I’d no sooner baited my hook with a fat worm and let it drift with the current than I felt a tug on my line. Oblivious to proper fishing techniques (hey, I was only 6), I jerked my cottonwood branch pole as hard as I could and landed my very first fish. Flopping in the grass was a tiny 3-inch chub, approximately the same size as the worm it was trying to swallow.
Some 55 years later, I’m still one of the 30 million or so Americans who enjoy matching intellect with a creature that may or may not have one. If horse racing is the sport of kings, then fishing must surely be the sport of the common man.
Stripped to its basics — a fishing rod and reel, a can of worms or a few lures, a lawn chair, and a cooler with cold drinks — fishing offers an inexpensive and relaxing way to spend any summer day. Even better, you don’t need a fancy bass boat, and you don’t have to live near the coast or own a cabin on a lake to enjoy this wonderful pastime.
Fact is, there are few better places to take the family fishing than in rural America, where millions of farm ponds, creeks and lakes offer a perfect setting for children and adults alike to wet a line. Nearly every state in the nation contains streams and ponds teeming with bass, crappie, trout, catfish, sunfish or bluegill; some of them record size. According to state fish and game departments, there are about 150,000 farm ponds in Kansas alone, another 80,000 in Iowa, and more than a million in Texas.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
Righto, Thoreau! To my way of thinking, the act of fishing is far more important than actually catching a fish. Learning to fish provides folks with an opportunity to commune with nature, and it gives each of us a chance to put our thoughts in order and figure out life’s priorities.
Fishing is also a great way to teach children some of life’s most important lessons. How handling yucky earthworms won’t hurt them. Why you should always keep your fingers away from the sharp end of the hook. How to untangle snarled lines, and the patience to do so. And how the food chain works — worm, little fish, bigger fish and so on.
I began learning to fish from my mother. My dad was a busy farmer who seldom found time for anything other than work. My mother, on the other hand, would go fishing at the drop of a hat — and it didn’t matter where. She was happy fishing for perch at Lake Minatare, brown trout on Sheep Creek, or the bass that inhabited the sand pits adjacent to the North Platte River. Once or twice a year, Mom and one or two of her farm-wife friends would drive the hundred miles to Lake McConaughy, Nebraska’s largest body of water, where they’d stay up all night bank fishing for white bass.
If my dad didn’t have other plans for me, sometimes I got to tag along. My mother taught me how to bait and set the hook, how to catch perch with a bobber, and how to rig a line for bank fishing. It was under her tutelage that I learned how to spot the most likely place to catch a trout, as well as how to clean and fillet a fish.
Through the years, I’ve had the good fortune to catch walleye in Lake Erie and the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, lake trout in Lake Michigan, bass in Texas, and salmon off the coast of Washington state. I’ve participated in bullhead fishing tournaments in central Kansas, and once, during my career in advertising, I spent a long day aboard a marlin fishing boat off the coast of Mexico with a group of clients who spoke German and a crew that spoke Spanish. No one caught a fish.
After becoming an adult, I tried to repay my mother for teaching me how to fish by taking her fishing in the places where my wife and I have lived. When we moved to the Twin Cities, we took her fishing for walleye and northern pike in Minnesota’s fabled lakes. When she came to visit while we lived in Washington state, we took her salmon fishing off the Pacific Coast. My wife may have caught the biggest salmon, but my mother caught the most.
For the last several years, we’ve lived just across the road from a small lake chock-full of bass. Not long after we moved in, I bought a little johnboat just the right size to slide into the bed of my pickup, along with an electric trolling motor and two swivel seats that slipped over the boat’s aluminum bench seats.
Shortly thereafter, my mother came to spend a week with us, and I invited her to go bass fishing. I hauled my little boat to the dock, slid it into the water, and then attached the trolling motor and the two slip-on swivel seats. I’m almost certain I cautioned her to avoid leaning, since the seats were not anchored to the metal benches.
We began catching fish almost at once, as I slowly guided the boat along the edges of the bank. Since I was driving, I had my back to her when the boat suddenly rocked, and I heard a loud splash. I spun around in my seat to find my mother missing.
Since it’s not considered good form to drown your mother, I immediately panicked. Fortunately, within a couple of seconds I spied, first, her hat bobbing to the surface, then her hand, still holding a beverage can as she popped up. Even though she’d been my mother all my life, I really didn’t know if she could swim or not. So, in a display of heroics, I jumped over the side to grab her and pull her to the bank, which was less than 10 feet away.
“Those seats aren’t fastened down,” she sputtered, water streaming down her face. “Why didn’t you tell me those seats weren’t anchored!”
That was the last time my mother went fishing with me.
Jerry Schleicher lives in Parkville, Missouri, where he frequents the many surrounding lakes, creeks and farm ponds during the dog days of summer.