Get 'Em Hooked
If you’ve ever dangled a line from the end of a pole and tried to snag a fish on a hook, you’re an angler. Otherwise known as fishing, the object of angling is to catch fish—preferably edible piscatorial delights—fish you can eat, if you want. And if you’ve ever been fishing and were successful, you surely remember catching your first fish. That initial success no doubt remains as a pleasant memory.
I remember my first fish. It was a trash fish—one we didn’t keep to eat. I didn’t get to look at it very long as it was worthless and, at least for Dad’s purposes, not deserving of the bother. He promptly tossed it into the weeds far beyond the streambed as though killing that single fish would help to rid the creek of chubs, daces, and whitefish.
My lovely bride had never hooked a fish until she met me. Her dad was quite an outdoorsman: great hunter, good fisherman and all that, but, back in those Dark Ages, girls just didn’t hunt or fish. We were less than a year into wedded bliss when I took her trout fishing on opening day. Worms were the day’s bait. She grabbed a nice garden worm, but I impaled it on her hook to save time. As I worked to bait my hook, she threw in. I looked up and noticed her rod tip dancing a jig. I yelled, “Yank it out! You’ve got one on!” She jerked the rod straight up and the hooked fish sailed in an arc, coming to rest somewhere in the vicinity of my nose. I unhooked the fish, slid it into her creel, re-baited her hook, and said, “Okay, swing it back into the crick.” She did.
I grabbed my bait box but was deterred by another trout flapping at my chin. We repeated the process until her creel held the limit. Then, and only then, did I get to bait my hook and fish. So, her first fish being followed by seven more in quick succession, she went angling with me until the girls came along.
Ah, the girls! By the time our daughters were five and seven, my dad had become a deputy waterways conservation officer (fish warden). In those days, the in-season trout stockings were so secret, information about them required an FBI security clearance. I begged Dad to let me know when the Fish Commission was going to stock Asaph Run. I knew several spots where our gals had a chance to nail some fish. Dad refused to state the stocking schedule—even for one little stream—even for his granddaughters. But, somehow, I found out that the Fish Commission had replenished the trout in Asaph and took my gals. The wife came along to referee. I put a salmon egg on the hook for Number One Daughter, turned my back and faced Number Two. Peripheral vision caught movement behind me. Number One had already tried to toss the bait into the water. I growled, “Will you wait until I can help you get the line into the crick?” After all, she had never hooked and landed a fish. I was caught between baiting a hook and correcting another child when a nice trout was jerked out of Asaph and flapped into my face. The wife just laughed—but not too loudly. Both my gals caught their first brook trout that day. In half a dozen years, Number One Daughter had gravitated to volleyball, cheerleading, fashion, and boys. She left the outdoors. Her sister fished with me for another score of years and took up hiking and camping as well.
Now Number One has daughters. The youngest is way too busy to take to angling. I wanted her five-year-old sister, Regan, to have a chance to fish with Papa.
Fade to a dock on Keuka Lake. I had fashioned a “license” for her and attached it to a spare fishing vest. I slipped it on Regan and handed her a pole and reel I had purchased at Cabela’s “just for her.” She wasn’t all that impressed, but, as her mother keeps reminding me, “She’s only five, Dad.”
I baited a hook and threw out into the lake. I had attached a bobber, thinking that it would be easier for a kid to tell when there was a bite. I called, “Regan. Don’t you want to come out and fish with Papa? Try your new pole?” The bobber sank. I reacted and jerked the pole, hooking the fish. (If you’ve ever fished with a kid, you know how it is. You hook a fish and then hand the pole to the kid. The kid feels the fish and reels it in, making the “catch.”) Well, that’s what happened and Regan reeled in a small yellow perch. She danced around the dock and ran to her mother exclaiming that she had caught one. I smiled and threw in again. Same scenario. She reeled in a nice rock bass.
I tried to let her watch the bobber. She confused the red and white bobber with a red and white buoy. So I hooked the fish again and she reeled in a nice crappie. Then she left, apparently bored with the activity. (Besides, there was the opportunity to splash water in her little sister’s face.) I caught a half-dozen more pan fish. As I reeled in each fish, Regan bragged to my wife, “I guess I’m a good teacher. See! Papa learned how to catch those fish from me!” I labored to filet the “fish meat” which the kid ate for supper. You see, I had learned almost sixty years ago that a kid ought to be able to eat a first fish.
Fast-forward five years: we’re after brook trout, Regan’s first trout.
I watched the tip of her spinning rod jiggle. Then again, barely noticeable, the tip went bip...bip...bip, bip. Regan whispered, “Papa, I think I have a bite.” I knew that a trout was biting her bait. At bip...bipbipbip, I said, “Set the hook. Jerk your rod!” I was a little too anxious at the thought of my granddaughter landing her first trout. Maybe I spoke to loud, too excitedly. She jerked, alright. The bait, the hook, the sinkers and leader whizzed past my left ear. The granddaughter looked disappointed. I smiled, and then she laughed.
Regan modeled her mother’s personality to a T. Both are perfectionists. I worried that this simple mistake would sour her on angling. “Listen,” I said, “when you’re fishing, you are going to make mistakes. I’ve been fishing for sixty years, and I still make mistakes. Just keep trying. We’re here to enjoy the outdoors, the fishing, and, most importantly, each other.” Apparently, I didn’t need to deliver that sermon to her sister. Younger sister Reese was twenty yards downstream, supposedly waiting for me to help her. She was on the ground rolling with laughter at Papa ducking fish.
I remembered a similar scene more than fifty years ago. My rod tip danced and Grandpa shouted, “Put the iron to him! Set the hook!” My Old Man had gone upstream with Uncle Bully and left me with Grandpa. We were working down the brook to the camp. Grampa, who didn’t have a lot of patience with most situations, calmly said, in almost a whisper, “That’s okay. You missed him, but maybe he’ll take the worm again. Looked like a good one. Here...lemme bait yer hook for ya. Then toss it right back in. Don’t feel bad about missing that trout. Your Old Man missed thousands of trout in his day. Me, too.” Grandpa pushed the point of a size six hook through the worm’s mating band, jabbed it through the midsection, and buried the point. “There you go. Now just put ’er right where you did before.” I did. At the bite, I jerked, and a brook trout whizzed past Grandpa into the brown leaves on the bank. I’d scored my first trout.
Regan tossed into the water but barely touched the edge. “Honey, you need to get it out further. Here, let me help you.” I reached for the rod, intending to place the bait for her. She swerved the rod out of my reach and scowled. She was going to do it herself. And I’d seen that look before—thirty years ago on a small brook trout stream that had just been stocked.
Yes, family fishing can be fun—for generations. Families that fish together, stay together...if they don’t drive each other mad in the process.