BY DJ MALLMANN
Grandpa loved to fish. On Friday nights during the summer, when he got home from work, he changed into his fishing clothes, walked down to the dock and rowed the boat out to his “special place.” For the next hour or so, he would catch bluegills, crappies, perch, and sunnies. He never went for larger fish like bass, northern pike, or muskies. It was pan fish he liked, especially jumbo perch.
He taught each of his grandkids to fish, but there was a process we had to endure before joining him in the boat.
As early as I can remember, Grandpa had us catching night crawlers for bait. His yard fronted the lake and, most years, it was loaded with worms. Hunting crawlers was a special event when we were younger because we got to stay up past our bedtime. Flashlight in hand, we would spot the worms as they came out of their holes to mate. Our bare feet let us walk softly and not spook the quarry. Two of us could easily grab three to four dozen worms in an hour or so.
The second step in the approval process was cleaning and bailing out the rowboats. Grandpa made sure we knew how to do a good job and take pride in our accomplishment. He rented several of his boats to locals and folks from Chicago looking for a day of relaxation on the lake. We could keep any lures or tackle they left in the boats.
Scaling and cleaning fish was the third step. Grandpa said it was the most important because “if you caught it, you cleaned it.” He never did explain why we were always cleaning his fish. What looked simple, instead, had its nuances. Perch have really tough scales. You can’t use that same amount of pressure on a crappie or you will rip the skin. Fish guts are fascinating. We’d squeeze the air bladders until they popped and examine the stomach contents looking for the fish’s last meal.
Grandma liked to fish too. She wanted to catch bullheads but they only came out to feed at night, along with hoards of mosquitos. We didn’t go very often. Bullheads are slippery things with spikes that hurt terribly if you get poked. She taught us how to carefully pick them up and how to use pliers to take the skin off. I think Grandma like them because you could eat them like corn-on-the-cob after they were deep fat fried. Eating Pan Fish, on the other hand, always presented an opportunity to choke on a wayward bone.
We had to graduate from fishing off the dock before being allowed into the boat with Grandpa. Rules were enforced and you could get banned from the dock for a day if you didn’t pay attention. Grandpa’s most enforced rule was “QUIET!” According to him, any sound could scare the fish away. Sitting still and not asking a bunch of dumb questions was the desired outcome. At seven years old you have a lot of energy and questions.
There were other trials to conquer, like watering the vegetable garden with pails of lake water, picking up sticks, and cutting the grass, but I never did see how they were part of the training for fishing. We also had to be good swimmers – this demand from a man who could only swim underwater and always had to be in shallow water so he could stand up.
Our last event, in what seemed like a decathlon, was rowing the boat. Only Grandma had the patience to teach us how to use the oars to turn, go straight and back up. She also helped us make perfect approaches to the dock so we wouldn’t bang up the boat.
Eventually the day arrived. Grandpa never took more than one of us at a time – too much potential for noise. He had us row as he looked for the landmarks that defined his special location. These landmarks were not shared but discovered by us after many fishing trips – the large oak tree to the left of the big beach, a white cottage on east side of lake, and the old dredge-crane on the south side of the lake.
The anchor was never “dropped” over the side of the boat, but gently set into the water and we slowly doled out the rope until making contact with the bottom. Only one anchor was deployed so the boat could swing with the wind and expose our bait to more fish.
Cane poles, ten feet long, were the only poles we ever used. I recall feeling embarrassed because all my cousins around the lake had casting rods and I was stuck with a cane pole and no bobbin. Grandpa fished by touch. He said that feeling the fish biting the worm allowed you to set the hook before it was swallowed.
Every once in awhile, Grandpa would break the silence and speak words of wisdom. At nine or ten years old it didn’t always make sense. Later in life I would recall his words, “Don’t crap in a new pair of shoes so you can’t take them back,” which meant not to get a girl pregnant before marriage.
There were other pearls of wisdom: “Always do the best job you can and take pride in your work. Complex gadgets offer more opportunities to fail; stick with simple and you will put food on the table. Pay your dues and you can then bask in the glory of a full stringer.”
DJ Mallmann is an aspiring writer living in Lake of the Woods, Virginia. This is his second article published in Grand Magazine. He is working on a full-length action novel titled Shibboleth.