My thoughts on everything from albacore tuna to zebras
| The hand shaking me awake belonged to my Dad. Three AM comes early, especially when you were out the night before until midnight. I resisted the momentary urge to roll over and drift back to sleep and muttered an “Okay” in response to my Dad’s softly spoken “Let’s go, boy.”
I sat up and swung my legs out of bed. The windows were wide open on this hot August night and the light breeze that moved the curtains did nothing to cool down my room or wake me up. Hurriedly, I put on my clothes and headed down the stairs. Pop was already making the lunches and together we shoveled down a couple of bowls of cereal and headed out the door. Here, closer to the ground, the breeze was a little cooler.
There’s something about the dead of night, halfway between the sunset and the sunrise. The heavy dew had already fallen and when you inhaled the air, there was freshness, newness to it. It filled your lungs and invigorated you with the promise of the coming day. The sky was clear and the stars shown brightly and all was quiet except for the experienced movements of a father and son, as they got ready to go fishing.
In the quiet the dog stirred to life wondering who was disturbing his sleep. His ID tags jingled on his collar as he repositioned himself in his pen. Soon, I thought, soon the weather will turn cooler and we will go hunting, the three of us, but for now he will be left behind to wait for our return.
The large brown Ford station wagon had been loaded the night before when we had returned from gathering bait. All that remained was to load the bait and leave. Together, flashlights and buckets in hand we headed across the street through the neighbors yard to the old hand dug well where we had put the bait. With the buckets we dipped cool water and then drew up the large basket that held our reward from last nights bait gathering. Under the yellowish glow of the flashlights we counted forty stonecats, a small member of the catfish family, as they slid into our waiting bucket. Silently we closed the well and headed back across the neighbor’s dew covered lawn. Wedging the bucket in the back of the car so it wouldn’t tip we pulled out of the driveway and headed for the river.
Pop drove. It would take an hour or so for us to get there. Along the way the headlights picked up the occasional deer, possum or fox. Rarely, another auto approached from the opposite direction, both cars dimming their lights as if to say hello. Sometimes, if it had rained the night before there would be wisps of fog. And once, traveling down along the Lackawaxen River there was an invasion of frogs. They, and the darkness conjured up visions of theTwilight Zone. Sometimes we talked, sometimes, we rode in silence. Often as we got closer to the river we would discuss where to go. Should we try the chicken farm? How about Ten Mile, below the railroad trestle. Maybe we should give Zane Grey a try, or down at the Kittatinny canoe launch.
We got the first look at the river as we crossed the bridge at Narrowsburg, Though it was still mostly dark, it was a lightening dark and in the shadows you could make out the riffles and the eddies below the bridge. On the far shore, the New York shore, a streetlight or two reflected from the flowing water and life was beginning to stir in the small river community.
It was south we usually ran from there. South across the edges of the Catskills, through stands of aromatic white pine, climbing across the ridge losing sight of the river, yet knowing it was there, always there, just to the right, beyond the hills. Finally we dropped down from the ridge, watching trucks towing trailers full of canoes back up the river. Canoes that in a few hours would be floating lazily back down the river.
At the base of the hill the river met the road once more and it was there that we often pulled over, just upriver from the stone bridge, Roebling’s bridge. The bridge that would take you back across the river into Pennsylvania. You couldn’t see it yet. It was hidden in the dark and the fog rising from the river, but it was there.
Car doors opened and closed. Fishing rods, waders, landing nets and bait were assembled in the proper order, all in the approaching semi light of dawn. The flashlight would pick out a narrow path leading down to the water’s edge. It was here that you first smelled the river smell. A smell like no other, it was made up of a myriad of other smells, making it unique. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was the smell you expected, like the smell of fresh baked bread when you walked past the bakery. It was here that you first heard the water speak, listened to it murmur, listened to it laugh, giggle and guffaw.
If we had timed it right it was just breaking day and we could see well enough to wade out into the river, each searching for that perfect spot to make the first cast. Sometimes we would fish down, sometimes, we would fish up. Sometimes we would lose sight of each other in the swirling morning fog, only to reappear almost as if we were apparitions.
The spot chosen, the bait was placed on the hook. The long graceful cast was made towards an unseen rock where only a small change in the current gave away its location. Silently the bait drifted past the rock…and stopped. Several seconds later it would begin to move upstream, the line slicing through the water, becoming increasingly tighter. Pop would lean into the rod, pointing it in the direction of the moving line, until he was sure, sure that the fish had the bait in the proper position. Then, with a hard and fast jerk on the rod, the hook would be driven home into the fishes jaw. Some dove for the bottom, some tried to race farther upstream and some would dance. You would know when that was going to happen by watching the line. Up, the fish would come, dragging the line with it.
There, in the swirling fog standing waist deep in the cool murmuring river with Roebling’s bridge drifting in and out of view, with a smallmouth bass leaping at the end of his line is how I always see my Dad. It is how I will always see him. And as the fish clears the water and dances for him he turns toward me for one brief second and smiles.