Bill Heavey on Death and Fishing

Did you ever have one of those days on the water when you happened to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and caught fish until you were sick of it? Me neither. I used to think I'd do pretty much anything to get a day like that. But when the chance came this season, I passed it up. Twice, actually. Once was an act of simple economic self-preservation. The other, darker and more mysterious, involved death, a lawn mower, and the unspoken obligations a man takes on if he wants to look himself in the eye while shaving.

The first time, friends who are seriously dialed in to the annual run of white perch up the Potomac invited me out. There are a couple of days a year when--tide, sun, wind, and thermometer aligning--the river may turn into a "silver tide," with schools of perch so thick that the water changes color.

"Tomorrow could be the day," Paula said. "Meet me and Gordon at the boathouse dock at 10 a.m." As a freelancer, I am absolute sovereign and master of my time. Until I am late filing a story, that is, at which point I turn into Chicken Little, sure that the evening sun will find me standing by the highway with the tools of my new profession: a squeegee, a plastic cup, and a cardboard sign reading, god bless and have a nice day. Such being the case at that moment, I said I'd try to be down by one o'clock.

When I finally got there, I was told my friends had just left with a cooler full of fish. The tide was slackening, not a good sign for the perch fishing. But I was there, so I rented a boat, rowed into the current, and dropped anchor. I tied on a tandem rig of brown bucktail jigs with a 1-ounce weight, and something hit the moment the sinker touched bottom. Thirty seconds later, I had a jumbo flapping in the bottom of the boat. It was nearly a foot long, a meal in itself. I bumped its head on the gunnel and cast again. Ten minutes later, another. My hands were shaking. I couldn't believe this was happening. In an hour, six very big perch were splayed around my feet. It wasn't the silver tide, but it was the best perch fishing I'd ever had.

Then it stopped. I lost a few jigs in the rocks without even getting a bump and got back just in time to meet my daughter Emma as she stepped off the school bus. Filleted, lightly breaded, and fried, the perch made a splendid dinner.

It rained for two days straight thereafter, ruining the fishing and darkening my mood. Then word came that the mother of our next-door neighbor, Dave, had died suddenly. A routine checkup a month earlier had turned up a rare heart ailment. She passed away almost before she understood what was going on. After the funeral, Dave stayed on at her house for a few days to make some arrangements as her executor.

Meanwhile, the river had cleared, and it looked like I would get one last shot at the silver tide. Paula called. "Get your butt down here if you still want some perch. They won't be in for long." No longer on deadline, I headed for the car. Then I saw my neighbor's lawn, which had grown tall and lush almost overnight from the rain.

Like most people in the suburbs, Jane and I aren't really tight with our neighbors. We chat across the fence about our kids, but I don't think either family has had the other over for a meal in the 10 years we've lived here. But I remember a day nearly eight years ago, returning home from the funeral for Lily, our daughter who died of SIDS one day shy of her fourth month. When we pulled into the driveway, Dave was there, his face wet and contorted in grief. He walked over and gave me a fierce, wordless hug. That had meant more to me than all the flowers and cards and casseroles we received in those awful days.

Now it was Dave's turn to absorb the hammer blow of sudden death. And the first thing he would see when he pulled into his driveway tomorrow was an overgrown yard. I took my gear back inside, fired up the mower, and cut his lawn. It didn't take much time, just enough to miss out on the fishing. Dave had probably forgotten that long-ago moment, but it will stay with me forever. I was grateful to be able to repay the debt. As I finished, his wife, Beth, drove up with the kids. "You didn't have to do that, Bill," she scolded.

"Actually," I said, "I did."