Have you ever gone fishing?
When I was a kid, my dad used to take me fishing a lot.
I remember my first fishing pole. I was probably seven years old when Daddy made that pole for me. If I close my eyes I can still see it, just like it was yesterday. And I can see my dad as he sat on an old stump in the back yard, putting my fishing rig together.
Once a year or so, my dad went to a creek a few miles away to harvest "cane poles". Cane poles were really a type of native bamboo that grew along the creek banks in Southern KY. He'd bring home a few big armloads of these each year, to use as bean sticks in the garden mostly. A secondary use, though, was fishing poles. Once the canes were dried they were strong, lightweight, and flexible.
He cut the pole to about six or eight feet long, then he wrapped fishing line around the end of the pole and tied it off, leaving about 8 feet of line free at the end. He attached a hook and a round red and white bobber, and I was in business. It was low-tech, but it worked.
First, we'd go out behind the barn to a shady spot. My dad used a hoe or a shovel to dig a hole deep enough to get to dark, cool earth. That's where the worms were.
There's a picture of earthworms here, so if you're squeamish, don't look. Focus on the text.
My job was "Keeper of the Bait." First I had to find an appropriate container. A margarine or Cool Whip tub would do, but a coffee can was the best. I'd dig through my mom's cabinets looking for just the right one.
Once I had the container, I'd meet my dad behind the barn. He'd dig the hole while I stood ready. When he turned the piles of damp earth, I'd bust up the clods and pick out the worms, dropping them into my coffee can along with a bit of dirt to keep them cool. Daddy was apparantly in sync with some universal higher power because at some point he'd stop digging and say, "that's enough," and it always was.
He'd grab a bucket and a tackle box and off we'd go, through the woods and across the fields for an afternoon of fishing.
There were three farm ponds in walking distance of our house. I suppose it was the same universal higher power that told him which one to choose on a given day. It didn't matter to me as long as the fish were biting.
Actually that's not true.
The truth is that no day fishing was ever wasted. I will stand right here in front of God and everybody and say that even if I never got a bite, some of the best times of my life were spent fishing.
It took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to walk to the pond, and then there was a ritual to be observed.
First, find a shady spot to set the bucket and the bait. Next, unwrap the line from the pole. Dig a worm out of the can, thread it onto the hook. For the first few years, Daddy did this part for me. He also dug into his tackle box and chose an appropriate weight for the line, based on how deep he guessed the water to be, and where he guessed the fish to be hanging out. It's that universal higher-power connection thing again. It always seemed to come through when he needed fishing guidance.
Last in the ritual was picking the spot from which to fish. He always picked out a spot for me on the bank, settled me in, and once my line was in the water he'd go around the pond to find a spot for himself. Far enough that we each had our space, but not so far that I was out of sight.
One of the lessons I had to learn as I sat there on the bank was when to pull the line in and re-set, and when to leave it there. I'd get impatient and start futzing around with it, and I'd hear my dad's voice from his side of the pond. "Quit messin' with it. Leave it in the water."
One of my clearest memories was the day I landed the biggest fish I've ever caught. No monster in fishing terms, but it was a big deal for a little girl. A big bass. So big I nearly couldn't land the thing. I'd been catching little bluegill all afternoon and tossing them back in. Suddenly there was a huge splash, and my bobber went deep, toward the bottom of the pond. I remember my dad dropping his pole and running around the pond toward me as I backed away from the bank, throwing my weight against it, pulling pole, line, and fish with me as I tried to bring it in.
Daddy never would take me to the lake when his buddies brought out their boats to fish. I wanted to go, but I always had to stay home. Mom told me a few years later that the guys were just not prepared to have a little girl on the boat. They'd have to take me to the bank every so often since I couldn't exactly hang over the side like they could ever time I needed to pee.
That was okay. I got the point of fishing on the bank of the pond.
I have a quote above my computer, cut out from a calendar I had a few years back.
Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.~~Henry David Thoreau
Recently, when the days have been a little nutsy, I've thought a lot about those afternoons at the pond, dangling my line into the water, watching the world around me, waiting for a bite.
It's a little like writing and publishing in a lot of ways. You do the work, you build your rig, you bait your hook and you toss the line into the water. And then you wait for a bite. Sometimes you get a nibble. Sometimes you have to go back and study the weather, the water, and sometimes you have to put your worms back in the can and get out the minnows because the bait just isn't right for the fish you're after, or sometimes you have to move to the other side of the pond.
The thing is that even if I'd never hooked a fish, I still would have come away a richer person. I was after something other than fish, though I didnt' know it then. Solitude. The sense of nature around me, and nature's ability to put things into order, no matter what. Peace.
I'm after that again. With my writing and with my life. As we swing into spring and summer, into conference season, with its travel, pitches to editors and agents, and its need to be "on" emotionally and mentally and physically, I think the best thing I could do for myself would be to find a spot on the bank, bait my hook and just sit there for a while, listening to the birds, feeling the sun on my skin, the breeze kiss my cheek, watching my bobber float across the water, waiting for a bite.
I think maybe that's where some of my stories came from. Maybe not from the fishing itself, but from the quiet, the solitude, and the slow-down-and look-around time I spent sitting on those banks.
I tend to keep myself so busy now that I couldn't hear my muse if it had a bullhorn. Slowing down takes effort now. I have to wonder if what Thoreau meant was that when we dip our line into the water, what we're really hoping to catch is a bit of our real selves. That's certainly true for me.
The last ritual of the fishing day was to take the leftover worms and toss them into the pond. That's probably considered a bad thing now, artificially feeding the fish and all, but for my dad and me it was a sacred thing. A dedication to the idea that nothing goes to waste. A giving back, of a sort. Our way of giving back to the fish, the pond, and the higher power that had given us that time on the bank, whatever measure of luck we had, the warm sun and the gentle breeze. Jeanne blogged about honor yesterday. For a little kid, how I treated the fish on my line and even the worms in that can was important. To give back was an honorable thing and was only right. Actually, it might have been her blog that got me thinking about my dad and about summer afternoons sitting on the bank with him, fishing.
The thing about fishing is that it's a valid excuse not only to sit still for a while, but to tell everybody else around you to "Hush. Be still. You're scaring the fish."
I could use an excuse like that every now and then.
It's been years since I went fishing. I have my dad's fishing gear stashed safely in the garage, and one of my goals this year is to take an afternoon, buy a license, find a quiet spot on a bank somewhere, toss my line in the water, and see what nibbles
How 'bout you?
Have you ever been fishing?
Did you bait your own hook?
If you haven't been fishing, what do you think of the idea of going?
And if it's not fishing, what do you do when you want quiet time?
Do you like to eat fish?
Do you know how to CLEAN fish?
What are you after when you toss your line into the water?
Or plain old fish?