Recently, I did several things I've never done before:
- Put my own worms on a fishhook
- Removed from the fishhook the fish that I caught
- Tied a new lure and hook onto the fishing line
- Filleted multiple fish
As near as I can recall, it's been 30 years since I went fishing. When I was a child, my grandpa and I spent hours sitting on a big rock beside Lake Redstone, in Wisconsin. He would put worms on the line of my cane fishing pole, I'd drop the line into the water and watch the bobber, and within a few minutes, I'd be pulling in a bluegill. Fishing, I thought, was easy! (Apparently Lake Redstone was generously stocked.)
My grandpa took the fish off the line and gave them to my grandma, who undertook a messy and laborious cleaning process that left fish heads and entrails all over the picnic table and ground. When she fried the fish for dinner, everyone had to take tiny bites and chew many times to avoid stray bones.
A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I spent the weekend at Lake Barkley, staying in a cabin with several other people from church. One of them, Linda, had brought her new fishing rod. She bought red worms, mealworms, and crickets and, accompanied by her husband, headed for the dock. I watched them fish on Friday evening, and found that I wanted to fish, too. It looked peaceful. Meditational.
Saturday morning I woke up earlier than Linda or her husband, so I borrowed the not-new reel and went down the hill to the dock. First issue: the need for bait. I'd brought along the little cardboard container of red worms, but when I opened it, I saw only black dirt. Poking a finger through the soil, I uncovered what I can only describe as a ball of worms. I detached one from its friends while imagining the noises my son would have been making if he'd been there. Then I put the worm on the hook while apologizing to it out loud and thanking it for helping me.
Now, did I remember how to cast? Push the button, fling the pole back, release, over the head — and there went the line, just like it should. The bobber on the surface took me back to another time and place. Reel in a little; feel the tiny nibbles on the line; enjoy the morning breeze and the sight of herons and geese overhead; watch other people fishing from boats. Cast again; contemplate the water; watch the bobber go under; and — catch a bluegill!
Second issue: getting the fish off the hook. I watched my grandpa do it many times. I am a grown-up. I can do this. Grab the fish from the top to avoid the sharp fins, wiggle out the hook, and put the fish — um, where? Oh yes, Linda had a basket hanging in the water, tied to the dock with a rope. But now there's no rope, and no basket. Walk up the hill to the cabin, holding the dripping fish and feeling foolish. Find the basket, and get it and the fish into the water as quickly as possible.
Re-bait, re-cast, and sink again into contemplation. Here's the thing: Normally, I can't do anything unless my brain is fully occupied. If I'm eating, I have to be either reading or talking; I can't just sit and chew. If I'm driving, the radio is on (preferably tuned to news on NPR). When I'm cooking, I listen to books on tape. I can't walk on a treadmill because it makes me crazy with boredom. But there I was on that dock, just me and a fishing pole, and I didn't need anything else.
After a while Linda came down, and it turned out her husband was delighted for me to fish in his place. She taught me to remove a bobber, tie on a lure, and add and remove weights (although I was a little iffy about clamping a lead weight onto the line with my teeth). Before I knew it, my husband was coming down the hill to say that it was almost 11:00, and if we were going to drive into the park, we'd probably better go.
I'd been fishing for more than three hours. I would have sworn it wasn't even one. Now I have a much better understanding of how people (men, mostly) go fishing for an entire day; I could easily have stayed on the dock all afternoon.
That evening came the real moment of truth: learning to clean the fish. Linda used an entirely different technique than my grandmother, so as to avoid all the little bones. We gathered a bunch of newspaper, an extremely sharp filleting knife, and our basket of flopping fish, and went out to the cement picnic table. I asked Linda if she would mind bopping the fish on the head to kill them (as I remembered my grandpa doing). She hesitated, and then admitted to me that she never kills the fish. She just … fillets them. Alive. "But they're dead by the time I finish," she assured me.
At that point I had to go inside and get a soft drink.
I found my husband and asked him if he'd bop the fish for me. And then, while he was locating a hammer, I took stock of myself and decided that if I really was a grown-up, and if I had caught those fish and was responsible for cleaning them, then I needed to quit being wishy-washy and bop the fish myself. So I did. Interestingly, although Linda was capable of cutting open live fish, she couldn't bear to watch me kill them by hitting them smartly on the head. I hated it, but I did it.
And then, the difficult part done, I learned how to slide the knife along the backbone and side of the fish, separating the meat from the bones; and how to peel off the skin, ending up with lovely little fillets. I rolled them in cornmeal and flour, and fried them in a mixture of olive oil and butter, and they were delicious. I'd never fried fish before, either, but that part came naturally. It was a day full of new pleasure and skills, and it ended with an old pleasure: the joy of cooking.