Author’s Note: I wrote an earlier version of this article over 10 years ago, when my son Gage was about seven. You could say that it’s the story that “started it all.” It inspired both a shared goal to fish together in all 50 states and my desire to share our experiences with others.
Many of my favorite childhood memories involve fishing. It’s what I did to escape the daily upheaval of growing up in our tumultuous, single-parent household. I never caught a single fish worth bragging about. But fishing was safe. There were no full nelsons from my older brother, no shouting matches with my younger sister, and best of all, no chance I would unwittingly enrage my mom.
Don, the man we would today call my mom’s “significant other,” taught me the basics. Don worked many hours at the Proctor and Gamble plant in town, and he had three sons of his own. Tying knots, baiting hooks and attempting to cast without impaling yourself were things he was willing to show me in the backyard. He neither offered, nor did I expect, more. We both understood that the actual fishing I would have to do on my own.
After school every day, I would take my well-beaten path through the woods between our rented farmhouse and the lake at Stony Mountain Campground. I am sure there were more rules, but I can only remember three: do your homework; finish your chores; be back before dark.
I’d grab my Zebco 202 rod and reel combo, my tackle box of salvaged and hand-me-down gear and a can of hand-picked night crawlers. The walk to my favorite spot was always full of anticipation and excitement. You never knew what the lake would yield. I regularly caught sunfish, bluegill, perch, bass, bullheads and even the occasional turtle.
As my skills developed through trial and error, so did my love for what I thought was the entire fishing experience. Few things in life were as exciting as seeing my bobber begin to move slowly against the current and then suddenly disappear. Was it another bluegill, or one of the monster bass that was rumored to inhabit the lake? A bullhead? If so, how would I get it off the hook without suffering a painful stabbing from its needlelike fins? The adventures never seemed to end.
It did not occur to me until much later in life that there was more to fishing than catching fish. It’s a lesson my son Gage taught me. When he was about seven, we went trout fishing near our cabin in southern Utah. We had planned on our normal routine. I would cast the line, set the hook and let him reel in the fish.
We had the lake to ourselves that day, and the fish were biting. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t set the hook on a single fish. After what seemed like hundreds of near misses, Gage said: “Dad, let me try. I want to learn to do it myself.”
I hesitated. The trout were merciless, and I didn’t want him to get frustrated.
Realizing that watching my hapless efforts was probably frustrating enough, I showed him how to cast and stood out of the way. In no time at all, he had casting down. His bobber began to dance with the telltale sign of a trout stealing his worm.
I instructed him as best I could. “Keep the slack out of your line. Wait until you think he has it completely in his mouth, then half a second more. Now! Jerk the tip of your rod up and back, over your shoulder.”
It was magical. He hooked and landed a 10 ½ inch trout. Then he landed another and another. Two hours later, he had a stringer full. I watched in awe, getting involved only when he needed help removing the fish from his hook.
That night, he called home to report in with his mom. He gave her the blow-by-blow, describing each fish with remarkable detail. Then he said the words that will stick with me forever:
“Yeah, it was a little hard at first. But Dad showed me how.”
As I returned from the bathroom to dry the tears I didn’t want him to see, I realized that, growing up, I had missed the best part of fishing. The part where you share it with someone you love and trust.
But parenting, like fishing, is full of ups and downs. In both, you make a lot of mistakes and only hope you are smart enough to learn from them.
Not long thereafter, we had an entirely different experience.
We wanted to expand beyond trout fishing, which, to me, is like whale watching. When the trout are biting, it can be non-stop action. When they aren’t, it can be mind-numbingly (and, sometimes, finger, toe and nose-numbingly) boring. My theory is that it is rare to find a place where hungry trout coexist with other hungry fish. Whether this is true or not, I have always preferred to fish for other species. Take bass fishing, for example. If the bass aren’t biting, the bluegills almost always are.
So I was excited when a client purchased some land that contained an old farm pond. The pond had once served as both a source of water for farming operations and as a place where you could pay to fish for stocked bass. Because it hadn’t been used or properly maintained for a number of years, it had earned a reputation as the “Pond That Time Forgot.” A place where the fish had grown to monstrous size.
I fished the pond a few times with friends. While there were no monsters, the fishing was very good for a variety of species, including: bass, catfish, carp and, of course, bluegills. It was just like my outings at Stony Mountain. I couldn’t wait to share it with Gage.
We planned our trip well in advance and talked about it for weeks. I explained how it would be different from trout fishing. The target fish would be heartier, tougher fighters and more apt to do something like swim under a submerged log to try to break your line. We would also have to add to our bait selection. We would need stink bait for the catfish, cheese for the carp (I had never caught a carp–I just assumed cheese worked) and some simple lures for the bass.
You could see the excitement in Gage’s eyes, both for himself and, I think, for me. He sensed the significance of the trip. It was our opportunity to link my childhood with his. He knew I wanted him to experience the adventures I did as kid, but with his dad at his side.
When the day finally arrived, it was calm and sunny, but not too hot: perfect for catching fish. Within a cast or two, I caught a good-sized bass.
It was the worst thing that could have happened. The bass was the first I had caught in many years, and it triggered something inside me. I became singularly focused on catching fish, not on enjoying the experience with my son.
He needed help and advice, facing challenges that he had not faced that day we fished for trout. He had to cast around and under tree branches, avoid hidden snags, and retrieve his lure parallel to the bank. Of course, he struggled.
And I utterly failed him.
“It’s not that hard. You aren’t listening. You aren’t trying hard enough. How could you possibly be snagged again?”
And then, the worst: “Figure it out on your own.”
As we were driving home, I tried to figure out what was wrong with me. Was it the stress of a miserable week at work? Did I subconsciously want him to struggle as I did when I was his age? Whatever the reason, I couldn’t have done more to ruin fishing for him. If this is what it was like to have a father to take you fishing, who needed fathers?
I tried to console myself by offering him an apology. “I’m sorry, Gage. I was a real jerk.”
His reply, along with the memory of our Utah experience, forever changed my perspective on both fishing and fatherhood.
“Yes, dad, you were. But will you take me again?”