To catch a fish...
To Catch a Fish
I'm sure I am quite the site: white shirt, dress slacks, a tight belt while carrying a fishing pole, ducking under heavy brush and tight walking the narrow game path that deer, coyote and fox regularly use on these abandoned railroad tracks to the river. After spending 5 years on the road in field sales, I can tell you that no office, no matter how luxurious is a luxury. However, if there is any lasting luxury of my current office job, it's that I am surrounded by beautiful woods and a steady river which is all accessible by trails. I come out here to think about many things or nothing at all and each time I do, I am surprised to find myself alone. Of the 1,500 people working in this building I feel I am the only one in touch with our outside surroundings and on this day, I attempt to take full advantage. I've been wanting to fish these waters for two years and finally got around to tossing the rod in the trunk and so today is my day...to catch a fish.
I have a fondness for rivers, having spent a summer youth alongside one in LaCrosse where my grandfather would take me and my brother to fish, sitting above the 20 foot drop to the mighty M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. In my head I still say it like this; enunciating each letter separately and with intention, the very way I was so proud to know its spelling as a grade-schooler. We'd drive an old golden brown station wagon, crammed stuffed with large buckets of fishing gear that we'd sometimes use as a seat if we weren't creaking on a standard 70's aluminum and nylon chair. Bobbers and worms and 20 feet of line was all that was necessary and I don't remember if I ever caught anything but I do remember it was the only time I have of any memories of my grandfather away from his home.
I shouldn't say that, I do remember one outside visit to him at the VA hospital after the stroke that would end him officially less than a year later. He sat there, plain white t-shirt tight around his massive torso and his suspenders taught like they should be. He had his weight on his arms, holding him up on the edge of the hospital bed but yet his head hung down. I was 9 but I know that he was sad. I don't think of this image often, I think of him fishing and smiling. It's only a few of the memories I have of him, sitting there...waiting...to catch a fish.
And so here I am at noon on a Tuesday just 400 yards from my office walking through the woods on an old rail line that leads to an old bridge over a shallow river where I intend to catch something. The only lure I brought is spinner bait that as I look in the water and see the massive piles of seaweed, I'm confident I'm going to get it stuck. I climb down the side of the bridge to the cement base trying to half throw myself away from the bridge so as to not color my white dress shirt orange like the coated rusted steel. I pull out my bait and tie it to my line in the only fishing knot I know, a braid knot. My grandma taught me this knot while at the kitchen table of her river house years ago. For her it seemed so simple, her wrinkled and thing hands twisting the thin line over and over and over, twelve times and then looping through the original first braid and pulling tight, "cut the excess knot line but leave a little give for when the fish pulls." She was all of 90 pounds and her body at glance appeared fragile yet her hands gripped as tight as a vice.
Surprisingly on the third cast I have a catch. Not surprisingly is that it is not a fish, it's more of the Oak kind. I pull and pull to free my bait from the branch that hangs over the river and it all comes back to me that I am not a fisherman. I only have one bait so if I lose this one to the leaves, it's back to my desk for me and back to work. Finally it springs clear, but in doing so, projects ever closer to my face. I duck and it hits the bridge behind me. Reeling in and casting out again, I am back in business. I watch the spinner and worm in the water which is clear here and only a foot or so deep so I can see well all of the dancing under the water that my bait makes as it's pulled slightly from my line but more so drifting down with the cool current. Although there appears to be nothing in the water, I am hopeful something will pass. Rivers are a hypnotic that way. You stand in one place and stare in one direction yet in an hour the image in front of you will change one hundred times with the shifting of the sand, the ripples of the water galloping off the exposed stones, the fragments of silt and of course the life of a fish.
As I cast again my bait goes half the distance and ‘kir-plumps' in the water unexpectedly. I look down and half my reel is an open tangle mess of loose, bailed out line. It's disaster. Even if I try to reel in, it just balls up more. I try casting as far as possible thinking if I can at least get all of the mess out in the open air it will straighten itself out. It does not. It juts knots further through the eyelets. There is no hope but to pull in my bait by hand and cut the line on both ends and re-tie.
My stepfather warned me of this, if by screaming "that was pretty stupid" and I'd have to wait until he was done with all of his poles he'd "get around to fixing mine". While fishing with an open reel, there is always the risk of a spool that's not taught enough, or perhaps spooled backwards or perhaps over-spooled. Whatever the underlying risk factor, poor casting will almost certainly get you in the end and this is what happened to me as a kid and here I am 20 some odd years later and at 32 I am still fishing with a tangled mess in front of me. As with anything, proper preparation and exact repeated technique are what make a fisherman a good fisherman. My lack of patience and casualness I'm sure are what do me in. The funny thing is that the very reason I am out here is because I'm trying to learn more patience. To sit and enjoy a quiet moment, to do a repetitive motion until the rhythm takes over and I can truly...relax.
Unfortunately for me that relaxation is short-lived as less than five minutes later my predicament is the same, pulling up a pile of knots and clumps of line, but this time I hear it...the fish. Just beyond the length of the sun, in the shadows of the overhanging trees I see the stir of the water and hear the ‘plop' of the surface being broken as it feeds on the floating bugs. Not once but twice and then three times. I laugh at the joke they are playing on me. I am not a threat to these fish and they feed willingly just beyond my reach, swirling the water around them and all I can do is sit....and listen...and it's a beautiful sound to hear. It is a hot day and my forehead is damp but a surprise breeze puts a rustle in the leaves and the tall grasses. I admit my defeat and decide not to fix the line but pack-up to fish another day, my desk awaits.
Walking and crouching back through the trail, I pull my shirt collar up to keep twigs and bugs from coming down my neck for as much as I love these moments in nature for the memories of a carefree moment that only occurs in serenity and youth, I can't fight the fact that I am from birth a city boy and I prefer to keep nature away from my skin.
Less than five minutes pass and I'm back on the phones, as if I never left. And even though I can taste the salt of a summer sweat on my lips, my blood pressure is down and I am relaxed and renewed. This is what it is to catch a fish.