November 29, 2014

Thanks Dad, I Took the Bait

It’s a dull, gray thing about the size of a cinderblock, made out of aluminum, dented on top, and parts of it—the latch and hinges and handle—have lost the battle to rust. Not much to look at, made even shabbier by a grimy patina of salt, the residue of countless outings along the Gulf. Look closely and you can see, shellacked by the years, what surely are fish scales, from spotted sea trout and red drum and who knows what else.

My father’s tackle box.

He’d been dead for six years before it made its way back to me. And there it sat on the floor of my den, beckoning me to peek inside. My dad was a great dad. When he died he left me with no tortured memories, no baggage, no regrets about things the two of us never got a chance to say to each other. Maybe that’s because we spent so much time fishing.

So opening that long-lost tackle box was a joyous occasion. I reached for the first lure I saw—a Johnson spoon, the desiccated remains of a pork rind still dangling from its hook. I held it in my hand, let it transport me to another time …

My father was a fisherman. I don’t know if he learned how to fish from his father, and even if he did, I never heard any stories about it. All I know is that when my parents started having kids—three sons and a daughter, eventually—my father got rid of his guns and his golf clubs and took up a pastime more conducive to family bonding.

On my earliest outings to the languid estuarial tributaries that feed into the Gulf of Mexico, I fished with a cane pole and live shrimp, watching as R.J. worked the water with an unending variety of lures. I caught my share of fish, but my live bait seemed most successful in catching fish I’d have to throw back—catfish, blowfish, sailor’s choice, grunts, jacks, blue runners, small sharks, an occasional stingray. My father, on the other hand, using his favorite bucktail jig or a Johnson silver spoon, caught fewer fish, but they were quality fish, fish we could take home so my mother could fry them up and serve them with sweet cole slaw and tartar sauce.

R.J. was an artful caster. In one fluid motion he would flip the bail on the reel, bring the rod back, then let it fly, following through, bowing slightly to the water, getting the most possible distance out of the lightweight line until the lure plunked into the water far, far away.

As I watched my father make his long and elegant casts, my own efforts seemed all the more lacking. The cane pole was about 12 feet long with an equal length of line. The best I could hope for, laying on the bow and stretching out as far as I could, was a couple of dozen feet from the boat. I wanted to cast like my dad. I wanted to put a lure out there. I wanted to catch quality fish.   

If after a couple of dozen casts R.J. didn’t get results, he would open his tackle box to find something that would. It overflowed with stuff, and for me, it was an unending source of mystery and delight.

I had to know the names of everything. I’d pick out a lure and hold it up. “What’s this one?”

“That’s a Bomber Lure. Caught a nice redfish on it once.”

“What’s this one?”

“A Green-Eyed Woolybooger.”

I’m not saying that my father lied to me about some of the names. It’s just that I have found no historical evidence that there ever was a lure called the Green-Eyed Woolybooger. Ditto for the Yellow-Spotted Doohickey or the Fleaflicker Thingamajig. But that’s what he called some of the lures in his tackle box. I took to making up names of my own. There was the Beetle Bailey Spinner and the Alley Oop and the Dagwood. I was heavy into comic strips back then. 

In any event, on days when no amount of trying could coax a fish to strike, that tackle box offered a glimmer of salvation. R.J. would study it for awhile and then pull out an Arbogast Dasher, or maybe a Zara Spook. “This’ll get ’em,” he’d say. 

It was then I first learned that there is no hope like that of a fisherman who has just attached a new lure to the end of his line. With every cast there is possibility. This is the one. Something good is about to happen.

Finally, when my sixth birthday rolled around, I was deemed to possess a sufficient level of hand-eye coordination and given a rod and reel combo of my own. The rod I don’t remember. It was replaced by many others. But the reel was an Orvis 100, just like R.J.’s, made in Italy of black burnished steel and emblazoned with a silver engraving of a leaping trout. It was the nicest thing I’d ever owned, and, 50 years later, it remains one of my prized possessions. I don’t fish with it. I keep it in a dresser drawer.

I practiced in the backyard for the better part of a week, learning to cast with a 2-ounce sinker at the end of the line. I’m a leftie, a hardcore one. The Orvis was made for right-handers, so it took considerable getting used to. But eventually I came to general terms with it and was anticipating my first outing as a bona fide angler.

And so it was that I made my first pilgrimage to the Gulf of Mexico. It was summer, which meant we had to be on the water long before daybreak. By noon, it would be way beyond scorching. “We’ll drift until we start catching something,” my father said. He opened his tackle box and studied it for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Think I’ll start you with this.”

The lure he tied to my line was a shad rig. It’s a tandem lure, a pair of tiny, shiny darters, linked by monofilament, that skitter through the water about eight inches apart. “You can catch two fish at once on one of these,” my father said.

Two fish at once? Did I just hear him say that? Two fish? Oh, this lure thing just kept getting better and better.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Toss it out there.”

I’d like to tell you that my very first cast as a real fisherman was a beauty to behold. But no. I reared back and let it fly. The shad rig slammed against the gunwale.

“You forgot to flip over the bail on your reel,” my father said.

I tried again. This time I did it right. The line shot out, and the lure landed in the water … all of 10 feet away. “Reel it, son. Reel it in …”

Oh, yeah, that part. It took awhile to get the hang of things. Meanwhile, my father was already landing trout and tossing them into the ice cooler. “Glad one of us can catch fish,” R.J. said. That’s the way it was with him, always loving competition. He’d already won our bet for who caught the first fish and was leading in the most fish and biggest fish departments.

“Bet I’m the first to catch two fish at once,” I told him.

“A dime?” he said.

“A dime,” I said.

I kept casting. And I kept getting skunked. But each cast kept getting better and better, and each one brought with it such wild and delirious expectation …

Now that I have sons of my own, i know there was another dynamic at play here. My father wanted me to catch a fish as badly as I wanted to catch one. He would have happily gone fishless all day just to see me reel in one fish after another. But there are certain unspoken rules that apply to such occasions. Fathers and sons know them by instinct.

“You want to try a different lure?” R.J. asked.

“No,” I said. “I like this one.” I could not imagine a better lure than the shad rig. I envisioned a strike to beat all strikes, a pair of monster trout hitting simultaneously, my Orvis screaming out line. Two fish at once. I kept casting.

And then, just like that, my rod doubled over. The speckled trout, aka the spotted weakfish, has notoriously thin skin around its mouth. Unless the hook catches just right in the cartilage of its jaw, or deeper, the lure will pop out. And if you don’t play the fish with at least a modicum of restraint, then all is lost. All that morning, my father had been instructing me in the proper way to handle a trout: Set the hook firmly, without overdoing it. Then keep the rod held high, enjoying the fight before slowly reeling the fish in.

How was a six-year-old kid supposed to remember all that? When the fateful fish struck, I forgot all about my beloved Orvis, grabbed the rod with both hands and yanked on it, just like it was a cane pole. The fish spit the lure, and the shad rig rocketed back to the boat, narrowly missing me.

I don’t remember exactly what my dad said. he really didn’t have to say anything. A few casts later, another fish hit, and this time I managed to keep my wits about me, at least enough to remember I had a reel.

“Don’t horse it!” my father said. I think he might have been more excited than I was. “Keep your rod tip up. Don’t yank on it … oh, hell.”

I lost a bunch of trout before finally putting one in the boat. It didn’t look nearly as big as some trout I’d caught on live bait. My dad pulled out a ruler and measured the fish. Back then, a trout only had to be 12 inches. I’m pretty sure R.J. squeezed on this one’s gut to stretch it out some. “Congratulations, son,” he said, tossing it into the cooler. “It’s a keeper.”

Yes, it felt good to catch that first trout on a lure. I was truly a fisherman now. Still, I was hell-bent on a two-fer.

In the end, it was not the wily spotted weakfish but a pair of ladyfish that made my day and won my dime. They are among the most acrobatic of fish. When hooked, they immediately leap straight up from the water, getting some serious air, pirouetting on their tails. I whooped and hollered, enjoying their wild ballet as I reeled them in.

“Don’t bring ’em in the boat,” my father said. “Don’t …” But I had already slung them aboard, and they had already begun to do what ladyfish do when they’re landed. “Crap fish,” R.J. said as we watched them flop around, squirting brown goo all over the boat. “You caught ’em, you clean up after ’em.”

“Pay me,” I said. He gave me my dime.

“Now clean up,” he said.                     

I grabbed a bucket, dipped water and doused the deck. It was a mess, all right. But it was worth it. Two fish at once. Miracle of miracles. No other way to put it: I was hooked.