After leaving Bennet Springs (Behold Part 1!), my uncle Mike and I ventured to Busch Conservation. We planned to spend a full and long day fishing, and I looked forward to it. It would be my first time fishing without Dad, which gave me a freedom of sorts. Of course, after being thoroughly humiliated by the trout, I was also looking for some redemption. What I would find were more memories, only marginally about the fish.
Mike introduced me to a concept that I wasn’t prepared for: Oh-dark:thirty. Waking up before the dawn to start the day. I’ve since become acquainted with this sinister entity, and it holds no sway on me. But in those days, I had no resistance to its insidious power. I slept in the truck as we made the drive, my head bouncing softly off the window like a plus size paddleball. I’d dressed for the heat of the summer day, not realizing that 4 am in July is freaking chilly. The gym shorts were not up to the task, and my teeth chattered lightly in staccato counterpoint to the steady thud of my cranium on the window.
We arrived and selected one of the numbered lakes, number 5 if I recall correctly. I discovered the unique joy of baiting a hook while shivering…pro tip: your fingers are not bait. Neither is your pinky toe, nor any other extremity attached. There is no shame in asking an uncle to bait your hook, as long as you are currently in the icy grip of hypothermia. Otherwise; man up, Suzie. I thought longingly of long pants, which seemed somehow sinful given the summer-ness of the coming day. My uncle taught me the first lesson of the day. “Layers.” In one word, he’d conveyed a cool century of wisdom.
The sun began to rise, crawling into the sky slowly. I encountered a moment of peace, listening to the birdsong drifting across the lake’s surface. An occasional set of ripples marked the water, evidence of the fish beginning to snatch insects for breakfast. Mike and I continued to cast, searching for our first bite of the morning. He pointed out to the opposite bank, and I watched, fascinated, as a snake swam toward our side of the lake. I’d never seen a snake swim before, and it held my interest. Also, I began to cook up an idea. It bears mentioning that my uncle Mike is afraid of snakes. And not your run of the mill afraid, but your get-these-motherfuckin’-snakes-off-this-motherfuckin’-plane style of fear.
The snake obliged, diving into the middle of the lake to go about his snakely business. I’m not sure what that business was, but it may have involved a trip to Cancun. Probably not, though, given the beauty of the place.
Mike unwittingly gave me the perfect setup to enact my instigatory impishness about five minutes later.
“I wonder where that snake went?” he opined.
I pointed to the ground directly at his feet. “You mean that one right there?”
Mike cleared at least a 2 foot vertical from a stand still, and I’m pretty sure his knees didn’t bend…his fear seemed to have temporarily gifted him with the power of levitation.
“Aaarrghhhaaaaahhhhh!!!!!!” was my uncle’s dignified reply, screamed in the tone of a little girl who is currently falling off a pony into a pile of killer clowns and rabid badgers.
As I struggled to get my giggling under control, Mike hollered at me “Don’t forget your momma gave me permission to whip you, boy!” The threat rang empty as I watched the corners of his mouth twitch involuntarily into a smile.
We spent another hour at this lake with a grand total of zero nibbles between us, and Mike made the command decision to move on to a different lake. With some 30 to choose from, surely we could find one where the fish weren’t quite so lethargic. We wanted to find the bass with the sin of gluttony, not sloth.
We set up at another lake, and quickly got to work. My uncle looked at me appraisingly and decided I was ready to graduate from worm and hook, and opened his tacklebox. There, in the top tray, was his Favorite Bass Plug. He quickly situated it on my line, giving me a crash course in its use.
“Be careful with that, though. It’s my favorite. It pulls them little bastards right out their honey hole.” I vowed to be careful, and began casting, under Mike’s watchful eye, into some tight spots in order to lure out a lunker.
That summer, I’d been wearing a beat up baseball cap I’d purchased a couple of years previous as a souvenir in the Ozarks. It had seen better days, and had a layer of dirt on it that only a teenage boy can discover, let alone apply to a garment. Mike had been eyeing it dubiously all day.
“Why do you wear that dirty thing?” he queried.
“I like it.”
And we kept fishing. A moment of abject terror came upon me as I missed a cast, hanging my uncle’s Favorite Bass Plug in some branches, inches over the water. I pointed out my folly. Mike responded without rage, thankfully, and took the rod from my hands. “I’ll get her out”, he said. And he tugged mightily. The bass plug came free. My eyes tracked it as it flew forth, freed from its imprisonment amongst the mulberries.
Deep in my monkey-brain, beyond conscious realization, computations were happening at the speed of thought. Chemicals moved and bonded as mathematical trajectories were computed. Alarm bells went off in my mind, and triggered my get-the-fuck-out-of-the-way reflex. The bass plug was seeking its revenge.
I had just enough time to turn my head, ducking my chin as well to lower my face. I felt and heard a thump against the bill of my hat. I raised my head, to see the bass plug’s two treble hooks dangling just 2 inches in front of my right eye, one hook seated firmly into the bill of the hat. It swung tauntingly in front of my face, and I gave Mike my best poker face.
“I guess that’s why you wear that hat, huh,” he said, deadpan.
I struggled to control my pulse, my breath, and my desire to completely freak out. I had to nail this reply, for the good of all young teenagers everywhere.
Mike grinned, and dubbed the filthy cap my lucky fishin’ hat. It would be years before I’d wear any other hat while fishing.
The day continued, and the newly minted Lucky Fishin’ Hat performed admirably. I began to wreak havoc on the bass of the lake, including one that grabbed the plug and started running with it a mere half-second from the cast. We watched a pair of drunk hillbillies snag a log and spend a half hour trying to reel it in, convinced it was a huge catfish. We joked and jibed, and just generally had one hell of a good time.
When the time came to finally call it a day, we packed our gear into the truck. I looked back at the water with great reluctance, but knew by the weariness in my arms it was time to go. We rode back to my uncle’s house with no music in the truck cab except for our laughter as we recalled the day. After a time, that music was replaced by a soft snoring as my head became reacquainted with the passenger window.
There’s a reason they don’t call it catching. The joy is in the fishing.