I had no luck again with the steelhead yesterday, and that was all right. At 66, I just like being out on the river for a few hours. I’ll never feel the intensity I felt when I was in my 20s and don’t have the strength or interest to wade in fast, rocky rivers for six or seven hours.
I did get to wondering what my father thought about fishing. He was once a serious fisherman, but I never saw him catch a fish. When I was a kid, he was in his 60s. He would occasionally take me along when he went to Kensico Reservoir outside of New York City. He’d row across the lake to a quiet cove where I could stick a worm on a hook and catch sunfish and perch. He’d stand at the other end of the boat and cast plugs for smallmouth bass. It probably wasn’t a good place to catch them.
Aside from instructions on fishing, he didn’t have much to say. He didn’t wax poetic about nature or philosophize about getting married at 39 and raising eight children. He didn’t speak of his decades as a teacher. He didn’t ask me what I wanted to be. He didn’t say anything about his pursuit of smallmouth bass back in the 1930s and early 1940s.
The family would go to Maine each summer, and he would spend nearly every day fishing on Pleasant Pond. I heard he caught 100 bass one summer. Several were mounted on the wall of his study at home. I have one of them in my study. A typed card at the bottom reads: “Smallmouth bass – 4 lbs. Caught by A.A. Clegg, Aug. 15, 35. Pleasant Pond, Maine.”
My older brothers and sisters tend to grimace when the subject of his fishing comes up. They tell pathetic tales about being conscripted to serve as slave rowers. They complain that the bass he brought home for dinner tasted “fishy.”
The family stopped going to Pleasant Pond after World War II. My parents made a return trip there in 1957, when I was 11. My father took me out fishing early one morning. He rowed across the pond to a cove filled with lily pads. Mist was rising off the mirror-like surface of the water. He told me to cast my red-and-white Jitterbug plug to the edge of the lily pads.
The plug hit the water with a loud plop and floated amid the ripples. A split-second later, the water erupted as the biggest fish I had ever seen grabbed the plug and flew into the air. The fish made a hard run and my reel buzzed. The fish headed for the bottom, and my rod bent in half.
“Give him line, boy! Give him line!” my father shouted.
Give him line? No way. I wasn’t going to give this fish an inch. I was going to pull and pull until I had this giant in the boat.
“Give him line, boy,” my father again shouted.
I held firm and tried to turn the reel handle. The rod tip was bent so much it almost touched the water. I pulled back on the rod and felt the fish’s heavy weight. Then …
… Then there was nothing. I looked into the water and saw my plug slowly rising through the water like a ghostly hand of death. “No! No!” I shouted in my head. “Get back down there.” I tried to will the plug back down into the depths, back attached to that giant fish.
My father picked up the oars and started rowing boat to another spot.
“Was that a smallmouth?” I asked.
“About three pounds,” he said. “Nice fish.”
That was it. No criticism from my often critical father, no look of disapproval, no “I told you so.” We fished in silence for another hour before heading back in to shore.
My father died when I was in college. I like to think that morning in Maine was his way of passing on a part of his life that gave him pleasure and satisfaction. … I’ll leave it at that.