To a fly fisherman who has an inflated opinion of himself and his fraternity, nothing is quite as loathsome as a worm fisherman. Perhaps, because of the media attention over the years celebrating the “purity” of fly fishing, worming has gotten bad ink. I must confess to a certain snobbishness at times. After all, who am I kidding when I step into the Au Sable with a thousand dollars worth of Orvis gear? I’m fishing. I’m worthy of practicing deception. I’ve got the stuff to prove it: fly boxes, graphite rods, tiny gadgets with the right logo. But this is all fakery. We all know, when we drool over equipment, that somehow, beyond this world of high-tech boron-graphite fibers, underneath all this foppery, there is instinct.
Maybe it was instinct that told me to get up early with my father to go looking for worms. He knew the best places: under leaves, cool and moist. Or we went out late at night on the summer lawn, feeling in the dark for crawlers, remembering later how they slipped like greased sausages through our fingers. Even now, from a distance of 30 years, I can still hear the sound they made when they plunked into the wet leaves and dirt at the bottom of a rusty Hills Brothers worm can.
If fishing is about anything for me, it is about recollection, the way my mind has of letting itself unravel and hook around the sensation that the dead are surely watching us from the banks or are standing on shore measuring each cast. Inevitably, when I think of ancestors and fishing I go back to Bass Lake and my grandfather’s cottage. I go back to fishing with live bait, almost always worms, any kind of worm we could find. Back then, in the 50’s, I learned the secret techniques from my father and grandfather about how to think of the hook as a kind of needle, the worm as fabric, the whole rig set up to keep the worm alive as long as possible, moving, imagining its slow dance underwater.
And the ghosts are always there when I fish now. I can see my grandfather baiting up for perch using tiny red worms, or my father and me anchored just off a deserted island, how we sifted through the can of crawlers for the patriarch of all worms, the one that felt lucky. Then he’d break one in half and spit on it, and I’d make that long cast toward the lily pads, waiting for the bass to explode up out of the weeds.
There are other visions, some taken from my father’s stories, and always they are visions of ritualistic, nearly sacred value: men hunched over hooks in the rain, mumbling old fishing prayers, invocations carried on the souls of countless worms. But the most stunning image is one passed on about one of my father’s old fishing buddies from the 40’s, Fred Lewis, and how he must have looked when he turned toward a question just after baiting up, the hook in his teeth, and a gob of nightcrawlers dribbling down the side of his mouth.
Now, each year, maybe out of respect for the dead, maybe out of superstition, before I set my gear up, before I get out my $150 fly reels, the flashy graphite rods, the Wheatley fly boxes, I go into my study and take out the bandana in which I have wrapped the talismans of my life. A power stone from Lake Superior is hidden in there, and a lovely handmade Chinese fish given as a gift by an equally lovely student. Perhaps most powerful of all, there are bits and pieces of what’s left from my grandfather’s tackle: misshapen sinkers, rusted hooks, used crawler harnesses, the stuff of fishing a lifetime with worms. What was handed down from his gear as legacy has all been blessed: blessed by the blood of fish, blessed by the way his hands used these simple fishing artifacts, blessed by his patience and by his knowledge of the fundamental necessities of fishing.
Mike Delp teaches creative writing at Interlochen Academy of the Arts. His latest book is The Last Good Water: Prose and Poetry, 1988-2003.