My thoughts on everything from albacore tuna to zebras
| The headlights pierced the patchwork of early morning fog as I slowly turned from the main highway onto the gravel road that would lead me to the boat launch. I glanced at the figure sitting next to me. Still sleeping, I thought and smiled to myself thinking back to a long, long time ago when our positions would be reversed and I would be the one dozing for this early morning ride. The headlights illuminated the paved ramp and the murky, fog shrouded water beyond. In the back of my mind I could not help but compare the image to what the mythological River Styx must look like. Apprehensively I waited for the boatman. He never appeared.
The figure next to me stirred. â€śAre we there, already?â€ť
â€śYep,â€ť I replied. â€śTime to catch some fish.â€ť
Opening the door of the truck I stepped out into the chill of the early autumn air. I knew that by midmorning, after the sun had cleared the ridge to the east and burned off the fog it would begin to warm, but right now, I felt the chill in my stiffened joints. I heard the passenger door open.
â€śStay in the truck, Pop, whereâ€™s it warm, until I get the boat ready to launch.â€ť
I looked at the grizzled face of my father. The stubble of a beard on an unshaven face, the white eyebrows, and the ever-present blue eyes, looked back. He pulled the door closed and settled back in the seat.
â€śAre you sure you want to do this?â€ť I asked. â€śWe could wait until later when it gets warmer,â€ť feeling the arthritic ache in my fifty year old joints and wondering how it must feel in his ninety-two year old ones.
â€śYep,â€ť he replied. â€śThe fish bite best at first light.â€ť
I closed the door and started the routine of getting the boat ready to launch. Almost as reflex I went through the steps, drain plug in the stern, disconnect the trailer lights, put the cooler and the rods in the boatâ€¦and the bait. Donâ€™t forget the bait. I grinned to myself, thinking back to a trip many years ago, where we made the hour drive to the river and left the bait sitting on the back porch at home. I heard the window in the truck go down and as if he was reading my mind, Pop asked, â€śDid you remember the bait?â€ť
â€śYep,â€ť I replied, chuckling. And to beat him to his next question I added, â€śand the lunch tooâ€ť I couldnâ€™t see his face in the dark, but I knew he was grinning and having the same memory I was.
When everything was ready in the boat I pulled a stepladder from the bed of the truck and told Pop it was time to go fishing. The passenger door opened and slowly he swung his legs to the ground and stood up. Each move had the slow motion and self-determination of an astronaut changing a solar panel in space. When he had gotten himself oriented he let go of the door and tottered back to me. I watched him closely, like a parent watching their newborn taking their first steps. When he reached me he said, â€śdoesnâ€™t move as well as it used to, boy.â€ť
â€śNo Pop, â€ś I replied,â€ť but look at it this way, it beats the alternative.â€ť We both smiled and laughed. I helped him into his lifejacket and he climbed the ladder and got into the boat. When I made sure he was sitting, I tossed the ladder back in the truck and backed the trailer into the water. The boat floated free and I used the bowline to pull it up onto the shore and told Pop to stay sitting while I parked the truck.
Walking back down to the launch ramp, the sunâ€™s glow was just beginning to peak over the mountain. Pop was already putting the rods together and getting ready to fish. I paused, still in the shadows, burning the picture into my mind, soaking up every detail, from the swirling water to the little wisps of fog that floated ghost like across its surface; The small flannel shirt clad man in the front of the boat holding up the fishing rod and letting it balance in his arthritic hand; the gently lapping waves at the side of the boat and the sound of a red-winged blackbird greeting the new day etched themselves in my brain. Even the smell, that freshwater river smell, that new morning smell, intertwined with the odor of damp earth and became part of the memory.
The sound of another car leaving the highway and coming down the graveled road roused me from my trance. I hurriedly walked down to the boat and stepped into the stern.
Pop always had the knack to find fish. He could read the river like no one Iâ€™ve ever known and I wondered if he still could after all these years. Normally weâ€™d fish bass at this time of year but he said he wanted to go for catfish. I knew why. He didnâ€™t think he could take the continual casting that bass required so he opted for something that was more of a waiting game. Trouble is he traded casting for a situation where he could end up fighting a much larger fish. There were some mighty big cats in this river. â€śWhere shall we head to, Pop?â€™ I asked, curious as to what his response might be.
â€śHead upstream and see if you can find the big ledge.â€ť He replied. â€śThen head for the far shore to where the sand bar comes out. There should be a good eddy there and some deep water. Weâ€™ll try our luck there.â€ť
I knew it had been at least twenty years since either one of us had been on the river and rivers do change, but I said nothing and headed upstream to where I figured the ledge should be. Slowly it came into view, not much changed from how I remembered it. Pop pointed toward the far shore and I dutifully swung the boat in that direction. I watched as he scanned the shore, first sending me downstream and then back up. At one point he attempted to stand to get a better view but thought better of it and sat back down quickly. He studied the water until he finally motioned for me to shut off the motor and drop the anchor. As the anchor rope tightened and the boat swung into the current I could see he had picked a spot that put us right on the edge of an eddy. I couldnâ€™t see any evidence of the sand bar anymore but judging by the amount of anchor rope I let out, Pop had found the deep water. Amazing, I thought. After all this time and he can still read the river. As if he read my mind he turned in his chair and grinned. â€śThe water talks to you, if you know how to listen. Give me some bait, will ya? Timeâ€™s a wastinâ€ť
I popped the lid off the cooler and tossed him a can of bait. I watched as he rolled it over in his hand, inspecting it, thinking no doubt of the first time we used canned oysterâ€™s for catfish bait. They were cheap then. We made oyster stew often and the cupboard always had several cans in it. One spring day in our hurry to get to the river Pop grabbed the canned oysters by mistake when he was reaching for the sardines for our lunch. The catfish were biting fast and furious that day and it wasnâ€™t long before we ran out of stinkbait. Not wanting to go home we used the only thing we had left, the oysters. They worked beyond our wildest dreams. We donâ€™t know why. We suspect it was because they had never smelled oysters before. The catfish were used to all the other baits. This was something new. We used them ever since and they never failed us.
I heard the sound of the can opening and watched as Pop pulled an oyster out and placed it on the hook. Grinning he looked at me and asked, â€śDo you remember what you called this?â€ť
Laughing, I replied. â€śSure do, Pop. I called it booger fishing.â€ť We both laughed and I watched as he made his first cast of the morning. The long graceful arc of the line and the accuracy of the cast told me he hadnâ€™t forgotten a thing about fishing. Moments later, the line tightened and Pop set the hook. I watched, landing net in hand, as he struggled to bring the cat up to the boat.
For a brief time, an all too brief time, the world stopped and I was looking at a fifty year old man through the eyes of a ten year old. I wiped the tears from my face and landed the fish. I knew it was going to be a fine day of booger fishing.
Note to the reader: My dad is ninety-two and Iâ€™ve tried a number of times to get him to go fishing again. He wonâ€™t go, so I fish with him in my mind.