Two of my brothers worked on a deep sea fishing boat. The older, Tim, was a mate, helping gaff monstrous cod, pollack, haddock, tying clinch knots of 50-pound test line onto 16-ounce diamond jigs, unsnarling birdsnests of line from the reels of fishermen who let their lures drop too quickly, and projectile vomiting whenever the seas were anything but flat-ass calm but working through it anyway.
My next older brother, James, was at 13 too young to work on the boat, but able-bodied enough to rinse and slog out the fish bins after a day at sea and scrub down the decks, earning maybe $10 a day and getting to go out on the boat whenever he pleased. The stink of fish guts that permeated their skin was too much for even repeated latherings of Ivory soap, but they were gods to me.
My dad wasn’t much of a fisherman, but he gamely tried to show us the basics on our frequent camping trips. His kids’ enthusiasm (and ability) soon outshone his own though, and we would spent hour upon hour sitting on the jetty at the end of our beach, lines baited with sand worms or clams, waiting for the twitch at the end of the rod that would signal a flounder biting. Mostly we just caught crabs. Lots of crabs.
Or we would jerk our spinners through the channel at the mouth of the Kennebunk River, catching silvery pollack and mackerel striped electric green and black. When word got out that the pollack were running thick in the tidal river behind our house, we’d all grab our rods and make a dash for it, hauling out fish hand over fist and giving them to the monks at the nearby Franciscan monastery, who had a particular affinity for the oily flesh. At times like that it seemed like you could have walked across the surface of the water atop the seething schools. Maybe that’s how Jesus did it, I don’t know.
The boat my brothers worked on was called the Indian, and the owner, a barrel-chested and sun-lined salt with a wicked Maine accent, saw that I was aching to get my hands (even if they still bulged with residual baby fat) on one of those heavy boat rods, and made an offer. He took one of the adhesive name tags that served as tickets aboard the Indian, wrote my name on it in blue marker and gave it to my father, who carefully placed it in his wallet. When I reached the age of ten, I was told, I could use that name tag as a free ticket to fish aboard the boat.
Over the course of the next two years I must have asked my dad to see that ticket, to reassure myself that it was still there (it didn’t occur to me that such a thing could be easily replaced – to me that tag was a talisman, a promissory note, my Golden Ticket to a wonderful world just beyond my horizon) so frequently that in hindsight I imagine he probably very much wanted to kill me.
And then the day came. The boat slowly eased its way down the river, past the lobster boats, each with its personal buoy perched jauntily on the wheelhouse roof like a feather in a cap, past sailboats with their rigging tapping out a Morse on the steel masts, past the yachts of the wealthy, the elongated cigarette speedboats of men with big bank accounts and small penises, and out into the choppy waters of the Gulf of Maine.
You drop your diamond jig over the railing, keeping a thumb on the reel’s spool to prevent that backlash bird’s nest, let it hit the bottom in about 400 feet of water, give three cranks on the handle, and start to jig up and down. When you feel the unmistakable weight of a fish on the line, you reel it up. Fairly straightforward.
I don’t remember exactly what I caught on that first trip, but I do know that I caught more fish than I ever had before, and that they were all, to me, absolutely enormous.
At eleven I won the pool for the biggest fish of the day. On each trip everyone would kick in a dollar, and whoever caught the heaviest fish would take home the kitty. Jigging away, I had at first thought I’d caught bottom. But this bottom fought back. With Tim holding the rod, I cranked and cranked until a behemoth 32-pound cod came into sight. I won $64 that day, perhaps not an astounding amount for kids these days who are looking to get their hands on a new iPhone, but for an 11 year-old in 1981, 64 bucks represented a lifetime of penny candy.
Round about this time I graduated in freshwater fishing from catching little sunfish and perch with worm and bobber to much larger bass and trout. My friends and I would load up on crayfish at a little local stream, bike down to the river, and catch feisty smallmouth bass until the crayfish ran out. My parents bought me the “Complete Book of Freshwater Fishing” by P. Allen Parsons, and though it was outdated even then, that book was to me a holy text, pored over cover to cover until I could reel off whole pages by heart.
By high school James and I were snatching every spare moment we had and spending it in a canoe. “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, but we knew. A day on the lake meant bird watching, snorkeling, amateur ecology. It meant reading the water to simply ‘know’ where the fish were lurking. It meant honing skills and gaining knowledge. It meant getting into a state of mind in which our thoughts, and even sometimes our words, were in absolute harmony. It meant a lot more than just catching fish, and we derided the ‘bassholes’ with their big motor boats and electronic fishfinders.
To set out at dusk in a canoe, hearing the beavers slap their tails in warning, watching herons loft across the sunset sky to their rookeries, listening to deer crash through the underbrush and the blub-blub-blub of your surface lure as it skims across the water – to simply say we’re ‘fishing’ doesn’t really encapsulate the experience. Sure, we’re fishing, and we want to catch fish. But what we’re really out there for is something infinitely more complex, more ineffable, more, almost, spiritual.
All of this is a rather long-winded preamble to what I originally meant to write, which was a list of reasons why you should teach your kids to fish. But like most fishermen, get me talking about fishing and, well, you can see what happens. So I suppose you’ll have to wait until the next post for me to expound upon all of the marvelous ways in which fishing with your kids fixes the world’s ills. Unless, of course, I get talking about that time…