My father was a sportsman; a hunter and fisherman. He grew up in a part of Mississippi that was so rural that hunting and fishing was often the only way to bring meat to the table. Me, I never got the gene to be a hunter, and while I do enjoy fishing it's never been the necessity that my father lived, but I do enjoy the water.
I haven't been fishing in a long time now, and I find that I really miss it. The hum of an open-face reel spooling out line, the quiet 'plish' of a lure striking the water, and the constant wonder as to what is going on below you in that murky water. Not to mention the simple pleasure of guiding a little pirogue across that green and glassy surface with only a paddle and some arm strength.
I haven't put the Little Boat in the water in far too long. That's what the family always called it--"the Little Boat." My father had two boats, one being "the Big Boat," a small-sized offshore craft which he used to use for fishing in Lake Pontchartrain, what the coonasses called "Big Lake." It was no giant of the waterways, the Big Boat, but of course in comparison to the little fiberglass pirogue it was, well, you get the joke.
The Little Boat. I still have it, parked out back on it's trailer, forty plus years old now. I put it in the water by the simple expedient of dragging it off the trailer and into whichever lake I want to be in, now that the engine is off it. It's a twelve foot long fiberglass boat, about three feet wide at it's thickest and only about a foot deep, a true bayou boat. Light enough that even a single paddle can move it pretty easily, made to be in very shallow water, stable as a piece of granite tabletop.
I remember launching that little boat with my brother and my dad early on weekend mornings at Kinkaid Lake. He'd have to do most of the work himself since we were way too young, so he'd back the rig down the launch ramp, walk carefully along the trailer tongue, walk carefully down to the back of the boat and launch it with many a shake and wiggle, then pilot it over to the bank where he'd have to have one of us hold it (a signal honor) while he parked the truck and dripping wet trailer.
Getting in was always the easy part, as the shore held it stable until we could get ourselves settled in. He'd take a paddle, shove it deep in the bank and push, and we'd be off, drifting backward into the near-darkness, the sun only a reddish promise behind the black-shadowed treeline. I remember him turning around in the back of the boat, almost no room to move, and him pulling on the rope starter until the little engine coughed and ran, and we'd carefully, oh so slowly pilot our way out of the No Wake Zone. I don't think it really applied to us, because even at full throttle the little six and a half horsepower Evinrude couldn't push us fast enough to CAUSE a wake when it was loaded down, but Daddy was always patient and always law abiding, teaching us respect of our property and of Nature.
The little boat rode so low in the water that with the three of us and all our gear in there I always felt a not so secret terror that we would be swamped, even though it was wide enough to keep that from happening. You can't tell a young boy that and expect him to believe it, though, when the water is a mere six inches below the top of the boat, so Daddy would carefully turn the prow into every oncoming wake boiled up by the guys with the big monster boats and motors, tearing across the lake like wild men. My younger brother and I, seeing those slick green rollers headed toward us would always grimace and hang on tight to our vests and the boat's sides, but they'd break harmlessly around us with a bump and a splash. I'd look back and he'd be back there, hand firm on the keel, his calm face a beacon of certainty in the midst of the fright of being far out in a lake in a very small boat indeed.
I'm sure by that point we were already fidgeting because we'd been up since 4 am, but he'd slowly steer us out to his favourite spot and only then would he give us our rods and reels, the ones we'd been practicing with in the back yard, washers tied on the ends to simulate lures. Of course we'd start casting immediately, flailing and slinging, trying for distance instead of accuracy, endangering any bare skin with flashing bronze hooks and whistling lines. I still find myself amazed that he didn't just pitch us overboard, but no, he was always there, telling us to speak softly because the fish could hear us (I still half-believe that,) pointing out the widening ripples of fish striking the surface, showing us where to cast, and doing his own fishing in between bouts of taking care of our no doubt numerous and trying needs.
We'd usually fish around one little area at one edge of the lake, miles away from the ramp, a long way from the shore. It was far out enough that it always seemed we were lost, all familiar landmarks gone, that we were adrift alone, the lake suddenly empty but for us three. The area we fished was once part of the bordering forest but was now a watery field of stumps sticking up a few feet out of the water, as far as you could see. It was creepy, those half-rotten grey posts sticking up like broken teeth, tendrils of fog curling and moving, and only the quiet slap of small waves on the side of the boat to break the silence. But, we were told, that's where the fish were, hiding around the underwater shelter of the submerged giants. Naturally we would always lose baits there, snagging sharp hooks far below the surface on roots or trunks. That always entailed having to pass your rod back to Daddy, who would have to stop his fishing to cut the line and re-rig us.
Being young boys whose total lack of fishing knowledge was gleaned from watching Bill Dance on Sunday tv we always wanted vibrant colours of baits, so there was a certain amount of noisy, enthusiastic digging in the tacklebox for just that perfect lure. And somehow Daddy would always talk us into white or yellow or pale green, because he knew that those colours were sure to catch fish, while the eerie reds and sickly blues and electric purples were designed to catch fishermen and their wallets. Anyway, he would tell us in his quiet, reasonable voice, we were fishing for white perch, not bass, and so didn't need pink watermelon-coloured rubber snakes.
Naturally we'd be tired of fishing by the time the sun got just a little way up over the treetops, noon being far away indeed, and since we were kids and not fishermen we'd rarely catch anything, or worse, my brother would catch something (he being a shade more patient than me) and I'd be deeply hurt. And we'd be ready to stretch our legs; run, jump, do boy stuff, and there was simply no room in that little boat. It was genuinely impossible to move around without tripping over the big tackle box or the cooler, or each other. Daddy was always sort of walled in at the back by the big orange-red gas tank and his fishing rods, the huge old multi-drawered tacklebox and the paddles. His predicament was made worse by the engine's keel/throttle handle that used to fold back up against the motor but didn't anymore. It had cracked some distant time past and had been carefully repaired and locked in the down position with pale yellow-white fibrous tape. All that combined with his size made the back of the boat a no-boy's land. Once you sat there you were going to be sitting there until we returned to land, and only my father had the patience to sit anywhere that long.
Through it all, somehow, he put up with us. Taught us. Calmed us. Some saving grace kept him from killing us, and I think a fair part of that was that we didn't go out fishing with him often. We stayed off the water just long enough to forget the discomfort and the mosquitoes and the heat but still remember the shivering joy of feeling your line suddenly go tight and the tip of the rod go diving toward the water in a graceful arc, and that made us want to go back out. And every time we asked he'd bring us, and smile quietly through our griping and struggling and noisemaking.
I stopped going fishing when I got a little older and found other hobbies, as did my brother. And over the course of days my father fell ill, lingering for over a decade and a half while Alzheimer's erased him from our lives, inch by slow inch. The boat sat on the trailer while the seasons passed, until I grew to miss the quiet times out on the lake, the splash of water against the hull and the quiet thrill of fighting a big catfish into the boat. I still try to go out fishing once in a while, dragging the little boat down through the reeds and into the water, and as I clamber in I always marvel--now I'm the six foot two giant struggling to work his way back to the little bench in the back, but now the little boat seems just right; comfortable, not too big, not too small. The motor hasn't run in decades and rests in a quiet corner of my shed, but the paddles still work just fine, and the small trolling motor makes for a fine engine.
I think it's about time to bring my daughter out on the lake, and smile patiently when she worries that the boat will tip in the huge rill of water driven up by a passing twenty foot Triton with it's 200 horsepower motor. It's about time I learned to wait patiently while she picks out just the right colour of lure, or help her untangle her line from an ill-placed branch. And perhaps I will get the chance to tell her to speak softly because she'll scare all the fish off, and I'll hear my father's voice echo back to me across the water.