Everybody thinks fishing is a favorite childhood pursuit. Think of Huck Finn and Jim sitting on the bank of the Mississippi waiting for that big ole catfish. It’s like motherhood and apple pie – a given. Fishing is a rite of passage for North American kids. What kid would not want to drop a line in the water? Well, me, for one. What was wrong with me? I did not enjoy fishing at all.
Why? For a reason, I have to crib a line from the “Blue Bloods” TV show when Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) says to his son, Danny Reagan (Danny Wahlerg) “You know the reason I never took you fishing? It’s because you have the attention span of a gnat.” Good old Frank spoke for me too. I simply didn’t have the patience for it. Short attention span. If my Dad took me fishing, I can’t remember it and, if he did, it would have been brief. He had no patience for my lack of patience.
When I was a kid, spending summers at a small eastern Alberta lake, my brothers and I fished for the three “P’s” of eastern Alberta lakes – Perch, Pike, and Pickerel. There were no Trout or Steelhead or Catfish or Bass in this part of the world.
The art of fishing in those days was pretty basic. It wasn’t a willow rod, a worm, and a hairpin as per ‘The Little Rascals’. Not thatbasic. No, for us it was a cheap rod and reel, a few lures, a trusted rowboat and bad weather. If the sun was shining we were swimming or playing baseball or hiking. Fishing was a default entertainment called into action when the weather turned rainy. This also subscribed to the absurd theory that fish were more attracted to false food enticements when it was cloudy and wet. We used different sizes of the same lure, a Red Devil, depending upon what we thought we might catch. Everybody remembers Red Devils. If fishing lures had their own hall of fame, Red Devils would be the first selectee. Every tackle box this side of the Bay of Fundy had at least one. The silver and red spoon was catnip to a wide variety of fish and I recall thinking a really big one could probably land a marlin or a swordfish. Red Devils just didn’t work for me. Nothing did – lures, flies, worms, minnows, chunks of wiener, or Perch.
I had to mention that last one because the bigger kids kept insisting the best way to catch the really big Pike was to use a Perch on the hook with a 3 ounce weight, maybe. But I was far too squeamish to do that to a Perch. The Perch travelled in schools and, for a fish, was kind of cute. It was the toy poodle of the fish world, perfectly shaped for a fish, big enough to examine closely but too small and bony to eat.
The Pike, on the other hand, was an over-sized piranha, a viscious throwback to the Mesozoic era where it evolved to control the aquatic dinosaur population. Actually, I don’t know that but the fish has such a curmudgeonly reputation, it could be true. It will eat anything but especially likes Perch, Pickerel, and smaller Pike. It is a lake-locked barracuda. Why prairie fishermen go after it so zealously is a puzzle. It’s not a particularly tasty fish and its reputation as a fighting fish suffers greatly from its dismaying habit of sinking to the bottom of a lake after mistaking a lure for a Perch or a Mallard. I guess it’s popularity is because it’s so ubiquitous.
No, the prized fish was the pickerel. It is a delicious fish and, as far as catching it was concerned, is rumored to actually leap out of the water when hooked. Our family loved a meal of pickerel, as did most families we knew. There was only one tiny problem with pickerel.
THEY WEREN’T PICKEREL!!! In a monumental example in lazy and inaccurate regional dialects, Western Canadians ALL extolled the fighting and eating worth of pickerel. What they meant was WALLEYE. Why this came about is a matter for the language mavens but the error persists to this day. If your corner grocer happens upon a rare shipment of Walleye fillets, he’ll advertise it as Pickerel. And no one minds. Truth in advertising? Hah!
There is a real Pickerel fish but he doesn’t live in Western Canada, doesn’t look like the fish people call a Pickerel (he looks like a small Pike), and he certainly isn’t as tasty as the fish we call a Pickerel but really is a Walleye. I know, as kids, we never referred to this fish as anything but Pickerel which is a shame because Walleye as a word is a lot more fun to say.
Anyway, we did go fishing more or less regularly because we believed they took away your Kid-At-A-Lake license if you didn’t at least try to catch a fish. But, what we usually caught were weeds. We spent far too much time trying to free the lure. For a split second after a fishing line went taut, a kid would think maybe he’d just landed a ten pound pickerel only to realize the lack of animation meant whatever he caught was rooted to the bottom of the lake. The only skill we developed was navigating the row boat to find a way out of the weed entanglement. When we did finally free the Red Devil, it reeled its way back into the boat covered in gross, slimy plant life that was surely harboring some miniscule aquatic vermin capable of untold harm. Worse, when the tension was finally released the line would recoil viciously and tangle up at the reel, necessitating at least three hours to disentangle the whole mess. It’s where we learned to swear.
People did catch fish on our lake, only my brothers and I were continually skunked. We were so ineffective, neighboring kids feared our incompetence might be contagious and suddenly found other things to do if we suggested we might join them on a hunt for pickerel/walleye. My mother jokingly called it the Stain of Pisces but we never got the joke.
It bothered me a little that I didn’t like fishing. I was a voracious magazine reader and “Field and Stream” was always high on my list, if only to enjoy photos of parts of North America so manifestly prettier than eastern Alberta. Snapshots of trophy trout flashing their colors in a crystal-clear mountain stream would set me to salivating. Now there’sfishing I would like! This envy carried over into almost everything that demonstrated a richer environment than the one I was stuck in. (No wonder I fled my town five minutes after finishing my last grade 12 exam.)
Take that Crystal-clear mountain stream comment. We had two streams in our part of the world, the Battle River and Ribstone Creek. The water in these lethargic water courses was so brown and unappetizing we rarely even thought about dropping a lure into them. Some thought water-soluble iron ore was the culprit for this cruddy coloring but it was likely just sludge brought on by a current so feeble as to appear comatose.
Over the next fifty years, I made brief forays into the world of fishing, all of them reinforcing my early indifference. I fished for lake trout on the Shushwap. After one week, I’d gained nothing but sore arms from trolling with heavy weights.. I fished for trout and grayling on the McLeod River. After three days, nada. I fished for pickerel on Christina Lake north of Lac La Biche and caught – what else?- a pike that no one wanted. I went deep sea fishing off the coast of Tahiti but unwisely took the free version offered by Club Med. only to find myself (along with five other guests) being coached by a Tahitian who thought we were a commercial fishing operation. He was determined to frantically reef in any fish we caught. We were competing with the local fishermen. I caught a smallish Dorado and was ordered to haul it in muy pronto and get the hell out of the chair so one of the other five could have a chance. It wasn’t much fun. And lastly, I took my youngest daughter fishing one afternoon on the Elk River near Fernie. Not only did we not catch anything, I had to witness my beautiful daughter slowly evolve as she stood in the clear cool water of the river. Sure as heck, she went from a potential fishing enthusiast to my daughter who for ever after would say she could probably find something else to do. Maybe my indiffference was contagious.
Robert Alan Davidson