Some of life's most valuable lessons can only be learned with a fishing pole in your hand.
I remember the first fish I ever caught.
I was four or five. I was with my Dad and my two brothers. We were fishing off the bank of Joe’s Valley, somewhere on its northeast side.
I remember that the first fish I ever caught wasn’t all that big. I remember my dad explaining to me that the fish I’d caught was called a rainbow trout. I remember being very surprised that someone had named a fish after a rainbow. I asked my dad why it was called a rainbow trout and he pointed out the fish’s rainbow sides. “That’s why.”
I can still remember the thrill of reeling it in, the way the pole bucked and twitched like something alive. I remember holding the fish’s cold, slimy body, watching it gasp, laying it on the sand and investigating it end to end.
I was very amazed to discover that it had nostrils. After all, what is there to smell underwater?
“What are these?” I asked, pointing to the fish’s gills.
My dad explained that they were called gills. I’d heard of those. “That’s how a fish breathes underwater.”
“Do all fish have gills?”
And I remember the circumstances behind the catching of my first fish. Mainly, I was bored.
I hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for nature so I didn’t sit there quietly enjoying the lakeside silence, the waves lapping against the sandy beach, the fine quality of the sunlight, the beautiful mountains that surrounded us on all sides. No, as a kid of four or five I had the ability to sit still for as long as two minutes at a time.
I wandered up and down the small beach turning over rocks and logs, digging holes in the sand with a stick. I remember throwing exactly one rock into the lake before Dallin or David told me to “Knock it off! You’re scaring the fish away!”
And then my dad called me over to watch his pole for him a minute. Said he needed to find something in his tackle box. I walked over, took the pole.
My dad gave me some instructions—my first instructions!—on what I should do. He explained that the fish will nibble at the bait and when that happened I’d feel a tiny tug. He demonstrated by grabbing hold of the line at the end of my pole, giving it a little tug and explained that it would feel something like that.
I didn’t have the pole in my hands for more than fifteen seconds before I got my first nibble. Yes, I am that good!
It felt just as my dad had explained and demonstrated.
“I think I’m getting a nibble!” I announced.
I don’t remember what my dad said, but knowing my dad, it was probably some words of encouragement. He then instructed me that the next time I felt a nibble to give the pole just a little jerk to set the hook. And the next time I felt a nibble, which was only a couple seconds later, I gave the pole a little jerk and hooked the fish!
And the fight was on! My first battle against a rainbow! My first in a lifetime of battles against rainbows. My dad rushed to my side, congratulated me, and told me to reel in the fish, not so fast that the line broke, just keep a steady, forward pressure on the line.
Given that we were fishing from the bank at Joe’s Valley the line probably wasn’t out there too far but I remember reeling and reeling. An epic battle that probably lasted less than twenty seconds. And I landed the fish. My dad and brothers congratulated me on catching my first fish.
My dad then showed me how to rebait the hook. We were using a treble hook baited with Velveeta. He showed me how to loop the line over one’s finger (he demonstrated by looping the line over his finger), cock the bail of the reel (which he did), and cast it out, letting go of the line looped on his finger as he cast.
The hook and line sailed out across the lake. My dad then explained that we let the cheese sink to the bottom, then we give the reel a couple cranks to re-set the bail.
He handed the pole back to me. Then you just wait for the next fish to show up.
This was the part, as an antsy four or five-year-old kid, that I wasn’t so good at. I held the pole for a long time—at least three minutes—before I was bored again. I gave the pole back to my dad and went off to explore the beach again.
A few minutes later my dad got another nibble. This time I just happened to be watching him when it occurred. I saw the end of his pole bend and twitch. My dad didn’t try to set the hook. Instead he asked me to watch his pole again, while he looked for something in his tackle box. I knew right then that it was a set up. Had he done this same trick the last time?
But still, I didn’t argue. I would be more than happy to catch another fish. I walked over and took my dad’s pole from him. My dad asked me if I remembered what to do if I got a nibble.
“Yes,” I said, knowing that a fish was already nibbling, but not letting on that I knew.
My dad handed me his pole and, sure enough, I felt the gentle tug of a fish investigating the cheese and I gave the pole a short jerk to set the hook. And I caught it!
And reeled it in—another 20 second epic battle—flopping and panting onto the Joe’s Valley sand.
My dad again congratulated me, told me I was a great fisherman. My brothers were also aware of what my dad was doing and their congratulatory efforts weren’t as sincere nor convincing as my fathers.
Beyond catching those two fish I don’t remember too much from that first fishing trip, but I do remember that I really liked it, enough so that I wanted to go on more fishing trips. And luckily for me there would be many more and somewhere along the way I was the one that got hooked.
That first fishing trip was the only trip on which my Dad handed me his pole when he was getting a nibble. After that he started teaching me how to catch my own fish. It was fishing 101 and our lab was Mary’s Lake, Pete’s Hole, Potter’s Pond and Joe’s Valley. My dad’s instruction included not just the “hows” but also the “whys.”
When my Dad taught me how to tie on the hook he first showed me how to do it as he tied a hook on his line. It was a simple clinch knot.
After he had tied on his hook he pointed at the line’s tag end and explained that we need to cut it off short, otherwise it will poke or tickle the fish’s lip when it nibbles at the bait, and the fish will find that suspicious and quit nibbling the bait.
Then he told me to try it and watched as I tied a hook on my line.
“How many twists do I make?” I asked.
“Oh, about ten or so,” he said.
“And now I tuck the end through that loop?”
“That’s right,” he said.
And I tucked the line through the loop closest to the eye of the hook.
“Now pull it tight.”
I pulled it tight.
And now cut off the end so it doesn’t tickle the fish’s mouth,” he said, handing me some needle nose pliers. Using the wire cutter on the pliers I snipped off the line’s tag end.
Dallin and David were there and they were scattered farther down the beach. I watched them cast out, their lines arcing so elegantly, so beautifully, the impact of their bait creating concentric circles on the still surface of the lake.
My dad regained my attention and showed me how to tie on a swivel (exactly like tying on a hook), and make a knot in the leader, using a loop knot. He had me tie the loop knot while he watched. It took me a couple tries but I got it. Then he showed me how to attach split shot sinkers.
We were, once again, using a treble hook, which we baited with Velveeta, which was our preferred bait during the seventies and eighties.
“Now cast it out there and see what you get. You remember how to do it?”
“I think so,” I said. “But let me watch you do it once, first.”
My dad walked me through the process and cast out his bait. Then I repeated what my dad had just showed me. “Okay, I hold the line on this finger, cock the bail . . .” I arced the pole over my shoulder and cast it forward, “ . . . and let go of the string on the forward cast.”
The hook and sinkers impacted into the lake about three feet away from us.
“That was pretty good,” my dad said. “Next time just let go of the string a little sooner.”
And I tried it again and again through our day of fishing and by the end of the day I had the hang of it.
Pretty soon I was good enough for my own pole. One day my dad just showed up with a seven and a half foot Eagle Claw.
It broke down into four pieces and stowed inside an aluminum tube. My dad had given identical poles to my two older brothers when he was teaching them to fish. That Eagle Claw was my official induction into the Law fishing tribe.
Some of my first fishing lessons happened spontaneously, call it on the job training.
One such lesson was how to properly adjust the drag on my reel. It happened at Flaming Gorge, on a twenty foot fishing boat packed full of brothers, uncles and cousins. I hooked a large fish which began peeling line off my reel. This
had never happened to me before and I didn’t know how to stop the escaping fish.
“Ya gotta tighten down your drag,” someone yelled.
“What?!!” I yelled back. I didn’t know what a drag was or how to tighten it down.
It was my cousin Greg who showed me how to do it. He was standing next to me on the boat and he reached over and started dialing down my drag, explaining, “This is your drag. Turn it this way (the way he was turning it) to tighten it. Turn it the other way to loosen it.”
I grabbed the drag and gave it a good crank, meaning to stop the fish altogether. I cranked down the drag all the way, thinking “Why don’t we have the drag cranked down all the way all the time,” but as soon as I thought it I was given the answer. The fish I had hooked kept running but the line had stopped and, you guessed it, my line snapped.
“What happened?” I asked.
Everyone in the boat simultaneously told me that I had tightened it down too far. It was then explained to me that I was using only three pound test and that the fish had applied more than three pounds of force against it, thus causing it to break.
I remember asking if fishing line came in varieties stronger than three pound test.
“Of course,” I was told. They make four pound test, five pound test, twenty pound test. I remember being dumbfounded by this answer. I didn’t understand why we just didn’t use twenty pound test all the time, that way no fish would ever escape ever.
I posed this question to my dad.
“Because that wouldn’t be very sporting,” he explained.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Well I suppose it means we give the fish a fighting chance,” he said.
The fun of fishing, he explained, lay in the strategy of it, in the art, in the battle. Someone on the boat called fishing an art form.
“But if I’m using three pound test and catch a fish that weighs more than that, won’t he just get away?” I asked.
“Ah! That’s when the fun begins!” my dad said. That, he explained, is when the fisherman matches his skill, his craft, the art in a head-to-head match of deftness, and finesse.
I grew up in a tough, little blue collar coal mining and agriculture town where we fixed things with bailing wire and polished things with spit. Finesse wasn’t a word l heard very often.
I didn’t yet share my dad’s views on deftness and finesse. I wanted to string my pole with twenty pound test and use titanium hooks. I would have been in favor of using m-80s and a skimming net.
By the time I was in high school my two brothers were in college. Often my two oldest nephews joined us, but most often it was just myself and my dad. And somewhere along the way my dad and I crossed a threshold where he had nothing left to teach me about fishing. He had taught me all the basics and every trick he knew.
Or so I thought.
We sat on a bank at Joe’s Valley. We had recently discovered a cove on its west side where we consistently caught fish. It became our favorite spot. It smelled of sagebrush, willows, lake water, and mud.
We’d rig our poles, bait our hooks, cast out. I liked to find a log to sit on if I could find one. I found one and sat down.
I didn’t know it at the time, I was just an ignorant teenager, but those were magical days. If I had been aware how magical those days were I would have paid a little more attention to what was going on.
So I can’t tell you exactly what my dad and I talked about while we sat there on the bank of Joe’s Valley, but at least we talked, which was more than we did most days.
During my teenage years my Dad and I didn’t see eye to eye on many subjects, and our conversations didn’t come very naturally. They were usually awkward and stunted.
But my dad wanted to know what was happening in my life, what my dreams and plans were. If we were at home I usually gave him short, clipped answers. I’d deliver my short answer and move on to homework or chores or watching t.v. or “I’m going to Matt’s for a while.”
But our conversations came easier when we were fishing. When we were fishing there wasn’t any homework, chores, t.v. or Matt.
And my dad, with undetectable deftness and finesse, asked me about school, about my dreams and plans, all woven casually among conversations about nightcrawlers, hook size, and “Now that’ll put hair on your chest.”
There again was that deftness, and finesse. Now, there people, there is your master fisherman.
The worst day of my life was a day I spent deep sea fishing and I got so sea-sick I would have traded my twenties for dry land. My dad was there. The best day of my life was a day spent fishing on Lake Powell.
The weather was perfect, the fishing was (like most of the fish my brother David almost caught) off the hook, and I was in a boat full of the people I loved. My dear old dad was there. Many of our favorite memories are fishing trips.
Now, I’m not saying that I turned out perfect because my dad took me fishing, but I did turn out better than I would have because my dad took me fishing.
We are all familiar with the old adage: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Now, let us take that adage a step further: “Teach a kid to fish and you give him some very useful tools to learn about the world, and more properly meet it and engage with it.”
Want to give your kid some fond memories of their childhood? Want to form some solid bonds with your kid? Take your kid on regular fishing trips and he’ll spend his life forming bonds with his family, and nothing connects a family better than shared memories.
Want to teach your kid an appreciation for nature? Want to teach her conservation? Want her to be awed by her surroundings? Take her fishing.
Want to teach your kid patience? Want to increase his attention span? Want to teach your kid when to keep it, and when to throw it back? Want him to learn how to deal with the one that got away.
Want him to learn that some days you bring home the trophy, and some days you get skunked? (Hmm. Isn’t life just like that?) Take him fishing.
Want your kid to be confident? Independent? Want to teach them how to suffer patiently? Build some character? Take them fishing.
Want your kid to see a deer standing in a field, an otter swimming in a river, the moon through pine tree silhouettes, a dark sky full of nothing but stars? Want your kid to watch the seasons change by the leaves on the trees instead of a calendar? Take her fishing.
Fishing is only the beginning of the adventure. It’s the quest that gets you out of the house and into the woods, and that’s where the adventure, and the magic, begins.
It doesn’t have to go perfectly. In fact (spoiler alert!) fishing trips rarely do go perfectly; but, it usually goes well enough that you’ll have a great time, and if it goes epically bad you’ll have a good story.
Mark Twain tells us that “Tragedy plus time equals humor.” That sounds like a formula custom built for a fishing trip. Want your kid to grow up to have some funny stories to tell? Take them fishing.
Do you want your kid to have authentic experiences, genuine adventures? Take her fishing. Fishing gives you a chance to tell your kid that you’re proud of her, that’s she’s doing a great job, that you’re enjoying her company.
Want to open the lines of communication between yourself and your kid? Well, you’ve got to take them someplace where your conversation isn’t going to be interrupted. Hey, take them to a nice lake somewhere. Spend four hours together in a ten foot boat.
And parents, the day is coming in our headlong pursuit of “progress” that your favorite secluded lake will have cell phone reception and a wi-fi signal, and when that day arrives leave your cell phone and laptops and tablets behind.
Let your kids get bored. It’s good for them. You’ll be doing them, and the world, a favor.
And parents, make some of your fishing trips overnighters. Build a campfire. Roast hotdogs and marshmallows. Tell them a story around the campfire. And if you want them to appreciate the warm bed you’ve given them at home, bring the Snoopy sleeping bag!
Let your kids get muddy, tramp through the cattails, fall in the lake, twirl firebrands next to the campfire, get bit my mosquitoes.
And parents, don’t just take your kid fishing, though that is a good start, but as you go along, teach them how to fish. Teach them how to rig the pole, attach the reel, tie the knots, how to cast. How to gut or fillet the fish. Teach them how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, lock in the hubs.
Because once your kid can do all of this for himself you will have given him a decompression chamber, an exit strategy, a sanctuary when the world gets crazy and overwhelming.
And this: teach your kid to fish and when you’re an old man maybe she’ll take you fishing!
Now, I’m not saying that fishing is a cure all, or magic potion. But it comes pretty dang close.
Because fishing is so much more than just fishing. Fishing is a story generator, a long-lasting binding agent, a memory-making mechanism, a decompression chamber and an escape pod.