“You catching anything?”
I have been watching the man and his boat for a while now, so I know he hasn’t had much luck. But I’m out of hooks and bait, and I don’t have the courage to just ask him if he has any to spare.
I’m 11 years old, sitting at the end of a pond that is walking distance from my house. It’s early afternoon on a Saturday. I lost my last hook and worm to a snag more than an hour ago. But I’m not ready to go home. There’s too much turmoil there.
The pond is one of my favorite places to be. I spend as much time as I can here, fishing and avoiding home. There might be more hooks back in the garage, but I’m afraid to go look. Afraid I might get caught in whatever struggle is happening at the moment. If she sees me, my mom may forbid me to go back to the pond. That’s the way she copes sometimes: dragging me into her troubles, even though I have no capacity to help.
The man drifting toward me controls my fate. He’s my last hope. There’s no one else around and I’ve already scoured the shoreline looking for lost or discarded hooks. Will I get to spend the next few hours fishing, or be stuck with just killing time?
I was about to ask him again how he was doing when he spoke. “Caught some bass on the other end of the pond, but not much for a while now. You doing any good at this end?”
“I caught some nice bluegills earlier.” Then I hesitated, not sure if I could, or should, say more.
He saved me the trouble, asking: “How come you’re not fishing now?”
“I lost my last hook and worm on a snag.”
“Well, I’m headed in. You can have the rest of my worms, and I’m sure I have an extra hook or two. Walk over to the boat launch and I’ll give them to you as I come ashore.”
At the launch, he handed me a pack of Eagle Claw hooks and a small Styrofoam box. I opened the box and looked inside. It was full of large night crawlers.
“Wow! Thank you, sir. Now I can fish for the rest of the day.”
Uh-oh. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part. The man hesitated and looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and concern. His eyebrows furrowed just a little. He must be wondering why a boy my age would fish all day by himself.
But then he smiled and said, with kindness and no judgment: “You’re welcome, son. I remember what it’s like. Good luck.”
Fast forward more than 40 years. I’m in my boat, purposely drifting into a favorite cove on a nearby lake.
“You catching anything?”
The question is from a boy on the shore. He is sitting on the bank, with his elbows on his knees and his chin in one hand. He isn’t fishing, but there is a rod on the ground behind him.
As sad as it sounds, my first instinct was to pretend I hadn’t heard him. Partly because I had a line in the water and was over the targeted hot spot, and partly because of the times we live in. I would have to get closer to talk to him without yelling, and I could see he was alone. What would people think about a 55-year-old man, barefoot, in shorts and a tee shirt talking to a young boy without his parents around? Was it really worth the potential trouble?
But the boy was persistent. “Can you hear me? I asked if you’re catching anything. You must have caught something.”
“A couple of pickerel,” I said.
“Pickerel? Were they big ones?”
“No, but they get very big in this lake. I’ve caught a couple over 20 inches right in this cove, not far from where you’re standing.”
“Maybe I’ll catch one! I mostly just catch bass and sunfish. I don’t think pickerel like worms.”
“Nothing wrong with bass and sunfish,” I said. “They get very big here too.”
“I’ve caught some big ones. Well, maybe not real big, but big for me.”
”Do you fish here often?”
To this point, our conversation had been like a Ping-Pong match: question-answer, question-answer, question-answer. The boy could talk at an amazing pace. But now he hesitated. He looked down at his feet for a moment and then said: “All the time. I live just down the road. I can walk here easily.”
“Do your parents ever fish with you?” I recognized that, especially in today’s day and age, this question might be inappropriate. But I asked it anyway, because, in my heart, I already knew the answer.
After another slight hesitation, he said: “It’s just me and my mom. She doesn’t like to fish. Oh, and I guess her new boyfriend. He’s nice enough to me, but he doesn’t fish either. He has to work a lot. Sometimes they argue about it. They were arguing this morning, but it’s okay because she let me come here.”
He was back at his initial pace and might have gone on if I hadn’t interrupted him. “Why aren’t you fishing now?”
“I ran out of hooks. I was about to head home when I saw you.”
I was close to the shore now. Close enough to have him step aside so I could beach the front end of the boat. “I have plenty of hooks. Here, take this pack. And you can have these worms. I’m not fishing with worms today, so I don’t need them.”
“Thank you,” he said, with a huge smile on his face.
I was about to back away when a thought occurred to me. “Hand me your rod for a second.”
“I’m going to tie a lure called a Rapala on your line. They’re great for catching pickerel. Just cast it out and reel it back slowly.”
His smile broadened considerably.
I went back to the middle of the cove and watched him work the Rapala. On his fourth cast, he shouted: “I got one! It’s a pickerel! A big one! Well, not real big, but big for me. Thank you so much!”
I motored close enough to be sure he could hear me. “You’re welcome. I remember what it’s like. Good luck..”