I caught my first fish when I was about 10 years old. My family was at a party of my dad’s friend and they had a big pond behind the house. I learned to thread the worm on the hook and cast the line out reeling it in slowly. I got a bite and the fish swallowed the hook and bait at once. My dad’s friend had to cut the line leaving the bait and hook in my fish’s stomach. I remember feeling bad about it. He told me it was no big deal. That bait was cheap but catching fish was priceless.
I haven’t done much fishing since then. I might have cast a line here or there, not bringing in anything of note. I don’t own a fishing pole and thought the idea of spending a day sitting in a boat or on a bank not doing much but casting and recasting sounded boring, a waste of an afternoon. Then I came to Bushcraft school.
Two of the men on the course are avid fishermen. They swap stories about types of fish and bait and lures. They debate which fish is better and how to catch them, what time of day and year and in what manner. They have stories of river trips and fish fries and it all sounded like less of a waste of time and more of an activity that involves skill, patience, luck and the ability to accept one’s losses and one’s bounty with equal grace.
One afternoon on the course we learned to fly cast. Fly rods are long and come in several pieces to assemble. The line is thick and flies like a whip. We didn’t put on a lure or even a hook as learning to fly cast can literally be a lesson in self flagellation, caught lines on trees and bushes and lots of frustration.
My line was bright green. I wore a borrowed ball cap and sunglasses to protect myself from the line I was about to whip around. I laid out a length of line in the pond then lifted my rod to 10 o’clock, a quick jerk back to 1 o’clock then watch the line for what seems like ever snake overhead. When the tail comes back to face behind, snap the wrist back to 10 and watch the line fly back overhead and out into the water. It’s an art and a science and it’s not nearly as easy as it looks.
Fly fishing originated in England and considering it’s usually done from the side of a river or pond instead of from a fancy boat it’s shocking to hear how much money people spend on flies, reels, accoutrements and guided trips to remote places where the fish are biting. Needless to say I didn’t catch anything on my hook-less, fly-less rod but I did recommit to the vague notion I developed listening to my classmates debate the finer points of angling: I was going to catch a fish.
I spent some time with David from Texas in the bait shop where hunters bring moose and bear carcasses to be weighed and inspected by the game warden. Inside are snacks and beer, an assortment of camo and bright orange clothing and a whole wall of lures, artificial bate and hooks.
I selected a little silver spinner on a 3 pronged hook and left it in the center console of David’s pickup truck. David soon departed for Tennessee with his miniature Star Wars themed fishing rod and my spinner. I had only fished with him once. I caught nothing. He caught a small sucker. Were my dreams of catching a fish dashed nearly before they began?
Part of our assignment is to spend four nights in a quad pod, essentially a teepee wrapper in a tarp, for a primitive camping experience. I set up camp with three other students right by the river where I had camped before in my hammock and tried and failed to catch fish with David.
This time I used Craig from South Carolina’s mini fishing rod and his golden spinner attached to a three pronged hook. It was dusk and the sun was sparking on the river. He told me to try my hand while he finished setting up camp. I caught a few sticks and about 50 rocks and then I felt a tug on my line. I jerked the line and started reeling it in. Out of the water rose a fish about a foot long and a pound heavy. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was flopping around and very slimy. I couldn’t get a good grip on it and so I bellowed for Allison and Craig to come down to the riverbank. Allison took my picture and Craig brought a bucket. I unhooked my catch whooping and hollering. I had caught a fish! And such a big one! In such little time. Alison and Craig retreated and I went back to casting and reeling it in, catching rocks and sticks and another fish! This one was smaller and skinnier and easier to grab and take the hook out. I put him in the bucket and went back to casting.
I learned not to reel the line all the way in and how to wait until the last possible second to let go of the button to make the line fly out into the deep part of the river. I was wearing my turquoise hunter boots for their true purpose for the first time in my life. They had seen a lot of snowy Chicago winters and wet Chicago springs but they had never stood in the water on the side of a river keeping my feet dry as I cast my line and reeled it in.
Another tug! I jerked my line and reeled in the biggest fish I had caught yet! This time I felt like an old pro taking it out of the water, holing it still to remove the hook and throwing it in the bucket with the others. They were splashing and thrashing so much I had to put the lid on as I thought they were going to escape.
With David I learned how to cut the heads off smaller fish, make an incision along the belly to the anus and rip out the guts. But these fish were bigger and Craig wanted to properly fillet them as the bones wouldn’t soften and you couldn’t eat them like the ones he caught before. I watched him descale the fish alive and cut through the spine to kill them. Their gills fluttered and their mouths moved even in death as phantom twitches of the nervous system fired through severed nerves. This is where meat comes from I told myself. This is the freshest, happiest meat you’ll ever eat, I thought. It was alive and swimming in the river less than an hour ago.
I dunked the fillets in egg then dredged them in flour to fry in a pan over the fire. The coals were hot and I balanced the pan on two big logs on either side of the fire. I was impatient to flip them but Craig said to wait until they were browner, more golden, crispy. Allison gathered for boughs to soak up the grease and set a mesh basket on top to keep the cooked fish until it was time to serve them for dinner. Accompanied by leftover rice and beans and veggies the fish was delicious, even more so because I caught and cooked it myself.
Will I become a professional angler? Probably not. Will I spend more time appreciating the river, wasting time with a rod and reel? Most definitely.