A Brief Life in Fishing. (So Far)*

*- This post has been hanging around on my hard drive for almost a year. Yesterday was Fathers day, and since this essay is a tribute to fishing, Grandfathers and Fathers, what better time to post it.
My first memory of fishing is of a bamboo cane for a rod, a string for the line, and a paper clip for a hook. I have no idea if I caught anything, I just know I was fishing that way, and was very young. This is not suggest I was on the Tenkara bandwagon before it was trendy. A reel would have come in handy, but instead, simply twisting the cane in your hands would wind the string around the tip.

I didn’t begin fishing seriously until I was in my late twenties. This could have been a source of remorse had I considered the fishing I didn’t do, and the experience I could have gained after all those years, but who has time for remorse when there’s all this fishing to do? And although I haven’t spent my entire lifetime fishing, it was present in my life in one way or another, in fleeting bursts, all along.
I’m the grandson of a dedicated fisherman, who left to wade calmer waters many years ago. There is a picture of him I like to look at on the wall of my Dad’s study. He is crouched on a river bank, cradling a freshly caught Perch and smiling for the camera. If I ever fished alongside him, I don’t remember it, but I like to think his love of fishing and mine are not purely coincidental. Grandad loved fishing, and he loved to take his grandkids to the circus. It brings a smile to  my face to think of what he would have thought of his two grandsons, my brother and I, one a stage manager in the worlds greatest theatrical circus, the other hopelessly drawn to water and fish.

His affinity for fishing must have rubbed off on his oldest son, and I have crystal clear memories of fishing with my Dad. It was fishing with him that I learned the basics; how to use a rod, and how to fish for perch under a float. We were not regular fisherman growing up; usually wetting a line for leisure on occasional family day trips and vacations, but fishing makes up some of the more lucid, lingering memories of trips that are otherwise forgotten, or obscured by time. I can’t remember what else we did in Cape Cod when I was eight, but I can precisely recall the deep-sea fishing trip we took, including the smallest details of the Captain and his boat; his green cap covering a balding head save a mane of long, sun-bleached, blond hair, and how he stashed candy bars and sodas in the forward cabin of the vessel that smelled like engine oil and old, mildewed rain gear. I can still see the stubby white boat rods, the squid bait, and how we simply flipped the bail and dropped the heavy sinkers to the sea floor, yelled “NET!” at the first indication of a bite, and reeling in sturdy black Sea Bass. There’s a photograph of my brother and I, flanking the Captain, my brother holding his catch the way fisherman do, his hand inside the gill plate, while I cradle mine in my hands because I simply refused to shove my hand into the bright pink flesh behind his lifeless eyes. I remember that picture being taken with great clarity.

I can see the river at Runnymede in England, can see Dad’s two fishing rods – one a pale green, the other black with red tape securing the guides – can see the cork handles and yellow, luminous, pencil thin bobbing floats, and I know we were fishing for, and caught Perch, but these are the only details I recall about that day.

I recall catching a Sea Raven, a monster to me at a young age, with its snapping jaws, rows of sharp teeth and frightening appearance. Dad unhooked and released it, but not before some local fisherman came over to take a look at my odd catch. I just can’t remember where I was, or why, though I’ve narrowed it down to a rocky jetty somewhere in America.

Years later, in my early teens, I purchased a Shakespeare spinning outfit at the local K-Mart at the insistence of a friend who fished for trout during the Spring season. We fished Brandywine Creek, where we stood elbow to elbow with other fisherman on the crowded banks and molded neon dough onto hooks. I knew almost immediately that this was not my idea of an enjoyable afternoon; all that sitting and waiting on a crowded piece of water and plying play-dough into fish food, and we never saw a trout, much less caught one. So, I went back to the K-Mart and gazed at the wall of tackle, with no knowledge on what attracts fish other than corn kernels and worms in ponds, and squid strips a few miles off-shore.  I picked out a rubber frog with sharp hooks and a wiggling legs, and began sneaking onto a small pond I’d spied behind an old stone wall along a country road. The pond ran alongside the longest driveway you ever saw, and the driveway ended at the biggest house you ever saw. The house was far enough away that I could sneak in and fish undetected, and I often did. It was the height of Summer, and the simple action of retrieving that rubber frog through the moss and Lilly pads caused the resident Largemouth Bass to free themselves of the confines of the water in leaping, explosive, acrobatic strikes, time after time. These were my first freshwater bass, my first fish caught on a lure, and I loved every second of it, fishing there several times a week, until one day I was spotted, busted. The man, his appearance lost on me, wasn’t unkind or angry, but in no uncertain terms insisted I leave and not return. I never did go back until recently, when I went looking for that pond. I didn’t find it – maybe I’ve misplaced its exact location, or maybe it really is gone –  but I still have the rod and that frog; it’s hooks old and rusted now, and even though it’s the lure I’ve caught countless bass on, I refuse to fish with it for fear I’d lose it. I still often think of those bass, and of that pond.

My fishing tapered off significantly in my late teens and early twenties. There were jobs and hanging out in parking lots and getting into trouble to do, and fishing never factored in to any of it, although in hindsight it would have been a much better use of my time and energy. It wasn’t until I moved to the beaches of Southern Delaware that I rekindled my romance with fishing, but once it was rediscovered, it was permanent.

It’s hard to recall exactly when I decided I wanted to fish the surf, but I imagine it came to me on a day at the beach where fishing was not the object.
There are designated fishing beaches here; picturesque and free of the hoards of tourists and sun worshippers who pack the guarded beaches in summer. For a fee, you can purchase a tag for your vehicle, and drive right out onto the beach, with the understanding that, by law, you were required to be engaged in fishing at all times. Friends of mine took full advantage of this, and would take truck-loads of friends onto the beach along with barbecue grills, wiffle ball bats and cases of beer. They would cast out a line, sometimes without even baiting it, and thus appear to be meeting the requirements set by the state and enforced by the rangers. (The rangers have wised up, and these days, often ask to see your bait.) The rod would stand in a sand spike, so there was no need to be seen holding it at the waters edge, and you were free to drink a beer, cook a burger and enjoy a stretch of beach all to yourself. But as I watched nearby fisherman reel in Striped Bass, Bluefish, Sharks, Flounder and doormat sized Sea Rays, my focus drifted away from the beach party and onto the possibilities of catching fish from the beach. It was not long before I scraped together the cash for my own eleven foot surf  rod and reel, and a bag of 3oz sinkers. I was working behind a bar at night, which freed up my days to fish, and so I did so, almost every day for an entire summer. I learned, through countless hours of reading and talking to silver-haired men in tackle shops, about the fish, and the equipment. About how to read the water, and where I’d be most likely to find a fish in the Atlantic. I’m still learning, as good anglers always do, but I’m now able to walk over to the guy fishing next to me, still obviously new to the game and unsure of himself, and show him a few things, and tell him he’s casting over the fish. All the new guys do.

Just as bait fishing for trout in that Brandywine creek quickly became stale, so did bait-fishing on the beach, although it took considerably more time for my interest to wane, as there are worse places to sit and watch for a bend in a rod than from a beach chair with the Atlantic lapping at your toes. I wanted to be more engaged, to hunt fish and catch them on lures. I went back to the books and discovered Hopkins metal spoons, Storm lures, and countless other ways of imitating the fish that stripers, blues and other ocean-going fish like to dine on. But it was the Bucktail lure that changed my fishing life, because one day, while examining a freshly purchased bucktail, I decided I could save some money if I just figured out how to make one.

the Internet provided everything I needed. I purchased deer hair, powder paint and unpainted lead jigs of all sizes, and a fly-tying vise to put them together, and I tied my first lures, and eventually caught fish with them. I had never considered that this was even possible, and fooling a fish on something I’d built out of hair and glue and paint was intoxicating. If I wasn’t fishing or working to pay for fishing gear, I was making bucktail lures.

Just about the time I was becoming proficient at making my own lures, I came to realize I needed better rods, and it was then that my fishing life seemed to come full circle to the fishing I’d done as a kid, alongside my Dad.
My eleven-foot surf rod was no good for tossing and retrieving heavy lures, and I’d purchased a six foot rod to replace it, but this was no good either. Eleven foot was too much, and six too little. I determined that I needed a seven or eight foot rod of heavy action, and the ability to toss 3oz of weight without shattering. I examined every rod the tackle shops carried, and found them either of insufficient quality, or with too high a price tag. I was still searching for the right rod when I stumbled upon not one, but two of them. They were seven and one half feet, composite graphite, had ceramic guides and could toss up to 4oz of weight. Best of all, they came without a price tag, as they lived in the rafters of my parents basement.

Neither my Dad nor I can remember where we purchased these rods, but we know it was on a vacation fishing trip when I was a kid, and they’ve moved around with my parents ever since. It’s possible these are the rods we used to catch the Sea Raven all those years ago. Today, they are my favorite beach rods for casting lures, and I’ve caught countless fish with them.  I’ve researched the manufacturers name (South Bend) and come up almost empty. I’ve found a few images of cheaper rods bearing the same name, but none of these specifications, and none with ceramic guides. Like my rubber frog lure, I have a special place for them in the fishing corner of my soul, and I’ll treasure them for both their connection to my past, and their ability to cast lures as well as they do after twenty years of living in storage, neglected.

Almost all of my fishing now is with a fly rod, and this transition was sparked by the process of learning to make those bucktails. I had all the gear to tie flies, and you can only make so many bucktails before you want to try something new. It came as a natural progression.

I began to research fly fishing, and read books by McGuane, Lyons, Lefty and Geirach. I recently read those books again as a significantly more accomplished fly caster, and they are much more enjoyable when you understand what the hell the author is talking about, but they still caused me to want to learn the art of fly fishing, even when I couldn’t tell  a woolly bugger from a clouser minnow.
I started out on a fiberglass broom-handle of a rod that made learning to cast all the more difficult, but probably paid off in dividends once I upgraded to a solid, name brand graphite fly rod. I’m almost completely self-taught, which accounts for some of the sloppiness in my casting, but am anxious to improve with the help of others and with time on the water. I’m a relative newcomer in the grand scheme of fly fishing, and I’m told I’ll still have days when I feel like an amateur after twenty years of casting flies, and this is fine by me, because I’ve enjoyed fishing a fly more than any other type of fishing I’ve done in the past. I’m able, and I can find and catch fish, and I value every trip to the waters edge as an opportunity to get better. I’ve also come to appreciate the things you observe while fly fishing. When fishing under a bobber and bait on a conventional rod, the tendency is to set the rod down, or simply focus on the end of the rod, watching for a tell-tale bend in the tip. Fishing with a fly, your attention is on the water. Not just the patch in front of you, but all of it. Watching for the wake of a fish, the concentric circles caused by the rise, the birds feeding in the salt water shallows, or the cruising carp nosing his way across a mud flat. There is a level of focus and connectivity to your surroundings that I’ve found intoxicating, and have been stumbling drunk on, since I caught my first Bluegill on a fly rod.

Dad still has Grandad’s love of fishing in him. When we talk, he asks me how the fishing has been, and likes to see the pictures I send of my catches. He has casually mentioned an interest in fly fishing, and we’ve been meaning to get together and go fishing for some time now. We’ll get that done sooner than later, and I can show him some of what I’ve learned; another of the ways in which fishing has come full-circle in my life.

All of the fishing I’ve done has been rewarding; from fooling with a cane and string, to summer days catching piles of largemouth as a teenager, to just yesterday when I landed a large Chain Pickerel on a fly. Fishing hasn’t always been present in my daily life as it is now and for the past several years, but it has always been there, just under the surface like a hungry, rising trout. Thinking back, it’s easy for me to see that I always loved it simply in how it resonates in my memories while other details are lost. I hope I still have decades of fishing to do, and find myself wondering about the places it will take me and the things I have yet to experience, and through it all I’ll remain grateful for its people, its places, memories and accomplishments, for fish, for Dad and Grandad, and for my brief life in fishing.


1 Comment

Filed under Fishing

One response to “A Brief Life in Fishing. (So Far)*

  1. Mike Parry

    Nice read Neil, thanks. Dad

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