Nothing binds father and son together so meaningfully as a shared day of fishing. Just as in primitive societies in which a father passes on his hunting skills to his son, a boy of today learning to bait and set his hook under the watchful eye of his father functions as a tribal rite that bridges the generation gap. The usual inter-generational tensions quickly dissipate during this enriching experience. In my own family, however, all efforts to enact this meaningful tradition have invariably transformed the slender gap between generations into a yawning crevasse.
By the time my son, Robin, reached the impressionable age of six, I felt it was time to pass my own wealth of fishing knowledge on to him --knowledge gained exclusively from leafing through back issues of Field And Stream while I waited in the dentist's office to have my mouth reconstructed.
First I had to locate a prime fishing spot, rather than just tramping into the wilds, searching for an expanse of unpolluted water. Fortunately at my workplace, next to grain prices and hockey, fishing is a topic of prime interest. Since I had always given my colleagues every indication that fishing was second nature to me, I couldn't now ask them where to find a promising fishing spot. This would require a little guile.
My opportunity came one Monday morning as I joined a group of my co-workers for coffee. While I was filling my cup with the vile concoction from the carafe, I heard "the old Keensaw dam" mentioned. This must be it, I thought to myself.
"So how's fishing been up by the old Keensaw dam?" I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
"Fishing at the old Keensaw dam?" replied one. "Why would anyone want to fish there?"
Just like fishermen not to share their favourite haunts with anyone else. "Oh, I talked to a couple of guys who said they've had some luck up there."
"Really? Depends on what you're looking for, I guess."
Their reticence to discuss it told me all I needed to know. The waters by the old dam must be alive with fish. I broke the news of this exciting venture to Robin the following Saturday morning. "How about we go fishing today?" I said to him. "Wouldn't that be fun?"
He gave me an apprehensive look. "I hate fish. They're all slimy and smelly."
"Oh come on, you'll get used to that. We'll have a great time." I chose to regard his small sigh as a gasp of excitement.
"We're almost there," I said to Robin as we jolted our way down a rutted dirt road which, according to my map, led to our destination. My eager offspring only grunted as he picked another comic book from the stack piled beside him.
We heard the gushing of water a moment or two before we came within sight of the dam itself. Then, right after a sharp curve to the left, we saw it -- a crumbling, concrete wall below which torrents of water frothed and churned. But rather than finding a fisherman's haven there, we discovered we had encroached on a massive outdoor carnival. Among the tents, sleeping bags, and litter, we could see hordes of young people guzzling beer, a couple of thugs on overpowered motorcycles ripping up the terrain and the jackpine wilting in the face of a shrieking bombardment from a several hundred ghetto-blasters. But not a single fishing rod in sight.
I whipped the car around in a violent U-turn and checked the rear-view mirror to determine whether the black-jacketed terrors on their Harley-Davidsons were in hot pursuit.
"Aren't we going fishing, Dad?" Robin asked, no trace of disappointment discernible in his voice.
"Uh...yeah. Of course we are. I just thought of a better spot a little further up the river." I turned off onto a trail which consisted of two tire tracks creeping through the dense underbrush. We inched our way along that trail for about half a mile, testing the workmanship of our muffler by scraping it over rocky projections. Then, about two miles in, we found our path blocked by a fallen tree the size of a freight train.
I looked up hopefully, but saw no sign of a caped figure in blue tights hurtling through the sky to rescue us. "Well Robin, are you ready for a little hike?" I asked.
An expression of horror crept into his face as he shook his head frantically.
"Oh come on, it's just over there. The walk will be good for us." Robin slunk out of the car and trudged down the trail after me, looking as if he had just been selected as a test subject to examine the benefits of a sugar-free diet.
Before we had tramped ten yards into that jungle, an army of malnourished mosquitoes, who had been waiting there for a good feed of blood, descended on us with whoops of joy. I chose to ignore Robin's shrieks of "I want to go home", and simply flailed away at the winged marauders until we reached the river. To our relief, nearer the water the volume of mosquitoes seemed to diminish. Either they were incurable hydrophobics, or else they had sucked the last drop of blood from our veins already.
"This looks like a good spot," I said and proceeded to bait my hook with a frozen minnow from the package I had bought earlier that day. Robin blanched at the sight of that poor, frost-encrusted fish being impaled upon my hook.
"Do you want me to put one on for you?" I asked him, "or do you want to get a lure from the tackle box?"
"Something from the tackle box," he gasped. He began rifling through it, tossing my neighbour's precious lures onto the rocks beside him. Moments later, he held up one beauty the size of a sturgeon, fully decked out with multi-coloured feathers and three sets of hooks.
"Perhaps something smaller would be better," I suggested. "That lure's bigger than most of the pickerel we want to catch."
"Nope. I want this one." With a sigh, I tied it onto his line. Then we both sat down on the rocks, enjoying the gurgling of the stream below our feet, until Robin let out a whoop. "Daddy, my hook's stuck!"
"Just jiggle it around a bit and see if it comes loose."
He yanked at the rod, and the lure flew through the air. Robin yelped. "My arm! It's stuck in my arm!"
I rushed over to offer first-aid. Visions of having to apply a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood gushing from his torn flesh ran through my mind. But my heart stopped racing when I found that the only casualty was the fabric of his shirt.
Once I had disengaged the barbed talons from his shirt-sleeve, we both returned to our former perches and sat back to await the first nibble from those ravenous pickerel.
During the next half-hour, Robin took every precaution to ensure that any fish in the district equipped with a functional pair of ears knew of our arrival. Precisely every six and a quarter seconds he pulled up his line to verify that no killer whales had snagged themselves on it. That sent the school of pickerel, who had been slavering over the prospect of biting into my minnow, scurrying over to the next bay. Robin then followed them over there and repeated the maneuver.
While I sat awaiting the return of the denizens of the deep, Robin let out another blood-chilling shriek. "Daddee!"
I felt certain that he must have performed an unanesthetized tracheotomy on himself this time. I scrambled over the rocks to his rescue, ignoring the pain each time I tore some flesh off my knee in my haste to reach him. But once I got over there, the hook was nowhere in sight. Neither was his rod for that matter.
"What's wrong? Where's your fishing rod?"
He simply pointed to the water and then howled like a demented coyote. Berating him would have been pointless -- I could never have made myself heard over his wailing. I plunged my arm into the water up to the shoulder and probed around. After a few moments I felt my fingertips brush against something. I stretched a little further...and somersaulted into the river.
"Help, help!" screeched Robin. "My daddy's drowning!"
In reality Robin's life was in much more danger at that moment than my own. The water along the shore was only waist deep. But rather than strangling my sole male progeny on the spot, I took ten deep breaths. By the time I dragged myself and Robin's fishing rod out of the river, my enthusiasm for this fishing expedition was as dampened as my clothes. "Time to go home, Robin," I said and took him by the hand. We had barely taken two steps when the sky opened up, and rain poured down as if some celestial prankster was tipping gigantic buckets of water over on top of us. We raced for the cover of a couple of spruce trees until the rain let up...which it did an hour and a half later. By the time we finally got back to the car, the trail had been transformed into an oozing bog, and all four wheels of our vehicle were embedded in an adhesive goo.
To extricate it, first I tried dragging some logs out of the bush and shoving them underneath the tires. As soon as I put the car into reverse, however, it slipped sideways off the rain-slickened surface of the logs. Then, while I tried to repress sobs of frustration, Robin made his first constructive contribution to this whole excursion. "Why don't you use that thing for when you get a flat tire?" he suggested.
Of course, the jack. I could at least get the wheels out of the mud. I jacked the car up and pushed it backwards. It worked. Now the tires were embedded in a new patch of mud. I had no choice but to repeat the process--jacking up the car and pushing it backwards, a few inches at a time, all the way out to the road. Robin contributed by grumbling about the rain, the mosquitoes, and the outdoor experience in general.
"Sounds a lot like what your dad says he went through when he tried to turn you into a fisherman," said my wife, in response to my tale of torment. "He told me you used to hide out under the stairs whenever he reached for his tackle-box."
I thought back to those fishing trips in which I tipped over the bait tin, snagged my hook underneath the boat and pleaded to be taken back to shore to "go pee", managing to tax my father's normally-inexhaustible patience to the breaking point.
"Yeah, you're right," I said to my wife. "Fishing's never been my sport. But maybe I could pick up a set of used golf clubs at a garage sale somewhere. I bet Robin and I would have a lot of fun golfing together."
My wife gazed upwards and offered a silent prayer.
You can email Peter Latimer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified on January 23, 1998
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