My father started my little sister and me with granny knots, #6 hooks, 10 lb test line, wine cork bobbers and solid fiberglass poles sans reels. Hers had a red handle. Mine was green. Half-a-mile below our house down the winding Route 322 hill lay Piney Dam Reservoir, an impoundment on western Pennsylvania’s Clarion River which, back in those days, was fairly fishless thanks primarily to acid runoff from coal strip mines and effluent from a paper mill 60 miles upstream. This was in the days before President Nixon’s executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. The river looked clean – but the acid runoff left it relatively sterile, bereft of the web of aquatic weeds, tiny crustaceans and insect that make up a healthy ecosystem. These days, the coal mines are mostly gone, grown over with mixed forests of white pine and oak and other hardwoods that have reclaimed the landscape from the war-zone look I remember from childhood. Thanks to EPA regulations, the mining operations that remain are much more responsibly operated. Meanwhile, the paper mill modernized, also guided by EPA regulations. Now trout, bass, muskellunge, decent-sized panfish and, I’m told, even walleyes swim in waters that back in my day held little more than a few stunted sunfish, perch, shiners and bullheads.
Given time, if the Earth isn’t damaged too much, it can heal.
On the sunny side of the valley at the foot of the old 322 bridge was a small, wooden, long-abandoned dock. The steps leading down the steep embankment were rotting and coming apart. The dock itself wasn’t in much better shape. But unclaimed, we called it ours, as in “Let’s go fishing at our dock.”
Even digging up a coffee can’s worth of worms in preparation for those trips was an adventure, and with my dad being a biologist, something of a science lesson as well. For starters, we discovered that there were different kinds of worms; the little red ones worked best. And turned up by Dad’s spade would be other creatures: beetles and beetle larvae, centipedes and millipedes and alien-looking chrysalises. Sometimes garter snakes and little green snakes would glide out of the weeds ahead of us, and a rock turned over might reveal mice tunnels, big black crickets or shy red-backed salamanders with their protruding, otherworldly eyes.
There are four indispensable characteristics an adult must possess if he or she expects to successfully corrupt a child into the art of angling:
- The adult must know where there are fish an inexperienced child would be able to catch…
- …and he or she must know how to catch those fish in the easiest manner conceivable.
- Once conditions one and two have been met, the adult must possess the abundance of patience necessary to allow the young person to figure out how to catch those fish.
To his credit, although my dad took along his own outfit, after casting far from the cover of the dock out into featureless water where there would be no fish, he would set his rod down, ignore it, and focus on my sister and me. That way, if one of us might say, “Dad, you should fish too,” he could truthfully reply, “I am fishing.”
There were always a few panfish hanging out in the dock’s shade – diminutive bluegills and pumpkinseeds, a shiner or two, and our favorites for their combination of size, brilliant orange fins and qualities on the table, yellow perch. The shiners, too bony to deal with, went back into the water. As for the rest of the fish, five-inches was enough to make a “keeper,” and those went on a hand-made stringer. As long as we didn’t fish it too often, the dock could be counted on for a meal’s worth of fish.
The fourth characteristic necessary to develop an enthusiastic young fisherman is probably the most important. The adult must know when enough is enough. My sister and I were diligent in our attention to our wine-cork bobbers, staying with them as they rocked in the wake of ski boats, not moving our eyes from them for long minutes when they just sat there on placid water doing nothing. We didn’t miss many bites. But as time went by and we thinned the dock’s population of fish, bites became fewer and further between. The sun climbed higher and grew hotter. Small stomachs started to growl.
My father seemed to have a sixth sense for impeccably timing the question, Are you ready to call it a day?
No! Not yet! Let’s stay! Just one more? We’d plead.
Well, my dad would wisely say while enthusiasm was still running high, We’ve got enough for a meal. Your mother’s going to be wondering where we are. It’s time to go.
Aw-ww! That’s the response you hope to hear from someone you’re trying to teach anything to when it’s time to call it a day. Aw-ww, in at least two syllables.
Weeks went by between our trips to the dock, but my sister and I never lost track of whose turn it was to carry the stringer back to the car and triumphantly in through the kitchen door. Down in the basement, Dad would spread out yesterday’s Pittsburgh Press and we’d get to watch as he cleaned the catch. Too small to bother filleting, he’d scale the fish and gut them and remove their heads, so that by the age of six I knew enough about fish anatomy to pass a biology exam. We’d even open their stomachs to examine the dragonfly larvae, midge pupae and other tiny animals they fed on.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Mom made them Appalachian style – rolled in cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper and fried golden brown and so crisp their tails were like potato chips. The three of us unerringly remembering whose plate the catch-of-the-day belonged on – usually a nice perch. Bread and butter and a big salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers from my dad’s garden rounded out the meal. Those summertime meals of fresh fish and garden salad are far and away my favorite childhood food memory.