The Power of a Fish

By

In an uncertain world, a single keeper panfish puts things into perspective

Anse Brantley with the makings of a fish dinner. (Author photo)

The news had been almost surreal that day. A person in town tested positive for the coronavirus, one of the first cases in the state, outside of the cities. They said he’d traveled overseas and then come back to Kentucky, where he went to church. 

My wife, a third-grade teacher, came home and said people at school were scared. She might not be going back until after spring break. I realize now that was optimistic. My 5-year-old son, Anse, probably wouldn’t see his kindergarten classroom again. 

It didn’t help that a cold March wind was blowing. Warm weather, at least, would’ve made it easier to step out on the porch and think about things. At this latitude March is as cruel as they say; warm enough to tease you with daffodils and a lawn that needs to be mowed, but on most days, too cold and wet and windy to get out and do much. When Anse asked if we could go fishing, I almost told him, “No, it’s too cold.” 

I’m glad I didn’t do that. 

A Day on the Pond

His mother has a defiant streak — that’s nothing I wouldn’t say to her myself — and if I’m being honest, so do I. Nature being what it is, Anse has taken the cues we’ve given him, and developed his own way of learning things. He has decided in his five years on earth that bobber fishing is for babies, and he’s not real keen on live bait, either. He accepts my suggestion of tight-lining a worm on the bottom as a compromise because, he admits, he likes to feel those fish “pop it.” After a few casts into the cattails and willows, he finally lets Old Dad lob his bait into the pond. 

He’s used to catching little sunfish here, one after the other. But mostly, we fish here when the weather’s pretty and they’re biting. Today my own hands are cold and raw from the wind, and when I look at Anse, there’s a little snot trickling down his upper lip. 

“Son, are you cold?” I ask. He doesn’t look at me, and instead just shakes his head no. I smile. “Real up some slack, so you can see him bite.” 

We pitch his worm out next to the bank, and then farther out into the pond. “I better reel up and check it,” he says. 

“You didn’t get a bite. Leave it sit there.” 

He reels up, looks at the worm, and then hands the ultralight to me. I pitch it out again, and tell him, as always, to take up some slack. 

Michelle’s at home, and says she’s working on a good dinner. A lasagna, made with some of last fall’s elk burger, with a side of garlic bread and a salad. That morning, with reports of empty grocery store shelves in town, I’d taken a look around the freezers with a notebook in my hand. What I saw was comforting: plenty of elk burger and venison steaks; bags of wild turkey from last spring, catfish, an antelope, wild pig, squirrels, some teal breasts. 

“Buddy, Mama has a good dinner going at home. It’s pretty cold today, and I think the fish just aren’t biting. You want to head back pretty soon?” I ask him. 

“We haven’t caught one yet,” he says. 

“Son, I don’t think we’ll catch one today. It’s too early in the season.” 

“You don’t know everything, Daddy. Let’s do just a few more casts.” 

I’ve learned that part of being a dad is knowing when to correct a smart mouth, but also recognizing when to shut your own mouth. A few more casts won’t hurt anything. I know of a little overflow ditch on the other side of the pond, where the water would be shallow and warm. I think on a day like this one, a fish might be sitting in that. “Let’s try a little bit different spot,” I say. Anse likes that idea and walks carefully, his chunk of redworm spinning on an Aberdeen hook, dangling by a foot of monofilament line. He collides almost immediately with a shoreline willow. Fish with a 5-year-old enough, and you become mostly immune to tangles. I tell Anse to “hold it right there,” long enough for me to unhook the rig from the tree. That done, we proceed to the ditch, and look over our new water. 

The Bite

“I bet there’s a dang fish in there,” I tell him. He looks up at me and smiles. By the red in his cheeks, you’d think he’s been sledding. “But five casts, and we’re headed home. It’s too cold to be doing this.” He nods, and I can tell that even though it’s a plan he suggested himself, he’s already wishing he’d bartered with time instead of casts. 

I pitch the worm into the ditch, and hand him the rod and reel. “Turn that handle a couple times,” I say. “Reel up some slack.” 

I see that his line isn’t bowing in the wind like it ought to be doing, and is instead taught and moving unnaturally along the shoreline. Before I can say anything, Anse’s rod doubles over and he shouts, “Daddy I got one!” 

For just a minute, there’s not a single thing that matters more than picking up that fish.

Instead of the usual 3-inch bluegill, he swings a slab of a green sunfish onto the bank, and continues right on reeling until the fish’s nose is mashed against the end guide of his rod.  “You’ve got him, buddy, you don’t have to reel anymore!” I see his hands shaking, and a genuine smile. For just a minute, there’s not a single thing that matters more than picking up that fish. Anse walks up the bank with it, well away from the water, and asks for a picture to show Mama. I know what’s coming next, too. 

“Can we keep him, and cook him for my dinner?” he asks. I think of Michelle’s lasagna and garlic bread, and am thankful he has a mama who understands things like this. 

“Of course you can keep him,” I say. “You want some ketchup with him, after I fry him up?” 

He nods, and wipes his nose and for the first time that day, tells me that he’s cold. I let him walk ahead of me toward the truck, and I carry his rod and his fish both, so that he can put his hands in his pockets. He turns and looks at his fish and smiles. 

I don’t know what’s going to happen next — but tonight we’ve got a fish, and things seem like they're going to be OK.