Spare Not the Rods — Fishing and Other Capon Musings

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For several years, we have vacationed in West Virginia, at a location beloved by my wife’s mom and dad, which was the venue for their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration in 1994. That year was our first visit, and we celebrated the occasion with my wife’s sisters and their families. We look forward to these annual reunions, and make the trek each summer (July usually), to rejoin the extended family bunch. My wife, our four daughters, two sons-in-law, four sons, one daughter-in-law, one grandson, my sister, my wife’s mother and three sisters, and their families, and not infrequently a family guest or three. Our destination is down in a secluded “holler” with (to the surprise of the uninitiated) many conveniences and amenities: golf course, hiking trails, swimming (the spring-fed pool is filled with near glacier run-off), good roads for cycling, an adequately stocked pond (bring your own rods, or borrow a bamboo “fish-catcher” at the desk), cool sleeping weather, and good food served family-style three times a day.

It is not impossible to communicate with me while I’m there, but as I begin my break from work, I like to tell my colleagues that while I’ll be in the continental U.S., I may be hard to reach. I tell them the internet runs on “bobbed-war,” and the phone’s a party line up a pole (picture Olivaaaah on Green Acres) where messages can be taken, wrapped around a rock and dropped down to the runner. Any messages brought down from the pole will be removed from their rocks and posted on a whiteboard just inside the dining room. I try to remember to look for my messages three times a day, but only after I dine. Perhaps a slight exaggeration. Oddly enough, they seldom attempt to reach me. If absolutely necessary, I can hike up the first fairway and “summit” the first green where, having climbed to sufficient elevation I just might receive a faint T-Mobile signal. I get a signal boost if I remove and raise the flag stick real high in my off-hand.

It’s an out of the way place we enjoy very much.

Speaking of meals, there are usually 20-25 people at our table for meals. We enjoy lots of good food. The litany below is what comes to mind as I write. At breakfast, eggs any style (two poached soft on toast is my regular), double and triple bowls of oatmeal and seven-grain cereal, buckwheat flap jacks, rashers of bacon, sausage patties and links. For lunch, wonderful salads, watercress with piquant dressing, spaghetti with meat sauce, silver-dollar burgers with grilled onions, Sunday duck and turkey. For dinner, more salads, iridescent roast beef, fried chicken, meat loaf, the fried fish-pork combo, fresh baked rolls and fresh vegetables. Desserts include Whitehouse cherry ice-cream, fresh watermelon wedges, cantaloupe with a scoop of lime sherbet, vanilla ice-cream with chocolate sauce, gingerbread cake with whipped cream.

In the dining room, the waitresses all wear white outfits, and rush around with great precision and efficiency, pushing brushed steel carts loaded with the day’s meal offering. They remind me of nurses in a 1950’s movie, rushing patient gurneys from the ER into the operating room. All food is served on indestructible pastel colored melamine plates, and bowls. The ceiling fans hum. An occasional birthday or anniversary is celebrated table-side accompanied by appropriate music played over a crackly speaker. A cake appears and is delivered on (you guessed it) a brushed steel cart to the celebrants’ table. Tournament results, evening events, and assorted miscellaneous announcements are made, then finished with a concluding trademark “That is all. Thank you.”

Several meals are served on the hill under the first fairway pavilion (beside the fairway, but beneath the “summit”). Hill-dinners are “Chicken on the Hill” and “Steak on the Hill”, both cooked over impressive brick barbeque pits full of glowing charcoal briquettes and attended by various multi-tasking staff personalities. Hill-lunches feature the salad-sandwiches (chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad) all on bread with crust removed, and barbeque pork plopped on a whole wheat roll. Can’t forget the endless sweet hill-tea (for some reason, can’t get sweet tea down below in the dining room).

Meals are also, as my daughter Ginny taught me, opportunities for community, fellowship and deepening friendships. I believe she would say, “Meals should have meaning.” It’s always interesting to see who sits by whom at each meal, and who rotates to sit by different whoms as people take an early leave from the table. Cousins reunite. Siblings banter. Members of the younger generation are cornered by their seniors and pumped for information as to academics and career trajectories. Disparate political, theological and philosophical views can be aired (and are). The ten-and-unders, the eleven-to-fifteens, the legal drivers and collegians, the working class and retirees all intersperse and seem to dialog very naturally. Age-based cliques and silos are dissolved.

Meals here are also opportunities to showcase and satisfy man’s ages-old fisher-gatherer instincts. A visit to the pond, which yields a “keeper,” permits the fisherman an opportunity to enjoy his or her fish at the next scheduled meal, sans head, filleted, egg and cornmeal battered and fried up goo-oood.

This prospect brings me to the point of this narrative.

Over the years, the kids have clamored for me to bring fishing poles. I did that in the past, but stopped, because I grew tired of prepping the rods, stocking the tackle box, picking up the 7-Eleven night crawlers that no one but me would cut, threading them onto the barbed hook, and then having repeatedly to untangle the lines I prepped. Fishing in July had become for me like a warm weather version of winter wear bundling. You spend 20 minutes to get junior all dressed up in his snow suit, boots, gloves and hat, only to hear him say “I gotta pee.” Big build up. Big let down.

Notwithstanding my cynicism, I do enjoy thinking back over one fishing event several years ago. my son, Chip was late to dinner one evening. The cousins last saw him at the pond, fishing. I got up from the table and went to retrieve him. When I got to the pond, he was on the dock, clearly in distress. Seems he’d strung a triple-hook on his line, baited it, drew back the rod and cast. All three hooks were traveling at whip-crack speed, and one (it only takes one) found its way to that sweet spot just below the left rear blue jean pocket, where it penetrated Levi Strauss’s best, and buried itself in Chip’s derrière.”

“Well, well. Interesting,” I said.

Assessing the situation, I removed the fillet knife from the tackle box and cut a quarter-sized piece of stone-washed denim to expose the butt-buried hook. I was now ready to perform a gluteal hook-ectomy. I’m pretty sure those blue jeans are the only thing that fillet knife ever cut. Using the needle-nosed pliers in the tackle box, I cut the fishing line, disconnecting the rod from the hook. I next took hold of the hook and moved it around gently. Despite my gentleness, Chip insisted on howling. I replied, “Shhhhh. You’ll scare the fiwaaaahaaaahaaahaaa . . . . ”

Studying the situation a moment longer, I looked him in the eye, and said, “This is definitely going to hurt you more than it hurts me.” I suggested he put the handle of the rod between his teeth and bite down hard when I counted to three. Grasping hook with pliers, I began counting, “One . . . two . . . (forgot three) . . .” and yanked the hook with lightening speed, freeing him from the snare.

The extracted hook, with denim circle still attached has occupied a spot on our kitchen bulletin board ever since.

This year I brought two rods. Zip tied ’em to the luggage rack. When I got up our first morning and headed out, I met Chip who asked, “Did you hear about Giff ?”

The pond is home to a variety of small-ish fish (perch, sunnies, etc.), and some decent size cat fish. There are also several huge carp. 2-3 feet in length. Lazy bottom-feeders. Never bite. Not interested in any lure. Ever. Been that way for years. Giff got up at 0-dark-30 and went to the pond with a rod for an early morning angling session. Little did Giff know, as did Sir Issac Walton, was that the carp is the queen of rivers (and ponds); a stately, a good, and a very subtil fish. Plus, the American Carp Society in March of 2006 paid out $275,000 to carp anglers. Really. So, Giff stood on the small dock, and floated the line in the water espying his big game fish. He hung the bait just above his intended catch, and waited.

Gnats are a problem at times.The establishment provides punks (hand-held incense sticks without the stink) which are lit and waved to cast a smoky haze around one’s head and shoulders. Wielded properly, these will drive the gnats over to the next punkless guy. We even light seven or eight at a time and stick them in whole wheat rolls at the hill-meals to create a gnat no-fly zone. Well, Giff set the rod down to light his punk . . . .

In a flash, the rod rocketed off the dock and into the pond. That fat, lazy carp had become caught, and was heading for deeper water at high speed with my rod in tow! No doubt a genus cyprinus mistake.

As he returned to the carp academy dragging a rod along behind him, no doubt his fellow cyprinus carpo (the common carp) ostracized him like they would the guy who leaves the men’s room with a foot of toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He was probably branded a carp-leper by the uppity hypophthalmichthys moultrix (the silver carp) and hypophathalmichthys nobilis (the bighead carp) — the pond caste system’s carp-brahmins.

I can just hear him now: “Listen here! I innocently brushed up against a medial-fin-high ball of dough, and it snagged me! Honest! I’m a carp for goodness sake. I eat bottom scum like the rest of you. What do I want with a ball of dough?! That stuff is bait for the bourgeois! Come on, guys!”

As the rod rocketed off the dock, Giff lunged, diving forward and reaching elbow deep into the pond. Alas, he was not long enough of arm. Rod gone.

At breakfast, I quelled my urge to yell at him for losing my rod. After all, were it not my rod, were it some other family, this would be a pretty cool story. I told him so, and we fist-bumped.

To his credit, he spotted what looked like a rod at the bottom of the pond later that afternoon. So, the next morning before breakfast, he, Allie, and I took a row boat out on Butt Hook Pond. And, after 25 minutes of rowing clumsily in circles to hold our position, still in time to make it to breakfast, we managed to fish the lost rod out of the pond.

Both rods are back safely in my garage, snugly hung against the ceiling out of reach. Next July, I’ll be asked to bring the fishing rods. I’ll ignore the question. Then I’ll grumble. Then I’ll acquiesce and tie them to the car roof for another adventure.

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