The first rule introducing a kid to fishing is that you absolutely must catch fish. Later on, he or she may be open to the idea of “enjoying the experience.” But at 5, believe me, they are out for blood. You get two, maybe three shots before even the dumbest Clifford the Big Red Dog DVD beats the hell out of watching a bobber do nothing. And then you have lost your child to all sorts of horrors: gangs, methamphetamines, violin lessons.
The first time I take Emma fishing, she is psyched right up until she steps into the canoe. Normally, water holds no terror for her. But now, just as we are about to shove off, her lower lip starts to tremble. “Gustave,” she whispers.
Gustave is an all-too-real Nile crocodile we have recently seen on a National Geographic special. He is more than 20 feet long and in the past few decades has eaten over 200 people, mostly fishermen in a river near Lake Tanganyika. The story of the French naturalist trying to trap Gustave for study made for a riveting documentary. The only problem was that he failed. Gustave is still out there.
“Don’t worry, Monk-a-lula,” I tell Emma. “Gustave never comes here. It’s too cold.” Emma checks the shoreline for crocs. I can almost see the machinery in her brain weighing her father’s perfect record (so far) of keeping her safe versus the primordial reptilian monster. The first tear streaks her cheek. Game over.
The second time, I decide to fish from shore. Emma has already shown remarkable casting potential with her little Tigger-themed push-button outfit, recently putting so much wrist into a cast with the yellow “fishy” practice plug that she snapped the line. I bait a No. 6 Eagle Claw hook with a worm just below the bobber. Emma attempts three casts, none of which reach the water. I gently take over, but the rig is so light that even I can barely get it out there. Fishless after two minutes, she starts throwing gravel into the water. “Monk, that scares the fish,” I tell her.
“That’s okay,” she assures me brightly. I change locations, wanting at least to produce a fish so she understands the goal here. She follows, with larger handfuls of gravel.
“I’m fishing here,” I say. There is a silence.
“Can we go home?” she asks. Zero for two.
It’s the bottom of the ninth inning. Unless we get on fish quickly the next time, my daughter will be lost to me forever. She will become an animal rights activist and be trampled to death by hogs while attempting to liberate the stockyard at a Jimmy Dean plant.
The day of reckoning finds us at a shallow bass pond. I am prepared with two Shimano kids’ outfits (one for backup), a bucket of minnows, juice boxes, string cheese, SPF 50 sunblock, insect repellent, and spare underwear. Emma works up the nerve to stick her hand in the bait bucket. When a minnow brushes her fingers, she giggles and yells, “They like me!” I bait one through the lips and toss it to a fishy-looking corner. It dances around for five minutes, nudging the bobber this way and that, and I am sure we are about to nail one. But it never happens. This is evidently bluegill water.
We go looking for worms and hit pay dirt by uprooting sod near a seep downhill from the pond. Emma cannot believe the abundance of the earth. Each new worm sends her into near delirium. “Another one!” she squeals. We put two dozen worms in a cigarette pack we find on the ground.
Three minutes later, the bobber heads south like a share of Enron stock, and we have our first bluegill. “That is a huge fish!” I say of the 5-incher flapping at the end of the line. “A humongous-bungus fish! And you caught it!” All 34 pounds of my daughter are squirming with excitement. I ask if she wants to let it go.
“No! I want to keep it! I want to eat it! Let’s catch some more!” We do.
I’m sure there will be other memorable moments in my youngest daughter’s life: kindergarten, a first date, graduation, marriage. But I will keep forever the image of Emma’s face, of the pure and triumphant delight as she lifted that snapping fish up into the air.
Family life does not linger long upon such summits. That very night, Emma and I tangle over the number of Barbie dolls allowed in the bathtub. I set the bag limit at 10 to delay the inevitable clogging of the drain with synthetic hair. Furious at such tyranny, my daughter screams the worst insult she can think of: “Stupid. Little. DADDY!” Ten minutes later, as I am tucking in the still-damp light of my life, she stirs in her half-sleep and mumbles. “Daddy.Go again tomorrow?”
“Fishing?” I ask.
“Yeah,” answers a small voice falling back into slumber. “But first digging worms.”