Since moving to the South Carolina coast last May, I have been reawakened to a concept that I knew as a kid--fishing is bliss.
Growing up on a farm in North-Central Wisconsin, there wasn’t a lot of free time, but when there was, fishing almost always filled it.
I recall with great pleasure the absolute peace sitting alongside a meandering creek, watching that bobber, waiting for it to disappear with a plop and anticipating the mighty tug of that cat fish, or bullhead as we called them. They weren’t very big, but to a kid they were monsters.
Waiting for the bite, the wind would rustle through the pine and hardwood trees, birds would chirp, cows would moo, dogs would bark and all the sights and sounds of a bucolic landscape would often lull me to sleep.
Even preparing for the fishing trip was a part of the process. Getting the tackle box organized, making sure I had everything I needed, cleaning the reels and checking the lines.
Digging the worms was an experience itself. Northern Wisconsin night crawlers were plentiful, huge and strong; and it was almost as rewarding to turn over a shovel of dirt and find a writhing nest of them as it was catching the fish.
Then there was trapping minnows; setting up the minnow trap, baiting it with bread or meat scraps, finding just the right spot to toss it in and then after a while pulling it in to hear the flip-flopping of lively shiners.
As I got older, my dad would occasionally take the rare day off and go fishing with me and my older brother. We’d go to far-off places like Spindler’s Bridge (less than five miles away) or Du Bay Dam (about 15 miles away) to fish for the big-daddies: northern pike, walleye, deep-water catfish and upon rare occasions, the mightiest of them all--the Muskie.
Muskie--or muskellunge as they are officially known--are prehistoric-looking creatures in the same family as the pike; only much larger and known to be bad-to-the-bone fighters. They can be up to four feet long and are hard-hitting predators. When you have one on, you are in for a fight.
To find these, we had to travel further north to a place called Phillips, Wis. My brother-in-law’s family had a cabin on a river up there. We’d take the hour drive sometimes on weekends with them.
I was about 8 years old the first time we went to Phillips on a warm spring day. My brother-in-law, Chuck, an avid fisherman, had been trying to hook a trophy Muskie all his life, with no luck; he’d caught a few, but not the one he would hang on the wall.
I had never been in a boat; I had never fished for anything bigger than bullheads at that time. I had a small casting reel and a light fishing pole. It was not my intention to catch a big fish. I was mostly worried about not falling out of the small, oar-driven fishing boat that barely had enough room for me, Chuck and my older brother, Tim.
So while Chuck and Tim used their heavy tackle, minnows and artificial lures to go after Muskie, I did what I knew best; baited my hook with a night crawler, attached a bobber and let it drift with the current hoping maybe I’d catch a bigger cat fish than I normally caught in our creek back home.
Sitting low in the boat I peered over the side, the water glistening as the sun was heading down in the west. The boat was anchored at the junction where two glacial rivers merged.
My bobber got caught up in the flow and slowly drifted towards the junction. I daydreamed and got lost in the scenery; my reel was on free spool and I let it drift pretty far out. When I came out of my daydream, I realized I couldn’t see my bobber. I decided I’d better check my bait.
I started to reel in but the line didn’t move. I tried again, my rod bent, but still no bobber and no movement.
“Chuck,” I said sheepishly, “I think I got snagged.”
“Try it again,” he said a little impatiently without looking at me as he cast an expensive lure into the current; so I did, but it still didn’t seem to move.
“It’s still,” I started to say, but then the line started moving--up, at a high rate of speed.
“Ah, Chuck, I think I might have a bite,” I said, this time getting his attention as he turned to see.
At this point things went into slow-mo. I remember him starting to turn just as the end of my line reached the surface. As the sun low in the western sky silhouetted the scene, we all watched in utter shock as the largest fish I’d ever seen broke water, cleared the surface swishing its enormous head and tail side to side, splaying sparkles of water in a 360-degree arc.
It was just like you see on those TV fishing shows; only this was real.
I had accidently hooked into the trophy Muskie that Chuck had been trying to catch all his life.
I was in shock as the fish completed its jump, flipped in the air, hit the water in a perfect dive and headed straight for the boat.
“He’s coming to eat me!” I thought, and I swear he was big enough to do it.
“Reel in, reel in,” Chuck and Tim were yelling at me when I again heard something other than the blood pounding through my ears.
So I reeled for my life. I reeled that little Zebco 202 for all it was worth, but it was no use. The monster was upon me before I had 10 feet of line retrieved. The beast went right under the boat and I swear it was twice as long as the boat was wide.
I glanced nervously at the other side of the boat to see if it was going to jump over that side to finish me off.
Then stillness and I thought it was over. I stopped reeling, looked at Chuck and opened my mouth to apologize when the slack in the line started to tighten as I watched the tip of my rod slowly disappear downward over the side of the boat. Then I felt myself being pulled towards the side of the boat.
“He’s going to pull me in and devour me later,” I feared.
About the time I thought about letting go of rod, reel, line, fish and all, there was a twang and a pop and my rod tip snapped back above the side of the boat, the 8-pound test line curling back to the reel.
It was over in less than ten seconds, but I swear it seemed line 10 minutes. I was shaking. Chuck was shaking. Tim was laughing. The fish was gone. Fishing was done for the day.
Long story short, Chuck did eventually talk to me again and we enjoyed many fishing adventures together; but never another like that one. Unfortunately, he died several years ago at a young age of a heart-attack; otherwise we’d still be fishing together. But I rarely wet a line that I don’t think of him, and miss him.
So I guess I am pontificating about this because even though it’s cold now, spring is right around the corner and fishing will once again be in the air. If Weekenders are in a position to take a kid fishing on that first warm day, don’t wait, don’t think about it, just do it!
You might just give some kid an experience that will someday come back to him or her as a blissful memory.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.