five year old, the hardest part of fishing -- waiting. Not having a long attention span to start with, I quickly found it boring to just stare at the bobber, trying to make something happen by sheer willpower alone. I could see small fish swimming around just past the dock -- perch, bluegills, even a couple of small catfish -- so why weren't they interested in my alluring offering so close by? The minutes dragged on and on, my line slowly drifting back towards the dock as it bobbed in the ripples at the surface. "Okay, let's cast you out again," Dad said. "Reel the rest of your line in." I did, and as I hoisted it out of the water, I saw that my hook was bare, worm-free. Either the bait had fallen off the hook as soon as my line hit the water, or some stealthy denizen of the deep had managed to nudge the worm off and scarf it down without me noticing. In either case, it would explain the stupefying lack of action so far.

Dad cut a longer piece of worm and pushed it over the barb a couple of times, so as to make sure it wouldn't fall off unintentionally. "Keep an eye on it now," he said, as I slung the line out into the water. I did, making sure that the pinkish-white blob of worm meat on the end of the hook was still there as the water settled again and the waiting began anew. Almost immediately, the bobber dipped below the surface and the line began to move away. "You've got one!" Dad said. "Reel it in!" I did, trying as hard as I could to emulate the poses and expressions I had seen on TV of people reeling in giant swordfish off the coast of Cancun. Soon, I had my fish dangling in the air over the dock -- a bluegill, about four inches long. Dad grasped it with an old facecloth from inside the tackle box ("Their fins have spines and if you get stuck with one, it'll hurt," he explained) and extricated the hook from the tiny mouth. My first fish! Not terribly big, and not worth keeping (I generally don't care to eat fish anyway), but it was a start. Dad let it back into the water, and, a little dazed but none the worse for wear, it slowly swam away, straight out to the middle of the lake.

There were several more fish caught that day (until the worms ran out), but from that time forward, it was I who was hooked.

As the years progressed, my brothers and I soon began to head down to the lake on fishing expeditions of our own. Our tackle slowly evolved from its humble beginnings to a more sophisticated level. My grandfather gave me one of his seven-foot-long rod and reel sets. It was more suited for surf-casting at the ocean than trolling for largemouth bass on the lake, but I loved it, because now, within the fishing circles in our neighborhood, I had the biggest, baddest rod and reel in town. I wasn't as successful as some of the other kids, but man, I was ready. I also managed to assemble a reasonably fine collection of artificial lures, which kept me from having to make excursions out on the lawn to go worm hunting, and also avoided having to cut worms up and smush them on to the hooks. I had two favorite kinds: the first was a yellow and green popping plug, which floated on the surface and was reeled in following a light jerk on the rod to make a small splash on the surface (I suppose the idea was to mimic a small frog or wounded fish, with the hope that something bigger would come along and be enticed into taking a bite). The second was my real favorite -- the Rapalla. The Rapalla was a fairly accurate replica of -- well, some generic, minnow-like small fish about three inches long. If you didn't reel it in, it floated, but it had a small clear plastic "lip" that protruded out the front at an angle such that it would dive into the water as you reeled it in. In fact, you could work the Rapalla at just about any depth you wanted by varying your retrieval speed. They were imported from Sweden, so to me they had an extra air of Volvo/Saab/Birkenstock anti-establishmentness that was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s -- to me, that just made them that much cooler. And besides, they were really good at catching fish. Largemouth bass in particular just couldn't seem to resist when a Rapalla went warbling by.

At the same time, my father and grandfather were broadening the scope of our fishing experiences. At my grandparents' summer house in Sag Harbor, we began to explore the world of salt-water fishing. No more six-foot docks or rowboats sculling around a nice quiet lake. Now we were learning to surfcast at the ocean, trying to catch bluefish and striped bass from the beach. Our tackle was continually growing more sophisticated, as were the lengths we sometimes now had to go to to go fishing. Often a fishing trip meant renting a skiff with an outboard to cruise on the bays and harbors.

The angling highlight of our summer vacations was always going out to the fishing fleet at Montauk and going out on a charter boat for a day's fishing. No matter how good we thought we were at fishing, the Montauk trip was always a chance to work in the "big leagues" of sportfishing. We would spend the day on the boat, fishing for striped bass or bluefish, depending on what the captain thought we were most likely to catch that day. Often, we would wind up catching both. In our younger days, there were no constraints on what you could catch, so the goal of the trip was to keep all of us kids rotating in and out of the three seats on the boat, assembly-line style, to catch as many fish as possible. A full day on the water would often result in a total haul of between 30 and 50 fish, mostly on the small side, but with the occasional large ones mixed in. More often than not when we were young, some of the fish we caught were larger than we were! It was also on these trips that I discovered that I was particularly susceptible to seasickness, and, especially when I was young, I would spend as much time throwing up as I would trying to catch fish.

(Without really realizing what was happening, on these Montauk trips, we are eventually witnesses to the decline in the Atlantic fishing stocks in the 1970s. As the years went by, while we would still bring home a boatload of fish, the individual fish were slowly tending to be younger and smaller, with the large fish becoming ever rarer. Many of the problems were caused by international commercial fishing fleets coming in to within a few miles of the coast and indiscriminately hauling off whatever they could net, but the impact on us recreational anglers slowly but surely became too great to ignore. The government responded with a series of regulations in the late 1970s and early 1980s on the commercial fleets, and a corresponding set of constraints on the recreational fishermen. Now we were limited to two striped bass per person (including the crew), and both had to be above a minimum size. So our fishing trips turned into triage exercises: now when you caught a bass, you had to decide whether to keep it, or throw it back and hope to catch something larger later. Early in the day the decisions were easier, or if the bass was only marginally over the size limit, over the side it would go. But later in the day, the choices were sometimes harder; more often than not, we would wind up letting good sized fish go because we had already bagged our limit. Despite the complications, the laws and regulations did eventually work, and the once-collapsing fish stocks eventually rebounded. At least we had a reliable supply of generally larger fish.)

The years continued to go by, and eventually my fishing trips became fewer and further between. I got married, and had a couple of kids of my own. And, much to my surprise, neither of my kids exhibited a great deal of interest in fishing. I would have thought they would have been genetically predisposed to enjoy angling, but that turned out not to be the case. Perhaps it was because where we lived we didn't have good fishing grounds within easy walking distance. Maybe DVDs and video games were more alluring than going out and pouring mustard-water down wormholes. But whatever the reason was, my kids were, at best, indifferent to fishing.

With one exception: when they turned roughly the same age we had been the first time we went (about six), my father organized the first of a series of annual fishing trips to Montauk for his grandchildren who lived within driving distance. I was shocked (and pleasantly surprised) to see my kids get really excited about going fishing. Time and tide wait for no man, and this was certainly true for these trips with his grandkids. Since he was now retired, Dad had great flexibility in choosing dates -- basically, whenever the captain recommended we go. But usually I would end up having to take a day or two off from work, and the kids would wind up with cases of the "48-hour flu"; I suspect the allure of getting a couple of days off from school was a not-insubstantial bit of positive reinforcement to take the edge off the otherwise lengthy car trip.

My kids enjoy these Montauk trips nearly as much as I did when I was their age. (Of course, I also discovered that my son shares my predilection for severe nausea once the swells start kicking up offshore. Fortunately, better motion sickness medicines and years of experience on my part have meant that since the first (rough) trip, he's had a much better time of it than I often did. My daughter, on the other hand, is completely unaffected by seasickness, and has little sympathy for those of us who are.) Even now, as they get older, and they have other distractions and diversions to appeal to them, they never fail to ask me if Grandpa has planned the fishing trip for this year. That pleases me -- it gives Dad a chance to spend a fun day with his grandkids, me a chance to spend a day with my father, and for he and me to pass along this love of fishing to another generation. And in another fifteen years or so, if my kids have kids, I will be calling the captain's son to organize a fishing expedition for my grandchildren. May it always be thus, from generation to generation.

Posted Aug 31, 2007 at 01:27 UTC, 3146 words,  [/richPermalink