By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
The great thing about writing a weekly column, for me, is the freedom this particular forum offers each and every time I sit down to compose it.
A column offers the opportunity to congratulate, criticize, cajole ... or crow, as it turns out.
Crowing is the topic today, if you'll indulge me. I realize it was another huge sports weekend ... there was the I'll Have Another-less Belmont Stakes and the inevitable "horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner" blather ... Rafael Nadal is pretty darn good on that sticky red clay (news flash, there) ... The youthful Oklahoma City Thunder are the last hope of LeBron James-led Miami Heat haters as the NBA Finals are set at last ... Kevin Millwood and most of the Seattle Mariners combined to no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers ... The New Jersey Devils apparently missed the memo that they were toast against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final.
Plenty of topics to talk about, as usual, but nothing can top this story in my mind: My daughter caught her first fish!
As much as I do want to share this story with anyone and everyone, as I imagine any proud father would, the person I really, truly want to tell all about that little bluegill is my dad, 4-year-old Zoe's grandfather, Larry Nations. My dad died suddenly last December from a heart attack in his sleep. I think of him every day, still hear his voice in my head, replay so many conversations we had over the years. So many of those times, the good times, revolved around a johnboat, a fishing rod and reel, still water under a blazing Kentucky sun, midnight runs along a trot line route, just the two of us.
Those times, hours on the lake or along a river bank, those were the times I truly got to know my father. When the fish weren't biting, and often they didn't, those were priming learning times -- about fishing, about sports, about his life and my family history.
Mostly, though, about fishing.
Everything I know about catching a fish, every knot I can tie, every hook I can extract without harm, every fin I manage to avoid as I hold a freshly-caught bass or crappie, it's all from spending years casting lines with my dad.
When it came to fishing, my dad maintained a certain pride in his abilities. He had a good teacher, as well, in his own father. His fishing lessons took place along Mississippi's Pearl River, during weekend visits with his dad. His parents had divorced when he was still a young boy, and those weekends were the only times he saw his father. Often, he told my mom (but never me), those weekend visits started with my dad getting off a bus and starting the painful process of visiting every bar in town until he tracked down his father and escorted him home to sleep it off. Invariably, though, the next morning his dad -- my grandfather -- was up before dawn, rod in hand, ready to go fishing with his son.
My dad passed on that love of fishing to me, or tried to at least. I wasn't always a willing student, I admit. As I grew older and moved into those pre-teen and teenage years, my dad and I began to see eye-to-eye less and less often. Always, though, he'd try to lure me into a fishing trip. Most times, I'd refuse. What had seemed like such a thrilling outing when I was 8 or 9 years old completely lacked appeal when I was 13 or 14.
Soon enough, I moved away and those opportunities to reconnect through fishing became rare. On my infrequent visits home with my wife and later, Zoe, my dad would invariably ask if I had time for a fishing trip -- I never did, as visiting family and friends always seemed to trump drowning a few worms with my dad. Next time, I'd always promise. It's too late for next time, now.
So here's the story, one I can assure you I plan to tell Zoe each and every time we go out to the lake or the river to try our luck. Last weekend, my wife Kathy and I decided to once again try our luck with Zoe and her brand-new, pink Barbie fishing pole. The first effort had been a complete disappointment, about a month before. Hoping to stack the deck in our favor, I'd splurged for a trip to a local pay lake expecting a fish-in-the-barrel experience. Didn't catch a fish, didn't get a nibble -- very disappointing for mom and dad, very confusing for Zoe.
This time, we went back to a spot Kathy and I had fished in the days before parenthood -- at least, we reasoned, we know there used to be fish there.
I was cautiously optimistic -- had the camera charged up and ready to go, poles all rigged and primed for action, lawn chairs at the ready. After about 20 minutes of a few bites but no takers, Zoe and I decided to try fishing from a little foot bridge connecting the bank to an island where we'd stationed ourselves. We could see dozens of bluegill and sunfish from our perch, and within 10 seconds of casting with that Barbie pole -- jackpot! Picture this, if you can -- a grown man, furiously tugging on a Barbie pole with the express purpose of setting a hook Jaws couldn't spit out, all the while hollering at his wife to GET THE CAMERA!, as my daughter hopped up and down in excitement.
The hook set, I handed that dainty pole off to Zoe and told her to "reel" that fish in. Meanwhile, Kathy was sprinting up an embankment toward the car to retrieve the camera I'd left sitting on the car seat. I hardly noticed, so focused on Zoe's baffling refusal to bring in that bluegill ... then I realized, of course, I hadn't explained what "reeling" meant. A quick demonstration, and Zoe was turning that handle like a pro and within seconds -- to her complete and utter surprise -- a fish emerged out of the water. I grabbed that little perch and held it like an old-style hand grenade with the pin pulled, urging her to touch her first catch. She did so, and here is Zoe's first impression of a fish -- "It's wet!"
As usual, Zoe cuts right to the chase in all matters. With Kathy still nowhere in sight, I had another panic-filled minute of holding that bluegill under the water until she returned with the camera. I held on, she returned, and we got our photos.
Then I showed Zoe how to pop the hook out of the bluegill's mouth before gently lowering it back to the water and releasing it by hand -- never, ever throw a fish back into the water, always wet your hands before handling a fish, be extra careful around that barb in the hook -- all those words of instruction and admonishment I'd heard so many times over the years, all coming back to me at that moment as I held Zoe's first catch.
Someday, hopefully, Zoe will know all those little fishing lessons by heart. In her mind, she may well hear my voice every time she reels in a fish. The words may be mine, but the knowledge and the know-how -- that's a gift from her granddad, Larry.