The fish were seldom safer than when my father and I set out to catch them.
A tackle box dropped from small hands in a boat could scare a smallmouth off all morning, as might a paddle slapped idly against the water. Our real problem, though, may have been that we were 10 o’clock fishermen, showing up long after the fish stopped biting.
We got up plenty early, but getting on the water took time. It started with burning the breakfast.
Well before zoonotic disease became a household term, rural families across the Depression-era South lived in fear of trichinosis, a parasitic illness carried by pigs and feral hogs. A native of the Eastern farm country of North Carolina, my father safeguarded us against the dreaded trichina worm by cooking to kill.
He didn’t always set the food on fire. He habitually burned bacon, sausage and scrapple, though, to a blackened crisp just this side of ash.
Once we cleared the table — and the smoke from the kitchen — it was time to load up the aging Plymouth. That began with the ceremonial untangling of the lines I’d invariably fouled on our last trip out. Seated on the cinder block ledge by our driveway, rods and reels at hand, he would toil to unravel one hopeless backlash after the next.
During one such session he sensed something amiss.
“Did someone throw you a curveball, son?”
Who knows what was bugging me that morning, but we talked it over and straightened it out, just another knot to untangle before we headed off for ancient waters.
Usually, by the time we’d arrive, rent a small jon boat and drift into a quiet spot between the cypress knees and the lily pads, everything had stopped biting but the horse flies. We’d swat, slap and sweat until it was time to break out the oars or crank up the outboard and move on for relief.
Even catching fish was no guarantee we’d bring any home. I was four or five when I landed my first prize — a bluegill that weighed maybe six ounces. Dad tossed it back in the creek with the assurance we’d return for it once it grew.
We’d throw fish back, too, if we didn’t catch enough for a meal. A large bass won a reprieve one spring morning, after my father, gently rubbing her belly, explained she was heavy with roe.
Then there was the catfish I hauled in one rainy night. I’d just run a stringer through its mouth and placed the fish at the sandy edge of the shallows, when we heard what sounded like a baby’s cry off in the darkened woods.
Growing up the shadow of the Great Dismal Swamp lent my father a sixth sense for the ways of the wild.
“Bobcat,” he said, as the cries drew near. “It smells that fish.”
We set the catfish free and made our way to the car — before the bobcat made its way to us.
Fishing is a triumph of expectation over experience. Now and then, despite ourselves, we’d bring home a small cooler of fish, then take them to the backyard to clean.
There were knives shimmering, scales flying, and more biting flies to endure, in what became a kind of sunset communion with the astonishing miracle of freshwater life: pumpkin-bellied panfish with spiked fins and spotted tails; vermillion colored gills that took the place of lungs; black-speckled crappie with silvery skin and splendid, translucent lips.
I remember opening up a bass, its bronze and brawny back, to find a small frog inside, a reminder, I thought at the table that night, of the rich and even extravagant web that ties our lives to the natural world.
A fish on the line is a grace of God, unearned and wholly redemptive. There’s no guarantee, though, things will pan out as hoped. The best you can do is get out on the water, keep faith with simple ambition and hold fast to wonder and possibility.
Much the same might be said of fatherhood.
If we’re lucky, we get a father who shows up for us, believes in us and loves us enough to leave his footprints along the banks our waters will trace.
Long years after my father crossed the big river, I’m still trying to be that for my own children, still trying to be what he was to me on those golden mornings when we burned the bacon, untangled the lines and never once doubted that all we might want could be waiting right there in the shallows, in a quiet spot somewhere between the cypress knees and the lily pads.
Former Post and Courier reporter Bob Deans is author of “The Bicycle Man.”