Lessons in Fishing
My father’s summer classroom was the water
by Eileen Slovak
In summer, my dad spent his days on the water instead of teaching in the classroom. A lesson in fishing was a feeble attempt on my part to bond with my father, a crusty old waterman who grunted more than spoke. The first fishing lesson was a rite of passage my five siblings and I shared.
Lesson number one was, if you wanted to go fishing with Dad, be ready to go at 5am. If you were late, you’d see the tail lights heading up the driveway. You wouldn’t dare bring it up later: You’d just be darn sure to be on time the next day.
The second lesson was that fishing was serious business. The boat had no seats; Dad removed them. When you had a fish on the line, you needed freedom of movement, not unnecessary furniture.
Lesson three: Bring a sweatshirt. It got cold on the water, and if the fish were biting, there was no going in to shore.
Lessons four and five: Bait your own hooks (we were using raw squid, and it smelled a little ripe) and keep quiet. Noise disturbs the fish. I was not aware that fish had ears.
As the boat left the harbor, I looked back longingly at the disappearing shoreline. No, fishing was not for sissies, or as in my case, 10-year-old girls. But I stuck it out. There was a great deal at stake.
Long periods of silence were interrupted by brief words of instruction. My main jobs were to be ready with the net and not under foot. Dad caught a fish, and I held the net with both hands and all my might. If it fell in the water, I was done for. I passed the first test because the nod said so.
My line bobbed. Time to test my knowledge. The first few got away. I listened intently to my father’s critique of my fishing technique.
Lesson six: When an old salt speaks, it is best to keep your mouth shut and your ears open.
Time stood still as we searched for the ideal spot. The wind whipped. Salty water stung my eyes. Even with my sweatshirt, I was cold. But I knew better than to show it.
Boats passed by. Their inhabitants waved. A few brief exchanges ensued. Two boats followed us at a respectful distance. I learned Dad was a local celebrity on the water.
Fish have no boundaries. How could one location be better than another? Dad seemed to know the answer. We anchored and waited. Waiting went along with fishing. Patience, I had to acquire.
All at once, the water lit up with furious splashing. Dad moved quickly around the boat, and I followed his lead. Tending his four lines left no time to help me with mine. I started to catch fish, getting a little thrill each time.
I leapt off the cooler that doubled as a seat as wriggling fish were flung in my direction. A few misses, and I watched my footing. The fish fought hard, but I won the battle more times than lost. I forgot about being cold. Hours passed like minutes.
At day’s end we pulled in to a dock where the fish would be sold. Dad split the profits with me, minus money for gas and bait. It was more than fair. I overheard him talking to the man weighing the fish. He grimaced, making large gestures with his hands. The man looked at me. In his surprised tone I heard the words girl and not bad. I caught a fleeting glimpse of pride on Dad’s face.
That’s right, I thought. Not bad for a girl. I earned an A for the day.
Dad sold his boat years ago when his sea legs finally gave way and he could no longer manage the craft alone. Someday, I hope, my children will go fishing with Grandpa. Distance makes that difficult now, and somedays disappear before our eyes. We’re scattered, my siblings and I, up and down the coast from Maine to Georgia. Memories travel with us, softened by the years like well-turned stones.