Catching fish, now, is a craft I’ve yet to master. I’m awful at it. Since the day a neighbor at my parents’ camp on Lake Greenwood said catching catfish was as easy as putting chicken liver on a hook and casting it into the murky water near the shore, I’ve caught exactly one. And it was as much of a surprise to me as it was the fish.
But there’s something about being out there waiting for that tug on the line that reels me in.
“Daddy, how come you don’t ever catch any fish?” Kalista asked this evening, the last of a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Fish have never liked my line.”
It’s true. I come from a long line of fishermen, hunters and trappers who could probably produce from memory hand-drawn maps of Western New York and Pennsylvania wilderness. As a child, I’d hear stories and see photos regarding their successful expeditions. To me, they were all like Grizzly Adams without the beard, showing off trout, bass, musky, walleye, pike, deer and even bears.
For whatever reason, I never caught on.
“Why don’t they?” Kalista said from her folding chair next to mine on the dock.
“I’ve wondered that myself,” I replied, holding the pole I bought in high school and hoping to see it bend abruptly. I wondered if the chicken organ I’d struggled to manipulate around the hook – a “bait holder” I bought earlier that day specifically for this night – was even still attached.
The sense of mild frustration must have been obvious to my 5-year-old, who’d watch me try at this for more than two hours altogether since arriving a day earlier.
“If I were a fish,” she said, “I’d come right up to your line and bite it.”
I looked at her and smiled. Frustration = gone.
“Can I try?” she asked.
I handed her the pole and explained she had to keep the tip down and the line tight so she could feel if a fish bit. She obliged for five seconds before putting the tip into the water then swinging it out, cascading a mist of water onto us and out to sea.
I reclined in my chair and watched.
“Is this how you do it?” she asked.
“Sure is,” I said. “Just watch that line.”
Kalista had spent virtually the entire day in the water. Her hair looked matted as it dried haphazardly. Her skin and bathing suit had a tint of red from the clay dirt beneath the water. Her cheeks were sunburned.
She looked so old.
“You know Daddy, I think you’re the best fisherman in the world,” she said, now swinging the pole from side to side. “I can be your fishergirl.
“Am I a good fishergirl?”
She was, I told her. Truth is, there’s no one I’d rather have by my side not catching fish along with me than Kalista. The night before, she’d fallen asleep on my lap as I pointed that pole toward the water. She told me later, once I’d carried her to her bunk, she was thankful Jesus had let her go fishing with me.
Tonight wasn’t the first time I’d recognized catching fish might not be my main objective when I cast a line into Lake Greenwood.
Since Saturday, I’d watched her overcome her fear of jumping off the dock, master the art of mounting a floating raft and make her grandparents smile when they didn’t think I was looking. A year had passed since last Memorial Day. Kalista – graceful from another season of dance and soccer and articulate from her first year of school – looked like it.
How much longer would I have to sit on the dock with her?
In a sense, it wasn’t the fish that lured me in, but time with my little girl – who’d occasionally break away from whatever camp activity she had going on to sit next to Dad and see how his fishing was going. I have always left camp having caught exactly what I was after.
It’s entirely possible catching a fish might actually be a distraction. Or it’s possible I’m just saying that to justify my inability to do so.
Either way, I am the best fisherman in the world to my fishergirl.