Fishing Stories – Part 1: Not the First or the Last

I once went fishing with my father. He wanted to put in at the Portage river, which is west of Sandusky, and try for walleye. It was to be a special day in that he was taking a day off of work, and pulling me out of high school, for the day. It was a bright, warm, spring day.

He was up before dawn to load the boat. I was being lazy, but no more lazy than usual, and didn’t do much to help him. But, then, what was I going to do but stand around. He knew where he kept everything, and he knew where he wanted everything, and he only trusted himself to stow items properly in an open boat to be dragged along the highway behind his van.

He was a little upset with himself because we got a late start, but it was before six A.M. so I thought it was fine; he, however, was concerned with the feeding cycles of walleye, and the time it would take to get to the river (90 minutes?) and the extra time required to get to where he wanted to fish.

We drove west, and so dawn broke behind us. I don’t remember much of that part of the drive. Being men, we wouldn’t have chatted just for the sake of chatting, and my father was stoic with us anyway, and so we were both left to our own fantasies.

If I remember anything of how my thoughts ran at that time, I would have vacillated between doing something heroic to impress the girls I knew (this thought would have been truly sophomoric, but bordering on infantile, like a bad guy comes and threatens one of the girls upon whom I had a crush, and I thwart the bad guy, and then the girl and I reveal our mutual lust for each other) and doing something blatantly lustful, bypassing the need to impress the girl, and going straight for the fun part simply for the sake of fun. Yes, I am pretty sure I had nothing interesting to tell my father at that time.

He could have been worried about several things at that time. My oldest brother was in college. There would have been worries about his success there, the cost of college, and his choice of major. My other brother would soon go to college, and he didn’t communicate very well with my father then, so that must have been on his mind at least a little. My father also was very dedicated to his job, and probably was thinking of about one of the many projects he had going. I’m not exactly sure what my father thought about my mother and their marriage; they were probably typical of the era, but they didn’t do very many things together like play tennis or go for long, romantic walks; so maybe that worried him, but maybe it didn’t.

My father probably didn’t know at all what to make of me. I got good grades, but I wasn’t as athletic as he probably hoped I’d be; and I was the baby, and treated like a baby, in the family, and was too quick to cry as a child, so maybe he was worried about what sort of man I’d turn out to be.

Maybe he was just worried about the fishing, and the bait, and the lures. At that time, walleye were active in Lake Erie near the Davis Besse nuclear power plant. They would move in and out of the Portage river, and would also feed in the warm waters that discharged from the cooling tower into the lake. Walleye, I’ve been told, like to feed where they can see, so they prefer gravel bottom waters unsullied by weed and silt and muck; there were geological features in that part of Erie that attracted them.

We passed Sandusky without incident, and crossed the Thomas Edison bridge which spans the Sandusky Bay where it joins Lake Erie. Now we were on the small peninsula that is home to Marblehead and Port Clinton. Just north of us, out on the lake, are Kelly’s Island, and the Bass Islands, home of Put-In-Bay. Just west of Port Clinton is the Portage river. (You can see it all here.)

I believe his thoughts probably turned to the specifics of lures and bait. The rage then was to use a variation of the silver spinner called the “Erie Dearie”. It came in a variety of colors and sizes. My father’s trusted technique was to put a night crawler on the treble hook, but minnows were also a consideration. His long time, personal obsession, however was with Rapala, and he had a large collection. (Rapala are lures shaped like small Norther Pikes, and have hooks along their abdomen.) They were out of fashion here, though, in this part of Lake Erie, and any fisherman worth his two-cycle oil would tell you the same.

My father suddenly let loose an agonized groan. “Did you put the fishing rods in the boat?” he asked. I hadn’t. I hadn’t done a damn thing. He let loose a series of expletives, certain that he had forgotten. We exited the highway, and pulled into a parking lot in Port Clinton, and he ran to the boat, and confirmed what he knew in his heart to be true: he had forgotten the fishing rods.

The sun had arisen already, and some of the best time had already been squandered. Driving home for the equipment would take far too long. The only hope was that my uncles, his two brothers-in-law, had cottages on the Sandusky Bay just a few minutes from here, and maybe they had equipment, and maybe he could get into those cottages. It was something to try.

He walked around the cottages, probing for an entry point, but they were all locked up. He couldn’t even be certain what equipment was there, if any, and what quality it might be, and, more important than anything, what sort of tackle would be available. So he ruled out breaking a window because the payoff was unknown.

Stores would not open for over an hour. Once they did, he would be faced with the dilemma of purchasing equipment he already had, and so he’d want only the cheapest items available, and would be second-guessing himself the entire time as to the quality of the equipment. He was completely crippled by this. We sat in the car and waited.

We waited until the stores opened, and then he did go shopping. This was before the era of WalMart, but there was a small department store there, near the highway entrance. He said that if there was a good sale on decent equipment, we’d buy it and still go fishing. Alas, there was no such sale.

There were sandwiches and drinks in the cooler, and I remember eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the drive home, and washing it down with a Coke.

It was a nice day, and the van got warm on the drive home. It would have been a hot day on the water. If we found fish, my father would have been delighted, and it could have been a great day. It’s been said that a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work; but you have to actually fish to feel that way. It was not a good day for my father.