By Mike Marsh
I smiled at the memory of my first fishing lure it was a jointed minnow-imitation called a Cisco Kid. A gift from the true anglers in my family, Grandma Marsh and Great Aunt Catherine, the lure had seen musky duty in the Great Lakes and had tooth scars as proof. They offered me the choice of any lure in their tackle boxes when I traveled “Up North” to attend a family funeral and this one looked most like a real minnow, except for a Rudolph-red splotch on its nose.
Arbella Jones came to our house in Climax, North Carolina, every other weekend, and my mother paid her to help with the cleaning while she went shopping in Greensboro. I wasn’t certain what Arbella meant when she hugged me one day and whispered into my ear, “Your momma is awful good to me. Would you like to come fishing with me this afternoon?”
Mom nodded yes when I asked if I could go. I got my pitiful “gear” together and when the appointed time arrived, she drove me to the end of a dirt road, where 11 children sat on old couches on a front porch that showed gray wood through a ghostly pallor of white paint eroded by weather and neglect. Placing my clunky steel tackle box and fiberglass fishing rod beneath an oak tree, I went inside as the crowd of kids hushed their clamoring and whispered behind my back.
There was no television set, no rug covering the cleanly mopped wood floor, no drapes on the windows and not a picture on the wall. I passed a bedroom where Arbella’s husband was half asleep. A cold chill hit me as he glared and asked, “What’s HE doing here.”
I knew right then that a white child had likely never played at his home. Arbella stood between us, whispering something to him until his face cracked a broad smile.
A five-year-old girl licked peanut butter from a spoon and nibbled a sandwich of baloney folded into a slice of bread.
“Have some, Mister Mike?” she asked.
I shook my head, ashamed to deprive the family of a scrap of food. It was my first glimpse of the poverty that flourished nearly in our backyard.
A few seconds later, Arbella swatted the little girl on the behind and chastised her for not offering me supper. When I tried to explain that she had, but I declined, Arbella frowned and I realized I had injured her pride.
The entire family headed to a local lake in a rusted car and pickup truck. Lining the bank, everyone fished with cane poles except Archie Lee. My wound-fiberglass rod was relegated to worm-and-cork fishing because the antique affair was spooled with Dacron line and my rusty reel was incapable of casting the lightweight Cisco Kid.
Archie Lee spotted the lure in the open tackle box and asked if he could try it. Arbella shot him a warning look. Although a man of 22, he cowered, but I nodded permission and he tied the lure to the monofilament line of a spincast rig. He made his way to the tall grass and willows along the low side of the pond.
I stopped fishing and watched as he cast the lure, retrieved it, and carefully cleaned its hooks of algae. At the fifth cast, the water erupted. The biggest fish I had ever seen launched from the water like a Polaris missile, tossing its head from side to side. Foam marked the surface and water boiled at the point where he submerged. Then the bass erupted from the water again and all the kids dropped their rods, shouting and clapping as their brother battled the fish.
Suddenly, silence. The water stilled. As quickly as the battle was joined it ended.
“You’d better not have lost Mister Mike’s lure,” Arbella said in a voice that could have frozen the humid August air.
Archie Lee was scared to death of snakes, but was even more afraid of his momma. He waded through the algae-covered water, up to his knees, waist, chest, and then his neck. Finally he ducked beneath the water, felt his way to the end of the line and freed the lure from the submerged log where the bass had scraped the aggravating lure from its mouth.
Dripping wet and towering over me, Archie Lee gently bent down, returned the lure to my tackle box and smiled. I caught my first bass with it later that summer, fishing it on a spincast rod like Archie Lee’s that I bought with money earned doing farm labor beside Arbella’s children. I was so excited when the fish struck the lure and jumped seven times, that I dropped the rod in the mud when I grabbed the fish.
That adrenaline rush, while quieted some over the years, still transforms me back into a ten-year-old kid fishing with my Grandmother Marsh, Great Aunt Katherine and Arbella Jones, whenever I catch a big fish on a lure. They were the piscatorial matriarchs of their families.
I am sure there are other anglers as fortunate as I have been, introduced to the wonders and pleasures of fishing by women who loved fishing as much as they loved children with them.
Grandmothers, aunts and family friends, they were all someone’s mother. I wish I could wish them a happy Mother’s Day, but they are all fishing in the Great Beyond.
If your mother, or someone else’s mother, has ever taken you fishing, hug her hard this Mother’s Day, for you are one of the luckiest people.