This week on our blog, in honor of Father’s Day, we are featuring essays that reflect on all the ways fathers earn our respect and admiration — from their practicality in the kitchen to their patience in the fishing boat. It is their wisdom that shapes our lives. Today William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves, shares a story about a day spent with his father and a lesson learned and cherished.
An Essay by William Alexander
My son, who never knew his grandfather, once asked me what my dad was like.
“He was the kind of man who used to go fishing to go fishing,” I said. The preliminary fishing was, of course, to catch his own bait. Unless he was going to be fishing for trout, in which case he would instead spend hours at the kitchen table, reading glasses perched on his nose, meticulously threading feathers into something that only a fish underwater could possibly mistake for an insect.
The hunt for bait, which included not only minnows, but tadpoles, crayfish, earthworms, and even, on one memorable occasion a live frog, often made the actual fishing anticlimactic. “Dad,” I remember saying more than once in my whiny 8-year-old voice, my bones cold and tired in the dark, “there’s a bait shop in town.”
“Look, a nice fat one!” he’d reply, catching an unsuspecting night crawler in the beam of his flashlight, my cue to bend and swoop, depositing the doomed worm into a coffee can. By “doomed” I mean likely fated to drown on the end of a hook, as few that I can remember ever made their way into the digestive tracts of fish. But Dad knew what he was doing; he never left a fishing trip totally empty-handed, for even if he didn’t catch any fish, he’d caught the bait, including the aforementioned frog, captured one summer in the Adirondacks. I was in my twenties, and amazed at the spectacle of my father, his 60-year-old frame still nimble and quick, chasing down a frog. “What on earth are you going to do with that?” I asked, for I’d long outgrown the practice of keeping amphibious pets in mayonnaise jars.
“A bass can’t turn down a live frog,” he said. And I knew what bass he had in mind, a lunker in the weeds that we’d had tantalizing glimpses off all week. Dad and I couldn’t figure out what it was surviving on, since it’d turned down our repeated offerings of worms, live crawfish, and (out of my tackle box) colorful lures, said rejection naturally having the effect of making the fish all the more desirable. This smallmouth was Dad’s Loch Ness, but now that he had the right bait he knew that Nessie was his. Dad must’ve checked on that frog a dozen times during the afternoon. And to make sure it stayed alive, he went down to the stream to catch some crayfish to feed it, creating an unprecedented three-generation (catching bait for the bait for the fish!) fishing trip.
As dusk fell that evening, father, son, and well-fed frog set out and steered the little motorboat over to the weeds on the far side of the lake. I set my fishing pole down, preferring to watch than fish, as Dad, with not a touch of squeamishness, set his hook through the mouth of the squirming frog. “What’s important,” he explained, “is to not set the hook when the fish strikes.” Really? That’s novel. “He only has it by the legs. You’ll just yank the frog out of his mouth. You have to wait, because when he’s ready he’ll release it and grab it again, whole. That’s when you set the hook. Patience…” He seemed to be reminding himself as much as me.
On Dad’s third cast into the weeds the lunker took the bait. “Got ’im!” Dad whispered excitedly. And waited. Ten seconds went by, then twenty. Let me tell you, twenty seconds of stillness is a long time when you’re in a boat with a bass on the end of your line. Yet Dad remained immobile, every nerve in his body attuned to the twitches coming up the nylon line and through the pole, waiting for the release and the second, fatal strike.
Seconds ticked by.
“Been a long time, Dad,” I whispered.
More seconds ticked by. I wanted Dad to catch that fish more than anything in the world, and I was sure he was blowing it, just sitting there, doing nothing. I couldn’t help myself.
“A really long time, Dad. You think maybe—”
Dad took the bait. Giving an expert wrist-snap, he and I watched, mouths agape, as the frog broke the water, flew off the hook, and sailed directly over our heads, bug-eyed and spread-eagled, before landing with a plink behind us. The last time I saw it, it was swimming furiously towards Canada.
I had ruined Dad’s triumph, what would’ve been the capstone of a lifetime of fishing. I wanted to crawl underneath the boat, to hide both my shame and from the recrimination that was sure to come. But there was no recrimination, no swearing, no anger. Whatever disappointment there was — and there had to be plenty — was kept submerged, undoubtedly because Dad was more concerned about me feeling bad for him than with his own disappointment. If I’d known then that he’d be gone forever in a few months, that this would be our final fishing trip together, I don’t think I could’ve borne the pain.
But Dad simply said in that whispery voice you use on boats, to no one in particular, “You have to be patient.” They were not his last words, but the last ones I remember, and among his best.
William Alexander lives and bakes in New York’s Hudson Valley. He is the author of The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves. Find him online at www.williamalexander.com.