The fishing line jiggled. I put down my donut. My father clutched his pole as the line grew taut. “You got a strike!” I blurted. He reeled in the line as it zigged and zagged in defiance. He gave a good yank and reeled some more, arching the pole high.
“That’s not seaweed,” I said, smacking my lips with remnants of a galactically sweetened glazed donut.
“ No shit,” he grunted, spitting into the lake. He pursed his lips but seemed unphased; this was just another day at the office. I peered across the water hoping to see the fish break the surface. The line jerked the fishing rod back and forth with a spastic intensity.
“This can’t be another sunny,” I said. Sunnies and bluegills are boney pancake-shaped fish, roundly despised for their lack of fight and will immediately get tossed back to the lake. Sunfish and bluegills are so stupid that you could catch the same fish three or four times over, just keep hooking it and throwing it back. They are the squirrels of the sea.
Largemouth bass and lake trout, on the other hand, are clever fish prized for their meaty flesh and succulent flavor. They’ll nibble around the tip of the hook and patiently devour the bait, licking their plate clean, teasing with sporadic tugs of the line, leaving the angler with a naked hook and false hopes. If a bass or trout strike the hook, the fishing line snaps to attention and you’re off to the races.
My father continued sparring with his prey, pulling the rod left and right, winding the reel, letting out the drag, wearing down the combattant. A good sign, I thought — the longer the battle, the bigger the fish. The jigging and jagging grew less frenetic. A darting shadow appeared close to the shore, inches beneath the surface.
“Playing a little rope-a-dope,” my father said. He snorted up his nose and spat another honker into the lake.
I caught a glimpse of the fish. “Holy cow — is that a pike?” It was easily more than a foot long, maybe two. Pikes have primordial teeth and grow to over 40 inches but are rarely seen in the southern part of the lake. Catching a pike would be memorable — everyone would know that Jesse A. Solomon caught a massive pike that day when his son was visting. Locals would want to know what time, which fishing hole, was it with live bait or lures. Landing a pike would be epic.
“No, no,” my father answered, dashing my hopes. “Lake trout, maybe a rainbow. See the speckles? Good size, though.”
Pulled into the shallow water, the fish thrashed and flopped, exposing its white underbelly.
“You bring a net?” I asked, looking around. I was ready to kick off my sneakers and socks and wade into the chilly water.
“No net. You can grab it, and take it off the hook.”
“Uhm, no, I think I’ll pass,” I muttered. “I prefer the net.”
“There ain’t no net, Jay,” he deadpanned while hoisting the flailing trout out of the water. “Just grab the goddamn thing.”
“Oh boy,” I exhaled. My father pivoted the pole in my direction. I took a few swipes at it like I was playing tetherball.
“What the hell you doin’?” my father yelled.
“You got any gloves? Or a towel maybe?” It was worth a shot. Out of the water, the trout looked much bigger, as big as a sturgeon.
“Geezuschrist. Just grab it around the gills! Use your hands!”
“Did you forget I’m not Greg?” I said, irked. There, I buried the lead. I said it again: “I’m not Greg.”
That would be my brother Gregory, four years my senior, but forty years ahead of me when it came to fishing. He was the angler in la familia, he knew where to dig for bulging nightcrawlers, what rocks to turn over to find slithering, slimy salamanders (a prized bait for bass). He set up a fly tying station in the basement where he tied intricate fly hooks with luminescent feathers and flitty tails. He visited the local fishmonger, not to buy sea scallops trucked in from Boston but to study the dining habits of the farm-raised trout swimming in the glass tank behind the counter.
Growing up, he was the one my father took fishing down to the lake. Greg had a tackle box filled with shiny lures and hand-me-down spinners and three-pronged grapples. Me — I had a cigar box filled with dime-store hooks and band-aids. If I was lucky to tag along, my job was predetermined: build the campfire. While they scanned the horizon looking for fish jumping and debated casting versus trolling, minnows versus worms, I scoured the beachhead for twigs, branches, and driftwood. When I wasn’t stoking the fire (or dithering) my other job was to not throw rocks near their fishing lines. If I wanted to skip stones, I had to move at least 100 yards up the shore to Flat Rock. (Apparently skipping rocks scares the shit out of fish.)
My point being, I never participated in any sort of fishing apprenticeship during my formative years. If it came down to draft picks, my father would take Greg in the first round, his cousin Otsie or my uncle Dicke in the second round, and the next rounds would be toss-ups between a deep bench of cousins — Bobby Caliel, Marion, Coach, Gus, Nick George, followed by my sister Lisa, nephews, nieces, Aunt Margie. I wouldn’t get picked until deep into the sixteenth round.
Trouble was, my enthusiasm for the sport was driven more by the idea of ‘going fishing’ — the early morning hike to the watering hole sipping hot cocoa, admiring the mist rising off the lake, waves lapping softly upon the shore. Even as a kid, I was drawn to the poetic nature of fishing. Beyond that, my Ernest Hemingway facade falls flat. My attempt to latch a squirming earthworm onto a hook often resulted in impaling one or more of my fingers and producing a baited hook dripping with the worm’s blood and guts. When it was my turn to cast, either the line ended up in the trees or shot straight down into the lake like a missile, landing with a plunk. If I did manage to hook a fish (the odds were slim) I reeled too hard and snapped the line or jerked the rod and lost the fish.
Although I was not field-and-stream material, surprisingly I never developed an inferiority complex. As an adult, I always said “yes” to a walk along the lake with my father. It was usually around the holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas and we were often joined by a contingent of relatives and poker pals. At that time of year, the weather forecast for central New York could be rain, sleet, snow, or frozen sludge, and the sky could be forty shades of gray, but hiking along picturesque Cayuga Lake was never diminished by the clouds overhead or the biting wind snapping in my face.
Which brought me to this precipitous moment in time when my father, then in his late sixties or early seventies, dangled a two-foot trout, no, it had to be a three-foot trout, a mantle fish with dark teal scales, amber speckles, eyes bulging, gills pulsating, spraying fresh fish spittle into my face.
“Take the goddamn pole!” my father barked.
“The pole. Take the pole before we lose it. I’ll get the hook out.”
I grabbed the rod and immediately felt the heft of the trout swaying back and forth in a pendulum motion. My father reached out with his left hand and steadied the line above the fish, and with his right hand firmly grabbed hold around the gills and using his fingers like tweezers delicately dislodged the hook from the fish’s mouth.
“Make a pool,” he instructed. “Dig out a little pool in the cinders.”
“Where’s the pail?”
“The pail’s in the car with the net.”
Using his feet he dug a vague outline of a circle in the cinder beach, just out of reach of the lake water.
I scooped out about a dozen handfuls of rocks and cinders and formed a shallow puddle. My father gave the fish a solid whack across the bow of its head, stunning it, and laid it into the pooled up water.
“Let it sit. We’ll clean it later,” my father said.
“We’ll clean it?”
“You’re a chef aren’t you?”
“Yeah, but the fish I get usually comes in cleaned”.
“You never cleaned a fish?”
“Gawd no. I get swordfish steaks, catfish fillets, Mahi Mahi, they’re ready to go. I’m not a caveman.”
“You gonna cook this trout?” my father asked.
“Yeah, I brought a pan.”
“Then we gotta clean it.”
“Okay, fine. And I’ll start the fire.”
“That’s one thing you’re good at,” he said without missing a beat. My father always had a nuanced sense of humor — able to poke fun without coming off as snarky or deprecating. His jabs were more about triggering a laugh than cutting you down to size.
Our fishing hole that day — ‘Ponderosa’ —had a rudimentary fire pit with a workable grate that we could set over the fire. I scoured a nearby gully for firewood and kindling. During college, I was infatuated with Henry David Thoreau and living off the grid, foraging for berries and wild mushrooms, hunting for dinner, washing my face in a stream, jettisoning society’s norms and going rogue with nature. That mindset lasted about a week. Turns out, I missed brunch too much. And the New York Times. But the notion of fish-hook-to-frying pan still intrigued me.
While I built a teepee of twigs and branches and set it ablaze, my father made quick work of the trout. He laid the fish out on an old newspaper and using the back of his switchblade (he’d owned it since college) scraped the scales off the fish with downward sweeping strokes. After rinsing the trout in the lake, he slit its belly down the center from gill to tail, slid the innards into the water, and chopped off its head. Next, he delicately removed the backbone, severing the tiny bones from the flesh, and sliced the trout in half lengthwise, forming two gorgeous fillets.
Waiting for the fire to catch, my father sat on the edge of the dock and contemplated dropping another line. He casually used his knife to whittle down a branch. The sun, or what looked like a blob of a light hiding behind a charcoal gray curtain of clouds, starting to rise over our heads. From my backpack, I got out a frying pan, a stick of butter, and a lemon.
When the fire was getting hot and testy, I balanced the grate over the fire pit and set the pan on top and dropped in a chunk of butter. When it melted I laid one of the fillets (skin-side down) onto the greased pan. The skillet popped and sizzled and I took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of butter and freshwater trout mingling with the smoky aroma of burning logs and the scent of seaweed wafting off the lake.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” I yelled out. I waved my hands around the firepit, the lake, the dock. “All of this.”
My father was unimpressed. “You know how many fish I’ve caught in my life?”
“I don’t know. Hundreds?”
“Thousands. Too many to count.”
I flipped the fillet like a pancake and it landed perfectly on its fleshy side.
“Nailed it!” I exclaimed. It felt good to be back in my zone of competency.
“You bring salt?” he asked, unimpressed.
“Of course. And lemon. You wanna cut it?” I flipped it to him and he took out his knife, sliced the lemon in quarters and handed me the wedges. I squeezed it over fillets, swirled the pan, and added another pat of butter.
“Hungry yet?” I asked. I pulled the skillet off the fire and walked over to the edge of the dock, sitting the pan down between us. I handed my father a fork. “Dig in,” I said. He took a bite.
“Gawd damn that’s good,” he said. We sat there devouring the fish, taking turns eating out of the pan, our legs dangling over the side of the dock.
“You gonna fry up the rest of that sucker?” He pulled a thin bone out of his mouth and flicked it into the lake.
“That I can do,” I replied. I stood up and picked up the pan. “Round two.”
“You can’t fish worth a shit, but you sure can cook.”
“You just now figuring that out? But you got that right. You bring the rod and I’ll bring the pan.”
“That’s a deal,” my father said.
At that moment he seemed perfectly content. And all was well with the world.
About two years ago my father suffered a massive stroke and passed away. He was eighty-seven. Much of what has been written about the five stages of grief — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance — leaves out an important sixth stage: Memory. Those of us left behind have to figure out how to conjure up and replenish our treasured memories. Too often we picture the dearly departed as we last saw them, frozen in time. For myself, I envisioned my dad lying in a sterile hospital bed. So I rewrote the script and coaxed out a better memory: I see him down by the lake, standing on a dock, fishing rod in hand, getting ready to cast his line to the sea. This is a better remembrance of things past…and of better things present.