My kids, specifically my son, have been asking to go fishing for at least two years. My son will tap his chin like a miser thinking about his money and claim it has been since he was three or maybe two or — relax, Ben. I get it. You are the ripe old age of seven and, according to your storybooks, have been deprived of the pastime of sitting on a dock lazily waiting for the big one to bite. We don’t live in Mayberry, Son. You are more likely to see sunburned, half-drunk men with their ass cracks hanging out as they dock their boat than what you imagine in your very sweet and naïve head.
Anyway, whenever the weather is warm enough to think such idyllic thoughts, my kids remind me how they are anglers without a pole.
I have resisted for several reasons. For starters, we don’t have the gear. I haven’t been fishing since I was a kid, so the idea of re-learning the set-up felt overwhelming. But the biggest reason why I haven’t taken my kids fishing is because I feel bad for the worms and the fish.
Roll your eyes or laugh all you want. You are more than welcome to call me a hypocrite too, because while I can make myself weep with the idea of animals suffering or dying, I am a carnivore. I love meat and perplex myself. I also eat a decent amount of fish. I even support the sport and need for hunting animals that would otherwise overpopulate land or water. But, my sensitive heart struggles with the idea that I am the reason for pain. Even though I know eating the animals, even if I am not catching or killing them, is perpetuating the cycle. I am well aware of the ridiculousness of my conflicted emotions. I don’t know why I’m like this.
Actually, I do know why I was resistant to fishing with my kids. It’s because the plan was always to have it be a catch and release situation. Worms dying, fish being tricked, maimed, scared and then just sent back into the water for my pleasure of a snapshot with my overjoyed kids felt barbaric. Yet there I was, at the gas station choosing between nightcrawlers and some other kind of worm the attendant suggested.
“Which one is better?” I asked.
“Well, they’re the same price, but the night crawlers are bigger so you can tear them in half and get more for your money.”
Dear God. I tried to stifle a gasp but wasn’t successful. My daughter looked up at me with a worried look. I made a joke about using gummy worms instead but said I would take the nightcrawlers. I was already feeling empathy toward the hooked worm; I wasn’t prepared for the ripping too. But saving money did make sense.
The van was loaded with borrowed gear I acquired after impulsively asking if anyone had a few small fishing poles I could borrow to take the kids fishing. I am not sure what came over me, but we had a day’s worth of snacks, and now worms to fuel the dream — or nightmare — come true, depending on who you asked.
I had a loose plan that included beach hopping and sending prayers into the universe that we didn’t catch anything. For the first few hours, the intoxication of learning how to cast a line, playing in the water, and finally fishing “for real” was enough to reconcile the fact that other than minnows nibbling the worms off of the hooks, nothing was biting. The kids became restless and started to demand reasons why we didn’t have a boat, because surely that was the secret to success; the lack of bites had nothing to do with the fact that we were standing in 12 inches of water and the kids are as nimble as a herd of confused elephants. I suggested a boat dock for us to try. Now that I knew they wouldn’t also throw their bodies into the water when throwing in their hook, I felt better about standing on a slightly unsteady surface.
I had almost become immune to watching the worms wiggle in protest when I poked them with the hook, but I was not prepared for the eyes of the first fish my son caught.
“I got something!” My son screamed. “I think I caught a fish!”
Oh no. “Reel it in!”
“I did! Look!”
“Yes you did! Wowzers!” Why am I giddy? Where is my phone? I need to document this. OMG, I am so proud! I’m so sorry!
“I can’t believe it,” my son said. He was beaming and so was his sister. This moment seemed to be better than he imagined. I was enjoying it more than I imagined too. I told him to place the fish in the bucket while I put on my gloves. Yes, I wanted the fish to be able to breathe while attached to the hook in its lip, and no I wasn’t going to have fish-smelling hands or get poked with sharp gills or whatever they’re called. When I was ready, he lifted the line out of the water and I grabbed the fish, told it I was sorry, and removed the hook. We said goodbye to the fish and threw him back. Okay, that wasn’t bad. I can do this.
Then my daughter caught one, and after the rounds of excitement, I realized this fucker swallowed the hook. I get that finding a hook in your food is worse than finding a hair in your food at Taco Bell, but this asshole put me in a very difficult situation. Do I pull it out? Cut the line and let him keep the hook as a souvenir? I decided pulling it out was better than leaving it. Then there was blood. What have I become? I tried to avoid eye contact this time. Why did you have to swallow the fucking hook? I realized I was victim blaming, but Jesus Christ. Come on! My son came over after watching me struggle a bit.
“Oh, the poor fish is bleeding!” He said. WTF, Ben. You wanted this.
“Do you think he is in pain?”
Probably! “I hope not too much.”
“Now I’m sad,” he said.
Goddamn it! I made one final tug, swallowed the lump in my throat, and threw the damn fish back into the water. I anticipated him bleeding out within the hour. I hoped my child would be too sad to continue fishing. I was wrong.
As much as I had tried to separate my heart from the activity, I couldn’t separate it from the happiness on my kids’ faces. My son told me I made his dreams come true and that he had the best day of his life. I know there will be more “best” days, but this one made the worms worth their torn-in-half sacrifice.
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