Bill Heavey on Daycare Fishing

I KILLED MY COMPUTER the other day, an action I can't recommend highly enough. The cause of death was coffee, the original smart weapon. Pour some into a human and he becomes alert and productive. Spill even a few drops on a laptop and that sucker checks right into the digital version of the Long Pine Condo. In memoriam, I decided to go fishing. The perch were running, so I called my friend Paula, who not only keeps tabs on the annual run but also curses better than anybody I know.

She was waiting at the dock when I showed up. Selecting her favorite rowboat, one of the 70-year-olds that know the river the best, she steered us down to an ancient sycamore leaning out over the water. "Drop the rock and let out enough line so we're clear of them," she said, nodding her chin upward. A dozen cormorants perched above us, ready for any shad venturing near the surface. "You do not want a [expletive] cormorant to crap on you," she said. "Trust me, honey. That [expletive] stuff is like battery acid." As if on cue, something white and semisolid splatted into the water not 10 feet away.

Five hours later, my hands numb from filleting a couple dozen iced-down fish ("It's [expletive] hell on your hands, but it keeps the fish from going mushy," Paula explained), I realized I was going to be late to pick up my daughter. I drove home, dumped the rods, threw the fish in the fridge, and raced to school. Emma came over at a gallop. "Retta's mom is taking some kids to her grandma's house at Lake Barcroft," she announced breathlessly. "Can we go? Can we?" Ten minutes later, we were caravanning to a tiny private lake in a community so upscale you can probably be fined if caught doing your own yard work. We were six kids, two moms, and one fishy-smelling dad. The kids ran for the beach, screaming and kicking sand at one another.

"We wanna go fishing!" they declared. Retta's mom said sorry, the fishing rods were locked up at Grandma's. I had no rods, but I had hooks and mono in my tackle bag and a knife in my pocket. And I'd noticed a grove of bamboo by the parking lot.

"Who wants to go fishing?" I called. A tide of screaming children charged straight toward me. Just in time, I yelled, "Who thinks they can find some worms?" The tide split around me as kids began turning over rocks and logs. I cut six lengths of bamboo and began stripping the branches off. (The trick, I found, is to snap them off briskly rather than peel them.)

Measuring lengths of mono 2 feet longer than the rods, I attached line to pole and hook to line. I baited each with a worm, and whenever a child dared express a preference for a pole other than the one I was handing him, I recited the one phrase no parent can do without: "You get what you get and you don't get upset." One by one, they ran down to the water. The lone holdout was an older boy, Jonah, a fourth grader.

"Don't you want to fish?" I asked.

"No, that's okay, I'm good," he said, playing it cool, as a fourth grader will when faced with the unknown and its looming potential for failure and embarrassment.

"Oh, man!" I said. "Try it. When I was your age, fishing was all I wanted to do." I pushed the rod into his hands and told him I'd come check on him in a minute.

A first grader, Ian, went through five worms in short order. He would return and wordlessly hold up the bare hook for rebaiting, as patient and determined as a cop awaiting the world's last donut. Shrieks of triumph began to erupt here and there along the shore, followed by the hoisting of a bluegill in the 2- to 3-inch class. At last Ian connected, racing up and down the sand. "I did it!" he kept crooning. "A fish!" Ten minutes later, Jonah, still fishless, was facing the special humiliation of being the oldest kid and the only one to fail.

"Fish like places they can hide and ambush other fish," I said gently. "Sticks and stuff." He moved his line over to a visible stump end. A minute later he had a live one flopping in the grass and a 200-watt glint in his eye. "Yes!" I said, high-fiving him. One of the smaller first graders, John, wandered over to examine Jonah's fish.

"Black crappie," he said. "Everybody else caught little pumpkinseeds." John's father is an angler, his mom told me, and the boy is a maniac for field guides of all sorts.

"Wow," I said. "Sounds to me like you know nearly everything there is to know about fish."

"Well, yeah, pretty much," he said, then explained, "I've been to Florida."

"It shows," I said.

When it was time to go, we stashed the poles in a bush, ready for the next time we came back. As we headed to the cars, I felt as if I were walking 6 inches off the ground, like I was the catcher in the rye. I'd hooked six kids and a bunch of perch. It was as good a day's work as I can remember doing in my life.