I believe in the power of fishing. I am not an avid angler, and I’m still not sure if real flies are used in fly fishing. However when I think back on my childhood, many of my warmest and most salient memories took place on a fish bank.
I remember running, playing, exploring, and growing as the adults fished, drank beer, and talked trash to each other as B. B. King and Millie Jackson belted the blues from eight-track tape decks in deuce and a quarters and El Caminos. I remember eating the day’s catch cooked outdoors on a Coleman stove. There was always plenty of hot sauce—and admonitions to be careful—with white bread on hand in case you got choked on an insidious fish bone.
One time the family went down to the pay lake with the warning, “If you don’t catch a fish you’ll have to walk home.” Half believing this, I was delighted and relieved when I reeled in a three-pound, or was it a five-pound, no it was definitely a seven-pound catfish. After a struggle that rivaled that of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, I finally got it to shore. I didn’t have the nerve to take the ugly thing off the hook; luckily that was not a condition of getting a ride home. The poor fella sure was tasty, though.
As a young teen I was delighted when I reeled in seventeen white bass from the Sandusky River behind the sugar factory in Freemont, Ohio. I breathlessly told the story of my conquest to anyone who would listen. It was the last time I remember going fishing with my father. I was soon old enough to opt out, and I chose more urbane pursuits than sitting on a fish bank all day.
When my sister died unexpectedly at the age of seventeen, I remember feeling like I could not breathe. Everyone in our large family was grieving terribly. The world changed forever, like our own personal version of 9/11. Everything before that day meant something different, great or slight, the day after. I remember my father got up early the next day to go fishing—alone. It was his way of coping and everyone understood. I never saw him cry about my sister. I often wondered if the fish did. I have a mental picture of him pouring his heart out to a wide-eyed bluegill who listened sympathetically before swimming away.
Now, in my role as a mental health therapist for children, I often take them fishing. They talk more openly when slightly preoccupied with the many little tasks it takes to fish. They are able to learn patience and skills to deal with frustration that can serve them well in school and at home. They develop courage as they tackle the daunting task of baiting their hook with a squiggly, reluctant worm. However, I think the most curative factor is that on a fish bank they are not kids with problems. They are just kids—running, playing, exploring, and healing.