Fitting Thanks

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2010

Returning the Favor

The alarm clock sounds before dawn on this Saturday morning, and I welcome it—I’ve been looking forward to this day all week. I pull on a pair of old blue jeans and a T-shirt and head down to the kitchen to prepare ham chowder for lunch.

What marks this day as special might not seem like much. I’m just taking two old guys fishing at a couple of farm ponds. But one of the old guys is my dad, and the other is Ray Miller. The three of us are longtime fishing buddies. Ray and his wife, Virginia, now live in Arizona. Whenever the Millers come to visit, I try to set up a fishing trip.

Dad and Ray introduced me to fishing when I was a kid, and they did a marvelous job. All my early fishing trips with Dad and Ray were packed with fun from beginning to end, and for good reason. They tailored those trips to me—a kid. Ensuring I had fun was goal number one.

Each year our families gathered for a weekend vacation at Bunker Hill Ranch, a cabin resort owned by the Missouri State Teachers Association along the Jacks Fork River. Dad, Ray and I would pull on wading shoes, bait jug traps with crushed crackers to catch minnows, then canoe downstream to one of the bigger bluff holes. With how-to pointers from Dad and Ray, I’d catch longear sunfish, goggle-eye and smallmouth bass. I’d also lay the fishing pole aside and catch tadpoles, crawdads and baby soft-shelled turtles—pretty much whatever I felt like doing.

As a kid I had a deep curiosity about nature. I always had lots of questions: Is this rock a fossil? Why do dragonflies have big eyes? How can plants grow out of a rock bluff? Dad and Ray always had time to take an interest in my questions, even if they didn’t always have the answers.

As I grew older, I never lost my curiosity about nature, and my interest in fishing grew into a healthy obsession. The anticipation and joy of fishing, shared with family and friends, has provided an endless source of fun and fine memories. What a gift!

Returning the Favor

I think about these things as I stand at the stove, sautéing vegetables for the chowder. I ponder, too, how quickly time has passed. I’m in my early 50s. Dad is pushing 80, and Ray has passed that mark. With this passage of time has come change—now it is my turn to tailor fishing trips.

Peel away 20 years and Dad and Ray and I would be fishing all day on some Ozark stream. That’s no longer practical. Walking over rocky gravel bars and shoals risks a fall, and eight hours of fishing is just too much. Pond fishing now suits, and trips of a couple hours are about right.

With chowder assembled and simmering on the stove, I gather my fishing gear. It’s mid-October, a prime time to fish, but since September I’ve spent most of my free time in the dove fields working my three English pointers as retrievers.

As I begin checking my tackle, my pointers begin a chorus of barking, as they always do when a vehicle comes down the driveway. Dad and Ray have arrived. After hellos, we chat and joke as we gather gear and load into my pickup. I think we can all fit in my truck with Dad sitting in the back of the extended cab. Getting in is easy, but getting out proves tricky. It takes some gentle bending and pulling to extract Dad.

At this pond, access to the water’s edge is usually easy. The landowner keeps it mowed. But we’ve had little rain the past two months, and the pond is low. A little more than 2 acres when full, the pond is barely more than an acre now, ringed with a swath of grass 2 feet high with a 10-foot stretch of bare dirt where once was water. The grass lies bent and slick with dew, and the bare ground is at a slight angle. I watch carefully as Dad and Ray make their way to the pond’s edge. Both go slowly and pick every step with care.

At the pond’s edge, the focus turns to fishing. October has been unusually warm this year, but a cold snap the past three days should have cooled the water somewhat. I hope the change in weather has the fish biting. Throwing spinners, we all work the edges for 15 minutes with no luck. Ray is the first to start testing deeper water. He gets a strike and reels in a 10-inch bass.

“That a way, Ray!” I yell. “You’re the meat man!”

In his big baritone voice, Ray answers back in a joking sing-song: “Ah, the meat man, the meat man!” He quickly unhooks the bass, drops the fish in his fish basket and gets back to fishing.

Ray and his wife and mom and dad are heading out to my parents’ cabin tomorrow. Mom has plans for a fish fry and has given orders to bring home fish. This pond is overstocked with bass, and the landowner wants every one under 12 inches taken out.

I start casting to deeper water. I get a strike that peels off drag, seemingly without effort.

“I’ve got a heavy fish on!” I yell.

The fish pulls drag for 30 feet, then pulls free. I check the drag. It’s set way too light. After Dad and Ray arrived, I forgot to finish checking my tackle. Oh, well.

“Hey, it’s the meat man!” Ray pipes up again as he pulls in another bass. He’s having fun.

I finally connect on a 10-inch bass. Shortly after that, Dad does the same. Ray sticks to his spot.

As a kid, fishing with Dad and Ray, I well remember Dad telling me that if I wanted to learn how to fish, I should watch Ray. “You won’t find a better fisherman than Ray Miller,” he’d say.

And I watched Ray fish. What impressed me was his patience. If he thought fish were using an area, he stuck with them.

Time has not diminished Ray’s patience, and he is doing what I’ve watched him do for years: catch fish. In 30 minutes Ray has five bass in his fish basket. I catch an 8-inch bluegill, and Dad catches another small bass. Then the fish turn off.

“You guys want to try the small pond behind the Methodist church?” I ask.

Both Ray and Dad give my suggestion the nod.

Ray sits in the extended part of my truck this time for the short ride.

At the church, I drive up to the fence that surrounds the field and pond. The fence is woven wire—not good for a couple old guys to climb. I park at the gate, which is wired shut, unwire it, let Dad and Ray in, then wire the gate back shut. The pond is only a half-acre, and cattle have it muddy, but the pond holds big black crappie. We fish hard for 30 minutes with only a 5-inch bass brought to hand. We have nine fish in the cooler but need more for the fish fry.

I check my watch—not quite 11 a.m.

“You guys want to head back to my house? We could clean these fish, grab a bite of lunch, then see if we feel like heading to another pond.”

“Sounds good to us.”

No Better Reward

Back at the house I warm the chowder and pour tea for the guys. We sit and chat on the patio while I clean fish.

“Some guiding service you run,” Ray tells me.

“I learned from the best.”

With the fish cleaned, I head inside and wash my hands. As I ladle up three bowls of chowder, I think about Ray’s compliment. Ray knows I’ve put some effort into this day and wants me to know he appreciates it. That’s the kind of guy he is, just like Dad—thoughtful. It’s an example they always set for me as a kid. It’s also part of why I so enjoy their company.

Out on the patio, in the warm October sun, we enjoy the chowder. For dessert I plate up pumpkin pie I made the evening before.

“Mark,” Ray tells me, “even if we don’t catch another fish, I’m ready to book another trip.”

Dad raises his hand and says, “Count me in!”

After pie, we give one more farm pond a try. Fishing action remains modest. For 30 minutes of fishing, Ray catches a 12-inch crappie, I catch a 16-inch bass and Dad comes up empty. Dad decides to make a lure change but has trouble threading line to lure.

“Need a hand, Pop?”

“What I need is a pair of younger eyes.”

I walk over and thread the line on for Dad. On his first cast, Dad gets a strike and reels in a largemouth that weighs about a pound.

“Fellas,” Dad announces as he unhooks his bass. “We’ve got all the fish we need. If you’re ready, let’s head on back.”

At home I clean the fish, and we enjoy a drink to toast the day.

As Dad and Ray load up to head home, I think again of my first fishing trips with these guys. Me, just a kid of 6 years, learning to fish and skip rocks, while Dad and Ray, young men in their late 20s, provided the setting. I think of all the fish we have caught and the times we have enjoyed together over the years—and the fun we still have. And I can think of nothing better or more right.

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