I was no older than six when I found myself in an unfortunate position with nature.
I stood barefooted in a lake, and my small fishing pole extended over the water. A friend of mine, a six-year-old outdoorsman, fished with me. It was his lake, and his territory of comfort.
He was one hundred feet down the shoreline, and in his hand, a beautiful rod. Unquestionably an adult rod. It reminded me of my grandpa’s.
I kept stealing glances at my own – weak and plastic, line continuously jammed in the spool. I had to press a button to release the line, whereas my friend snapped open the bail and slung without effort. On a good cast, my line went fifteen feet – his, fifty. Embarrassment was quick to bite.
I do not remember how I came to accept this playdate. Our mothers were fine friends, and if I were to guess, they had probably set it up. I tried to remain confident in my casts, and I tried to keep distance from my friend. Flaws were harder to spot that way.
He and I cast, and there were few words exchanged. Within minutes, a grunt came one hundred feet down, and I looked to my friend. He was fighting with a fish, and his line bowed toward the water. I watched with great excitement, and I may’ve yelled a time or two, for encouragement’s sake. He wrestled with the reel for a while longer, and eventually, a decently-sized bass emerged out the water. My friend smiled as he removed it from the hook. I wanted to applaud.
“I’m up on you,” he hollered. “Better not get too far behind.”
Until then, I was unaware we were in competition. I had not really been focused on catching the fish, but rather, casting smoothly so my friend would not see me as fraud. I accepted his challenge, nonetheless, because I saw no other alternative.
Suddenly, though, as I began to cast with new intent, I was taken by fear. Never once had I removed a fish from its hook.
I suppose, until that moment, I had always taken for granted a fish’s detachment from the hook. I wasn’t a stranger to fishing. My grandpa and my father had taken me often, but on the rare instance of me catching a fish, they had put their thumbs in the fish’s mouth; it was they who removed the hook and had blood on their hands to show for it. Never me. I would watch, in the same way I now watched my friend.
My realizations came quickly. It seemed I would inevitably lose the competition, and more embarrassingly, I’d be too afraid to grip a fish if I were to catch one. I was wedged in the biggest pickle of my young life, and I hadn’t a way out.
I swallowed hard, and cast my line into the lake again.
Some time passed without a bite, but my friend, meanwhile, hauled in fish like an Apostle. He would call over, heckle some, and throw the bass back. It was an unfortunate scenario for me, wanting desperately to catch, and also avoid, the fish. My boyish pride, though, kept me going. I continued to cast, up to twenty feet if my sling was good.
The afternoon was slow until, in an instant, a sharp jolt tugged at my pole. A hot rush went to my forehead, and I shot a glance to the ripples in the water. Instinctively, I reeled. I thought neither competitively nor fearfully. I only reeled; I yanked; I grunted as my friend had. I might have hollered to him – I do not remember. I can, however, remember him stop to watch me. My line behaved and did not jam. The cast was the smoothest I had had the entire day, and as the line shortened, as the fish came nearer to the surface of the water, there was an awful noise. A brittle crack came from the middle of the rod, and a small vibration went into my hands.
The moment was over. I held half of a plastic fishing pole in my hand, and the other half was swimming underneath the surface with my prizewinner. I was stunned. I stared at the lake and wanted to cry.
I had forgotten about my friend until he gave a snort of held-back laughter. When I looked at him, he laughed some more, and within seconds the giggling had taken him to a point of no return. It was not spiteful or mean. He laughed from simple humor of the moment, and without thought, I joined him. Mine, perhaps, came from relief, since I no longer had to worry about competition and fear. I laughed until tears blurred my vision.
Until evening, I watched my friend cast with grace, and I saw fish gladly bite at his bait. I, again, had the urge to applaud; but instead, I quietly admired.
The next time I fish with Papa, I thought, I’ll make him show me how to do it all.
That time did eventually come, but that evening, I sat barefooted on the shore of a lake, and stared fondly at what I could not do.