The Life Ahead: C.J. Chivers Teaches His Children to Fish

During an extended stay in Finland, the author takes two of his sons fishing to kill time. When they discover an unexpected treasure—an endless run of yellow perch—Dad sees a golden opportunity to teach his boys their first lessons of their fishing lives.

Suzanne Keating

The transformation began in a matter of hours.

It started beside a rack of low-priced rods and a display of lures in a sporting-goods store. The selection was skimpy. But to my sons, Jack, 6, and Mick, 4, this was a portal to a secret world. For two years they had been stuck in a city. Now their fishing lives were about to begin. They wanted to know everything.

What is this? A swimming plug. And this? A jig. What do you catch on jigs?

We were on an unexpected summer vacation on the Finnish coast, not far below the Arctic Circle in a region bathed in light. I was trying to put together a simple kit for what I hoped would become a season of fishing school. Everything I touched yielded questions: What are bobbers? Why do we need a net? How does a handline work? What will that huge lure catch?

Pike.

I looked at that plug-a wooden jerkbait, light gray with black spots-and thought of heaving it out over submerged boulder piles populated by striped bass. Jack was looking at it, too. He was old enough to sense it: Only a big fish would smack a lure like that.

"What's a pike?" he said.

We left 30 minutes later with three rod-and-reel combos, a landing net, a small tackle box, and an assortment of sinkers, hooks, bobbers, and lures. Pike would come later. First we would go slow. Down the block was a marine-goods store. We walked in and bought kid-size life preservers and a few yards of rope. Farther down was a shack selling beach toys, where we picked up a wire fish basket and a canister of worms.

On our back porch the boys watched as I spooled reels, assembled the rods, and tied on small, freshly sharpened hooks. My hands moved by habit. I snipped the line with my teeth. My wife, Suzanne, had packed food: sliced apples, ginger cookies, water, and two containers of juice. I shouldered the backpack, picked up the rods, and walked off. The boys followed, firing questions on the way.

"What will we catch, Dad?" Jack asked.

"I don't know," I said. "We'll see."

I knew I should manage expectations before reaching the docks. I had been here two days, and busy most of that time. I knew nothing about fishing this place, except that we were far enough into the archipelago that the water might be less brackish than sweet. "Sometimes you don't catch anything," I said.

"We'll catch something," Jack said.

"Yeah," Mick added. "Look at the water. There's millions."

The harbor, a basin dredged in flats, was a series of wooden docks with slips for pleasure craft. The channel leading to the sea was a few hundred yards away. No one was fishing. Villagers strolled by as we set up. You three are cute, their quizzical glances said. But odd.

The boys crowded tight as I baited the hooks and flipped them out. "Watch the bobbers," I said. "If they move, you have a fish."

One of the bobbers plunged. Jack pounced on the rod and pulled back. Out of the water flew a yellow perch. It flipped on the dock until I lifted it in my hand-a green-and-yellow gem with orange pectoral fins and bright eyes. Its smell rose around me, grassy and fresh.

"What is it?" Jack asked.

"It's a perch," I said. He saw my smile and grinned back.

I had expected flounder as much as this. Mick grabbed the fish to study. My mind whirred. Yellow perch? These boys are about to learn.

An Accidental Academy

We had traveled to Ekenas, a town of Swedish-speaking Finns, for the best of reasons. And then we were blessed with luck, though it did not seem so at first.

We lived in Moscow, and Suzanne had been expecting our fourth child. But she could not find a maternity hospital she trusted there. So three weeks before the due date we rode the overnight train to Finland, bound for a hospital with a good reputation. My plan was to set up the family in an apartment, head back to Russia for work, and return for the big day.

Suzanne woke early the first morning with contractions. False labor, we thought. She had delivered three children already. We had seen this pattern before. Within an hour it was clear the labor was not false. We started walking for the hospital with our three children in tow. We had no phone. The town was asleep. We did not know where the hospital was. Soon Suzanne was in advanced labor on the lawn of a gray stone church. I wondered, Would she deliver this baby here? A car came by. I hailed it and we piled inside. The driver, a man in a pressed white shirt and red tie, looked at Suzanne. She was between contractions, perfectly calm. Another contraction seized her. She stiffened and moaned. "This only happens in the movies," he said and put his car into gear. Ten minutes after we arrived at the hospital, William was born.

What did this have to do with fishing? Living in Russia and having William in Finland created certain problems. We could not travel with him to Russia yet, because he had neither a passport nor the visa required to cross a border. And getting a passport and visa would take weeks. All plans were upended. I would not be going back to Moscow this day. We had begun an impromptu vacation, marooned on an island in the northern Baltic Sea.

The idea appeared that evening, as Suzanne and I sat in the apartment's kitchen, gazing at our newborn. A summer-session fishing academy would be held. I would teach the boys to fish, preparing for the lives ahead.

Catching On

Summer twilights extend nearly to morning in Ekenas, where drenching rains inland drain past the islands and create eddies in a sweetwater flow.

It was June 18. I sat in the glow planning lessons in fishing and safety skills. Some would be easy, like baiting hooks, setting bobbers, and unhooking and handling fish. Others would take time, like learning to jig. And a few would be frustrating at first, like developing the timing required to snap out proper casts. There would also be important lessons-including filleting, which required handling a finely sharpened blade-that they would only watch. But fishing is not just an assemblage of skills. It is a mentality, a way of viewing your surroundings in fundamental terms, as a naturalist and a predator alert to the world. I would teach my boys about the food web and the life cycles of whatever fish lived here, and the joys and satisfactions, embedded in their DNA, of harvesting their own food.

At first the perch came slowly. But after a few days of plumbing the harbor, we found patterns-and bigger fish. I sensed that we had stumbled onto a boon. I am a lifelong and essentially addicted fisherman. Proximity to gamefish has influenced where I attended college, where I have worked, and ultimately where my wife and I decided to buy a house in Rhode Island, for our upcoming move back to the United States. And I knew something important as I set out to teach Jack and Mick during this unexpected window in family time: that no matter how many lessons I had in mind, without a cooperative and tasty run of fish, my informal angling academy could flop.

But Ekenas, as it happened, had yellow perch. And what could be better? Perch are small and handsome and feed in packs. They strike hard but fight lightly. They prey on a range of forage, feed in varied conditions, are comfortable in the shallows, and are not especially selective. They have no sharp teeth, making hook removal safe. They would be my assistants. If I could put the boys near the perch, the perch would do much of the teaching themselves.

Within a week, Jack and Mick were moving from epiphany to epiphany. Mickey, his blond hair trimmed tight and bleaching under the sun, was fishing simultaneously with a rod and with a handline. He handled the second line instinctively, like an ice fisherman of yore, wiggling a small vertical jig with a piece of worm. He quickly fooled a heavy perch, nearly a foot long. It flopped on the dock and he dove on it like a loose football. He was 4 years old, a child adrift in time.

"Jack," he shouted. "Jack! Look!"

Life Lessons, With Fork and Knife

At home I opened the basket's door and let a load of perch, perhaps two dozen in all, slide into the sink. Jack and Mick pulled up chairs and climbed up to watch. The sound of a knife being run across a sharpening stone filled the air. My daughter, Elizabeth, came running; she wanted to see, too. She was just past 2 years old and did not yet have the patience or swimming skills to spend long hours on the docks. But she was drawn to the creatures her brothers brought home. "Give me one," she called out. "Boys!"

We are meticulous with fish in our house, and I transferred most of the whole perch into the freezer before I cleaned them, to keep them cool until it was their turn.

I took a larger, thicker fish from the sink-a perch Mick had jigged up-and rested it on the board. Then I slipped the knife in, following the skeletal contours from head to tail. One fillet, grayish-white and with a tracery of fine black lines, was clear. I flipped the fish and removed the meat from the other side.

The pile of fish shrunk and the pile of meat grew. For all the perch's many qualities as an instructional fish, they have another value as well: They are delicious. A basket of cold perch is a natural treat on the order of a basket of peaches still warm from the tree. When we finished with the knife, I took a stack of chilled fillets, dipped them in egg and beer, and rolled them in seasoned flour. The boys pushed the chairs to the stove and watched the muscles that had powered their quarry around the docks sizzle and brown in a skillet of hot olive oil. Then we sat with a mound of small fillets, each one brilliant white and warm inside, feasting with green salad and tall glasses of milk. Their pride was self-evident. The boys were feeding us.

"Mama," Jack said. "We caught these."

"Yes, Jack," Suzanne said. "And you will catch many more."

The Old Student

I marveled at their progress. Once Willie's passport arrived at the embassy in Helsinki, I returned to Russia for work and to pick up our son's visa. When I turned up in Finland again in August, the boys wanted to fish.

They had come a long way in a few weeks. One afternoon on the dock, as Mick and I headed to the comfort station, I looked back and saw Jack, who was watching the rods alone, dash left, bend, pick up a rod, and swing back.

When we returned, he stood quietly, tending our three rods, staring at three bobbers. I pretended not to know. "How's it going?" I asked.

"I caught a fish," he said.

"Really?" I said. "What kind?"

"A perch. It's in the basket."

"Where's your line?"

"I put a worm on and put it back."

His bobber floated 30 feet from the dock.

The lessons had stuck. Jack was already a fisherman. He had caught a fish, unhooked it, lifted the heavy wire fish basket from the water, hand over hand with the rope, and put in his catch-by himself. Then he rebaited and cast the line back. There were things in that sequence I had not yet taught him.

That night, after the last fillets were put up, the fishing tackle stowed, and the boys had showered and gone to bed, I sat in the kitchen, sipping a beer. It was about 11 P.M. Jack padded into the room in his pajamas, carrying a spool of 6-pound-test. He had twisted its tag end into kinks. He had watched me tying clinch knots, Uni knots, and the Palomar. He handed me the spool, determination on his face. He wanted to know how. "Can I have a knot-tying class?" he said.

The New Student

Late one evening, I slipped Willie into a harness that held him at my chest and grabbed a spinning rod that rested across two nails on the wall. He was 7 weeks old. We had his passport and visa now. Soon we'd head back to Moscow.

We stepped outside. His tiny hands were balled to fists against my shirt. I hummed to keep him still. We stopped on the docks between the Polaris, a tug painted red, and the Suppan II, a dinner vessel that looked as if it might have plied the Mississippi a hundred years ago. The water was deeper here, and fish often suspended near the hulls. My rod dangled a small tin jig, a wafer-thin version of what Norwegians use for cod. I ran my thumb and index finger along the monofilament strand, checking for abrasions, then pulled steadily on the line. "The knot's okay," I said.

Willie watched everything and nothing, mesmerized. I ran the hook across my fingernail-sharp enough to catch.

Out flipped the jig. It hit the water with a plop like a dime tossed into a wishing pool. I watched it juke right, drop, and disappear. Four perch rushed the place where it passed, dorsal fins high. Then they dove. The line went limp. I knew what that meant: One had caught up with it. I snapped the rod back. It bent and stayed down. The fish made a few thumps as I reeled it toward the surface and swung it onto the dock.

"Look," I said. "Perch."

Willie's expression was unchanged. The fish meant nothing to him. I turned the hook out and dropped the fish into the basket.

When we left at 11 P.M., I was carrying a basket of 28 perch and Willie was asleep. I passed through the yard, climbed the creaking steps, dropped the fish into the sink, washed my hands, and placed the baby beside his mother.

The filleting began. It was a task so familiar that my age seemed to fall away. I was no longer a father of four. I was a child again, like my sons and daughter asleep in the other room. My sun-darkened hands worked automatically. My mind seemed empty, lost in the monotony of plenty, as if I were sorting fruit, as if time had stopped when I first started passing blades through fish more than three decades ago. Slice by slice, perch by perch, a ritual in a string of uncountable fish-cleaning sessions that blend together as one.

The Last Lesson

Two days before we were to leave, Suzanne made an early dinner and packed a bag of snacks. It was mid August. The first chill of autumn was in the air. By this time Jack and Mick had caught a few hundred perch, and we had packed away meat for winter meals. I hoped now for a graduation exercise. Our landlord, Robert, had given us permission to use his 14-foot boat. The three of us would try to catch a pike.

I had studied the chart, bought a pack of steel leaders, and explained the need for them to the boys. On one rod I snapped on a spoon; on the other a white plug with a red head. I cut the speed about a mile from the harbor and hung the plug over the side, working the throttle until it had just the right wobble. I cast it onto the surface beside the trailing wake and left the bail open. Coils of line left the spool as the boat pulled away. I closed the bail and handed the rod to Jack. "Hold the tip out," I said. "And hold on tight."

Jack flexed his body as if he expected to be yanked over the side. Then I cast out the spoon and handed the second rod to Mick. He nodded.

"A pike!" Mick shouted. Sure enough his rod was bouncing. He handed it to me, excited. The fish stopped fighting immediately. I reeled it close: a big perch.

We trolled on.

Anticipation drained out of the trip during the passing of an hour, and the boys rummaged in the cooler and found the snacks.

"Pay attention," I said. Too long without a strike-they were unconvinced.

We trolled around an island and turned south along the channel, zigging over its edge and then zagging over weed flats to its west. The Suppan II was heading out. It chugged down the channel. Dinner guests stood at its rail and waved. We had become scenery.
Jack's rod lunged hard. "Dad!" he shouted and tried to reel, but the fish was too heavy. He handed the rod to me. The fish came in thrashing, tried to dive under the boat, and then yielded, exhausted, and allowed itself to be led, mouth open, into the net.

"A pike!" Mick shouted. "A pike!"

I lifted it onto the boat. On the Suppan II, where the skipper had idled to watch, they were cheering.

I looked down at this creature in the net, white spots on pine green, its mouth gripping the balsa plug. It was only a 5-pound fish. But I understood what it meant. "We caught a pike!" Mick shouted. "A pike! A pike!"

A few minutes later the boat rose on plane in the golden light. We were headed back to the dock. Our season was over, and with it the first lessons of their fishing lives. The boys' short hair whipped about their foreheads as the boat skimmed along. None of us spoke. We were fishing partners now.