Learning To Fish

Learning To Fish
Illustration by Larry Tople

In the church of fish, trout are the Buddhists; they live in remote and as like uncomfortable places. They abhor the multitude, inclined as they are to cold waters where no sane animal would swim. There is nothing tepid about trout, like free-oxygen Sherpa guides climbing Everest, a synod as does not attend churches. By church I mean here lures, those big, fat, well-steepled lures. Lures that promise everything; lures that wink and smirk and smile.

I have a muskie lure on my wall because it is more convenient than hanging the entire muskie. The lure was a gift of a now-deceased farmer who was a good neighbor and good farmer, that is until he fished, then he was a useless neglectful farmer. This how I choose to remember him, by his muskie lure. Its size rivals the boat itself with almost as much wood involved, with enough gang hooks eager to drag Lake Superior for drowned ore-men. Trout by contrast are attracted to tiny fatalistic prayer flags that seem to grossly understate their purpose, same as those flags posited on the wind-swept side of 29,086 vertical feet of rock, ice, and wind. A glad definition of prayer if there ever was one.

Of trout and fishing, I learned from my dad. The statement may even be true.

Because as a farmkid my father did not have to teach me anything, instead his method was abject exposure which is not the same as teaching. Eventually I came to understand this was the nature of a farm. Time to teach is to suggest some other chore undone. When it came my time to learn to plow he simply pointed at the field assuming I had been paying attention and knew already how to pace off the headland in order to leave the dead furrow smack in the center. I really ought have paid better attention, still I learned.

Was my father who taught me to fish trout. I had an uncle who tried but he used a pole and assorted hooks. This uncle had all the right gear and a pin cushion on his chest studded with what appeared to be crucified insects. At this juncture I was a pretty spoiled farmkid, actual instruction was an anathema to me, a process I deemed wimpy, because learning is supposed to bleed.

What my father taught, or more honestly put, allowed to happen, wasn't fishing trout so much as tending trout. That was in 1957, I remember because I was a new Boy Scout that year and by consequence in search of merit badges — haying, silo filling, and fall butchering weren't on the list but conservation was. That the year he taught me to fish, the year he gave me not a fishing pole but water, trout water, more precisely a stretch of cold-water drainage ditch. As long as I was to live, he said, that water was mine.

I was eleven when he put my name on the deed, after his name, after mama's name came my name, in the farm lexicon this meant it was mine. Our farm had numerous like waters, situated as it was on the flank of the great marsh. Streams, brooks, rivulets, what the Scots cutely call bums, some were gravel bottomed, fast and clear as glass. Others were sullen, brooding, thought as a result, bottomless. At least bottomless until sufficiently filled with the lost and wandering heifers or picnickers who oughtn't have been trespassing in the first place.

Four hundred and forty yards of stream he gave me. From here to there he said was mine, this fence to that fence. You want to fish trout, he said, first build the waters. That exactly how he said it, build the waters. At the time I didn't understand his meaning but since the water was now mine I was obligated to figure it out. I was eleven when I began reading the scripture of trout, the difference between water and what was trout water. If other kids read adventure and daring-do, Jules Verne and Daniel Boone, I was reading waters, Izaak Walton, Zane Grey, Nick Adams. Soon after I was tying flies, not fishing flies with a hook but imitation flies on a piece of wire, no hook, just wire, I don't know why. They were just pretty and I traded them to friends for jackknives and Oreo cookies and a merit badge for Morse Code. I hated Morse Code.

I learned of waters, of rocks and wing dams, of what happens when stumps are rolled into midstream. The water my father gave me was a plain drainage ditch, straight as an arrow, an unexpressive stretch of water as neither grinned or grimaced. I changed that. I lugged logs, brush, rocks, more rocks. I tilted the water, flipped it, flopped it, juggled and deflected it, turned it this way and that, let it run fast then quiet, let it undercut a tree. I ferried in cowslips slimy and wet, touch-me-not, arrowroot. I taught grass to grow.

On a day sometime after, I had trout where once were none. One trout, two, a formation, brook trout mostly, hardly even bait size for muskie. I have been a fisherman ever since, less to the creel and line as to weir and wing, this as my father taught. I would hang waters on my wall if I knew how but taxidermists are lacking who can mount waters. Which is a shame because the way I have come to see fishing, it's the majesty of waters I want to catch.

*Justin Isherwood, Plover, Wisconsin, has been contributing to Reflections for over a decade.

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