Joanne Palmer: Fishing with feeling
July 13, 2011
Steamboat Springs — You bait the hook," I say to my brother, handing him the fishing pole. It's part of our unspoken bargain. I get the fishing licenses, drive, untangle the lines, but I can't bait the hooks. He doesn't say anything, just takes the pole, opens up the Styrofoam bait box and does it. After years of fishing together, I should be able to do it, but I can't. I feel sorry for the worm corkscrewed onto the hook and cast the line into the water as soon as I can.
My brother, Mark, is developmentally disabled. At 58, he still struggles to tie his shoes, distinguish left from right and buckle his seat belt. Yet he's the smartest, kindest person I know. He never complains, delights in the most mundane tasks like taking out the garbage and can talk to anyone about most anything.
He loves to fish. Fishing is something we do in my family. We fish, Midwestern style — with worms, bobbers, sinkers, lures and fishing poles — the kind that give a satisfying click when you turn the reel.
I grew up in Illinois, but most of our fishing was done at our summer cottage in northern Wisconsin. Our home, on the shore of Green Bay, was full of bass, northern pike and musky. It was not uncommon for us to go out in the aluminum boat at sunset and in 30 minutes pull out 15 fish apiece.
My brother and I usually fished together. My sister frequently employed a more "scientific" method. She would lie facedown on an inner tube wearing a mask and snorkel, look for the fish and then drop her line in. She caught a lot of fish that way.
My mother was an enthusiastic fisherwoman. If the tip of her pole bent, she screamed. Every time she got a nibble, she screamed. If she caught a fish, she really let loose. Most fish probably died from fright before they reached the boat.
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When my father fished, it was usually with his pipe clenched between his teeth. He didn't remove it to talk; he just mumbled out of the side of his mouth something.
Fishing didn't save us as a family. We fell apart when I was in middle school, the cottage sold, and everyone except my brother lost interest in fishing for a long time.
I started fishing again when my son was 4. I bought him his first fishing pole and tackle box at a garage sale. It was a Zebco, with a reel that makes a satisfying click. He called it a Zabacco and still likes to fish.
Last Sunday my brother, boyfriend, son and I headed out to Steamboat Lake under ominous skies to try our luck. We rented a small fishing boat and were about five minutes from shore when my son hooked the bottom of the lake and was convinced he'd landed a whopper. The pole bent wildly in half as he tried to land the fish of his dreams. About the time he decided to cut the line the skies opened up, rain fell and we realized the leaders we needed were back in the car. After a sandwich and some of the marina's fabulous fudge, I fell asleep in the car, and the guys continued to fish from the shore, oblivious to the intermittent rain. They patiently helped my brother unravel his line and swap lures for bait and a bobber and then bait and a bobber for lures. When I woke up, the fickle Colorado clouds had parted and the sun burst through.
After five hours in every possible weather condition, we headed for town and burgers. Toward the end of his meal, my brother pushed his plate across the table to my boyfriend.
"Here," he said. "Have the last onion ring. Thanks for helping me with my rod today."
I dabbed away the tears with my napkin and thought, maybe fishing is less about catching something and more about reeling in the love that surrounds you.