First Catch

What was your very first memory? Was it so vivid, so strong, that it had a lasting impact on your life? Two months before my fourth birthday, my family was vacationing in Fernandina Beach, Fla. My father, an avid fisherman, was standing waist-deep in the surf, casting into the waves. I was on the beach, 20 yards behind him, in ankle-deep water. My dad hooked a nice whiting, held the rod up high and walked back to me. He handed me the rod and told me to reel in the fish. Being so small, I was hardly capable of holding the rod, cranking the reel and landing the fish. So I improvised. I held onto the rod as strongly as I could and ran up the beach, squealing with excitement, dragging the fish ashore. We repeated this sequence 20 or 30 times.

That first memory, my first catch, is what made me a fisherman, and I think my dad knew instantly that I, like he and my older brother, was hooked. My brother, Phil, has never lived closer than 500 miles from me since he graduated from college in 1964. He and I stay close and connected in many ways, but the glue that binds our love is the legacy of fishing our dad left us.

When my friend, Joe Bullard, was a boy, his parents had a modest cinder block house on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay near Mullet Point. From the age of 2 to 12, Joe, shirtless and barefoot, spent every free minute from Memorial Day to Labor Day banging around the Bay.

Joe recalls his first catch. He was 6 or 7 years old. As he tells it, catching catfish and croakers off the wharf didn’t count. His father, a devoted and accomplished speckled trout fisherman, put Joe and his pal, Tommy Clark, in an 8-foot dinghy that was equipped with a two-and-a-half-horsepower outboard motor, rods and reels, and dead shrimp. Joe and Tommy, by themselves, motored out to what seemed from their diminutive perspective the middle of the Bay, though Joe confesses now that it was probably only 200 yards from the shore. It was a different time: Two small boys in an 8-foot boat fishing alone in Mobile Bay. Radios? Life jackets? Not a chance.

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At the end of that day, proud and jubilant, they returned to the dock with more than a dozen speckled trout in the boat. Now every time Joe is on the Bay fishing for specks, he relives his first catch and gives thanks to his dad who imbued his soul with a passion for fishing.

If you ask small children how it feels to catch a fish, they really don’t say much more than “It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s neat.” Young children don’t have the tools to express themselves fully, but for a few, something about the experience imprints indelibly in their memories. Maybe it’s the feeling of the unknown – that surprise tugging on the other end of the line. Hearts beat faster; eyes get wider. There’s a little fear in the anticipation. And when they get the fish within touching distance, it’s usually the first time in their lives that they will have a close encounter with a wild animal. This isn’t a big bear in the woods or a lion at the zoo or a picture in a book. It’s a beautiful, jeweled little creature that lives unseen in the deep water and, all of a sudden, it’s there in their hands, where they can almost feel its tiny heart beating.

For the lucky, that seed, sown in an uncluttered and innocent mind, will blossom into a lifelong quest to relive the same experience over and again.

Angling Rewards

Angling, a never outgrown pastime, teaches virtues such as discipline,  patience, respect for nature and acceptance of occasional disappointment.

The same youngster who fidgets uncontrollably in church or school if asked to sit still for more than five minutes will wait placidly in a boat or on a dock for hours in hopes of feeling a jerk on the other end of the line. Instead of mastering the latest video game, like a dazed zombie sitting in front of a screen for hours on end, that child could be soaking up sunshine, communing with nature, and bonding with family and friends. Our society has become so sensitive to injuring children’s self-esteem that we praise them for everything, whether they actually achieve success or not. Life isn’t like that, and the fish don’t always bite. Getting skunked on an outing is a good lesson for dealing with disappointments.

The one mild failing fishing may promote is lying. Well, not blatant, psychopathic lying, just a friendly exaggeration about the size or num-ber of fish caught. Everyone expects fishermen to stretch the truth. In fact, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo exalts the skill at its annual Liar’s Contest. Somehow the perspective of a child, where everything seems bigger than it really is, never changes with fishermen. Saying you caught a 3-pound speckled trout is actually code for a 2-pound trout. It doesn’t make you a bad person to try to stay connected to your inner child.

We are fortunate to live in an environment and culture that provide unlimited opportunities to foster the love of fishing, so take a kid fishing. It will rekindle all of those feelings that made you the fishing nut you are now.

Fishing for all Kids

Introducing a child – even not your very own – to the sport can be a bigger thrill for the grownup than for the kid. Just ask Stephen Potts, a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama program. Not long ago, Stephen took his little brother, Dale Feng, on a fishing outing to Blue Angel Lake near Pensacola. Dale wasn’t getting any action for what seemed an eternity while several other kids were reeling them in. Stephen stayed positive, and eventually Dale landed a beautiful bass. The expression on Dale’s face when he caught his first fish was one of such joy and pride that Stephen knew Dale was forever hooked. Stephen and Dale are planning their next trip, and this time Stephen is hiring a guide to ensure that Dale gets all the finer points of the sport from a professional.

* Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Alabama encourages mentors to involve their “Littles” in the hobbies of the “Bigs.” The organization especially recognizes the benefits of introducing kids to outdoor activities.

* The Weeks Bay Foundation sponsors an annual Kids’ Fishing Day the first Saturday in May. This past year, more than 250 children participated, and more than 2, 500 have cast a line over the last 14 years.

* Eastern Shore Fly Fishers, in Fairhope, has established a kids program to introduce and promote the sport of fly-fishing.

text and photo by Walter Kirkland

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