If the kids had seemed determined to catch a fish earlier, it was nothing compared to the vigor with which they flailed the waters now. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but remember when I’d started fishing. I thought of how I had fished with such violence, how it had not been at all about the fish but entirely about me. I hadn’t felt the fish in the water or everything else on the lake, I’d only felt my own puny ego, my own smallness had made me want to make some sort of impact on this world, to be noticed and respected. And it looked like fun to be a good fisherman. Learning to want to make it look easy was actually the first step in getting past all that negative stuff.
I would like to say that I had long since left behind that inexplicable drive to hook a fish, but every once in a while the raw instinct would re-emerge and I would fish furiously, as Ted and Jesse now did. Those were usually the times when I didn’t catch any fish. Just then, I remembered something my brother had said to me once.
I put my rod down and picked up my paddle and pulled a few hard strokes to get the canoe cruising down the shore and away from the water they were abusing.
“Hey, guys, hold on a second.â€ They stopped fishing and looked at me. So did Charlie.
I hadn’t planned on anyone actually listening.
“You don’t have to whip the water to a foam. Take it easy, we’ll get some fish. Just get a nice long cast, reel in nice and easy, I think they’re ready to start biting.â€
Charlie went back to fishing. The kids followed suit.
I lit a cigarette and looked around the lake. Fifty yards down the shore, Miller and Landry sat in their canoe a ways out from shore. At first it didn’t even look like they were fishing, then I noticed that their rods were sitting across the gunwales. Jigging for crappies, I thought. Maybe we’ll have some fish for dinner after we get out of here.
Behind them, the farm on the far shore was as pastoral a scene as it could get. The red barn and the white house on top of the hill, a small feed yard, green pasture stretching up and down the hill. Holsteins scattered from the barn down to the lake.
The rest of the shoreline from the barn around to here and behind us was fairly steep except for one low, swampy bay in the corner behind us. Birch and maple and aspen grew thick on the hills.
I watched the kids for a moment, they were fishing much slower now, though none less intensely. Ted glanced nervously in my direction, saw that I was watching, and went back to his fishing. I remembered why I had really wanted to catch fish so badly when I was a kid.
On the shore by the landing the highway ran between this lake and its larger sister on the other side. We always came to Little Shoe, I don’t quite know why, we just liked it better. A Hmong family stood along the highway with a couple white plastic five gallon buckets. The whole family there, the kids that were too young to fish messed around by the landing, the fathers religiously working the waters with their bobber rigs. I couldn’t help but admire how regularly those people could get their whole family together and go spend an evening fishing at a pretty lake.
“Hey! I got one!â€ Ted called out and I looked just in time to see him nearly drop his rod over the side of the canoe in his excitement. Out in the water a small bass flopped to the surface and splashed around.
It was almost dark when we dropped the kids off at the bar. They said they usually got something to eat there at night and then would go home and go to bed and their mom would come home later. They had each gotten one fish. Each fish had been thrust in my face, displayed proudly. At the end of the night I had looked at Ted and seen him staring off at the shore, the sun turning it all orange and yellow, for just a moment before casting out again.
Life that summer continued just as it had been, except that now it was assumed the kids would be coming fishing with us when we went. Sometimes they didn’t, but more often they did. I don’t know why, but it was also assumed that they were sort of my charges. Nevermind that it had been Charlie who initially invited them. Never mind how I had no qualifications that the other guys didn’t have. The other guys obviously enjoyed them being there. We all joked with the kids, gave them a pointer here and there, told them the occasional stories about each other (usually sanitized to some degree). But they were my responsibility, there was no doubt it, and, after a few weeks, I discovered I was kind of glad they were.
Fishing for bass on Little Shoe was good enough for nights during the week. The drive was nothing. There wasn’t any hike. It was a known quantity, which was all we really wanted after work. But, after a month or two of lots of nights at Shoe, right about the time the kids started fishing with us, someone said that we had to get down to Spring Creek some Saturday, how all these bass were making us soft, and the idea stuck and thoughts of that little trout stream started working their way into all our minds at any time, without warning.
One afternoon I was driving the mower along the edge of the ninth fairway and suddenly remembered a hole on that river that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I started reconstructing it in my imagination and soon I could see every clump of grass, every branch hanging over the water, the two rocks that dominated the middle of the pool, the nearly invisible seams between indistinguishable currents. And then I could almost feel the casting, the smooth control necessary to drop the line in just the right spot and as light as a leaf drifting to the water.
And then I ran the mower into a tree.
Trout streams do that. Their memories are more alive than other memories.
Two days later Charlie asked me at lunch again if I wanted to go fishing at Shoe again that night. I said “sureâ€ but then I said, “Do you want to go to Spring Creek on Saturday?â€
“I have to go over to my folks on Saturday. I said I’d mow their lawn and some other stuff around the house.â€
“Shit, do that tonight, man. We’ve been to Shoe enough lately, get that stuff done today and we can go get some trout this weekend.â€
“Hmm,â€ he grunted, which seemed say that wasn’t such a bad idea, but then he didn’t say anything else. He took a bite out of his tuna fish sandwich and chewed, staring off into space, like he was giving something a lot of thought. I couldn’t believe it might be the idea I had just posed.
“What?â€ I said. He could be like this and it killed me. So slow to action or even just a shift of course.
“Hmm.â€ He took another bite of the sandwich. “Yeah, let’s not go fishing tonight.â€
“Okay. And go on Saturday?â€
“You know what Miller’s doing?â€
“No. I’ll find out though.â€
“You don’t want to go to the river instead?â€