My daughter is afraid of fish. For Christmas, a friend bought me one of those battery-operated bass that flops around on the ground. The first time it flopped, she burst into tears. The second, third, and fourth time didn’t get any better.
I get it. When I was a little girl not much older than she, I didn’t want to go fishing either. But I had to. I grew up on a single-lane road in an unincorporated town along the Potomac that people were afraid to visit due to the disappearance of revenuers and cops and the existence of The Mad Dog Saloon, a bar that you had to shoot your way into and stab your way out of and had a habit of catching fire from piled up grease. My next-door neighbor was a childless Vietnam Vet with no teeth, an aversion to dentures, and skin like the hide of a summer deer. I don’t know why he decided that I needed to go fishing. But he did. I was shy and my parents had no help with sitters, so I was out the door and on his boat before I knew how to stop it.
I didn’t like fishing. It was mostly standing on a boat so small I could hook my neighbor in the ear with a bad cast during a part of day that I would have rather been asleep. I wasn’t good at it. I spent most of my time tangled in trees while my neighbor reeled in bass after bass with the attitude of a sniper. The times I did manage to get my line in the water, I wasn’t particularly apt at tying knots and would lose my bait to what I thought were fish but I now assume were mostly drowned logs. But as bad as I was at fishing, I just couldn’t get away from it.
A series of unfortunate events ended with me as part of a fishing club, and after a lot of forced time on the water, I got really good at catching bass, so good that I qualified to compete in the Junior Bassmaster Classic. But more importantly, I came to love it. Over the years it has become one of the things I’ve reached to in times I needed comfort. It laid the foundation for my love of the outdoors that’s taken me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, atop dunes in the Sahara, and paddling through mangroves in the Everglades.
My daughters are young now, and I try desperately to avoid screens, but the world is full of them. My toddler’s face lights up whenever we walk into a box store and she sees the giant wall of TVs playing in bright colors and sounds, brighter and louder than nature herself. It doesn’t light up to the same degree when I put her and her baby sister in the car to drag them to the river. It’s uncomfortable there. Mud is fun until it lays her out flat on her back and sinks into her ear. Try as she might, she can’t take a bush wee without peeing on her shoes. She already knows the pain of a mosquito, the itch that hangs for days and now carries a heavy skepticism for all other bugs that often results in hysterics. Looking at the screens when we grocery shop is easier for me too. I don’t have to turn my backpack into a walking Swiss Army knife. I don’t have to haul water and snacks like a vending machine. My head doesn’t have to swivel on high alert for poison ivy, slippery rocks that will cause my toddler to trip, and snakes buried in the weeds.
The truth is my daughter doesn’t really talk to me about TV, but when we come home from the Potomac that night, that week, that month, she talks to me about the river. About the geese that flew over in a V, the fish that leapt from the water, the scratch she now carries on her knee, and the bug bite she claims still needs scratched long after I know full good and well it has stopped with its itch. And the truth is I’m exhausted when we get home. My back hurts from carrying a five-month-old and a toddler through the weeds, under trees, over mud. There is a mess of clothes, shoes, rocks, toys covered in dirt that I have to clean up still. We never even got the rods to the water.
I never understood why my neighbor wanted to take me fishing. Why a grown man would want to spend time with a girl who didn’t catch a thing and could only slow him down in his quest for bass. But there is a circular story to fishing that no one told me. I started as a kid who had time to go fishing but didn’t want to. Then I grew into an adult that wanted to go fishing but didn’t have time with kids who have time but don’t want to go. I don’t really think you catch fish fishing. I think fishing catches you. So, I’ll make my daughters stand along the edge of the Potomac River where my neighbor made me stand when I was a kid because my girls don’t want to go fishing now, but someday they will.
Cover photo courtesy of the author.