Instead of seeing myself as “something”, I just started to see myself.
The first time I went fishing, I was with my Uncle Jim on some land of a friend of his in Western Illinois. The friend had a black bear and a raging bull in pens of chicken wire and he also had a pond out back filled with Bullheads, which are little catfish bottom feeders. Bullheads are easy to catch, you just put some bait on a line with a bobber and wait for the bobber to go down, then you reel them in. I caught a few bullhead that day. We even skinned them and ate them for supper.
The second time I went fishing I was at the Lake of my departed grandfather on my dad’s side in South West Wisconsin. My cousin and I were bored so they told us to go fish for Sunnies. They gave us a piece of bread and we rolled little balls on the end of our hooks and caught one after another for hours.
Both of these events were before I was ever near reaching the banes of adolescence. My spirit was pure and I was more resolved to the hobby of keeping Tropical Freshwater fish than to the insanity of fishing for them. I had aquariums all over my room, I dutifully managed their environs, bred them, fed them and coveted how my care for them made me feel. I searched the classifieds for used aquariums and sold the fry of the fish I bred to Pet Stores for store credit. As I grew older, my wonder of the fish waned and I soon found myself obsessed with girls.
Girls are not fish. They are not easily swayed by hunger or to take bait, nor can a small boy with skinny legs convince them to live within a glass environment to be admired. Also, girls smell good and are soft. Fish smell bad and are slimy. These are not revelations beyond the common sense of a thirteen year old boy with creaking voice and sprouting hair in places unknown. The fish in my room took second fiddle to the nice girls that went ice skating on weekends. Soon my fish died and their aquariums emptied to be stored in the basement. My subscription to Tropical Fish Hobbiest magazine lapsed. Girls, then beer and girls, became my passion.
My father didn’t prefer to spend time in the outdoors. He was prone to mosquitos and the closest we got to the outdoors was barbecuing in the backyard or a yearly visit to my Grandfather’s cabin in Wisconsin. He never took our family fishing or camping. I don’t think my father ever went fishing in his whole entire life. He didn’t need to fish, he played the accordion as a kid.
The third time I went fishing, I was twenty six years old. I lived in Minnesota and people here in Minnesota like to fish. I fancied myself as a fisherman on account of my previous success, but I still couldn’t tie a hook to a line. I bought a thirty buck outfit from a sports store and went out with a friend on Lake Harriet in a canoe on the fishing opener. It was a cold rainy day and I didn’t catch a thing, so my fishing pole went into the closet.
I didn’t catch many women in those years either. I fell in love a few times as I was easily prone to seeking that emotion. It felt good to find them and know them and be. I cared for them and cooked for them and gave them my words and love. I gave each of them parts of me I never even gave myself. I suppose the real reason they never stayed was on account of my selfishness; I wanted them and wanted them to want me, I tried too hard. All that work would make anybody give up.
I didn’t think about fishing or fish for a few years after that. I felt inept and alone with the fishing pole in my closet. I escaped my troubles in ways that feel like my memory invented them. I was still in love with every love I ever had and was desperate for another. I searched everywhere, I went on dates and humored my repose. I put up fronts and lied. The only place I never looked for love was into myself.
One day I up and quit my job and went to South East Asia. I flew into Bangkok and never looked back. I Island hopped and spun down the Mekong for a spell and just let little bits of myself out as I went along. I always saw the color blue and I felt more blue than any soul ever felt. I caked on beaches and let the salt crystalize on my skin and I lost my beer belly even though I drank beer every day. I met girls from places far away and only gave them smidgens of my depleted love. That was enough for them, because even when I discover in hindsight, that the women did not want all of me, nor were they things to be sought or caught. Most of them were just as sad, and just as far away from the places they knew as me.
I got on a plane home to find my dead father. I wasn’t thinking about fishing or women then. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I just let go. I would just get on the EL and ride downtown and go to museums. When I was a kid, on account of my tropical fish gig, my parents would bring me to the Shedd Aquarium on a monthly basis. We even became members and I would fly through the tanks pointing out the various varieties of fish. I never went to the Shedd in those months after my father died. Just the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Over and over. I’d look at every painting and find the ones with the color blue and feel the hue of all the sadness and the puddles of lost opportunity I stood in.
I finally shook off all the cobwebs of grief and moved back to Minnesota to the comfort of friends. A good one made his mom hire me at her ceramic tile business. I pounded tiles. It was a good place of welcome and nourishment for my soul. The family I work for gave me my spirit back and a paycheck to keep me in food, beer and rent. I worked and learned the trade. I even met a girl who I still love at one of the studio parties. We now live together and are partners. What a miracle.
One day I found the fish molds. The fish molds were plaster casts of fish that they used to sell before the tiles. Any fish you could imagine. When my boss saw my enthusiasm, she offered to sell them to me. After careful contemplation I accepted. Then, two days later, she told me she couldn’t, as one of her daughters said that she didn’t want to sell them to me. I was devastated.
I told the story to a neighbor and he told me,
“Bob, go get a shoe box, a bag of plaster and a fishing licence.”
So I did.
I got the fishing pole out of the closet and walked down to Lake of the Isles with a piece of bread and a few crawlers I found on the front lawn. I read a book on how to tie a hook to a line, wrapped a crawler around the hook and cast. Bingo. Fish. Bluegill. I unhooked the little fish and threw it back for good luck. I caught about six more before I went home and tried to cast them in plaster. My fourth time fishing was success.
I started a ceramic fish business with the blessing of my boss, but I still needed fish. I caught a few Largemouth Bass in the subsequent months on Isles but none of size. I went to the local fish monger and asked if they ever chuck out fish. They did and I could have them. My business was started. I lived with a beautiful woman and I was happy. I had a studio space but I still needed more fish.
Enter my bud “Archie” I always call him “Archie” on account of his last name, his real name is Jeff. I met Jeff in college and he was married to a woman that had a cabin up north. I was invited for the 4th of July weekend. He guaranteed we would catch fish. We did.
He lives on a little lake called “Little Birch Lake” and the surrounding inlet is no more than four feet deep dropping off to fifteen beyond the reed line about a hundred meters out. It is weedy and there are lots of lily pads. It is prime bass and sunfish fishing.
The entire lake has many varieties of fish; Largemouth bass, rock bass, Walleye, perch, bluegills, Northern Pike, dogfish, carp, bullheads. It’s a virtual cornucopia of fish that bite.
He tells me that every fish bites on this white jig head with a spinner spoon to the bottom with a little white grub. The fish do bite. Over and over and he asks me after each one if we want to keep it to cast in plaster. I feel a little for the poor fish and we release every one, even the big bass. Later, I regret it, because I have a business to run and there are many fish
I went up Labor Day Weekend and it is rainy. We go out in the canoe the first morning and each catch a few bass. We usually fish the reed line on the way out and the lily pads on the way back, about a quarter mile, going into each bay to cast. We’re at our turn around point when I yell, “Fish on” Then, “Oh shit, it spit”. LargeMouth Bass will often hit a lure and then spit it when it knows it isn’t food. Suddenly I tell Archie that the fish is still on. And my drag starts whizzing out. The fish hadn’t jumped yet, as bass and sunfish often do and Jeff tells me that I might have a Pike on the line. Then I see the fish and sure enough it is a Pike. It takes a hard turn and the teeth of the fish cut the line. Laugh and we keep fishing. Sure enough, I get the same feeling of a hit then no action for a few seconds later. It’s a Pike. We even get it into the boat. It’s about eighteen inches and the biggest fish I’ve ever caught, but small for a pike. Archie asks me if I want to keep it, but I’m just looking at the colors to remember how to glaze such a fish for the sake of art. I look right into the big snakes’ eyes and I tell Archie to let him go, we’ll catch more tomorrow.
The next day we go out and I’m getting zeroed. He’s catching Bass after bass and through my hangover I can barely muster a semblance of being. We turn around and we’re almost home when I get a hit. We’re only in about three feet of water, but my rod tip bends mighty. I tell him I got a big one and then, nothing.
“Damn, I lost it.” I say.
Archie starts rowing back to the dock when my rod tip goes crazy. A fish is on. It’s a big fish. He tells me to keep the line tight and I do. Then the fish jumps. It’s a big Northern, twice the size of the fish I had caught the day before. It is clear two feet out of the water, arching in olive brilliant, next to the waking sun on the surface of the water. My heart skips. I work it for a while and it just stays still.
“Can you see the fish?” Jeff asks.
I look around the canoe and the water is so shallow and clear that I can see the fish right next to me in some weeds. I’m looking right into it’s eyes. It’s at least two feet long and I can see the little lure in the joint of it’s mouth where the sharp teeth can’t snap it. I give it a tug and it shoots out pulling my line with it. I just work it a few more times and it jumps again to the morning sky.
“Bring it in close.” Archie says.
“We don’t have a net.” I say.
“We’ll get it in the canoe.” Says Arch.
So I wear the fish out a little more and he’s on his side in the water. Perfect fish to cast, it’ll fit into the kiln and it has a lot of girth. I swing it to the back of the canoe to Arch and wait for the flopping in the boat. I grab an oar.
“Dude....” I turn around and Archie is holding a broken line.
I start laughing as he utters some apologies. It was the biggest fish I ever caught and am so happy. We rush in to the dock and go to our lovers and I tell mine about the fish.
”You finally have a ‘fish that got away’ story.” She says, hugging me close.
“Yeah, but the fish got me and I got you.” I say holding her closer.