We moved from Montague, a half-hour north to Hart, when I was in second grade. Dad took the job as their city manager. We lived there almost four years, moving back to Montague right before I started sixth grade. Life was so good, grade school was a piece of cake, and we had loads of friends in the neighborhood, that I recall, by the third year, it felt like we were on a permanent vacation.
We lived at 316 East Main Street. There was a Sinclair gas station across the street. I was scared stiff to go into our dungeon-like basement. Our back yard quickly turned into a hill, at the bottom of which was Hart Lake.
We became fishermen.
Early on, Dad befriended Harry Fatseas, who owned the boat and bait shop. Dad had no boat and no cash, so Harry hooked him up with a rowboat. Well, it was a sunken rowboat, lodged in the mud at the north end of where the viable boats floated, under the far-reaching arms of a big willow tree. Dad resurrected that boat from its water grave and slathered tar over the entire bottom and halfway up all of the sides. It was a thing of ugly beauty.
Dad dubbed her The Mayflower. He rowed that boat on many pilgrimages across Hart Lake.
Left hand. Right hand. Left hand. Right hand. That’s how Dad rowed. It looked funny. It worked.
The lake was well-stocked with all sorts of what we came to know as pan fish—blue gills, sunfish, perch, rock bass, crappie—and game fish—large mouth bass and pike. Mostly, we angled for pan fish; we could bring in a haul and they provided lots of good eating for a large family. The small ones were fried crisp in a pan, hence the name “pan fish.” We called them potato chips.
Near Gurney Park, a few blocks from our house, the city dumped leaves. Those piles were a treasure chest of worms. Free worms.
We could not afford the fanciest gear. I got a Zebco for one birthday. The reel was metallic green. I thought it looked cool. I spent more time untangling the line inside of it than fishing with it. I thought it looked cool.
I fished a lot with a cane pole. The only pike I ever caught—mine was barely legal at twenty-one inches—it was using my trusty cane pole. Dad gathered in the line, one hand over the other. Thankfully, unlike my swing-switching fiasco, there were witnesses.
Being kids, we didn’t need licenses. We made the most of living by the lake and in the 1960s when parents either were not concerned about their kids being abducted or secretly wished they were. We roamed Hart like marauding vagabonds.
One summer day, when the crappies were running, they were so thick and near the surface that we barely had to drop a line into the water before we were pulling up the next one. I know we counted them, but the amount eludes me. Since the catch felt miraculous, I’ll set the number at 153*. Dad had taught us how to clean and filet them and, despite being a ten-year-old lefthander, I did just fine with it.
Most days, when we brought fish home, the folks said, “You caught them. You clean them.” But, not that day. Certainly, we had a way more important baseball game to play or bikes to ride. The fish sat in buckets for when Dad got home. He made quick work of each one, as if he had six arms.
When we were by ourselves, we usually fished off the bridge that headed toward Harry’s Boat and Bait Shop. With Dad, we took the Mayflower. One time, when we were not twenty feet from our launching point, I decided it was time to cast. I was in front. Dad was in the middle. Younger brother Dave was in the rear. I flung my Zebco back, but the line did not come forward. Dave hollered in pain. I had hooked him in the nose. Dad had to remove it. I always wondered which was harder: removing the hook from Dave’s nose or from the mouth of the turtle Dad once caught.
I hooked more people, trees, and junk in the water than any father ever should have put up with. Yet, for the life of me, I cannot remember a time that Dad griped. Oh, sure, he would say, “Watch the trees,” and give me tips on what to do better, but he didn’t complain. He never hesitated to ask if I wanted to go fishing. The man persevered like an oxen.
I remember ice fishing. I remember that it was cold. I remember that, when the fish were not biting, it was even colder. Someone gave Dad a tip about using ice-fishing poles for fishing in the summer, to easily catch pan fish. We gave it a try and, yeah boy, it worked like a charm.
This was almost fifty years ago, but I can still see the spot on the lake where we bounced about on the Mayflower the fateful evening that Dad and I were summertime ice fishing. The blue gills and sunfish and perch were biting nicely. I pulled one in that I couldn’t free. “Dad! It swallowed the hook!” Dad set his pole down and took mine. As he was working the hook free, I watched his pole jerk. I looked out at his bobber, which was now being drowned. A quick look back at his pole and, whoosh, over the edge it went and into the water and it, too, was being drowned.
We were resigned to having lost that pole. Dad got the hook out of the fish and returned my pole. We were not too happy about this development, but we had forgotten a key thing about our ice-fishing poles: they were light, with cork handles.
In a moment, we saw the pole popping up and down in the water, serving as its own bobber. We laughed like thirsty men crossing a desert who had just found an oasis. Dad rowed The Mayflower over to the pole, reached down, and pulled in a ten inch blue gill—largest one I’d ever seen.
And that’s no fish story.
*The reader is reminded of the miraculous catch, as recorded in John 21:11.