It was July 26, 1979 and I was eleven years old. I stood on the end of the dock over looking the lake with a fishing pole in my hand. The sun was taking its good old time setting across the lake. I wanted this day to be over. It had been a typical warm July day; bugs were doing their best to bug us, motor boats zoomed back and forth making waves, the humidity zapped us of our strength, and shouts of joy accompanied splashes of water that could be heard around the lake. Nothing was out of place except my heart.
I had spent the most of that day exploring, fishing, swimming, and capturing wild creatures. I was willing to doing anything that would take my mind off of what was happening 60 miles away.
The last of the sun’s rays were finally wiggling down behind the tree line that was just beyond the edge of the water, the lack of direct sunlight was making the water look as dark and oppressive as my thoughts. Earlier that day, my mom and dad left my sister and me with my uncle at our family’s cabin for a couple days despite my tear filled protests. My uncle was a good man, but I wanted to be with my mom and dad; the thought of being away from my parents during this time was too painful.
I had decided to fish again, because fishing calmed my fears and I was going to fish until I couldn’t see any more. I had loved to fish since I was a little girl. We had a small metal fishing boat with a five-horse motor and wooden bench seats. At most, two could fish in that tiny boat, any more than that and we ended up catching each other with barbed hooks as we attempted to cast. We would putter around the lake in that boat for hours visiting each fishing hole, knowing exactly where we would catch the biggest crappies and sunfish. Some days, when it was too hot to fish or the wrong time of the day, I would climb into the boat, lie down on the wooden bench, close my eyes, and take in the smells of fish and boat fuel as I was passed the time.
At the lake, the routine was always the same everyday regardless of the weather. I would wake up and run out of the cabin, remembering not to let the screen door slam behind me, with my cache of fishing supplies. Upon reaching the old squeaky wooden dock, I would skip over every other wooden slat just because I liked the way it sounded when my body weight would cause the old dock to creak and shift back and forth with each step. I would plop down at the end of the dock with my few pieces of bread and my fishing pole. I would wad little tiny balls of bread on to the end of my hook and catch small fish after fish. I would release them all and when I had tired of fishing, I would lay there with my head hanging over the end of the dock and crumble what bread remained and watch the feeding frenzy. Then again, late in the day, I would fish until it was dark casting over and over in hopes of catching the “big” one.
As I stood on the dock in the fading sunlight, I recalled what had happened only two days earlier.
My mom and a neighbor who lived across the street from us were pregnant and due at the same time. My mother and the neighbor lady had become close friends over the last few months and spent a lot of time together. They had agreed to watch each other’s kids while they were gone at the hospital giving birth. The neighbor went into labor first. My sister and I happily entertained their little four-year-old son while we all waited for news of the new baby. It was hard to keep busy as our thoughts kept returning to the baby. Was it a boy or a girl, my sister and I kept asking each other? We argued over who was going to get to hold the baby first and what they should name it. Finally, it came to the end of the day and we were tucking the little neighbor boy into bed when there was a quite knock at the door. Both my sister and I raced to the door fighting to be the first to open it. When we opened the door we were not greeted by a happy father of a new baby, but by a father who had red eyes that were filled with a deep sadness. He looked at my mother and said, “the baby was still born.” My mother gasped for air and brought her hands to her face and said, “no!” My sister and I stood there not under standing what “stillborn” meant. We looked from our mother to the neighbor to each other and decided it was bad, very bad.
Standing on the dock, I couldn’t help thinking “what if that happened to our baby?” Once again the same tears came that had been plaguing me for two days. They came hot and full of fear. My head swirled with “what if” and “why haven’t we heard from my mom and dad yet?” Because both my head and eyes were clouded, I didn’t notice what was happening to my fishing line. When my pole was almost pulled out of my hands, I was startled and I jumped to attention and let my line out. Then the fish stopped pulling and I set the hook. Instantly, my reel jumped and began to make my favorite dragging sound as the fish pulled against the tension. When I realized I couldn’t reel in my line, I began to yell for my uncle. I knew I had the biggest fish I had ever caught was on the end of my line and I wasn’t going to loose it. When my uncle finally reached the dock, I was in a panic. He grabbed my pole and he too realized this was a big one as he almost dropped the pole. He told me to run get the biggest net I could find and together we reeled in the biggest bass I have ever seen. Now my uncle, who was prone to swearing, said a long string explorative of swear words that I had never even heard of as he tried to unhook my fish. He ended up stepping on it in order to unhook it. Once my beautiful fish was off the hook I held him in a towel on my lap watching the giant gasp in desperate attempts to breathe before I slipped him into the live well that sat along side the dock. With all the excitement I had forgotten about my own mother giving birth and I continue to fish with renewed vigor and enjoyed the rest of the evening. Shortly after I went into the cabin for the night, there was a quite knock on the door and there stood our jolly older neighbor, Mae who lived next-door to the cabin, she said, I have good news, “you are a big sister to a healthy baby brother!”
To this day many of those memories still play out before my eyes when I go fishing. I remember my uncle stepping on the fish, the smell of the water around me, and the tugging of the rod with my monster fish trying to escape. But the one thing that stands out is; how fishing both calmed and excited me during a difficult time in my life.
Fishing can give you time to reflect and other times it helps you to forget by keeping you busy. Many times through out life I can connect special times to fishing either alone or with friends and family. When you’re fishing your making memories whether you try to or not. Fishing clams your soul if you will let it. If you know a child who is going through a difficult time take them fishing this year, it just might be the one thing they need. Fish can become a healthy lifetime sport and give hurting kids something to look forward to.
Pan Fish Recipe
16 panfish fillets (bluegills, sunnies, crappies or small bass)
6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1 onion, diced
1/2 cup green pepper, diced
1/2 cup corn meal
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Extra cooking oil, if needed
Sauté the bacon pieces in a large cast-iron skillet until almost, but not quite, crisp. Remove some of the bacon grease with a spoon a little of the bacon grease (to cook the fish in) into a cup and set aside. Add potatoes, onion, and green peppers to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until potatoes are nicely browned and bacon is crisp.
While the potatoes are cooking, shake together the corn meal, flour, salt, garlic powder and pepper in a zip-seal plastic bag. Add the fish, and shake to coat.
Remove potatoes from the pan, and then add the extra bacon grease and cooking oil and heat. Add as much fish as you can without crowding it, and cook until the coating is crispy and golden. Cook the remaining fish, and serve piping hot with potatoes on the side.