So I’ve had a few friends ask me recently, “what’s up with all this…fishing…stuff? Is this your early mid-life crisis?”
“Well,” I say after a moment, “I need it. I can’t explain it, I just do.” And I’ll add that though I live here in Brooklyn, I was born in the woods of New Hampshire, grew up in the fields of Ohio on the Cuyahoga, and went to high school on a sandbar on the Atlantic. Though I’ve lived in Chicago, Philadelphia, London and now New York, I’ve got water in my veins. I need to be on or near a body of water or I’m afraid I’ll just dry-up and blow away. Fortunately, I live a stones throw from some of the greatest fisheries in the world, the Catskills, the reservoirs of Westchester, Long Island Sound.
The “fishing stuff”, that comes from my Dad. His family fished the Chesapeake and the Delaware when he was growing up, and he wanted to pass along the tradition. On a small lake in Ohio about an hour south of Cleveland, Pop took his young sons fishing one day. Shadow Lake was stocked, and my first fish was a rainbow trout. I’ll never forget the tug on the line, the bobber disappearing into the depths, the gentle coaching of my father, “OK, now keep the line tight, reel him in–quick!”
We took that little ‘bow–caught on a worm, right home and fried him up. I think all my brothers and sisters got a taste. From there I was hooked. When my parents had trouble making ends meet, and there wasn’t food on the table, my Dad went fishing. We ignored the peril and fished Lake Erie for walleye, perch and bass. Oh walleye, the best tasting fish on Earth, is even sweeter knowing it “was caught, not bought.” Once or twice even, Pop came home with duck, the victim of a poor shot who made it into open water only to find it didn’t have the strength to fly. There were feathers floating around the place for days.
Fishing was so much more than fishing, it was father-son-brother time. Even when we left rural Ohio and moved into the ghettos of Cleveland, we continued to get out on the water as often as possible, roaming over the breakers in search of smallies and rock bass. If we came home with just a couple perch, everyone knew who would get it–my Mom was a bonafied perch fiend. Perch was an offering to the Queen of our household. Later, it was crabbing in the Great Egg Harbor during high school and surf-fishing for fluke off the beaches of Ocean City, NJ that filled my weekends and mornings before school.
After college, I put the rods away… Life called and I busied myself with a career. Fishing drifted away for years while I made my way in the world. Though every time I saw a river or a lake, I wondered what was in there… brook trout, bass, pike? A few years ago, I found myself needing to reclaim some of that precious father-son-brother time and I declared a “guys-only” fishing trip on Lake Anna in Virginia. Man were we rusty! Chugging along spooking everything for miles. We were ecstatic after we pulled in a tiny perch and then some cats. Used to be we could fill a stringer in an hours worth of fishing, but damn we were happy. On that pontoon boat with my brothers laughing and calling each other nicknames I hadn’t heard in twenty years, we remembered our time on Shadow Lake, the awe and smiles around that first ‘bow, the first fish I ever caught in my life. We remembered why we fish, for the communion, to be brothers of the angle once more, to be men in a world claimed by mobile phones and play-dates, simply–to be.
I’m glad I picked-up the rod once more and now, it’ll never leave my hands again. Recently, I’ve begun to learn to fly fish and thank God I’m old enough to appreciate it. This is a sport for someone who has lived in the world, who’s been there and back again. This is a sport for a native angler. As soon as I told my younger brother what I was up too, he was in. Turns out he’s not too far from a mid-life crisis either. With classes from the Wulff School and Orvis under our belt, we’re wise enough to have picked the basics up quickly, though we recognize and take joy in the fact that it’ll be a life time of learning. The familiar rhythm of the water, the sixth sense that there’s a nice brown waiting behind that rock just past that seam, dormant feelings re-awakening. Fishing is a forgiving sport, and once again, we’re in our stride. Only, we’re lucky enough to have the means to travel to the great waters now. In my mind though, Shadow Lake lingers, the smell of my father’s aftershave, the pulsing life of the rainbow in my hand. And though I blog often now about my fishing trips, to the Beaverkill, the ‘Hooch, the first fishing trip of my life will always be the best.
Funny things happen as you grow older. You need the experiences of youth to mean more, the memories to be truer, and the places that made your youth special to remain unspoiled. On a recent trip back to Ohio, I was saddened to see the fields and streams I ran through as a boy, dozed flat for suburban cookie-cutter communities. On the other hand, the Cuyahoga river, once polluted, has been restored and is an amazing fishery. They even say that steelhead have returned to the upper river.
Shadow Lake remains untouched, though it seemed a lot smaller now, a pond really. I see now that my job is to make sure the next generation has clean, cold water to fish in–that my father has passed on a legacy. That’s why I am a member of Trout Unlimited, Stripers Forever and the Sierra Club doing my part to conserve our waterways and environment. Its up to us now, and believe me, there’s a father’s son out there waiting to have his first best fishing trip ever, too.