This past Saturday I went fishing.
If you know me, especially if you knew me as a child, you would not be surprised by this statement. In fact, you might wonder why I made it at all, and why I am writing an entire blog article about it.
It’s funny…I grew up loving to fish. I would have fished in a mud puddle if I thought there was an outside chance that it had a fish in it. I would practice casting in the above-ground swimming pool in our back yard. There was a creek in the county park in our neighborhood, and even though the creek was mostly a dry bed, I would often find myself casting a new lure in the pools that did exist here and there, just to see how it swam.
My friends did the same thing. Johnny, Richard, Tommy. We’d all be outside practicing our casts. When Johnny and I were both twelve years old, we each bought a fly-fishing combo at the New Castle Farmer’s Market. It was a seven-foot rod, a cheap but effective Martin reel, some level fly line and a small box with about a dozen flies inside.
Johnny and I set a Hula Hoop in the street and with a small piece of yarn tied to our tippet; we’d practice the rhythmic, graceful, pendulum motion of a fly-cast. We got good enough to land that yarn right in the hoop every time.
We subscribed to Bassmaster Magazine. We saved our money and bought lures two or three at a time at Shooter’s Supply on DuPont Highway. We rode our Spider bikes to “Nonesuch Creek” to fish the dirty waters that fed the Christiana River. We seldom caught more than a catfish or a carp, but we were fishing. We were out in the sun, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from a brown bag, peeing in the bushes, getting tanned and being boys.
In our hearts we were Jerry McInnis on “The Fishin’ Hole” and we were catching twenty pound stripers on Rapala broken-backs in the morning mist of some mammoth Southern Lake.
Life rolled on and we fished less and less. For my entire childhood I dreamed of living someplace where the fishing was generous and the bass were big. I moved to Tennessee in 1997 and, with an unhappy wife and a newborn daughter not long after we arrived, I found myself living in exactly such a dream location, and never fishing there even once.
I did find time to take Morgan fishing when she was 4 or 5 years old. There was a little five acre pond near my house and we caught a few Sunfish. But it was a long, long time before I found myself in a river, seriously pursuing a bass or a trout, with solitude as my only companion.
In 1994 I had returned to Liberty University for one year. That spring of 1995 I spent a few good weekend days in the Tye River, and the James, but I had not been back there to fish since I left in 1995.
1997 brought the move to Tennessee. 1998 brought my daughter’s birth. 1999 brought divorce. It was during those lonely, excruciatingly painful days of my divorce and the years immediately after, that I should have been fishing.
When the pain that is inherent with the end of a marriage –and the death of a dream- was so crushing, that’s when I needed the peace of a river or a lake the most. I don’t know why I didn't think of it then. I don’t know why I didn't spend a few hundred dollars and buy some nice new equipment and lose myself for an entire Saturday now and then. But I didn't.
I guess I simply forgot.
I forgot how good the sun feels on your face. I forgot how the gentle, relentless flow of the river can mesmerize you, and then, eventually, that flow begins to carry the burdens of your soul downstream somewhere. It isn't always about whether you caught anything. It’s what you released. Worry. Doubt. Fear. Pain. Sometimes, on a good day, each cast carries them away from you.
Saturday I returned to something I had loved a lifetime ago. I was thirty feet out in the James River, about a quarter mile below an old, retired hydro-electric dam.
The James is a beautiful river when you are this far upstream. She’s clean, and clear, and fast in spots. She has a solid rock bed with little if any algae and growth. You can find a path of boulders jutting up just above the surface and, in spots; you can make your way to the middle of the stream without getting your feet wet.
I wasn't quite that far out on Saturday but I was far enough. I had an old Shakespeare spin cast combo that I might have paid twenty bucks for about eight years ago. I’m surprised I still had it, but it was in my closet. It had a chartreuse buzz bait still tied on and I cast it a few times, thinking nothing would hit a buzz bait in a river like the James.
On my third cast, I was pleasantly surprised when a nice smallmouth flashed up from underneath a cut in large bedrock and attacked my lure.
He was hooked instantly and he put up a decent battle before I landed him. I picked him up carefully. He was small, definitely not a keeper. But he was beautiful. A lovely green-bronze that only the smallmouth wears. He was all of about ten inches or so, maybe a second-season fish. But he was game, and I carefully removed the hook, made sure he was unharmed, and turned him loose. With a little luck, he’ll mature and offer someone else a battle someday.
Maybe a little eight year old boy who lives to fish as I once did.
I was excited. It had been a long time. I snapped a picture with my cell phone and sent it to a buddy. I smiled.
I fished for two more hours, hoping to catch another. I drank in the breathtaking scenery around me. I wondered why it had been so long. I thought of Johnny and Richard and Tommy and the days when we fished all day long in the heat of summer, catching nothing worth keeping, except the memories we would carry with us forever.
Do boys fish anymore? I don’t know. Boys don’t do nearly as many “boy things” as they used to do.
But they should.
They should be out there with their buddies, and with their dads and grandpas. Because those memories will get them through hard days when the only thing they can do to assuage the fishing bug is remember when they used to go out on steamy Friday evenings after summer rains and snatch giant night crawlers from the wet grass. When grown-up life rushes at them like an army of Huns, they’ll recall getting up at dawn, meeting their three best friends in the street, and riding their bicycles a few miles to their secret spot.
When the disappointments that life throws at us like so many curveballs take a toll…they could fall back on the best moments of childhood with the best friends they've ever had, learning about nature, and friendship, and luck.
Saturday, as I was casting my line and hoping for another beautiful bronze back, I was thinking about those friends of mine. I wished I could have held up that little bass and seen Johnny Wilkins, or Mark Sterling, smiling at me from twenty feet away, as happy as if they had caught it themselves.
I was alone on the water, but I had the company of the memories of those childhood fishing trips and the friendships that have been swallowed by adulthood, and the miles between us.
At the end of the great thriller, “The Hunt For Red October,” Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan asks Sean Connery’s Marko Ramius why he went to the great lengths it took to steal the Red October and bring her to America. He answered: “I miss the peace of fishing, like when I was a boy in Vilnius with my grandfather.”
“I miss the peace of fishing…”
So do I.
I miss the excitement and the skill and the talks we had on the way to our fishing hole. I miss the camaraderie and the bragging rights and the knot-tying contests.
I miss my childhood friends.
I won’t be able to be on the river for a few weeks, but when I do, I’ll carry Johnny and Mark and Richard and Tommy with me. I’ll do something that connects me directly to my childhood. Each cast will take with it just a little piece of the worries and cares that fifty-one years have heaped on my shoulders. I’ll wonder. I’ll squint in the sun, and curse at a snagged line and then laugh at myself when I do.
Hopefully I’ll find another bronze back or two…or three.
And I’ll find peace…