Do you remember the first fish you caught? I maintain that just as us older folk can vividly recall what we were doing when we first heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, so too can we anglers vividly recall our first catch. At first glance, the bluegill I landed with a cane pole on a Midwestern lake might seem like a hoary cliché — you know, all-American barefoot boy with cheek, and all that. In fact, I maintain that the seemingly humble tale of my first catch dwells in the realm of the authentically iconic. Let’s see if I can explain.
I was fishing with my father, who was squatting precariously beside me on one of the steep, eroded banks characteristic of Stonelick Lake, a southwestern Ohio frog and turtle factory with a modest brown-sand beach, a smattering of largemouth bass and a teeming population of four-to-eight-inch bluegills.
Dad was a golfer, not a fisherman, yet, there he was, sharing my frustration as some invisible creature at the edge of a weed bed about eight feet from the shore methodically worked its way through the two dozen red worms dad and I had purchased at One-Armed Jack’s Bait Shop. (That place really existed, located inexplicably on the corner of Hunter Ave. and Ross St. in good old Norwood, Ohio — the closest body of water was Duck Creek.)
Anyway, I would fling out my bait, and before the ripples subsided, the red-and-white, quarter-sized bobber would commence its merry dance, sometimes skittering across the placid water, occasionally even going completely under. When the bobber did go under, I would count to three or five, even to seven or nine, before attempting to set the hook.
Sometimes the bobber would go under and move at a steady clip toward deeper water (sort of like that scene with the barrels in the film, Jaws. Even then, convinced that the fish surely would have swallowed the hook. I would set the hook
In either case, all I would have to show for my efforts would be a miniscule particle of what was once a robust and succulent annelid.
“This is the last one, dad announced, handing me a worm. It seemed oddly passive. Perhaps it was succumbing to the heat of an already hot, summer day. Figuring that its career as an enticing wriggler was likely over, I decided to run the hook through its “head” and then string the hook down through its body until the barb emerged from its tail. I’m not sure which prayer I uttered as I cast my last, best hope into the lake, but it must have been to the liking of the Big Boss up there, because, man, was that prayer answered! My bobber floated undisturbed for nearly a minute (probably the length of time the bait thief needed to process the unorthodox presentation) before going under in convincing fashion. I responded with a gentle flick of the wrist and actually felt resistance! At that point, in a near delirium, I yanked mightily, and watched as a hand-sized bluegill sailed up, over and behind me.
“Don’t let it get away!” I hollered at dad as he tried to get to his feet. (As it turned out, he had to deal simultaneously with a hysterical ll year old and one whale of a Charlie horse.) “Watch out for his spines!” I added.
Dad actually managed to unhook the bluegill without punishment. “See, he explained, “You make a little circle around his head, and then you slide your hand down his body until you get a good grip.”
“Wow,” I sort of whispered.
“That way, the spines stay folded along his back.”
I was impressed. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“Intuition, I guess.”
“I know that word,” I ventured. “What exactly does it mean again?”
“It’s looking at something or hearing something, maybe even smelling something, and then something in your gut tells you what you need to know about it.” While I pondered what the heck he was talking about, he added, “Intuition’s usually accurate, but sometimes it can fool you.”
(By inserting the “discourse on intuition” episode into my posting, I realize that not only am I hindering its narrative flow, but that I’m even further mucking up the flow by the very act of calling attention to it. However, given the pivotal role intuition will play both on me and on others in some of my future postings, I can only say, you’ve been warned!)
I could barely make out mom and my siblings cavorting on the beach directly across the lake, so, naturally I began screaming, “I caught one! I caught one!” I actually thought I may have caught the attention, either of mom or of one of the other equally indistinguishable women. But dad suggested we might want to drive back over so they could marvel at my catch close up.
One of us found an abandoned cookie tin without its lid and that is how my bluegill made the bumpy trip back around the lake to the beach. The tin had a depth of about four inches, of which a little more than an inch of unspilled water remained when we arrived at the beach. Not surprisingly, my fish was laying on its side, its gills quivering. “He needs water!” I shouted, and my two youngest brothers tripped over themselves in their zeal to play meaningful roles in the unfolding drama. It was at this point that my sister Mary, after regarding my bluegill with mix of compassion and revulsion, looked at me and said, “You’re going to let it go, aren’t you?”
“You really should,” mom chimed in.
What a stupid question! was my first thought. My second thought was, What a very good question! I really had no idea what came next. I obviously didn’t want my fish to die. On the other hand, there were so many people who needed to bear witness to my triumph, particularly my best friend, Tom DiPuccio, who, although a fellow sixth grader, owned an actual rod and reel. In fact, he owned a Mitchell 300 spinning reel, manufactured by Garcia, who’s annual glossy, four-color catalog interspaced the company’s innovative rods reels, lines and lures with lavishly illustrated articles depicting an idealized world where gentlemanly anglers effortlessly caught limits of muskies, lake trout and Arctic char from pristine lakes and streams. Losing myself in the articles, which I reread incessantly, I would actually smell the pine-scented breezes wafting over my canoe and hear the loons crying in the distant mists.
But then, with a sudden burst of resolve, I shouted, “I’m getting ready to let my fish go!” which diverted attention away from the fish and back to me, the actual protagonist in this epic tale. “I’m going to wade out to those weeds where he’ll feel safe.”
This got me the desired response. All seven of my brothers and sisters, all dressed in swimming garb, gathered around me, while I could hear dad saying to mom, “He was actually down to his last worm.”
I waded out towards the weed bed just to the right of the beach, heedless of the water soaking my jeans. “You better not have your shoes on!” I heard my mom yell. Of course I still had my shoes on, but my mom’s exhortation was swallowed up in the reveling of my siblings as they experienced the novelty of wading in goopy mud. As we approached the weed bed, frogs started flying, punctuating their hops with little “Eeeps!”
“I feel fish biting my toes!” Mary screamed, and this created some trepidation among the ranks. Undaunted, I waded out to thigh-high water, took a last look at my fish, who was doing a piscine version of agonal breathing. “Live to fight another day,” I intoned, and then I gave him a hefty heave into the lake. Of course he landed in the algal glop that floated in huge rafts throughout the lake. There he lay, about eight feet in front of me, no doubt in deep water. All my siblings had returned to shore except for brother Bill, who appeared to be inviting any fish so inclined to bite his toes. Meanwhile, mom had walked to the edge of the shoreline and was insisting that I return to land. I took a last look at my fish only to observe it attempt one final spasmodic burst of energy and actually fight through the glop to the water below.
“I’m coming mom,” I said, almost bursting with relief and gratitude.
I would be well into high school before I could enjoy a fishing outing at a level above occasional journeys on bikes to the Little Miami River where the catch du jour were drum, nondescript non-fighters whose claim to fame were the loud croaks they emitted when handled, or nerve-wracking forays past No Trespassing signs onto private ponds whose owners invariably arrived on the scene to chase us off.
But when I heaved my bluegill out of Stonelick Lake I felt touched by something that would grow and expand to become the liberating insight that although we humans are consigned to live predominantly in the dimension of air, we can open ourselves to tantalizing glimpses of that other dimension, the dimension of water, the dimension inhabited by well over half the earth’s creatures. If we choose to do so, we can make it our passion to match wits with creatures who will outsmart us more often than not, and who are capable of battling us in spectacular fashion should we hook them. And in case you’re wondering, I always let them go to fight another day.