I jammed this out while taking a break from my normal “NaNoWriMo” routine yesterday. Sometimes you just gotta do something a little different. This is unedited, as written. Nothing special. Just a bit of philosophy.
The alarm rings at 4:30am. It is a sophisticated alarm. It is my dad’s digital watch, on top of an empty beer can. During the school year, getting me out of bed at 6:00am was a monumental task. And this is summer break. Never the less, I bounded out of my sleeping bag ready for the day. The morning was cool and crisp.
And what would drag my out of my slumber with such enthusiasm? The never elusive rainbow trout. I always caught at least one. And then ate it for breakfast. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I hustle to the coffee pot in the cabin, eager to fill my thermos with hot water for tea before Dad makes his coffee. I can hear the sounds of people starting to stir all around us. We’re not going to be the only ones on the river. But we never were.
5:00am rolls around and it is time to check the gear. Waders? Check. Rod, reel, and lures? Check. Vest? Check. Daily permit tag? For sure. Chemical hand warmers? You better fucking believe it. Oh, can’t forget my brand new pocket knife, since I lost my other one in the river yesterday (a recurring event, hence why dad always bought me cheap ones).
5:20am, we’re in the car heading down to the river. It’s only a few minutes, but too far to walk for my dad. At this point his ankylosing spondylitis has progressed to a stage that we don’t walk as many places as we used to. But that doesn’t stop us from doing stuff. Especially not the annual trip to Bennett Spring State Park just outside of Lebanon Missouri. It was a family affair. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. The whole gang all in one place.
5:25am, car is parked and we’re gearing up. My thermos full of tea is untouched at this point. I’m going to need every bit of warmth soon. It takes a few minutes to get everything on and ready to rock. I’ve got my traditional fishing rod this morning. Why will be evident shortly. I always save my fly fishing for later in the day.
5:30am, I take my first tentative steps into the water. Even with jeans, long johns, and heavy rubber waders, it is fucking cold. It’s July and I’m shivering like February. That might have something to do with the fact that I’m waist deep in a testicle shriveling frigid cold water spring fed river. Now you know why I brought a thermos and hand warmers. But at least I’m in good company. Fisherman line the banks of the river, shoulder to shoulder, for as far as the eye can see in either direction. And we’re all just standing there freezing our balls off. No fishing yet.
5:58:am my rod and reel are poised to cast. I can see fish swimming around my legs. I could almost reach down and pick one up. But they are wily buggers and you gotta be quick to pull that off. Quicker than I am. My brothers and sisters in psychosis have adopted a similar pose.
6:00am and it starts. The sound that under any other circumstance would have me running for shelter or the basement or something. But this morning, it means it’s time to do some fishing. Fishing at the park is restricted to certain hours. To signal the start and end of the fishing day, they use an old air raid/tornado siren. You can tell the people who have never been here before because they always jump a little when the whistle blows. But fishing the whistle is a long standing tradition. With a precision and uniformity that drill teams envy, everyone casts their rod as one.
6:05am. I’ve got the first of my fish on my stringer. I pretty much always catch one on my second or third cast. Especially if I’m using my “lucky” black and yellow marabou lure. Never mind the fact that I went through almost as many of them as I did pocket knives. This is the part of the day where things can get awkward, if you are “too lucky”. With a stringer, the fish are live, in the water, and attached to you until you are ready to kill and clean them. I wont pretend that it’s humane. But it keeps the fish fresh. Too many fish on the stringer can throw your balance off, and the river bottom is slippery. And the water moves at a pretty decent flow. It isn’t hard to end up in the water. I’ve done it more times than I can count. What really sucks is when your waders fill
6:30am. I’ve had about enough of the horrifically frigid water as I can take for the time being. Dad is getting tired as well. Time to clean the morning catch. Not even going to lie, the first few times I did this… It was pretty fucking nasty. Not nasty enough to kill my appetite, but pretty nasty. By now, I’m used to it. I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing. Slice, scoop, sever. Slice the belly open. Scoop out the guts to make the entrails it’s extrails. Sever the head. Severing the head is important.
7:00, all but two of the fish have been deposited in the fridge at the cabin. Dad and I are headed for The Lodge. There might be another name for it, but that is what I grew up calling it. It is the in park restaurant. Seeing as how they are located inside a fishing park, the will cook your fish for you if you bring it in. The catch is, they cook it exactly how you bring it. This is why severing the head is important. Deep fried fish heads are unappetizing to look at.
7:30am, Breakfast is served. Biscuits and gravy, fried trout and maybe some hash browns depending on how hungry I am. It might sound weird, but trout for breakfast is amazingly yummy. Especially when they are freshly caught, less than a mile away, by the person eating it. I feel kind of sorry for people who never fished or hunted. Food always seems to taste better when you take part in bringing it to the table.
8:30am, Nap time. Just half an hour to an hour. It’s already been a long morning. And there is plenty of fishing left to do. But for now, it is time to rest.
As the mornings progress, the crowd thins out drastically. The fly rod comes out. I’ve grown rather adept at fly casting, and could probably do it first thing in the morning, but I don’t trust people to not walk behind me mid cast. The first lesson I learned when fly fishing: Wear a wide brimmed hat. Getting smacked or snagged in the ear is something you only do once. I don’t want to risk doing that to someone else.
Fly fishing isn’t really fishing. I mean, you can catch fish. And I frequently did. But fly fishing is more of a meditation. An exercises in mindfulness. Where the rod becomes an extension of your arm. Your eye follows the imperceptibly small fly through the air and across the water. Your wrist twitches ever so slightly to make the fly dance as realistically as possible. Then your arm whips back, hurling the fly through the air and placing it gently back down with precision.
Rinse and repeat until you feel the tell tale pull of a fish grabbing the lure. And then the fight starts. A fly reel doesn’t work very well for pulling a fish in. It is basically just a fancy way of keeping your line from being tangled when your not fishing. Nope, in this world, we do things the hard way.
By lunch time, I’m done fishing for the day. Even if I haven’t caught my limit. I’m getting tired and there are plenty of other things to do. Like nature hikes and learning about the local ecosystem at the nature center. So what if I’ve heard their presentations enough that I could recite them from memory. It is still fascinating to me.
Later in the day, after dinner, it’s time to go to Larry’s tackle shop with grandpa so he can smoke his after dinner cigarette in peace. Even after all these years, grandma still rides his ass about it. And then people wonder where I get my stubborn streak. Larry’s isn’t just a tackle shop. They also sell ice cream. And trinkets. It’s more of a general store. A strange combination, but it works.
The sun is going down now. The whistle blows to signal the end of the fishing day. But that doesn’t mean the fun is over. Now it is time to head back to the nature center for the “night hike”. A flashlight tour, guided by a park employee, through the trails surrounding the river and spring. This is where I get to see all sorts of cool bugs and if we’re lucky a couple of owls.
By the end of the week we spend at the park, I am so sick of rainbow trout that I don’t eat another one until the next trip. But for that week, trout is a delicacy.
What does all of this have to do with anything? I don’t really know. A news story the other day made me a bit reminiscent for the good old days. The days when I learned life lessons at my father’s side instead of muddling through them the hard way after he passed. The days when going fishing wasn’t just going fishing.
It meant so much more. Back when life was simple. Anxiety and fear were washed away by the current. I was too busy enjoying myself to think about my family falling apart around me. My struggles at school were an abstract concept. Dyslexia holds no sway over a fisherman.
Over twenty years have passed since the last time I set foot in that park. But if you were to drop me in the middle of it, blindfolded.. I could still navigate the park with very little effort to remember. It was so ingrained in my childhood that it’s mark has been left indelible on my memory.
Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in all the worry and fear. The anxiety. The uncertainty. It does a person good to find the time to get away from all of the negative. Even if it is just for a few minutes, by taking a trip down memory lane. In today’s world, we far too often find ourselves comparing woes. Take a few minutes with someone you care about and share some smiles. It wont fix the problems of the world. But it will make them easier to shoulder.