May 13, 2011

The One That Got Away…

Category: News — admin @ 6:42 pm

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Nothing makes a fish bigger than almost being caught.

—Author Unknown
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A month back, around mid-April, they sprouted magically like they always do that time of year. Swarming around the tiny little creeks that cut like soggy ribbons through the fields of Lancaster County. Opening day of trout season triggered a great flood of people, fishing for the small stocked trout the Game Commission had obligingly released a day or two before.

They’re out there at dawn on almost any morning, but especially so on Saturdays. Mostly men and boys. Following the traditions passed down to them by their fathers. And it’s a good thing, although I’ve never had the energy to join them. On Saturday mornings, unless I’m working at the office, I sleep in with all phones unplugged.

But it’s still good to see, and it always tugs at me a bit. The thought of casting a line and feeling it come alive as a fish takes the bait. Except these creeks are so crowded, with people standing side by side, their poles and lines dangling dangerously close to each other. A real wild fish of almost any size could sure create some havoc if caught. You’d have one vast hopelessly tangled mess, and probably a good bit of cussing.

It’s cool, too, that Dads take their sons and daughters out to experience the thrill of catching a trout or two. Fishing is a wholesome activity and I can’t imagine my own childhood without it. Back in the day, I even fancied myself a bit of an expert at the sport. A long, long time ago, of course.

I was probably four years old when I caught my first fish. And it was my sisters, not Dad, who led me into a new and enthralling world one morning soon after breakfast. Naomi and Rachel and me, and maybe my brother Titus. We sat on the north bank of our pond, which was probably an acre in size, which back then seemed like a huge lake. The north bank was steep, and the water was deepest there. We had no real fishing tackle, except a hook and line. A four-foot piece of small black plastic pipe (did they make PVC back then?) served as the fishing pole.

Naomi baited my hook with a worm, and told me to dip the line in the water. I don’t think I’d even seen anyone catch a fish before, so I really had no idea what was about to happen. We sat there for a few minutes, and suddenly some unseen force tugged at the hook. My little black pole was almost torn from my hands, or so it felt.

“Pull him in, pull him in,” my sisters hollered. I yanked at my pole, back and up above my head. A wicked little yellow-bellied black monster of a catfish came sailing out of the water, whizzed past my head and landed smack in the middle of the multi-flora rose bushes behind us. A sorry little critter, about four inches long, writhed and twitched there in the dirt. Fortunately, my hook held and Naomi nudged the fish out of the thorny bushes, while I danced about excitedly. A fish. I’d caught a real fish. After retrieving the squirming little excuse of a fish, she carefully removed the hook. It was all quite wild and exciting.

And that was my first fish, ever.

After that, my brothers and I often fished on our own, out by our pond. Eventually we even purchased our own cheap rods and reels and assorted tackle and fishing lures. Our pond held mostly small catfish and some sunfish. We always hooked our catch, a mixture of both, to a wire stringer and carefully carried them in. Then whacked off their heads and gutted and scraped them clean. Which left a tiny sliver of edible meat. Mom always faithfully and cheerfully saved up the scraps that totaled a day’s catch, and stored them in the ice box. And eventually she had enough to fry up a good meal. Our meager offerings must have created far more bother than they were worth, but she never let on.

The best fishing in Aylmer came from the gravel pits, a series of ponds about a half mile east of our farm. Years before, gravel had been removed, hauled off by big ten-wheeler trucks. Back then, they didn’t fill the gaping holes that remained after drag-lines had clawed into the earth to extract the gravel. And thus some very nice deep ponds were born, and ponds of such quality will not remain long without fish. Who cares where they come from? Maybe they rain from the sky, to seed new waters.

We often ran over to the pits after supper on a hot summer evening for a quick swim. And during our spare time, probably two or three times a month, we fished our favorite waters there.

The pits held some bass, but mostly northern pike. A wiry snake-like fish with a long wicked jaw lined with razor-sharp teeth. We mostly caught small stuff, a pound or two in size, and man, there ain’t much better eating out there than northern pike, when it comes to fish. They sure tasted a lot better than the small fry junk from our own muddy pond.

Slowly, over time, we accumulated quite a stash of fishing tackle. Flimsy rods of various lengths and brands. Zebco push-button reels. Cheap no-name spinning reels. We bought line, hooks, sinkers and lures. In town, mostly, but sometimes here and there at local auctions. My brothers and I debated the merits of various spoons, flathead lures, and spinners. Rapala. Flathead. Mepps Rooster Tails. Peppermint spinners. Plastic worms, with and without wiggly tails. We carefully saved for our next buy. Kept our treasures in small plastic or metal Plano tackle boxes. As our fishing supplies grew, so did the size of our tackle boxes. The biggest one I ever owned back then had a hinged two-tier, lift-out tray.

And somewhere, from some cluttered auction box, I found a nice flathead lure with no hook. Mottled green, speckled with dark black spots. But it had no hook. Hmmm. Not being an engineer, I quickly found a solution. I safety-pinned a nice 3-pronged hook to the bottom side of the lure. That should do it. And the flathead joined all the other lures in my two-tiered tackle box, probably in a spot in the bottom tray. Maybe one day I’d actually use it to catch something.

That day of reckoning arrived one fine summer day. I’m thinking it was mid-morning, although it might have been right after our noon meal, when everyone else was taking a nap. My sister Rhoda and I snuck out and walked the half mile east to the gravel pits. (A tomboy to the core, Rhoda consistently outfished all her brothers. But hey, she could communicate with animals too, so no doubt she was talking to the fish, somehow, to get them to take her bait.) Instead of fishing at our usual spot, we chose another pond, just a bit east and south.

We stood there on the bank, two sun-browned and barefoot Amish children, and surveyed the pond. A silent heavy sunny day. Waves of heat shimmered from the water. Seaweed clogged the pond a few yards out. Protruding just a bit from the seaweed lurked what might have been a big fish, a pike. But nah. It had to be a small limb, broken from overhanging trees. We threw in our spinners and reeled them back. The limb stayed where it was, unmoving. And always seaweed clogged the hooks on our spinners. It seemed pretty hopeless, that we’d catch anything at this spot.

And then Rhoda reached into my tackle box and pulled out the mottled green flathead lure. Snapped it to her line leader. Cast out into the pond, no more than fifteen feet. She slowly reeled it back; the flathead dove deep into the clear water and snaked and wobbled like a wild living bug.

It all came down so fast that time seemed to stop, or at least slow down a good bit. The “limb” protruding from under the seaweed suddenly flashed to life. A huge pike shot out and gobbled the mottled flathead lure. Boom, just like that. Rhoda’s light rod bowed dangerously as she instantly reacted and yanked it back to set the hook, purely on reflex.

And then the great fish surfaced. Didn’t jump or anything, just rolled. The flash of silver scales glinted like a mirror in the bright sunlight. The water roiled and thrashed and foamed. And in that instant, my sadly under-engineered little safety pin was ripped from the lure. The massive pike shot back under the seaweed like a ghost, and was gone. It was all over in about five seconds. Stretched out seconds, of course, at least to us. We stood there frozen as tiny waves from the departed pike rippled up to the bank at our feet. Rhoda slowly reeled in the mutilated flathead. The hook was gone, firmly planted in the fish’s mouth.

Sure, we were young kids back then. I was probably twelve years old, give or take a year. Rhoda was a few years younger. And of course the pike seemed much larger to us than it probably was. But I’d swear to this day that the fish was at least a ten-pounder. Certainly massively larger than anything we’d ever seen, and larger than any fish anyone had ever caught in Aylmer, at least up until that time.

In muted voices of utter disbelief, we talked excitedly about what had just unfolded. The thought kept pulsing through my mind that I should have known that a safety pin would never hold any fish, let alone a monster like the one that had just chomped my flathead lure. A little life lesson was eventually born of that moment. If you’re gonna refit/repair something, do some calculations. Get it right.

We sadly headed home, where our story was met with dubious condescension. No one doubted that a pike had torn the hook from my lure. But I mean, come on. A safety pin. A four-inch catfish in our muddy pond could demolish such a pitiful connector. Everyone was openly skeptical of our descriptions of the pike’s massive size. Can’t blame them, I guess. I would have doubted it too, had I not seen it with my own eyes.

Chasing that pike became minor obsession for me for the next few years. I dipped deep into the reservoir of my meager savings, and promptly squandered a good twenty bucks or so on a brand new spinning rod and reel at the Canadian Tire store in Aylmer. It was the sturdiest setup I had ever owned. And in the ensuing months, and during the next few summers, I stalked the banks of that pond dozens of times at any hour of the day. In the morning. At mid-day. And as the evening shadows deepened into night.

Sadly, or maybe not, my quest was entirely futile. I never got that fish to bite again. He disappeared into the sea-weeded depths as if he’d never existed. Maybe the embedded hook killed him. Or maybe the wily monster learned enough that day to never be fooled again. I like to think he died peacefully of old age.

Over the years, my fiberglass spinning rod slowly splintered and disintegrated, and no shreds of it remain. The mottled flathead lure, too, was lost in the dust of time along the way. But somewhere, in a box in my garage, I still have that old Daiwa spinning reel. I pick it up now and then and hold it in my hands. It’s the only tangible thing that remains to remind me of that muggy summer day in Aylmer so long ago, when two raggedy Amish children did brief but valiant battle with a monster fish and lost.

I value that old relic of a spinning reel as one of my very few surviving childhood treasures. Along with the memories, I suppose, it is enough.

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