Fish Story

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  So goes an old saying the origin of which I haven’t a clue, and I suppose that there may be some truth in it.  I suspect however that the author of that phrase never met a fisherman like me.  Many an accomplished angler has tried to impart to me the ways of the fish and how to coax one onto my hook but the result has, for the most part, been a failure.  Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  Try to teach Glenn Durden how to fish and you’ll be wasting your time and will probably get an ulcer.

I was introduced to fishing when I was a very small child.  My brother, who was four years older than me, had found out before the earliest reaches of my memory that he never wanted to mess with fishing, so I can only remember my father and I going to the lake to catch our dinner.  The lake which I remember best is Lake Henshaw, a reservoir in San Diego County located about 70 miles northeast of the city.  The lake was usually pretty low in those days because the region was in a prolonged dry cycle, but it had everything one would need for a good day of fishing; water, boats and the bait and tackle shack where necessities such as soft drinks, potato chips, candy, beer (for Dad), and a cardboard carton of worms could be bought.  There was no doubt other fishing stuff could be purchased there too but it held little interest for Dad and I.  We were going after catfish, and catfish liked worms.  Little did I know then that catfish would have cheerfully eaten the chips and candy that we bought there and the sandwiches that my mother had packed for us and anything else that was food or in some small way looked like food.  Catfish are the pigs of the aquatic world.

After Dad had purchased our day permits, rented the boat and procured our bait we would choose a rowboat and propel ourselves across the lake in search of a corner where the fish might be biting.  One would think that fish in a lake would as likely be biting in one place as another, but that did not seem to be the case.  Dad would choose a spot where we would throw out our lines and wait for a while, and if nothing happened we would move to another corner of the lake and repeat the process.  Eventually one of us would feel a tug on the line and jerk the line in order to set the hook.  I later learned that this was unnecessary with catfish as they scarfed down any morsel that they came across with no hesitation.  Like I said; catfish are pigs.

The bait that we used were common earthworms.  Not the big bruisers that you can see emerging from the ground after a spring rain in the Northwest where I now live, but their smaller cousins.  They would be packed in some moist substance which was sort of a cross between coffee grounds and sawdust.  We would dig into the carton and find the largest, and then skewer their wriggling bodies on our hooks.  Being young I assumed that it was a normal and natural thing to impale worms on a hook; it was their karma, and I thought the worms knew that and didn’t really mind.  If Dad had any similar feelings he never shared them with me, so I just did what he did.  I have occasionally wondered if someday I will be called to account for my serial murder of those innocent worms, much less the catfish I caught, but that is meat for another story.   It seemed like as I got older my luck left me and I brought home fewer and fewer catfish for Mom to cook.  Catfish are slimy characters, so I think I didn’t really mind too much not catching them, and I eventually moved on to try my luck with other fish.

Bass, Crappie, and even large bluegill are a better order of fish, and I next remember trying my luck in the lakes, ponds and streams of Georgia, where my father grew up and we visited every couple of years.  Georgia was not my cup of tea as it was hot, sticky, had enormous bugs and was populated with adults whom I didn’t really know and kids who viewed me with suspicion as an outsider.  I usually went with my dad to the town swimming pool, read Hardy Boys books or whatever I could find, or sat on the covered front porch trying desperately to find a breeze and counting the seconds until we would leave Georgia and repeat my torture in Kentucky where my mother grew up.

On one particular day I decided to walk a half mile or so to a large pond which I knew to be teeming with nice, fat, catchable fish.  The idea of a dinner of fried bass or crappie, a few dozen bluegill or even a by-now-detested catfish would be an improvement over the unsavory table set by my paternal grandmother, who frankly scared the tar out of me.  Mealtime on these ‘vacations’ was always an ordeal.  On this particular vacation, one of the last as I remember, I heard my father say to my mother “he can eat his grandmother’s cooking or he can starve”.  I felt like a soldier freed from a prisoner of war camp after the armistice was signed; a choice at last which didn’t involve me getting beaten about the head and shoulders!  I clutched my Get Out Of Jail Free card and cheerfully starved.  On the trip back to San Diego, Kentucky being mercifully omitted on this trip, I lay sick and weak in the back seat of our car and heard my dad say “if the kid will starve himself, I can’t win that battle”.  That statement signaled a blessed end to the struggle which Dad and I had fought for many years over what I was and was not willing to eat.  Anyway, I knew that one decent meal was waiting in that pond for me to catch it, so with pole, tackle, and Granddad’s 12 gauge shotgun I strode off across a field and through some woods to get to the pond.

I arrived at the pond and soon found the experience to be pleasant in many ways.  It was early, and so not yet oppressively hot.  I had no relatives or their friends and children around so I could sit quietly on the bank of the pond without having to perform for anybody.  The surface of the pond sported barely a ripple, and the sounds of birds and the soft breeze made me come very close to enjoying myself.  I baited the hook with a fat worm which my grandfather had dug up for me earlier and cast him out towards the snag of an old tree which somehow had found its way into the center of the pond.  I thought that fish must certainly like to hang out near old snags, although I couldn’t possibly tell you why.  I sat down and waited for the fish to jump onto my hook, and when they didn’t oblige I reeled in my line, changed my bait, moved a short way down the edge of the pond and cast again towards the center. I did this a few more times and began to wonder if I would bring home any fish after all to relieve the unpleasant prospect of that night’s dinner.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but eventually I became aware that the sun was rising in the sky and the breeze had vanished.  I was determined to catch my dinner however and reeled in my line one more time.  I was about to try a different bait when a movement in the water attracted my attention.  I looked out toward the center of the pond and saw that it was a snake swimming across the water, out by the old tree snag.  I had very little knowledge of snakes in the Southeastern U.S. but had heard of water moccasins which were poisonous.  I just sat there and watched the snake, being a young boy and naturally interested in such things.  Being a young boy however it was also naturally difficult for me to remain still for very long, and my small movements were enough for me to attract the attention of the snake.

The snake stopped dead in the water and seemed to look right at me.  I froze and waited for him to swim away.  He did not swim away.  After giving me the eye for a minute or two the snake changed course and began to swim towards me.  Being a kinder and gentler West Coast sort of kid I gathered my gear and worked my way through the undergrowth in order to gain the bank on the far side of the pond.  That took a while and the snake waited patiently until I arrived at a clear area from which to recast my line.  I baited my hook and was poised to cast when I saw the snake turn in the water and begin to wriggle across it, once again, directly towards me.  That was enough for me.  Forgetting all ideas of catching my dinner I put down my rod, picked up Granddad’s shotgun, waited until my reptilian pursuer made it abundantly clear that it was me towards whom he was swimming, and then dispatched that snake to whatever eternal reward my slithering friend had to look forward to.

The surface of the pond erupted and the largest intact part of the late water moccasin flew end over end to wrap around one of the branches of the old snag jutting from the water.  The ‘boom’ of the shotgun echoed through the woods and the serenity of the scene which I had previously enjoyed was officially flushed down the toilet.  I was fully aware that any chance that I would catch a fish, slim as it was to begin with, was now near statistical zero.  With the sun beginning to pound down on me in earnest and the remains of the snake dripping from its resting place on the dead branch I reloaded the shotgun, picked up my fishing gear and began a sad march back to Granddad’s farmhouse.  My failure to catch a fish would result in the near certainty of another night of sitting hungry in front of a bowl of some unrecognizable swill that everyone at the table but me would eat, and another night of my stomach growling as I waited for the morning and the corn flakes that would keep me alive for one more day.  I was so pissed off at this prospect that I returned to the pond and put another blast from the 12 gauge into the incomplete carcass of the snake.  It flew off of the snag and landed somewhere; I neither knew nor cared where.  I still don’t.

One of my last efforts to catch a fish occurred when I was a teenager.  I don’t know where my dad was, but it was Mom who accompanied my friend Mike and i to a reservoir closer to San Diego than Lake Henshaw.  My mother never learned how to swim, and since she witnessed the drowning of a neighbor when she was a child she had no great desire to get into more water than a bathtub.  It was therefore quite a sacrifice for her to climb into a tiny rowboat with Mike and I and row from one end of that lake to the other in search of somewhere where the fish were biting.  Mike and I both had tackle boxes like real fishermen and we tried every sort of bait and lure that we owned to try and coax a fish onto our hook.  Real worms and salmon eggs, fake worms and minnows, flies, poppers, and spoons.  Nothing was tempting enough to induce the canny fish who toyed with us for nearly the whole day.

We rowed over to a shady beach and had a late lunch, and then regained our perches in the boat and reluctantly resumed our quest to find one fish stupid enough to allow himself to get caught by either one of us.  That quest took us toward the back of the reservoir where the water became more shallow, with rocks and water grasses and snags sticking up into the air.  I was at this point thoroughly tired of chasing fish who were obviously determined to not get caught.  The sun was quite hot and my skin, which refuses to tan (quite a disadvantage for a kid growing up in Surf City) was beginning to take on an ominous red hue which signaled a very uncomfortable next two or three days.  I was ready to throw in the towel but wanted one more crack at catching a meal.

I rummaged through my tackle box and found shunted off in a corner an old Bomber lure.  This thing was created to look somewhat like a frog.  It would wobble when cast and reeled back in, and it was filled with some phosphorescent substance that would glow in the gloom of the water world.  The top of this lure had been cracked and some of the phosphorescent goo had oozed out and ran down the sides of the lure in streaks.  It had two treble hooks that made me uncomfortable using it, and in general it was a lure that desperately needed to be tossed into the trash.  That made it the perfect lure for this moment.  I carefully plucked the lure out of the bottom of my tackle box and affixed it to the end of my line.  Then, balancing myself in the center of the boat, I cast that piece of trash straight into the center of the rocks, grasses, and snags which adorned the edge of the lake, with little thought of successfully reeling it back to me through that obstacle course.

The result was almost immediate.  The tip of my rod bent down almost to the surface of the water and I only barely retained possession of both the rod and my seat in the boat.  All ideas of ‘setting the hook’ or ‘playing the fish’ went instantly right out the window.  For the first time in more than recent memory I had a fish on the line and, judging by the strength with which it was trying to tear the pole from my hands it was a big one.  Right then and there the conflict became personal; I would not play around.  Come to me or live with a big, ugly Bomber lure stuck in you mouth for the short duration of the rest of your life!

I reeled and reeled, and then reeled some more.  The fish exploded out of the surface of the lake; it was a largemouth bass and easily the biggest fish I had ever caught.  I didn’t miss a beat.  He plopped back into the water and I continued to reel until I could see him swimming side to side and back and forth just to the side of the boat.  Mike reached over the edge of the boat and slipped our net under the fish and hauled his big, beautiful, wriggling and flopping self onto the bottom of the boat.  I was nervous about fiddling with such a large and angry mass of teeth and fins and scales as this was so Mike did the honors and disconnected the fish from the lure and put him on our stringer.

At this point I was fully ready to go home.  Mom had been ready to go home from the moment we pulled into the parking lot.  Mike, however, was a very competitive guy who nearly always could do things better than me in almost every activity.  Mike was also my best friend, so I fished patiently while he chucked lure after lure into rocks and snags and any other forbidding sort of terrain that looked like it could hide a fish.  It was all of no avail however.  Our fishing was done for the day; the fish knew it and I knew it, and after losing a couple of much-more-valuable lures than my old, fractured Bomber, Mike knew it too.  He reeled in his line and we called it a day.

That was the last fish that I ever caught.  I tried several times more; at the ocean, in mountain streams and in the mighty Columbia River.  Nothing.  Not a nibble. It has been years since I last tried, as I live a fairly busy life and have little time for endeavors which I know well in advance will be futile.  I have to admit however that I am still drawn to the lure (if you’ll pardon the pun) of fishing.  Perhaps in a year or two when I retire I will purchase some tackle, a license, and whatever accoutrement are necessary and once again wade into a stream or river and try to bag a trout or steelhead or salmon, partly for the meal that it would afford but mostly just to say that I have finally become smarter than a fish.  My only reservation is the suspicion, based on a lot of past history, that I probably have not.

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