I have two friends who swim in Lake Michigan. I know two more who ride in bicycle races like the Tour de Troit. At least half a dozen acquaintances run or walk in the Crim races. The parents of a dear colleague and friend skied in Idaho until they were over 80.
Every year it seems the Flint Journal has a photo and article about old timer hockey games. I am moved by the retirees who walk with difficulty to the rink, lace on their skates, and swoosh onto the ice---their crinkled faces light up as legs and ankles remember the moves.
I regret that I do none of these things. In fact, I have arrived at the end of my sixth decade of life with no athletic skill that, if learned young, you can continue to enjoy it at a later age.
Then I discovered fishing.
My partner Dennis would always remark on lakes or rivers we’d pass when we travel by car. What a great place to fish, he’d say, wistfully. I had no idea why he’d comment longingly about one body of water or another.
No one in my family fished.
As a ten-year-old kid, Dennis went with his parents in the summertime to the Sierra Mountains in California. They’d camp for a week and spend the days fishing at one of the lakes.
Fishing organized the day. Out in the boat in the early morning, return about noon to the campsite for sandwiches, then out on the lake again in the afternoon. They would come back with the day’s catch on a stringer. Dennis and his dad cleaned the fish; his mother fried them in cornmeal for dinner.
In those years, the 1950s, the limit was 15 fish per person. Some days the three of them would get their limit: 45 fish. Dennis said that often his mother caught the most fish, even though she often took a book with her out on the boat. She’d cast her line and then sit in the middle of the boat and read while she waited for a tug on the pole.
Dennis pondered my non-athletic background; he concluded that I might enjoy fishing.
My first experience was a couple of years ago; we drove to the Kern River in the western Sierras, about three hours north of Los Angeles.
Dennis packed all the camping gear---big tent, air mattress, stove and kitchen set up, and “sky” chairs. The sky chairs are a hippie-artisan invention Dennis discovered at the Renaissance Faire one year. A spider web arrangement of ropes and seating that you hang from a tree like an armchair hammock. You get up in it and sway in the breeze.
We had a big ice chest stocked with good food. Red wine for the evening and an old Bialetti moka pot for espresso in the morning. Camping with class and Dennis knew how to do it all.
My task was to learn how to fish.
We camped by the river, under trees but with enough sandy shelf to walk out into shallow water. Dennis had equipped me with a rod and reel; he taught me how to cast into the rapidly flowing stream. At first I got tangled on the rocks, but gradually I cast out farther into the river. The icy, rushing water cooled my legs in the heat of the July day.
To my surprise I reeled in a small rainbow trout. Dennis scooped it into the net. We caught a few more and we had enough for dinner.
Alas, this inaugural fishing experience was cut short. In Bakersfield, the last ice stop before we drove up the twisting mountain highway to the Kern, I’d eaten something that made me very, very sick. I was feverish and weak, able to fish only for short periods; I needed to sleep much of the day. The sight and smell of fried fish turned my stomach. We had to break camp after a couple of days and come home earlier than planned.
My initiation into angling was put on hold.
Then last week we tried fishing again. This time we drove further, to the Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierras about five hours north of Los Angeles. We returned to Lake Mary, one of the lakes where Dennis had gone years ago with his family. We rented a motor boat and set out on a cool, sunny morning in late September.
Dennis steered us to a quiet spot not far from shore, shallow water. Through the green glassy water we could see the mossy bottom about 12 feet down. On the shore, two older men had set up their poles and lines on the rocks at the water’s edge. Their anglers’ hats shaded their faces in the morning sun and their conversation traveled across the glinting water. When one of the two codgers caught a fish, his pal took pictures.
Over and over, I cast out, reeled back a bit to make the line taut, and then waited. Over and over, I picked up weeds and bark. I’d reel in, balance the rod to grasp the line and carefully tease off the mossy tendrils tangled around the fluorescent yellow power bait of my hook and sliding sinker.
I must have cast out four or five times. Then came the jerking tug-tug-tug Dennis told me I’d recognize. The fish pulled the pole first left, then right and then in a sharp arc as he dipped downward under the boat. Dennis coached me, “play with him,” “keep reeling in,” “let him get tired out.” I moved from one side of the boat to the other. He was now close enough to see his speckled silver sides gleaming. The smacking tail. Dennis netted him and into the boat about 12 inches of rainbow trout sputtered and flopped.
The old guys on the shore applauded.
The old guys on the shore applauded.
Dennis threaded my line onto an orange “disgorger” tool to extract my hook, all the while talking to the squirming fish. "Take it easy, little guy," he murmured as he gently nudged out the hook. When the hook was out, the little trout settled a bit and then lay still in the net on the bottom of the boat, his gills pumping. Dennis pulled out our stringer and poked its metal point through the fish’s jaw and hung the stringer over the side in the water, anchored in the oarlock.
This time Dennis and I caught five trout---all rainbow. Dennis even reeled in a 19 inch fish, nearly 4 pounds. He cleaned them all and we brought them home, packed in an ice chest.
The skillet is sizzling now as I write, but I am not sure if I can eat any of the fish.
I like my fish speckled and glimmering, breaking water in the lake in the warm sunlight. For the rest---the eating part---it’s not my sport yet.
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