By Sean Wilkinson
I only remember fishing twice as a kid. The first time, my dad and I looked for nightcrawlers with flashlights the night before, packed them in coffee cans half-full of dirt, then got up early and left for a fishing spot with some mom-made PB&Js. I don’t remember catching anything, but that’s OK. It still counts in theFatherhood Checklist of Necessary Childhood Bonding Experiences (available soon from Bollard Publishing). I do remember, vaguely, a beach covered in dead minnows. Maybe it was bait someone dumped, or maybe we really should not have been thinking about eating anything pulled from that particular body of water.
My second fishing memory takes place years later, at the lake near my childhood home. The lake was a three-minute walk from my house, so the fact I’d fished it once in my 12 years there indicates how interested I was in the art of angling. I was more into diving off the dock, having chicken fights, and looking awkward. Then, later in life, listening to Run DMC on the beach, feeling up girls underwater, and looking awkward. Oh, how times have changed… Ahem.
This second fishing trip was considerably more successful. I took my dad’s rod and reel and his old, dusty tackle box, which contained a strange assortment of mostly fishing-related paraphernalia. There were piles of small hooks, split-shot lead sinkers (which, looking back, I probably should not have been clamping over the line with my teeth), small slip-joint pliers, electrical tape, a couple of Bic® pens, a measuring tape, a ruler, and a few mostly melted cough drops from 1987 (which, for a cough drop, was still pretty old in 1989). I also seem to remember seeing an ashtray or a small coffee mug in there, plus a wide assortment of nails and screws, as if the similarity of tool box and tackle box had confused someone at least once.
Inside this tackle box was the magical Red Devil® spoon. This little treble-hooked spinner was the key to my success on old Maranacook Lake that day. I cast my line no more than three times before I got a hit. Fish can’t resist that little red-white-and-chrome shimmering lure, and I still swear by the Red Devil® , based entirely on the one fish I pulled from the lake with it: a small yellow perch. Junk fish. I had no idea at the time, but had I actually succeeded in preparing this eight-inch creature for dinner, it would have been bony, oily, and fishy; not at all worth the effort I spent landing it.
I wrestled the great beast out of the water in about 30 seconds and laid him down on the shore, where he thrashed and flopped. Wishing to both remove the hook and bring a quick and merciful end to the perch’s life, I looked for an appropriate implement. Digging through the dusty tackle box, I found the pair of slip-joint pliers. I must have looked at them in my hand, doubtful this tool would bring the fish peace, but I eventually went to work with them. I raised my arm high, pliers in hand, and struck the fish in his panicked-looking head. It stopped moving. I felt a little disgusted, but still proud of my catch. Thinking, “This fishing business is easy,” I plopped my trophy in a cooler full of ice and headed home to enjoy my hero’s welcome: “Sean has brought us all dinner! Hurrah!”
My parents were not as enthusiastic as I had hoped. My dad informed me of the perch’s less-than-tasty attributes, but my mom said she would cook it if I cleaned it. No problem. I had always wanted to use the fish-scaler tool on my Swiss Army Knife. I was anxious to see how easy it would be to clean a fish with what looked like a tiny, dulled steak knife.
I set up shop on the porch steps, pulled out the frigid fish, opened my knife and braced myself for the first run of de-scaling. Holding the tail down firmly, I raked the scaler from the back to the front of the fish. The perch apparently found this unpleasant. He popped his mouth open into a gaping Ow! and started thrashing on the step, then off the step and into the dirt. I freaked out, jumped back and stared at the fish. Flopping. Gasping. Slowing… stopped. He didn’t have much left in him, but he had enough to put me off scaling and cooking him. I gathered him up and put him back on the porch step, then dug a small fishy grave next to the garden, where I buried him and stacked a few rocks to mark his eternal resting place. I was not cut out for fishing.
Now, years later, having recently learned the wonderful fact that one does not need a license for salt-water sportfishing in Maine, I’ve returned to the angling life. I have been out fishing more in the past two weeks than in the past two decades. I have my own tackle box now, and my own rod and reel. My target fish is striped bass, and I have a bevy of rattlers, floaters, bucktail jigs, jig-heads, spinning worms, and my newest purchase from The Tackle Shop: YUM® brand slimy, rubbery lures coated in the same enzyme emitted by a panicked shad. The package advises me to “Start a Feeding Frenzy!” with this bait.
There’s been no “frenzy” yet. I still haven’t landed a fish since that fateful day on Maranacook, though there’ve been some serious bites from big fish recently, one of them just a few feet in front of me, teasing me like Jaws. My new plan is to catch and release, so I leave the slip-joint pliers at home. I do, however, have a few Red Devil® spoons at the bottom of my tackle box. Look out, fish.
(On a side note, I would like to thank Liz Peavey for her kind words of advice last week.] Following her suggestions, I have begun my search for comparison candidates among the red-eyed stumblers of Old Orchard Beach, and officially re-named “The Millionaire Plan” simply “The Plan,” so as to remove the distinct possibility of disappointment. I also intend to inquire whether Peavey might be interested in being my part-time mentor, assuming that means she does my laundry once in a while.