And furthermore

When he gets the urge to fish, memories flood back

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Fishing season opened last month. There was a time this would have been very exciting, but that was when you thought it was fun to dig up night crawlers and put them in an old DelMonte peach can where they wrapped themselves into a slimy ball, a self-protective tangle to be unwound one at a time and impaled on a hook.

It was a time when hiking through the woods on the way to a pond swatting May flies all the way and rubbing the welts they left on your body seemed like child’s play. A time when nothing appeared to be as enjoyable as standing and waiting for a yellow perch or a large mouth bass to tug on your line and make the red and white bobber dance on the surface of the water. Interesting how time changes your perspective, isn’t it?

Youth imbues almost any adventure with excitement and romance, especially, if you have an uncle who, in your estimation, rivals the granddaddy of all fishing authorities, Izaak Walton. This uncle is the one who fosters the mystique that stalking the wily pickerel or trout is a noble Zen-like pursuit. He does so to the point that it becomes almost a mandatory rite of passage.

Hence, during the formative years a good many hours were passed learning the lore and rules associated with the art of angling as practiced by devotees who were purists regarding the sport.

For example, once the water’s edge is in sight, you must stop talking, lest you might alert the finny hoards that you are coming with malicious intentions. Neither should you handle your bait extensively because the prey will smell your scent on the hook.

Fish can smell (?!), you wanted to ask, but to question the authority of the most piscatorially aware member of the family was close to heresy. Besides, as a boy it was fun to be a disciple in the church of the fresh caught dinner.

So you listened intently and you learned. Don’t set the hook too aggressively. Use the lightest possible gear to give the fish a fair chance. Above all, once you have set the hook, play the fish; don’t run back from the shore dragging the poor lake trout out of the water like an old tire. (Do it once and it’s the source of a lesson. Do it twice, and you fish alone.)

There were accepted practices and there were practices beyond the pale. For example, you carefully removed the barbed hook from the mouth of the bass or perch you just caught, especially if you might release it back into the water. In case that might be the decision you always handled the fish with great care, wetting your hands before holding them and submerging them gently in the lake as their gills began working before you let them go.

Of course, catching dinner meant you had to clean the prey you landed, a task you would have much preferred to leave to the uncle guru. However, that violated the iron-clad principal “if you catch it and keep it you clean it.”

So, it was mandatory to learn the fine points of gutting, skinning, and fileting the fresh water pond dwellers you hauled ashore so gleefully. However, it was far less fun to dress out a fighting small mouth bass than it was to hook and bring him in.

Squeamishness aside, there is something disturbing about the repeated dismembering of the oddly beautiful hydrodynamic bodies of one fish after another. This might help explain why dedicated fishermen and women make a dutiful ritual out of it, treating it with an almost spiritual sense of reverence. If the intention is to eat the result of this work, wouldn’t it be heathen-like to disrespect this source of sustenance and the process of preparing it?

When the preparation was finished, fish scales on your fingers and arms, sometimes even on your cheeks were badges of fisherman’s honor. They were hard to remove too, perhaps nature’s way of inclining you to reflect a little more on the interaction with a creature that began its day gliding around under the still surface of a neighborhood pond, but would end it becoming part of your own flesh.

All of which would suggest that eating fish would at least be a source of pleasure, but in those days it was not so much. Remember, fresh water species are smaller than ocean fish and usually are considerably more boney, and despite one’s best youthful efforts at successfully fileting them the outcome was not always a model of perfection.

Here’s where mothers and grandmothers enter the picture. Not necessarily devotees of the sacred science of angling, they were fierce practitioner of the maternal art of keeping their children safe and alive. Hence, the admonition, no make that the edict: Chew every bite until it’s thoroughly ground up to liquid.

We all know how delightful that is. However, like the boiling of vegetables into mush and the cooking of pork until it dried to the consistency of shoe leather, it was an ironclad mantra for mothers of that era. Hence eating fish was like scarfing down horned pout flavored oatmeal.

Yet up through the third decade of life it was an article of faith that fishing was a fun-filled pastime, a near mystic experience that tested your aesthetic sensibilities as well as your resourcefulness at the same time it measured your ability to adhere to a code of conduct that the most highly evolved aficionados of the sport would applaud.

Then one day, like a bolt out of the blue, the uncle who was the living image of the ideal fisherman confessed his disillusionment. On an expedition to a challenging trout stream somewhere in the wilds, he sought out a legendary prized specimen who had evaded seasoned anglers for years. Following tips from the locals, uncle stole up on the old ghost in an eddy pool he was known to frequent. He stalked the trophy trout who had avoided all previous attempts at capture. After a couple of careful casts of his fly, BANG, just like that, he hooked the legendary old fish. He caught him good.

Handling him with great care, he had a companion take a photo and then he released the king back into the pool where he had been lurking. Trying to prove that skill not luck had allowed him to land the famed prize fish, he floated his fly on the surface again. BANG, he took him again. Five times he caught and released the venerable fish.

Back among the family he seemed dejected. Asked what happened, he recounted the unsettling event. The mystique was all but shattered.

“I made a lot of noise and splashed around in the brook the last two times I caught him. Even so, I hooked him,” he told us. “He was a dope. Fish can’t hear you, either. He proved it.”

Uncle never gave up his life-long obsession with fishing, but it wasn’t ever the same after that.

Strange, but every so often lately the urge to dig worms and get out the old fishing gear rises up. That is when the fish market beckons. The knowledge that the fileting there is done by experts overcomes the impulse to wet a line for old time’s sake. Memories will just have to suffice.