Fishing with Dad
A summer memory
Childhood summers have a certain magic to them. This is my attempt to capture some of that, distilled in moments from 30+ years ago.
Summer smelled like fishing: damp earth with overtones of algae. The pungent grassy scent got up my nose whenever Dad and I walked down our side lot to the pond. A well-worn path ran from our yard down to the water’s edge: a perfect spot for fishing or launching our canoe.
Dad carried the fishing poles and his tackle box. Home to hooks, lures, bobbers and extra fishing line, this treasure trove also held the styrofoam container of nightcrawlers we picked up at the convenience store next to the post office.
The pond was small enough to swim across (if you were a grown up). Sometimes we stood on the shore, spongy moss under our feet. Blueberry bushes and aging trees stood sentinel as Dad taught me to cast.
Dad, in his t-shirt and worn blue jeans, not yet adorned with his Santa Claus beard, put his hands over mine to show me when to press the button and let the line out. I, at five or six years old, worried that I might hook him or myself or a bush. Fear gave way to relief and excitement as the red-and-white bobber sailed over the pond and landed in the water with a plunk.
The only thing I didn’t like about fishing was putting the worm on the hook. That was Dad’s job. He speared the wriggling pink nightcrawlers onto the barbed metal with quick, efficient motions. When the longer ones didn't fit, he split them in half and left the other side behind, writhing in its styrofoam habitat.
I think that’s why I liked lures better. Little rubber lures shaped like bait fish and big metal lures painted with eyes and spots glided through the water. Their design enticed the fish without any messy spearing, splitting or wriggling.
Sometimes we went out in the canoe, kicking the upside-down hull to scare away any snakes that might be hiding underneath before we flipped it over. I sat in one seat, engulfed by a bulky orange life jacket. Dad pushed the canoe into the pond, climbed in behind me and paddled us off to one of the spots where reeds and weeds stuck up out of the water or the lip of the shore jutted out to form an overhang.
Spots where fish liked to hide.
Whether in the canoe or on the shore, we waited patiently for the fish to arrive. The telltale dip of the bobber in the water prompted a mad scramble to reel in the prize before it got away. Lures were more sedate and traced a gentle, lazy path through the water until a tug signaled that a fish had taken the bait.
Sometimes we thought we’d caught a big one, only to realize we’d hooked a rock or some reeds and we were pulling the canoe toward our catch instead of the other way around. Sometimes we did catch a big one—like the long, spiky pickerel I hooked with a lure but that got away.
There were perch, too, and sunfish, bass and catfish. When we pulled them out of the water, they carried the earthy, tart scent of a mountain pond where beavers and geese had made their home for decades.
We had to be careful with some of those fish. Perch, for instance, had teeth and wouldn’t hesitate to bite a finger that got too close. Other fish had spiny fins arching across their backs. But there was something thrilling about running my fingers along smooth, shimmering scales before Dad tossed a fish back into the water and we watched it swim away.
It was rare that we kept any. Only once did we eat some bass that Dad and my brother caught on a fishing expedition of their own. The meat was white and flaky, a little dry and full of small bones, which I didn’t like.
But I did like fishing.
Our fishing days were warm and endless as only the days of childhood can be, and there was no reason to rush. We didn’t have anywhere to be except right there. Later, we’d go back to the house for lunch: peanut butter and grape jelly on white bread with a side of rippled potato chips and a glass of milk. Maybe some Oreos for dessert.
But in those moments with the water leaking up into the moss under our feet or the sound of tiny waves lapping against the sides of the canoe, it was just me and my dad, surrounded by the smells of fishing, which smelled like summer.