It wasn’t the fishing itself that i liked so much—truthfully, I could take it or leave it— as the “going fishing.” We’d get up in the dark, throw on sweatshirts and windbreakers, drive to a greasy spoon diner just outside town. Pancakes, bacon, old guys in flannel, and the smell of pipe tobacco.
Then, as the sun started to rise, we’d head to the nearby lake where my dad would rent a little aluminum fishing boat. And we’d set out—only a few miles from home, but it might as well have been the other side of the world. I had my own rod and reel, my own little blue plastic tackle box. In it were bobbers, sinkers, hooks . . . and three or four artificial lures that I never really used, because we were always fishing for panfish. And nightcrawlers were best for that.
Nearly every time I went fishing with my dad, we used nightcrawlers. He taught me to bait my own hook; that’s a fact, but also, I like to think, a metaphor. It was his rule, actually: You want to go fishing, this is part of the deal. You’ve got to thread this squirmy, slimy worm on your hook in such a way that it will stay in place when you cast, and the fish can’t just make off with it. And then you reach over the side of the boat and rinse your hands in the lake, without making a fuss.
It’s not that I never found angling satisfying, especially when the perch or bluegills were biting. But I was really out there for the birdsong, the patches of lilypads, the sound of the water lapping against the boat. The sense that it might be 1977 or 1877, and it’d be hard to tell the difference. When we did catch a few little panfish, we’d usually throw them back. One exception: the 20-inch smallmouth bass I caught on a pier in Wisconsin when I was 7. He was prouder of that fish than I was.
I treasured our time together. For a while, Dad raised me alone—my first mother died when I was a toddler, and until his remarriage and the birth of my two brothers, it was just us two. We rarely discussed that time, or our respective losses. Later on, when I broached it, the subject was rapidly changed. He kept grief tightly shrink-wrapped and tucked away. I wish I’d tried harder, on our outings, to get him to talk about her, and about their life together.
Still we had a closeness that, I think, stemmed from our time at sea, so to speak. And it was the simply being together that I treasured—despite the nightcrawlers.
As I got older, I got bored with angling. It wasn’t until I had kids that Dad and I began fishing together again. Before he passed away, one of my dad’s favorite places to take his grandkids was the fish hatchery a few miles from his home in southwest Michigan. This spring, the DNR built a new fishing pier on one of the hatchery ponds, and it bears a bench in my dad’s name. I like to think about all the little girls who’ll sit on that bench with Dad or Grandpa, listening to the birdsong, talking or not talking. Enjoying each other’s company, and learning to bait their own hooks