Springtime in the west goes without saying. One day it is beautiful--the trees sway in the wind while the sun gently beats down on the tender shoots of wheat in the fields. But the next minute, the huge gray purplish clouds gather in the east and soon send pounding rain and hail to the ground. Water gushes down the gutters to the tiny drains at the end of each road. In reality, spring means only one thing: Fishing season is just around the corner.
When I was younger, one of my most favorite places to go was Birch Creek, mainly because the Fish and Game stocked it with fish just like one of the Mart stores stocks its shelves--full. We used to ramble up there in one of our station wagons packed to the gills with stuff. Initially, we set up tents, but it wasn’t too long before my mother talked my dad into buying a small camp trailer. It made life more pleasant, especially during those late snows that often came around July 4th in the mountains.
One particular family reunion/camping trip to Birch Creek, I was determined to catch my own fish. I was probably five or six at the time and had caught fish with my dad. Up until that time, catching fish meant I reeled in the fish after dad hooked them. I don’t know when I finally figured it out, but I knew that wasn’t real fishing. I’m sure for the first five or six years of my life that was all right, but I wanted to become a real fisherman which meant I had to catch a fish all by myself with my own pole and me baiting my own hook.
I trotted downstream to a huge hole in the bend of the creek, not too far from camp. Becoming a fisherman didn’t necessarily mean I had to cut all ties. I still wanted to hear the laughing and the faint voices of my parents. I just felt more comfortable with knowing they were within sight.
When I arrived at the hole, I climbed down the bank and stood just away from the water. My dad had taught me to sneak up, real quiet like, so as not to spook the fish. I stood behind a small sage brush and baited my hook.
According to my dad, baiting a hook was the key to catching fish, and it had to be done just right. If you didn’t thread the worm just so on the hook, then the fish would look at it and say to the rest, “Look at this shoddy job. This kid can’t even bait a hook.” Then they would all laugh, steal the worm, and swim away, leaving the fisherman with an empty hook and shattered hopes.
I was determined to have one of them pay the price for laughing at a young boy’s feeble attempt at baiting a hook; so I was extremely careful about threading the worm. When I finished, it looked good to me. Only a few bits of flesh hung off the hook.
Just like my dad had shown me, I tossed in the line at the top of the hole and let it float in. It sat for awhile then swirled downstream. Nothing. I tried the drill again. This time, it sat for a longer period of time. Then the tugging started. My heart pounded, I hesitated once, and then I yanked too hard because the line came flying out of the water and onto the bank behind me. I scrambled to see what had happened.
My worm was gone. I figured I hadn’t threaded the worm just right because the fish that struck my line pulled it off like some worm bandit. It dawned on me this was one smart fish. It knew the drill better than I did. But I was determined to catch this fish.
I reached into my bait can, really nothing more than an old Band Aid box, and pulled out a juicy worm. I carefully threaded it on, making sure every bit of it fit on my number six hook. Then I cast it upstream and let it float into the hole.
Sure enough. That worm bandit was waiting for me. But I wasn’t quite fast enough for it. When I reeled in the line, the worm was gone again. I pulled another worm, a bigger one this time, from my box, and threaded it better than the other two.
This time I did something different. I knelt behind a sage brush and said a little prayer. I figured if God could help Peter catch a huge net full of fish, He could surely make one little fish jump on my hook.
After I finished, I sneaked back to the bank and confidently tossed in my hook. When the line got to the place where my last bite had been, I was ready. I didn’t have the same tug as before. It was bigger and stronger. It must have been the bandit’s bigger brother or sister. When he tugged, I pulled, in fact pulled so hard I yanked the fish clear out of the water, and it went sailing off into the sage brush somewhere behind me.
I was so excited. I dropped my pole and started looking for my fish. I could hear it flopping around. I knew I had to find it because fish have this uncanny sense of flopping about until they can find water. And I surely didn’t want that to happen.
Within seconds, I found it. I grabbed it between both hands, scrambled up the bank, and headed for camp, yelling all the way, holding my fish high above my head. The whole camp must have thought something was definitely wrong because when I arrived, everyone had gathered to see what the commotion was.
By the time I had run that short distance, the fish was dead. I had squeezed the life out of him. Everyone congratulated me, and my dad lined it up with the rest of the fish caught so we could measure the size. Mine was the biggest one of the bunch.
I guess this catch made me a true fisherman.
Since then, I have caught a lot of fish on my own, many of them much bigger than that first fish. Somehow, though, one’s first catch is always the biggest and the best.
Some say fishing is an art, and it is all in the way you hold your mouth. I always thought it was how long you need to kneel behind a sagebrush.