I love the calm of a small farm pond in the early morning. A thin layer of fog blankets the surface of the water. A Blue Heron stands at the water’s edge like a statue. The old boat scraps and clunks as you shove away from the bank and step in. And for a moment, a complete quiet and stillness surrounds you as you slip out onto and over the water.
I like to paddle for a while first before I worry about getting a line in the water. The morning needs to be absorbed into the soul. Creator and creature. Motion and breath in rhythm. The distant churn of a fish breaking the surface makes me anxious to get started. But fishing is about patience. I wait.
The challenge is to be as quiet as I can with the paddle. My Dad taught me to gently knife the blade into the water ahead of my knee. A long slow stroke along the edge without touching the side rail. As the paddle passes my seat I twist the shank to the outside and hook a small “J” shape at the end of the stroke. A small vortex forms in the water. Lift, and start again.
If you do it right, you can make a straight line for the fallen pine in the water on the far side of the pond without ever switching sides. I see people all the time padding on the left and scooting over to paddle on the right. Then back again. Then scoot over again. It’s like they’re fighting the boat and flailing at monsters in the water.
“A good stroke with a paddle is about finesse, not power,” Dad would say. “You’re playing a harp, not beating a drum.”
When the water is calm, you don’t have to rush. As the blade comes out of the water at the rear of the stroke, the only sound is the drops of water falling from the blade and the gentle ripples beneath the boat. It’s a subtle beauty to me. I’m not into meditation or ying and yang kind of stuff, but I imagine this comes pretty close.
I’m not a great fisherman. I’m not even an avid fisherman. I don’t own a bunch of gear. Most of the lures and gizmos in my tackle box are old enough to be antiques. I still use a jitterbug that my Dad used 50 years ago. The paint is scratched up. One eye is missing. But it still pops along the surface and the treble hooks are sharp. I get almost as much enjoyment out of casting and retrieving that thing as I do catching a bass with it.
When I was a kid, Dad got us into the hunting and fishing club down at High Falls Lake. We had a 5 acre pond on our farm. Most all of my fishing my whole life has been done on little slice of heaven. But a fisherman always thinks that the fishing is better somewhere else.
We’d put our gear in the truck for camping. An iron skillet, bacon and eggs for breakfast. Two Zebco 33s and a couple of cane poles. Tackle box and wire basket. Sleeping bags. No tent. Just a couple of Army surplus mattresses that we would roll out in the bed of the truck.
Below Jackson we would turn out Highway 36 past the State Prison and take a dirt road down to the lake from the north end. The club owned an old building on that road that was used for gatherings. Men and boys eating fried fish or brunswick stew made with rabbit. But our destination was the fishing camp out on a small peninsula at the end of the road.
There was one small picnic shelter and an outhouse. No running water. No electricity. Just a place to camp and fish. There were three John Boats at the water’s edge chained and locked to the trees. Members had the key to the lock.
High Falls was too big for paddling, so we brought our own motor. Dad had an old Western Auto 5hp outboard with the gas tank on top of the motor. I was always excited about driving the boat. Dad wouldn’t let me use the motor at home.
“You don’t need a motor on that little pond.” He was blunt because he was practical. My kids will tell you that some of that wore off on me.
We always fished the upper end of High Falls, close to where the Towilaga flows into the lake. There were large pockets of dead trees that stood like naked telephone poles across that end of the lake. The water was shallow and was perfect for Blue Gill. It was also perfect for snakes. We bumped a snag one time. A snake was sunning on a short limb above us. He fell into the boat and for a moment we were not fishing. We were dancing.
I can’t tell you how many fish I’ve caught over the years. And if I did throw out a number you’d think I was lying.
“I bet we caught 40 Blue Gill, nearly twice that in Crappy, a few good catfish, and we let a 12 lb Big Mouth shake off the line. He got tangled up under that log in the water. But he was a beast.”
Fishermen say stuff like that. And while some of it is based in truth, most of it is built around bragging. I hope bragging is not a sin. If it is, I may be in deep trouble. But bragging is just an excited form of storytelling. The stories change. The details get fuzzy. The fish get bigger. And the stories keep getting better.
The most exotic fishing trip I ever took was over 25 years ago. Dad and I and two of our friends drove across the Canadian border above International Falls, Minnesota. We loaded our gear into a float plane, flew about 2 hours north of nowhere, and landed on a lake with a cabin. For eight days we fished. We caught Walleye and Northern Pike, two types of fish I had never seen before and have never seen since.
The Canadian air in September was cool at dusk. We bathed in the lake. The stars were as brilliant as I’ve ever seen. The northern lights put on a show most every night. We cooked what we caught. Picked wild blueberries and made pie. And watched for bears as we went to the outhouse. For some reason there’s an outhouse in every good fishing story.
You may think this is strange, but I actually enjoy cleaning fish. Which is a part of fishing. Perhaps the most important part. It’s not that I’m against catch and release. I’ve done that some. But I prefer catch, clean and eat.
I wonder how many kids these days would even know how to clean a fish. Raking back scales, slitting bellies, and cutting off heads is not for the squeamish. I ate a fish once in Mexico with the head still on it. I’d prefer not to do that again. Catfish require a nail through the head and a good pair of plyers for skinning. But the payoff is worth it.
I’m thinking about fishing largely because it’s a beautiful day. Partially because I think I need some time on the old pond. And, partly because it may get to a point where I need to feed the family if the Piggly Wiggly keeps getting wiped out by the hoarders. I’d hate to have to go fishing, but I’d do it. Yes sir. If my family needs me, I’d go fishing in a heartbeat.