- Do we have to go in Mom? Please, can I stay on the dock?
- A reference book on North American Fish made me an 8-year-old “whizz-kid.” That was fun!
- Fishing bonded me with my mom, dad and so many other family members, and their friends too, from a very young age.
By Wade Robertson
Mom and I were taking a ride last week. Elsie Robertson is 94 years old and still pretty sharp.
Somehow the subject of fishing came up – perhaps this is unavoidable if you talk to me for any length of time, and we were reminiscing about family vacations. I can just remember Mom dragging me off of the dock during a week-long vacation on Chautauqua Lake. I was fishing for sunfish, though I was barely old enough to hold a miniature pole. I’d been fishing since daylight, was being roasted by the sun and hadn’t eaten lunch yet. Mom feared I had sunstroke and knew I must be starving, but I resisted, almost violently, to being taken inside. Mom literally had to wrap me up in her arms and haul my kicking, writhing body inside, accompanied, of course, by my yells and crying protests.
Once food and drink were set in front of me, I realized I was, in fact, exceedingly hungry and had a headache from the blazing sun. I even fell asleep for my usual nap. Once I awoke, back out I went. There were fish out there and I was determined to find them.
Mom laughed at the memory and told me every time we drove by a stream, pond or lake, I’d always say the same thing; “Should-a brung my rod.” Mom would turn and rebuke me. “Should have brought your rod! How many times do I have to tell you that?”
I’d grin and smile, but habits are hard to break.
“Do you think I was born a fishing fanatic Mom?” I asked her.
Mom didn’t even hesitate before answering. “Yes”, she answered. The fascination had always been there, easily noticeable from my earliest years. Dad bought me a reference book on North American fish as soon as I could read and I pretty much memorized it in a week or two. That knowledge would come in handy in many surprising ways.
Soon after this, my grandfather and his cronies returned from an early fishing trip to Quebec. Jim McKittrick had caught a large fish on a spoon and no one knew what it was. Pop Hayes told his friends that his 8-year-old grandson would be able to identify the mystery fish, and they laughed at him. He insisted I could and upon their arrival home immediately called Mom. It was early on a Saturday. She smiled at me when she understood the situation and quickly drove me down to investigate. Mom had watched me sit for hours going through that fish field guide, page by page, totally engrossed.
When we arrived Pop stood confidently with his friends, his smoking pipe in hand, grinning. He fully expected me to recognize the unknown fish while his friends were just as confident that I couldn’t. How could an 8-year-old recognize a fish that none of them, the grown men, has ever seen either?
I jumped from the car and ran over to the waiting trucks filled with anticipation. I knew they’d have pike, bass and walleyes, maybe even a lake trout. The big chests were filled with fish and ice, covered with heavy canvass tarps in the truck beds.
Pop waved me to his side and savoring the moment introduced me to all his friends, most of whom I already knew. Pop, always the showman, loved to embellish any situation and this was too good an opportunity to miss. He elaborated on their trip and finally got around to describing how Jim hooked this large fish while trolling, and how well it fought.
By now, his impatient friends were barely able to restrain themselves. Could the kid identify the fish or not? There were some knowing smiles over Pop’s antics, but they knew him well and were attempting to be patient.
Having set the stage, Pop began filling his pipe. Jim snorted, threw his arms up and led me to his truck, pulling the heavy tarp off 1 of the chests and opening it. Inside, on top was a large-scaled, silver fish with a small head, a chub-like mouth and a large eye. The fish was around 30-inches long.
Pop’s eye was fixed upon me and I saw a split-second shadow of concern flicker in them. His reputation was at stake here, he’d played the showman, trusting in my fascination with fish and the knowledge that I’d acquired. On occasion, I’d recited to him the many facts I’d learned about different species and quizzed him about his experiences. He was impressed with what I already knew, but had he overplayed his hand? I immediately felt the weight of that trust and his faith in me, we were both on the spot and the pressure was on. Did I know?
“What is it?” Jim asked, glancing first at Pop Hayes and then back at me.
Pop was standing there confidently, smoking his pipe, apparently without a care in the world. The others all involuntarily stepped forward staring intently. I certainly was anxious, but needlessly. I knew at a glance what it was. The fish looked exactly like the picture in the book, came from the waters the map showed it inhabited.
I looked proudly up and answered with surety. “That’s a huge whitefish, maybe a record!”
Pop burst out laughing! He was filled with pride and vindication, shaking my hand, patting me proudly. One or two men were skeptical and asked if I was positive. I described the large scales, small head, shape of the dorsal fin and mouth; further informing these fishermen that whitefish was excellent eating as well. They were noted for their white flakey fillets, not fishy at all. They were commercially netted in the spring and their smoked fillets were sold in many fish shops, a delicacy.
When I confidently challenged them to come inside the house and check the encyclopedia no one any longer doubted me.
Suddenly, I became the whizz-kid. Even more questions were asked of me, all of which I answered. Everyone was impressed. Grandad looked down on me beaming, and suddenly there was a special bond between us that never diminished. The story spread all over town and for months afterward, people would ask if I was the kid who knew so much about fish.
“Yes, sir. Yes, Mam.” I’d reply. It was flattering for a young boy to be so noticed.
Looking back I can’t help but wonder if that knowledge wasn’t born within me and the book simply refreshed what I already somehow knew before coming to earth. I honestly believe that may be true.