For my family, last summer was the summer of mackerel. On the second evening of our vacation in Castine, Maine my son Spencer caught his first fish, a shimmering black, green and silver mackerel of between 12 and 20 inches in length, depending on the time at which Spencer regaled us with the story. The three kids and I had been hanging around the dock as a school of mackerel chased ‘baby fish’ into the beach. Several other boys with fishing rods were hauling in a fish with each cast. Spencer, usually reticent, asked the most successful of the fishermen if he could have a cast, and, with the borrowed rod, he promptly caught his trophy.
Or it would have been a trophy if he hadn’t been reluctant to have me hit the fish over the head in order to bring it home for dinner. He had a tentative desire to eat the fish, but didn’t want to ‘dispatch’ it. We tossed it back in the bay and marveled at the delicate wet sequins it left sticking to our hands. That catch was enough to induct him and his sisters into a new pursuit. Within a few days, I noticed, as Spencer was describing to his uncle David the magnificence of his mackerel, that he had picked up some of the lingo of the fishermen. ‘We just fish for sport — we don’t eat them’, he explained over the telephone line. How did he know what the sport was?
It reminded me of my own entry into the hunter-gatherer stage of development. My first important fish, a pickerel, came after weeks of patient tedium at the edge of the neighborhood pond on the other side of ‘the big woods.’ I had been pulling little sunfish up out of the shadows beneath lily pads for a long time, but this wasn’t truly sporting, as I hardly needed bait to get them on the hook. But one afternoon near dusk I was shocked by that shiver in the rod made by a larger fish hitting the lure. I played the fish, eased it around the logs and weeds, and pulled it up on the gravelly shore. My buddy Jeff told me it was a pickerel, or I wouldn’t have known what I had caught. It was somewhere between 12 and 20 inches of sinewy sport fish. It looked to me like a small barracuda.
I threw it in a bag and skipped up the path back home. Mom asked if I wanted to eat it. Fortunately, Jeff knew how to prepare it for the pan and he slit it down the middle, to discover a minnow in its stomach. A baby fish. It had been pregnant, I thought. My pickerel was a mother. I lost my appetite.
If my kids wanted to fish for sport I could back them up, I decided, and headed off the next day to LaVerdierre’s Super Drugstore for rods and reels for all the kids. I selected some mackerel jigs and, the lure of choice in Castine, Maine, a Swedish Pimple. There is considerable lore in the naming of lures, I’m certain. The name for what is essentially only a well disguised, hybrid pin must be redolent of not only the lure’s submarine action but also the genealogy of great fishermen and of great fishing locales. Thus we have in our tackle box the likes of the Red Devil, the Jitterbug; the tweedy Flying Coachman, Hendersons and Grey Wolff for fly fishing; and the mysterious Russian Doll.
And so we began to fish daily and in earnest, revising our visits to the dock according to tide and probability of the mackerel ‘running’. Hilary got the hang of casting with a spinning reel very quickly and would flick the bailer over efficiently, hold the gossamer line with her index finger and toss her Pimple into the harbor, beckoning the fish with a cheerful ‘Here ya go sweeties!’ She became a specialist in snagging the small harbor Pollock that lurk between the large boats and the wharf. Ariel was the most determined of us all, but wasn’t too clear on the sport aspect of the endeavor. A three year old has a hard time really grasping the meaning of the reel; but as long as she was holding a rod over water—this was fishing. Her real preoccupation was inspecting the catch of the day wriggling in the buckets beside successful anglers. Not the least bit squeamish, she enjoyed touching their slick sides and glazed eyeballs.
Spencer and Izaak Walton would have had fun together, for he thought deep thoughts as he flogged the stream. What do fish do while they sleep, he mused? He had an epiphany about the phrase ‘holy mackerel.’ And I especially liked his poetic instructions to Hilary: ‘cast into the dark cloud of minnows.’ While catching fish was the insipient goal of standing on the dock, rod and reel in hand, to Spencer it became more of a pastime, the activity being an end in itself. It was a chance to look astute, nonchalant, even blasé about reeling the writhing chrome minnow through the tide. On some mornings his fishing stance was more reminiscent of playing air guitar than fishing, as he strode the dock with the rod perched over his shoulder and twirled around as he reeled and plucked the line. The lure usually fell to the bottom and snagged the seaweed, creating the illusion of something big and fishy on the line. Many of the fish that got away were nothing more than the seaweed dislodging itself.
Fishing spawns new units for measuring the passage of time. “I’ll come home after five more casts” or “I’ll just catch two more fish” or “Let’s go to the dock when the tide is just short of slack” were the new minutes and hours in the passing of a summer day. It is also the Ahab mindset: there’s a fish out there and my next cast will catch it. There can never be a last cast, only the present or the next cast. And so we stand on the dock, cranking our reels, keeping the lure in perpetual motion, always about to catch a huge fish, always just missing a big bite, always seeing in any ripple of wake or tide the Moby flick of a trophy fin.
One day we took a break from fishing to fly our kite at Fort Madison, a series of grassy knolls, former gun emplacements looking seaward. Our kite was catching the gentle breeze blowing up Penobscot bay and we managed to pay out all 1000 yards of line before reeling it back to earth. It struck me, as the three kids, the dog and I watched our shimmering slip of colored nylon, just how much time we were spending in a unified gaze towards the end of a line.
Our lures had just as surely caught us as they had mackerel or July gusts of wind. Caught us, Grandfather Lowell during his visit, Uncle Alain, whom Spencer managed to hook in the back with an errant cast, and future hunter-gatherers—we had the whole family on the line, antecedent and descendant. Our photos of the dock in this summer’s album—of three kids with poles looking to the water, a three year old and her grandfather working the reel, a father tying knots in the slippery 5lb test line, sons and daughters holding up the catch—could be any generation and many a clan.
By the second week of our vacation the local mothers were complaining that the mackerel were stacked like cordwood in the freezer and they couldn’t give away the oncoming catches. One kid caught thirty of an evening. We weren’t having that problem. We just catch them for sport. No telltale bucket on the dock for the curious to examine. ‘Fishing’s good, but we threw them back,’ we could say. ‘Oh, about this big, mostly,” we could say.
And this brings us to fish stories. Spencer heard tell of the boy who caught a bluefish, a true sport fish, off the rocks down at Dyce’s Head Lighthouse. He had been reeling in a mackerel when the bluefish made a meal of it and found himself hooked on the mackerel jig. The stunned youngster caught the big fish on very light tackle, having had the intention of catching only mackerel. When we went to the same rocks, I had no such luck. Spencer, however, fishing around the corner and out of sight, came sauntering back with arms spread wide to tell me of the bluefish he had narrowly avoided catching. ‘It was this big,’ he gestured expansively, ‘ and you can ask those two guys over there. They helped me land it. . . before it got away.’ I was proud of his achievement, describing ‘the one that got away’ with such assurance. He even picked up the concept of fishing for a particular kind of fish. Perhaps he had heard me ask a group of people awaiting their fishing charter, buckets of bait fish arrayed on the dock, what they were going after. ‘We’re from Texas,’ said one woman, ‘we’re after whatever will bite.’ Soon Spencer would be substituting ‘tuna’ for ‘mackerel’ when asked about his catch.
If the blues were running I wanted in on the action. I went to the hardware store and got the Russian Doll lure—guaranteed to work on the blues. And so it did. On my first cast I had a small harbor pollock on the hook and coming in nicely. Then I felt another tug and more weight—a mackerel had evidently snacked on the pollock. Now I saw how this lure worked. Sure enough, there was a big splash and a jolt on the line as if a Toyota had latched on. This was the bluefish and he was hauling line out of my reel at an alarming rate.
I was worried about anything larger sounding to snack on the blue fish, so I needed to land my trophy quickly. I reeled and pulled and gingerly tired the fish out. It was midnight by the time I landed that thing, and no one was left on the dock to see the size of it or help me to lift it out of the water. I had to turn it loose. There just wouldn’t have been room on top of the car to bring that fish home.
First published in The Christian Science Monitor.