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A Father’s Fishing Tale

June 26, 2019

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 26, 2019

I remember when my father brought home my first fishing pole, an offering that led to my earliest and fondest memories of both wild spaces and my father. The casing on the reel was a deep red and the pole was white, with thread matching the color of the reel wrapped around it, holding in place the eyelets, through which the fishing line extended.

Tied to the end of the line was a rubber weight, which I cast across the front lawn of my childhood home hundreds of times, reeling it back in while pretending it was a big one. Weeks went by and I recall asking my father, again and again, “When can we go fishing?” One evening after dinner he surprised me and we ventured to a local forest preserve where we briefly dipped our lines, catching more mosquito bites than fish. But brief as it was, the quiet time at the lake, the ease of connection with my father felt reassuring.

It was the first of many fishing tales for the two of us. Others were set in the sleepy backwaters of the Mississippi River where we cast our lines for crappies and stripers, while bald eagles soared, whitetail deer meandered and turtles sunned themselves. My father wistfully refers to this era as the golden years; the joy and sadness I hear in his voice when he speaks of those times is palpable, for me too.

After years of summer trips to the river, which started when I was an infant, my father launched a charter fishing business on Lake Michigan, off the shores of Illinois and Wisconsin, when I was 10-years old. For a couple of summers, I worked as his first mate, piloting the boat when he was working the fishing lines and swabbing the deck after the customers went home. Other times, with family or friends, we enjoyed the excitement of catching big fish — coho salmon, lake trout, brown trout and rainbow trout — some weighing as much as 20 pounds, or more.

But the lake is big, stretching 360 miles long and 90 miles wide at points, and with that comes wind, cold, fog, rain, violent storms and for some — including me — sea sickness. So, while my father was drawn to the lake each spring and summer, I gradually spent less time fishing, and less time with him, too.

Decades passed, and I became a father, first to Zoe and then Adam. As they aged, my father yearned for them to catch a fish on his boat, but I was reluctant, especially since Zoe and my wife, Lori, are prone to motion sickness, too.

This year, with Zoe and Adam fast-approaching 13 and 10 respectively, I was finally ready for us to attempt a fishing adventure on the big lake. But, after more than four decades as captain of his own ship; earning a living through long, hard hours and playing a central role in the fishing tales of countless others, he sold the boat and retired, months before we arrived for our annual visit.

At first, I was saddened at the thought that Zoe and Adam would not have the experience of fishing on Grandpa’s big boat, though I felt some relief, too. Instead, we planned a trip to a small, quiet lake less than an hour’s drive from my childhood home. Traveling through towns with names like Sandwich and Big Rock, where livestock outnumber people, we arrived with great anticipation for our fishing adventure.

Under cloudy but dry skies, the four of us floated peacefully on a pontoon boat. For three hours, we cast our lines and watched our bobbers while snacking on a cooler full of food. Zoe and Adam took turns steering the boat, and they practiced dropping and pulling up the anchors as we ventured to different locations near the lake’s shoreline, in search of hungry fish. They grabbed minnows from a bucket and nightcrawlers from a small plastic container, which we used to bait our hooks. Thankfully, they each caught a fish, Adam a 12-inch smallmouth bass and Zoe a 10-inch muskie, their faces radiating pure joy.

I suspect the adventure will provide a lasting memory for Zoe and Adam, a fishing tale with their father and Grandpa, and in this way, it will serve as one of my fondest fishing tales, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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