A Fish Tale

Originally published Wednesday, July 21, 2004

I am not a fisherman.

I grew up on a lake in Montana and I am not a fisherman. I have fished. I’ve sat along riverbanks, trawled on boats, stood in the middle of streams, and shivered on ice sheets in the middle of winter. I am not a fisherman though.

I’ve hooked perch and carp. I’ve pulled in a sucker and a very small rainbow trout. The perch were the easiest to catch because I would take a lantern and pole out at night, go into Magpie Bay, sit on a neighbor’s dock and reel them in one after the other. The lantern attracted so many perch that I didn’t even need to bait my hook. Drop the hook in the water and a perch was bound to snag itself.

I am not a fisherman. I never had a fishing license. I’ve never woken up at dawn in order to go fishing. I’ve never fished for more than thirty to forty minutes at a time. Even the one time I was deep-sea fishing, I became bored very quickly and preferred to watch the ocean instead. The most compelling piece of evidence I can offer as to why I am not a fisherman is I can’t clean a fish.

Take my brother as a point of contrast. My brother is a sportsman, a term that encompasses being a hunter and a fisherman. My brother would willingly get up before the sun in order to drive an hour to go fish at some obscure river for an entire day. My brother would not willingly get up at any hour to go to school. My brother would sit on the ice that covered the lake for hours, checking homemade ice fishing poles, clearing ice from the holes, and drinking coffee from a thermos. His fingers would be red and chaffed and each fish he pulled out, he would toss on the ice until it was dead and then with his fillet knife quickly and efficiently clean it.

The cleaning is the real sign of a fisherman. You see the stereotype fishermen who bring home their catch and have their wives clean it. Those aren’t fishermen. Those are guys taking a weekend and pretending to be fishermen. Real fishermen takes his catch, handles it, cleans it, and fillets it. The cleaning is a matter of pride. Much like baiting your first hook with an earthworm, cleaning is yet one more step in becoming a real fisherman. I ran into problems in cleaning. First, the bones of the dorsal fin always stabbed me like needles. Second, the damn fish is so slippery and the knife is so sharp that I have the basic fear of slicing open my hands. And third, the smell of fish does not come off your hands, no matter how much soap and lemon you use. The guts don’t bother me. The innards are usually what disturbed most people, or the sound of descaling. Neither had much affect on me. Growing up in the country, there are just things that don’t bother you much. If it isn’t cute, furry and a pet, there is little emotion attached to dead animals.

The third and last step is cooking the fish you catch. Once again, my brother had this down pat. He would create a beer batter for perch and fry them up. Freshwater perch are small fish and don’t yield a lot of meat, so it does take five or six to make a meal for one person. That is five or six fish that need to be cleaned before they can be cooked. Once cooked, the perch tasted terrific. I cannot attest to the exact recipe that he used, but it was basically this:

1-cup all-purpose flour
1-teaspoon salt
1-teaspoon baking powder
¾-cup beer
½-cup milk
2 eggs

There had to have been some other spices in the mix. The fish fillets would get dredged through the mix and tossed in heated oil until golden brown.

I am not a fisherman and I don’t pretend I am. I never owned a fishing pole, though I found many that I used. I never had a tackle box, but I would walk the shoreline looking for lures that trawlers lost when the lure snagged on rocks or sunken branches.

Just because I am not a fisherman does not mean I don’t have a fish story to tell. Seeing that I am not a fisherman though, my fish story actually doesn’t have anything to do with fish. My fish story begins at Kim’s Marina, a small marina on Canyon Ferry Lake in Montana. The marina had two or three long docks that people could park their boats at. Off to the left of the main docks was a smallish area with a simple dock that people would swim in and like this one occasion, fish. I can’t directly recall my age when this occurred, but I had to be in my mid-teens, maybe 14 or 15. My Dad, long since retired from the Post Office, worked at the marina as a handyman. The marina was only two miles from my home and the owner’s son was my friend. So I had all sorts of reasons to be on the dock on that summer day with a fishing pole, pretending to fish.

When I fished on a dock, I had two methods I used. A bobber was my preferred method. The red and white plastic doohickey that would float on top of the water and jiggle if something was nibbling at the hook, the sign you need to jerk the rod and set the hook in the mouth of the prey. Using a bobber meant just sitting and that can get boring. So the second method was casting. That was fun but reeling the lure in at a steady enough speed so the hook didn’t settle on the bottom was difficult. I’m sure real fishermen understand at what rate you need to reel in the different types of lures to make sure they are at the appropriate depth to catch the type of fish you want. I lacked that knowledge then and still lack it now.

Often my hooks would settle on the bottom and I would spend ten minutes trying to undo the snag. That is what happened on this fateful day at Kim’s Marina. I snagged something on the bottom. Luckily for me, the hook seemed to get free fairly easily. When I pulled the hook from the water, there was a wristwatch attached. It was an older watch, waterproof, luckily and it was still working, though thoroughly caked in mud and muck. Probably the best thing I could have caught seeing I don’t have a problem cleaning a watch.

I wore that watch for several years. I wore it all the way through high school and into college. My freshman year of college, I went to South Africa. The story of why and how I went to South Africa is unimportant at this point in time. The important point was I was on the beaches of Durbin South Africa, swimming in the warm and intimidating Indian Ocean. Intimidating because I had only ever kind of, sort of swum in the Pacific Ocean and intimidating because of the shark warning signs that were posted on the beach.

As I bobbed in the water, struggling against the giant waves and dealing with the rip current, a mysterious thing happened. The current was so strong, it stripped the watch right off my wrist. The watch I had caught with my fishing prowess in Montana was suddenly a part of the Indian Ocean.

To this day, I wonder if that watch had a specific destiny it was trying to fulfill. Maybe it was on a journey back to the factory that created it somewhere in Asia. No matter what the truth of the watch’s journey was, it remains my one and only fish tale that doesn’t have anything to do with fish. That’s okay; I’m not a fisherman.