Big Fish, Little Fish
My father and my Uncle Kenneth were avid fishermen.
No. They had what Hemingway calls the aficion. A passion, a fixedness, a willingness growing out of a sense of the absolute importance of what they did.
Like any sport, fishing is rife with ritual. My father and uncle spent hours studying and repairing tackle, putting reels and rods together in combinations always intended to catch more fish, bigger fish, different fish.
Uncle Kenneth and my dad were live bait fishermen in those days. They kept an impressive array of artificial lures in their tackle boxes, but their true faith in their ability to bring home fish rested on worms, crickets, or minnows. A result, I feel sure, of growing up as farm boys raising corn in river bottoms and slipping away from acres of weed hoeing to catch perch, catfish, and small mouth bass from the Smith River.
Gathering that live bait was perhaps their most serious ritual. I learned my skill from them and to this day I can look at a piece of ground and tell immediately if and approximately how many earthworms to expect from it, whether a leaf colored hillside will yield night crawlers, which layer of matted leaves in a creek bed will provide sand worms, or most importantly, whether a spread seine will net minnows the right size for crappie or bass if dipped into a particular pool at a particular bend in a particular stream.
My other earliest memory is of this activity. This took place either a few days before or a few days after my fourth birthday. I know this, but I do not know how I know it, nor can I remember which side of my birthday these events occur on. Probably it doesn’t matter that much, but we all have those moments when a detail seems disproportionately important. Thus it is for me with this.
Anyway, this takes place on Buffalo Creek—not Wolf Island or Matrimony, or any of the other major feeders of the two rivers that run through my hometown, the Smith and the Dan. We’re just off the highway at a turnout that leads down to the creek. Dad has me by one hand and carries a minnow bucket in the other. Uncle Kenneth carries the seine, wrapped around the poles that support it, on his shoulder.
When we reach the creek my dad sternly warns me to stay out of the water unless he has my hand. Buffalo Creek was and is, even in the dog days of summer, a swift flowing stream with occasional deep pools.
My uncle unfurls the seine and hands my father one of the poles. They stretch it out between them, then wade into a promising pool, my uncle swinging toward the far bank, going nearly waist deep into the stream. They drive toward the head of the pool and suddenly up comes the seine. I see silver flickers through the brown netting.
“Charlie, get some water in the bucket if you can,” my uncle calls.
Happy to be a part of this manly enterprise, I separate the inner bucket, the minnow keeper, lined with holes like a colander, from the outer bucket and take it to the edge of the water. I hesitate, mindful of my dad’s warning. “Go ahead, I’m watching you,” he says.
I take two or three steps into the water. The stream grabs at my legs as it races toward the Dan River. I set my feet, turn the bucket down on its side, and scoop water into it.
It takes both hands to bring it upright. I try to back toward shore, but the weight of the water is too much, and I stumble, then sit down in the edge of the stream. The bucket goes down, too, but its load keeps it upright. I look over at my father, expecting to be in trouble for getting wet.
He and my uncle stand patiently waiting. They have closed the seine, each one holding to their opposite ends of the poles. Both are watching me carefully and I realize that what I do next is important—for me, for them, for then, for now.
I scramble to my feet and get a double-handed grip on the water-heavy bucket. I lift it and bring it onto the shore by the minnow keeper. I put the keeper back into the bucket, open its top, then look over at them.
They bring the seine over and open it carefully. Each grabs handfuls of minnows and tosses them into the bucket. A few minnows wriggle toward the end of the seine near me. “Grab those, Charlie,” Uncle Kenneth says. I reach in with my 4 year old hands and grasp at the little fish, finally getting hold of one or two and tossing them triumphantly into the bucket.
“Good job,” says Uncle Kenneth. My father says nothing to me, but when I look up at him he smiles broadly.
I became a fisherman that day.