Panfish Primer

It was nearing the end of the session. Time to find my quiet place. “Close your eyes and breathe,” she said. “Just breeeeathe.” Well, okay. A pond. I conjured the image of a pond. A glittering jewel of green water lined with lily pads and cattails, happy white birch trees and towering pines.

“Now picture the ocean,” she said.

I opened an eye.

“The what?”

“Today I want you to try to imagine the open sea. And a boat. A boat big enough to carry all your troubles away.”

How about the Queen Mary, I thought, picturing it at that moment steaming out of the harbor with the good doctor, a tiny speck, waving bye-bye from way up high behind the white rails of the airy open deck. I know she meant well, but for weeks we’d been doing this little guided exercise the same way. I liked my pond and told her so.

She sort of smirked and made a noise, “Haa!,” like a duck. Then she took a note.

Okay, so maybe I did have a problem with being able to just let go. In hindsight I chalk it up to too much work and not enough fishing. It really does make Bob a dull boy. There’s an old saying that if people concentrated on the really important things in life there’d be a shortage of fishing poles. And such is the long way around getting to the point of this little story. Who needs imaginary boats to carry away the stresses of living when you have bobbers and bluegill ponds?

Where fishing is concerned I’m finding that the older I get the more inclined I am to practice the endeavor in its most elemental form–that is, with a simple hook and a line.

I like the smell of this kind of fishing, which to me is the fragrance of coffee grounds and potting soil. Worms. For years I considered myself a fly fisherman, and in doing so forgot how much I used to enjoy digging in the earth for worms.

When I was small my father and I would prepare for a weekend fishing trip days in advance. I was the only kid I knew who actually used to pray for rain, a good summer downpour to soak the backyard. Come nightfall, my father would man the flashlight as I crept barefoot beside him through the dewy grass, pinching up night crawlers one after the other.

Looking back on it now, the most vivid memories I have of fishing with my dad come not from the actual fishing, but rather, when the two of us would head off into the night to rustle up some bait. That or striking off across the field to the creek in the hollow behind our house, a place just loaded with minnows and crayfish. Going there to catch bait was itself an adventure.

We used to put on our old sneakers and roll up our pant legs. My father would set up with his minnow seine spanning a narrow place while I went upstream to wait for his signal. When he’d holler, “Ready!” I came on down like a moose, sloshing and splashing, kicking around and plunging headlong into the deeper holes, pushing the minnows out ahead of me. Rare to come around the bend and not find my dad heaving up what seemed like hundreds of fat, pale-belly chubs, daces and red darters.

For a boy of seven, it was marvelously muddy and rewarding work — almost as much fun as the actual fishing. Even the time I crawled out of the creek and went to wipe from my legs what I thought was leafy debris. Only it wasn’t little black leaves stuck to my shins … it was leeches, and a good number of them, too. I tried pulling one off and, finding it stuck fast, was filled with a sinking feeling and profound sense of doom. Men in funny pith helmets and safari shorts were all the time getting in trouble with leeches in the Africa I knew from watching Tarzan, my favorite after-school television show at the time. I kept thinking that any moment I, too, would start flailing on the bank and tearing at my clothes until rendered weak and unconscious by blood-sucking death.

My father, however, not only remained calm, he was, in a word, beaming. This, it turned out, was a godsend. As I sat in the mud feeling woozy, he carefully plucked the leeches away one by one, dropping each into the bait bucket where they coiled and squirmed in the water like little, black sinister eels.

“Good work, Son,” he said, tossing my hair. “Those are some beauties you got there.”

I ended up landing one of the biggest bass of my life that day on one of those leeches. It was the only fish of the day. First my bobber, a little plastic red and white job, was there, and then it was not. I reared back on the rod, and the fish’s head broke water like a nuclear sub. A shower of white foam and a flash of red gills and a gaping mouth that looked as big as the open end of a garbage can. Fish like that have a way of teaching you a thing or two about keeping sight of your priorities. After that I never got queasy about leeches latching onto my flesh again. I also learned not to lose focus, not to lose hope, even after hours sitting in the hot sun waiting for a fish to strike.

In fact, where physical discomfort is concerned, I discovered that in the process of fishing, the degree of sunburn, windburn, general all-round nastiness, and/or downright boredom I could endure was often directly proportionate to any good fishing fortune that might chance to come along and gobble up the wiggling bit of bait at the end of my line. Fishing taught me that good luck was the stuff that came about through patience and persistence. Good luck, I also determined, was often created through the good work that preceded it.

I’m only 34, too young I understand to be sounding like a grizzly old curmudgeon, but when I look around at the kids today (and, come to think of it, a lot of adults, too) I can tell almost at a glance the ones who make time for fishing and the ones who don’t.

The kids in my neighborhood who fish strike me as a determined lot. They all have good healthy suntans. I see them nearly everyday in the summertime riding their bikes at a good clip down the dirt road that leads to a great little bass and bluegill pond in the woods. Fishing there myself one day, I was struck by how quiet, how dogged they were, even though nothing was biting except the deer flies and mosquitoes.

These two little boys, wearing baseball caps pulled low, stood like silent Indians on the bank, never taking their eyes off the water, never more than an arm’s reach away from the pair of Y-shaped sticks on which they carefully rested their fishing rods while waiting for a strike. Somehow I doubt children like these are among the herky-jerky horde of delinquents you hear about so often on the news. I like to think that they are also the kids who grow up to be the kind of adults who don’t mind a little dirt under their fingernails and who never gaze down at their hands at the end of the day wondering what they did with the hours.

When I think of how fishing enables a person to just kick back and relax, to get back in touch with family and oneself, about the only problem I can see with fishing is that a lot of people who would benefit from the perspective angling offers never think to give it a try.

On days when things just aren’t going right, times when I feel put out and put upon, I find myself longing for a quiet place on the water. I daydream about my own personal paradise, a pond, and me sitting at the end of a wooden dock with a fishing pole and a bucket full of bait. Fishing for me is a soothing combination of contemplation and concentration. When my eyes are drawn down to a single spot on the water, and the bobber starts to pop and twitch and then suddenly disappear, everything else around it turns fuzzy. Any feeling of disconnectedness disappears with the widening ripples, and for a moment I feel attached, metaphorically, literally, existentially, by an invisible thread to something out there really alive. It’s the best therapy I know.

Bob Butz writes from Lake Ann. His recent book, Beast of Never, Cat of God, about a possible remnant cougar population in Michigan, is available in bookstores and on the Web. bobbutz.com

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