Sunday, July 27, 2008.
Oliver Mannion, the blogger formerly known here as the twelve-year old, took up fishing this vacation.
This means that his father took up fishing too.
Oliver decided it would be a great father and son activity, and put that way I'm hard-pressed to think of something that I could have refused to go along with. Rock climbing, maybe. Ship in bottle building. Gourmet cookery. Southeast Asian martial arts movie fandom. Opera-going. Vegetable gardening. Flower gardening. Rock gardening. Cheese tasting. Drag racing. Kid gets into any of that on his own, fine, but he'd have to do it absent the company of dear old dad.
But never say never. Once upon a time, back when he was in kindergarten, he was into monster trucks and he decided it would be a great father and son thing if I took him to a monster truck rally.
I have to say. Gravedigger rules.
You've probably figured out by now that I am not the compleat angler nor do I aspire to be. That's the case, but I don't have anything against fishing. In fact, I'm a great admirer of fishing, as a sport and a hobby.
In the abstract.
I love A River Runs Through It, the novella and the movie.
But in reality fishing is just one of those activities designed by the gods to make me look and feel like a fool. Nancy Nall's husband, Alan, is an expert fly-fisherman. Every year he disappears into the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the bass and salmon all compete with each other for the honor of gobbling one of his flies. Alan tried to teach me the basics of casting once and for about a minute I felt as though I might be able to learn how to do it right. The lesson didn't take. When it comes to fishing, I'm the world's worst student. Nothing about it gets into my head or my muscle memory and sticks. I've tried and tried and I can still tangle up my line while it's still on the reel just by looking at it. And no matter how much study I've put into it, no matter how much careful observation I've made of competent fishermen and women, no matter how much patient instruction I've received from the best of teachers, talk like the kind represented in this paragraph about fishing for stripers at night from Wyman Richardson's The House on Nauset Marsh might as well be in Magyar or Martian for all it makes a word of sense to me:
It is exciting to hook a fish at night. Quickly. two thumbs put pressure on the spool---not too much, for we believe in giving a fish his "head" and letting him run. But soon it becomes apparent that we do not know the direction of the run. One hand gropes for the battery switch, the other holds the rod and thumbs the reel at the same time. The headlight goes on, the line is seen to be dragging to the south. Patiently we wait, exert more thumb pressure, and finally the fish stops. For a brief moment nothing happens, and then suddenly the line goes limp. Lost? Then reel, reel for dear life; the fish is making a dead run inshore. If we are fortunate, and helped by the south drag on the line, we catch up to him before he shakes off. Then with taut line we carefully move to the south'ard until we are about opposite the fish. He is still strong, and makes short runs offshore. Our headlight now is turned toward the curling wave, and soon we see the umbrella-like dorsal fin and green back with silvery reflections as the fish turns and twists. But keep the pressure on, allow no slack! Work down toward the breaking wave, still with a taut line. Suddenly, a weakening of the strain tells us that the next wave will bring him in. It's a big wave. Back, back quickly, line taut, back up to the rising. Gradually, the wave recedes, and there is our bass, twelve pounds of him, lying on the sand. If we are wise, we grab him with one thumb in his mouth, firmly holding the lower jaw. If we slip a finger under the gill covert, we may get a painful spine cut in so doing. Anyway, get him up out of the reach of the sea, and never, never wash him until he is in the kitchen sink!
Of course I can understand what Richardson's describing here. What I can't do is see it happening because I can't see me doing it. All I can see is me losing my line or hooking my own ear or thumb. Oh, and getting that painful spine cut.
My grandfather, Pop Mannion's pop, was a fisherman. He had an impressive array of rods and reels hanging up on the wall of his summer camp on Lake George and when I was a kid I imagined that someday he would teach me how to fish. Pop Mannion's pop was a quiet, shy man and I always felt a little hesitant about approaching him about anything, so I never asked him, I would just sit and and stare thoughtfully at him at work whenever he was cleaning a freshly caught perch or trout for dinner. He never took the hint.
When I got a little older and wiser it dawned on me that if my grandfather had been the type of man who taught little kids how to fish he'd have taught Pop Mannion how to fish and Pop Mannion could have taught me. Pop Mannion has taught me many things. Fishing is not one them.
I think fishing was something my grandfather just preferred to do alone.
At any rate, my only truly successful fishing expedition occurred when I was nine. I caught twenty-three sunfish in a single morning. Impressed the heck out of myself. Of course, it dawned on me later that, since I was catching and releasing, I probably just caught the same four or five really stupid and hungry sunfish over and over again. But that was the last time I felt competent fishing. After that I started trying to actually learn how to do it and from there on out it's been one moral defeat after another.
That day, though, still sticks in my memory as one of the best days of my childhood, and part of what's best about it is that Pop Mannion was on the dock with me along with my brother, Luke, who caught at least a dozen sunfish himself. So, naturally, when Oliver Mannion decided we were taking up fishing together, I couldn't say, Sorry, kid, you're on your own.
Now, my only good day of fishing was a matter of sitting on a dock with my feet in the water, sticking a worm on a hook, dropping it into the water, and waiting patiently for a tug on the line. Turns out that this is pretty much all Oliver wanted to do too.
So several times last week we took our tackle and our bait and walked Andy and Opie like together down to the Mill Pond, sat down on the dock, stuck a worm on a hook, dropped it into the water, and waited patiently for a tug on the line.
Got lots of those.
Something down there struck early, struck often, and struck hungrily.
Struck without taking the hook too.
Ate us out of house and worm.
By the way, we were using sea worms, a much uglier and fiestier creature than the nightcrawlers I fed to the sunnies. Sea worms have visible legs and a mouths that you can see open and snap at your fingers as you try to impale them. They seem to know you're out to murder them and they fight for their lives, wriggling and reaching out to bite. I'm not sure I actually ever felt one bite, but since they look like creature out of Star Wars my imagination "felt" them trying to devour me whole and since I didn't have my light saber with me I tended to retreat reflexively---that's a way of saying that I'd drop them in a hurry when they went after my fingers.
Oliver loved this. Being able to laugh heartily at the old man is an essential part of the father-son bonding experience.
The worms all died honorably but in vain. Oliver landed not a single fish. His report on one of our expeditions is here. You can tell he more amused than disappointed. I think he was content to treat this year as practice. He wanted to get the feel of fishing, see if it was something he'd enjoy for its own sake, and if he caught a fish, fine, but the important part was finding out if he had fun trying to catch the fish.
Which he did.
Sure, he'd have liked to have reeled in something more than fish eggs and seaweed. And there was something down there, something big and hungry, that he just would have liked to have had a good look at. But he had a good time and he learned some basics and now he's ready for next year. There's a bridge at the far end of the Mill Pond where it flows into Stage Harbor and he'd like to try his luck there. And he's going to do some surf casting some night off Lighthouse Beach. First thing we do our first morning on the Cape is head on over to the bait shop.
Our first morning there next year.
Our last morning there this year has come and gone.
Vacation is over. We're heading home.