A Scale Off the Old Fish

by Jim Austin

You know that Albert Einstein didn't get to be a mathematical genius without the help of his father. You can bet that Albert's dad was always posing brain twisters and cosmic riddles at the dinner table to develop his son's brain.

"Aw c'mon, dad," young Bertie would squeak.

"You know darn well that it's integral calculus that concerns the effect on a function of change in an independent variable as it pertains to zero."

Similarly, Cleveland Indians bad boy Albert Bell's pop probably encouraged him to throw stones at the neighbors and let the air out of their tires until he was old enough to punch them out in person.

My point is that you can influence a youngster's future if you have the time and the interest. I was right there when my son "Shorty" was born. I looked at the wizened little mucus-covered face and slippery little body and said,

"Geez, Ruth, the kid looks like bait."

To be fair he looked a lot less like a creek chub when the nurses cleaned him up but his future was assured as far as I was concerned. It was a grand coincidence that I, his dad, am a fishing maven and available to dispense volumes of hard-earned experience in the direction of my little fingerling.

 Ruth and I were working in the South Pacific at the time Shorty came on the scene and my weekends were set aside for fishing. The Short man went on his first fishing trip at the age of about 3 months. He had to be held by his mom for bumping over the waves in the Bismark Sea in those early days. If you left him on his own he kept rolling into the scuppers. Often I would catch a small skipjack or rainbow runner and hold the squirming fish at arm's length from Shorty to acclimate the lad to the fish world.

"Garrgh" he would say and reach out to grab the finny captive. Sometimes when I let him examine a particularly toothsome yellowfin his eyes would bug out like little organ stops and he'd purse his lips and utter "ooogg," which of course is infant for "This is cool, father."

When we moved back to Vermont Shorty was about 2 years old and ready for some participatory angling. It was off to the fishing hole with a cane pole and a jam jar of worms for us. We spent many hours in those early days hauling bluegills and sunfish out of that fishing hole. He caught his first bass in that very pond. I was fooling around with my fly fishing gear while the lad was landing sunfish, one after the other. As much as I love sunfish and appreciate their suicidal tendencies they must be the world's stupidest fish. No matter how many of their brethren Shorty yanked out by the lips they constantly elbowed each other out of the way to be next.

I was musing over this icthyological anomaly when a newcomer came on the scene. The sunnies weren't totally retarded and beat a hasty retreat as a three-pound largemouth bass snarfed Shorty's worm and headed East. The boy squawked a toddler oath and held on, digging his bare feet into the muddy verge of the pond. "He's all yours, boy," I shouted as he looked up at me for technical assistance. That fish jerked and jumped and tried his damnedest to drag Shorty into the water. A lesser tot would have dropped the pole and given up the fight, but my boy hung on like grim death.

Step by step he marched backwards with Mr. Largemouth fighting every inch of the way. Finally the bass was on the grassy bank flopping weakly, spent and battle weary. My newly minted fisherman was a joy to behold. He leaped up and down, laughed and shouted like Santa had come early that year. Of course he wanted to take the fish home to show mom. It was time for our first "catch and release" conversation. I told him that he had himself a fine fish and wouldn't it be great to put him back so that he could catch him again some other time. "Time" for two-year-olds means never and he gave me the trembly lip routine replete with the dewy eyeballs.

I explained that the bass gods would certainly smile upon a lad that would release his very first fish and he could count on good fishing luck for eternity if he set the fish free. Shorty was skeptical but, not wanting to anger any gods, agreed and was instructed to hold his bass by the lower jaw and lower him gently in the pond. Mr. Bass had probably lost a few IQ points due to oxygen deprivation but he managed to fin off into the weeds to fight another day.

Time passed until just recently when I decided that at age 9, it was time that Shorty hit the tournament trail. It was Saturday, May 18, the day of the Abenaki Rod and Gun Club 12-and-under fishing derby! Shorty and I were psyched to the max and ready for fishing glory. Well, Shorty was ready, I was well past the maximum age of 12 and was relegated to the role of aide-de-camp. My job was advice and fishhook disgorging. The good members of the Abenaki Rod and Gun Club had released 325 trout into a holding pond off a back road in Westminster Vermont and had starved them for several days to get them in the mood to dine.

Shorty and I were among the first to arrive, and we walked around to the far side of the pond to await the 8:00 a.m. starting time. This was to become a tactical error. We had taken a chance based on Shorty's casting ability and selected a #2 Mepp's spinner with bucktail rather than the more traditional worm and bobber approach. Radical? To be sure, but man didn't land on the moon by being afraid to delve into the unknown.

A large man in camouflage fatigues, who was the master of ceremonies, announced that there was a prize for the first fish caught in the boys and girls division, biggest fish and the coveted "first three fish." The prize-winning trout in all categories had to be taken to the registration table to be measured and recorded. The table was on the other side of the pond! We had made a geographical mistake that could smash our chances for success. Shorty would have to run at least 60 yards with his fish whereas those near the table had only scant feet to cover. Zounds!

At the stroke of 8:00 the big guy gave the word and Shorty slung a perfect cast into the middle of the pond just ahead of 100 or so worm and bobber combinations that blackened the sky. Bang, the ultra-light bent double as Shorty set the hook. He played the fish like a champ right onto the shore where I snatched the treble hooks free and sent him on his way racing for the table, fish in hand. He was more than halfway when a nasty little creature about the same age as Shorty darted from the bank in front of the registration area and flopped his malignant little trout on the table. Shorty analyzed the proceedings and sped back to our spot. This was no time for recrimination.

Our only possibility for laurels was either the biggest trout or the "first three." Shorty screeched to a stop and fired another cast into the sea of bobbers. The tiny spinner buffeted back and forth as starving trout struck and missed. Finally a medium-sized brookie hit the trebles and gave a little aerial display before being landed. All three hooks were buried and a little strong-arm surgery was necessary. Cast number three produced trout number three. I yanked the hooks free and sent the boy speeding to the table with three slightly mangled fish, leaving me to pick trout lips off the lure.

Shorty's speed afoot matched his casting skill and he made it just in time to capture the "first three fish" trophy symbolizing rapid-fire fishing supremacy. Along with the trophy was a brand new rod and reel put up by the prize committee. The face on that kid as he held his trophy and prizes would light up a Christmas tree.

These days we hit the Connecticut River about twice a week in our banged-up aluminum bass boat - the "Titanic." More and more, the Short man wants to head for the lakes and troll with downriggers for deep water browns, lake trout and landlocked salmon. This kind of fishing, especially in hard-pressed Vermont waters, requires patience and the pluck to forbear being skunked occasionally. Shorty has it.

If you had told me ten years ago that I would enjoy watching someone else catch a fish more than catching one myself, I would have said you were smoking too many banana skins.

Truth is, that very thing has come to pass.