o here’s the deal — my father and I haven’t caught a fish in 20 years. If you knew us well that fact might surprise you. We’re both the sort of guys who don’t mind getting up at 5:00 to sit silently outside by the lake with a bad cup of coffee and watch the world wake up. We appreciate the zen of nature in a floppy fishing hat, Bing Crosby, Colonel Henry Blake sort of way – as opposed to a Bear Grylls sort of way. If you were ever stranded on a deserted island with either of us, consider yourself doomed. If either of us were on “Survivor” we’d be the guys building the shelter and gathering firewood, ‘cause if the tribe was depending on us for fish, everyone would starve.
We’ve been on chartered expeditions with seasoned veterans with $100,000 state-of-the-art fish-finding equipment and slack-jawed yokels who knew where and when the fish were biting by the position of the sun in the sky… and we’ve been skunked every time. On our last fishing trip, about 10 years ago, we finally gave up and accepted our fate to find our zen sipping bad coffee at 5:00am and watching the fish catch the dragonflies.
Not to soon thereafter my parents retired to a piece of lakefront property that can only be described as fishing nirvana. Downy cotton seeds drift down from the trees through the air like something out of Middle Earth. The blue heron comes by regularly enough that my parents have named him Harry. The bullfrogs in the reeds grind out a slow, deep steady “grum… grum… grum…” day and night. There’s a constant stream of seasoned, top-tier fishermen with $30,000 boats, $300 poles and $30 lures putt putt putting through the toolies around my parents’ property fishing for large-mouth bass, which are numerous enough to support half a dozen world-class fishing tournaments throughout the year.
But not so numerous that my father and I have ever caught one. In fact, we haven’t even tried. What’s the point? The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. My father and I don’t catch fish. There are certain laws of nature you come to count on.
Then my son came along.
My kids have noticed the fishermen around BooBoo and Papa’s house every time we’ve been up there. That, combined with their discovery of the WildKratts since our last visit and they were BEGGING to go fishing at the lake this time around. Even if you don’t catch any fish, there is immeasurable value in the experience of fishing with your kids, so in anticipation of their arrival my dad went out and bought two cheap-o $15 poles, each rigged with the whispiest spider-line you could imagine, bobbers and a hook, and a bowl of nightcrawlers. In the weeks leading up to the trip I did my best to lower my kids’ expectations. “You bet we can go fishing. Absolutely. But you may not like it. It can be pretty boring”.
“That’s OK” they said over and over.
When it came time to fish, my son soaked up the rigging lessons from Papa with incredible focus. This was after all, his first time fishing. The bobber, the weight, the hook, the line, the real, and of course the worms – this was big medicine. We cast the rigs out in the water and started the mental countdown. Both my dad and I figured we’d go out on the pier, dip our lines in the water and after 10 minutes the kids would get bored and we’d move on to the next activity.
To our surprise, Episode IV puttered out first. “Daddy” she said. “I’m bored. I want to go play now”. So she handed me her pole and walked back down the pier towards the house. Maybe five minutes later I got a nibble on the line. It was enough to drag the bobber around the surface of the lake rather dramatically. Episode V noticed just in time to see the fish splash loudly as it freed itself from my rigging and returned to freedom – uncaught.
My dad and I made eye-contact knowingly. That was the most fishing-action either of us had had in decades, since I went fishing with him and HIS father 30 years ago and we actually caught a few rainbow trout. Disappointing though it was, it was enough excitement to keep Episode V’s attention, and much to our amazement, an hour after we first cast out our riggings, my 3½-year-old son was still in the game. He got tired of holding the rod, so he handed it off to my father and bounced back and forth between the two of us to see what we were doing. But he was still into it, and there we were, father, son and grandson… fishing.
Then the fabric of space/time split wide open and the laws of physics came crashing down around us.
I dozed off a little to the smells of the lake and the sound of the griebs pweet-pweeting to each other in the water. From my haze I heard my dad call out to my son “I think we’ve got one here boy. Grab the handle!” I opened my eyes to see my father and son holding on to the pole, which itself was bent impossibly back down, tip towards the water. My father was struggling to real line in, let line out, and hold on to the pole while not stepping on the pre-schooler who was holding on to the grip at the same time trying to “help”. We all shouted excitedly as whatever it was on the other end of the line tried first to take my father out to the middle of the lake, then tried to get the line tangled in the reeds, then finally tried to wrap the rigging around the legs of the pier.
Somehow my dad managed to avoid all those things, all without tripping over my son and falling 15 feet off the pier and into the water. Then we saw it.
At the time I thought it must have been between 14-16” long. But that was from 15 feet away. As I think about it now it had to be between 16-18”. It was a big-daddy bull bigmouth bass. My son was screaming with excitement. His eyes were wide. The adrenaline was pumping. This was father/son/grandson lakeside magic memories happening right here, right now.
Understand, we were NOT expecting to catch a fish, and thus we were NOT prepared. We didn’t even have a bucket to put a fish in should a fish miraculously jump out of the water and onto the pier next to us. There were two ways to get a fish like that out of the water, walk it 50 feet down the length of the pier, through the reeds and rocks and beach it, or pull it straight out of the water 15 feet up and over the railing with our $15 pole and spider silk thin fishing line.
Grandfather and grandson wrestled the white-whale… er, um fish until it was exhausted. Then slowly, inch by inch, the two of them (on the same pole) pulled it up and out of the water. Looking down at the fish it was clear why they call them “big mouth bass”. Put your thumbs and middle fingers together tip-to-tip and that’s how wide his mouth was (if only my patients could do that for me). The fish hung there suspended in space, 6” from the surface of the lake, the rod was bent within an inch of its life, the line groaned with the strain and time stood still, like Neo in The Matrix.
We were violently whipped back into reality when my son shouted “WOW! That thing could eat my whole head!” Those profound words were enough to wake the fish up as well, and with one final shake of its head the impossibly thin fishing line snapped and he splashed back into the water, free to live another day.
Now this is the point where if you were telling the story I would be saying “Picture or it didn’t happen”. You’ll notice I don’t have a picture of the fish on this page. Here’s why:
That night after the kids went to bed and my dad and I were sitting out on the veranda with a beer watching the day-shift switch to the night-shift on the lake I said to him “You know, if we were thinking we would have brought your pool net out with us. It’s long enough. We could have scooped him right out of the water”. My dad’s response was genius in its simplicity.
“That would have been ‘believing’, not ‘thinking’. Frankly, I thought bringing those chairs out there was a stretch”. And of course he was right. If I’d “believed” we were capable of catching a fish, I might have had my camera ready just in case. I didn’t.
“You realize I’m going to have to go back out there tomorrow” I said. “The problem is, now I have expectations… damnit”.
And “go back out there” I did. The next evening, like Captain Ahab, I went right back out to the exact spot and cast my nightcrawler in the exact same spot, and sat there for an hour while my dad Bar-B-Q’d and my kids hunted lizards in the rocks back by the house.
And wouldn’t you know it? Not a nibble.