By Blake Sherburne
I cannot remember catching my first fish. I asked my dad the other night, and he does not remember either. I know that I was ice fishing at an early age because my little sister would not be left home, and my parents remember that dad had to change diapers out on the ice. My sister is almost two years younger than me, so that means I was ice fishing easily by age 17. I make that joke at my sister’s expense because she reads this column mostly to make fun of me because she is a “professional writer,” whatever that means. No, it means that I was ice fishing by age four. When my first fish came, though, we cannot remember, but it had to be about that age. I can remember my first brown on a dry fly, though only barely, and maybe only because we have a picture of it and my dad speaks of it often.
In this age of electronics, the internet and a myriad of accompanying distractions, I knew I would have to hook my children on the outdoors early. Luckily for me, my son and daughter live to be outdoors. My daughter is not yet two, but first thing after breakfast, she is over by the front door hollering to be let out into the wild blue yonder. My son, who is almost four, has always been the same way. The only time they complain while outside is when it is time to come back in. I do not know that we have done anything right. I suspect we just got lucky, although my wife and I are outside often and their day care provider is a saint who gets them outside every day, weather permitting.
We have fish pictures up in the house, and I often watch fly-fishing shows and videos in the living room. Consequently, one of my son’s first words was ‘fish.’ I knew my duty to get my son hooked on fishing would be easy. It would just depend on me being patient enough to take him. Dad and I took him bluegill fishing last year when he was only two. He was a bit too young yet. He loved steering and running around in the boat, but the actual fishing escaped him. We caught bluegills that day, but he did not really seem to notice.
This season has been a different story. He hit the ground running; the excitement palpable. Our first trip was with my fishing buddy, Ken. We hit the Manistee River hoping to catch a few suckers for the pickling jar. We drove into one of my favorite childhood spots at the confluence of a small creek and the Manistee. It features a nice, sandy bank and easy current — a perfect place for playing and catching suckers. I took my whole family, some steaks, hotdogs, s’mores makings and Jacoby’s new spincast rig. We only landed one sucker. My children spent the day getting dirty and wet, and Jacoby practiced casting with a bell sinker. He also spent a lot of time practicing dropping his new rod and reel in the sand, which led to a junked spincast reel and a frustrated three-year-old boy. He and his sister spent most of their time leading my wife through the woods along the creek. They both fell asleep with wet feet and dirty clothes within minutes of getting in the truck to head home. I felt like my dad must have felt 30 years ago with a son and a daughter who could not stay out of the water and played themselves to exhaustion.
Before our next trip, I left him home with my wife getting his essentials packed up for us while I went to get the boat out of the barn and to town for worms and snacks. I told him I would be back to get him, but my wife told me upon my return that he was quite worried. “Daddy said I was going with him, right?,” he asked several times in between bragging to his little sister that he was going to go fishing. His mother reassured him, but he was almost worked up to tears by the time I got back. He ran out to the truck as if to make sure that he would not get left behind. It made me regret that I had left him at all.
Kenny and I took him to a small, local lake we frequent. It has not fished well for bluegills the past couple years, and this year was no exception. We only boated a couple of fish, but Jacoby boated his first — a rock bass of meager size but of great importance. He asked me again and again what kind of fish it was, and the next time we were at my parents’ house, he was quick to brag to grandpa that he had caught a “wock bass.” Dad was suitably impressed and celebrated the event appropriately. Jacoby was walking on air.
We went to that same lake a couple of weeks later and struck out. I loaded him up and took him to an old standby, knowing that it was a little too late in the season and too hot for bluegills and bass to be in shallows. I hoped that we would be able to find enough to save the day. We spent a good amount of time motoring around looking for fish, and I could see the frustration mounting. We drifted with bobbers and worms out while we ate lunch, a welcome distraction as our bobbers never even quivered. I motored to another spot, saw nothing and was ready to move on. Jacoby was not, however. “Let’s try one more time, Dad,” he said, making me proud that he had the stick-to-itiveness to keep casting. While I tried to talk him into letting me move us to a new spot, he lamented, “Aw, we never catch any fish.” I laughed and hugged him and thought, ‘Boy, if you only knew.’
Finally, I convinced him to try one other small spot I knew. We motored across the lake again and anchored near a couple big beds of lily pads. His second cast there led to his first sunfish — a fish that he cast for, hooked and fought all on his own. The fishing was slow and turned into casting practice for Jacoby. He cast and cast while my rigged rod sat in the boat so I could give the same instructions over and over again. “Reel up a little more. You want your bobber close to your rod tip. A little more. A little more. A little more. Okay, grab the line with your finger and open your bail. Now, don’t forget to let go of the line when you cast.”
On one of those many practice casts, his bobber dipped under the water again. “Oh, Dad. It’s stuck,” he said. “Keep reeling, buddy,” I told him. “That’s a fish.” A small largemouth bass was soon to hand, and Jacoby’s excitement was so apparent that distant kayakers and boaters were watching and giggling at his antics. A small perch would soon complete Jacoby’s Mud Lake slam, and it was time to go home.
A couple of weeks later found us rowing out onto a friend’s private lake. This little spring-fed lake holds a decent population of small brook trout and a few sunfish. The fishing was immediately good. The brook trout were eager and sunfish are always eager. Jacoby was determined to do all of his own casting, so in between coaching and unhooking his several brookies and a couple sunfish, I was even able to wet a line.
Over in one corner of the pond, a decent fish kept popping on the surface. I rowed over to try to see what it was, and there was a big school of sunfish there. I told Jacoby, and he answered, “I don’t want to catch sunfish, dad. I want to catch brook trout.” I am almost entirely a trout fisherman myself, and I had to wonder what could make my son prefer brookies over bluegills.
Our next trip is still in the works. Summer has finally gotten hot, and the panfish have all gone deep, so I am not sure where to take him. A few days ago he told me that he wants to catch a brown trout, but I have not yet figured out how to get a three-year-old boy on one. That is my next project.
My daughter will be two in December, so she is still a bit young to join us on our adventures. My family has a proud tradition of women anglers. My great-grandmother was an excellent and dedicated fly angler, and my younger sister carries on that heritage. My sister has landed the only dry-fly-caught brown trout over 25 inches that I have ever seen. Just yesterday, I was watching fly-fishing videos on YouTube, and every time my daughter passed through the living room, she stopped to watch. Sometimes, it was just to watch a river flowing by and others she stopped to watch a fish being fought and landed. Finally, she ran over to my chair and climbed up in my lap to watch with me. My heart skipped a beat when I realized that she was forgoing playing with her brother to watch someone else catch fish with me. I am sure my daughter will show the same interest that my great-grandmother did and my sister does. I just have to get to her before the electronics do.