Fish Farms and Other Crazy Schemes

It was shaping up to be a day for the Daddy Diary.

I was sitting, legs swinging carefree, on the dock of the family fish pond wearing Old Crusty, my lucky fishing hat that I have never washed, and a T-shirt with ventilation holes under the armpits and a treble hook still embedded in the sleeve. I took off my shoes so I could dip a toe in the warm water every now and then.

The kid was perched upon his hand-me-down tackle box packed tight with Stars Wars and Transformer action figures, of course, and the occasional colorful cork. A ten-pound test line was snarled around Yoda’s pointy ears. There were no hooks, per Mommy rules.

The kid’s imaginary friend, Jim, who sat on the dock beside him, kept snagging huge, imaginary fish, but so far the kid and I were catching little fellas.

The arthritic, bowlegged family dog, Dixie, pretended to nap on the sunny dock behind us, but was secretly stalking the Zip-Loc bag of beef jerky and Cheese Puffs in my lap. You just can’t fish without beef jerky and Cheese Puffs, the kid pointed out before we left the house. I had taught him well.

Suddenly, the shadow of a large waterfowl darted over the water rippled by wind and sun-stripped by the planks of the dock, reminding us we were not alone.

“Daddy, what kind of bird is that?”

“That’s an Oowee Bird.”

“What’s an Oowee Bird?”

“An Oowee Bird is a bird with six-inch legs and a 12-inch fanny, and when he comes in for a landing he goes, ‘Oowee! Oowee! Oowee! Oowee!’”

It took him a moment, but the kid got it, and keeled over on the dock laughing theatrically. I scolded him for scaring the fish. Jim didn’t get it. Dixie didn’t laugh, but she opened one eye and stared at the beef jerky.

“You know, I used to go fishing here at Granny’s pond when I was your age. My granddaddy dug it himself with his own two hands.”

“With a shovel?”

“No, his bulldozer.”

My cork bobbed deeply and suddenly from an enthusiastic bite. Dixie was pulling her bowed legs beneath her, no doubt getting ready to make a move on my beef jerky should I become distracted by a fish. The kid pulled his line out of the water and dropped it back in. I couldn’t help but notice he dropped it close to my bite.

“I remember one time, when I was fishing with your Granddaddy, I caught a world record bluegill. He was so big he had outgrown this pond. He lived half in the pond and half out of the pond and had fish slime on one side of him and moss and ticks on the other!”

Jim believed me, but the kid gave me a funny look. Another large bite made my cork dance. I didn’t set the hook. This was a big one, and I wanted the kid to nab him.

“I’ve always loved fishing, son. Heck, when me and your momma first got married, I’d lie awake at night with my Zebco 33 Classic in my hand, my water boots still on and a life jacket for a pillow, just because I didn’t want to miss the first few rays of sunlight over the shallows during the spring bass spawn. But for some reason, your mother didn’t think that was a very romantic way to spend our honeymoon.”

My cork bobbed again, but I ignored it, as did Jim. The kid sneaked his line a little closer to mine. The dog sneaked a little closer to the beef jerky and cheese puffs.

“And then there was that time I got caught sneaking into her senile, old uncle McAlhaney’s farm pond and, when he confronted me, I said ‘But you told me yesterday I could fish here. Don’t you remember?’”

“You mean you took advantage of a poor, forgetful old man?” the kid asked, inching his line even closer to my bobbing cork. Dixie stalked her way closer to the beef jerky.

“Well, I felt bad about it at first, but then the catfish started biting and I felt a little better. But what really made me feel guilty was the time I spent most of our family savings on a new 20-foot fiberglass bass boat; you know, the one with the fancy new foot-controlled trolling motor and the built-in depth/fish finder?”

The kid nodded his head, never taking his eyes of my cork. By now, he was practically on top of my line. Yet the big biter still seemed to favor the flavor of my bait. I could feel Dixie’s breath on the back of my shirt and hear her sniffing to see if there were any cheese puffs left or if it just going to be a jerky kind of day.

“So what did Momma say about that?”

“Well, she looked angry at first, but after I told her it was for our anniversary, and I was even thinking about naming the boat after her, she got kind of speechless. And she gets so emotional about your sweet, romantic daddy that to this day she still doesn’t like to talk about it much.”

My line bobbed again, and I thought for a moment I had the fish, but luckily I let him get off. Not everyone can play with a fish that way, but I’m good like that. I’ve let many a fish go free in my lifetime.

“And did I ever tell you about the time I went into business and started my own fish farm/earthworm ranch?” I asked the kid. He shook his head, not really hearing me and my silly nonsense, hunched over his pole, eyes deadlocked on his cork, and totally mesmerized by the suspense of the fish’s bites. By now his line was completely tangled with mine.

“I stocked my pond with hundreds and hundreds of cute, little fish. And I bought about a thousand earthworms. Big, fat, juicy nightcrawlers. What I didn’t chase your Momma around the yard with, I released onto the back forty of the ranch.

“But that first night I couldn’t sleep. Like any good farmer, I had to go check on the fish farm. And make sure no varmints were getting into the worm ranch and causing a stampede. And what if the fish had grown a little overnight? I was curious. Maybe if I caught just one, I could measure it to see.

“Before I knew it, at least two or three nights a week I’d catch myself breaking into my own fish farm. I’d slip under my own fence, real sneaky like in the dead of night, just to catch my own fish! I was out of control, and it was horrible! Those fish were only babies when I put them in there—which is the perfect frying pan size, by the way—and I snatched them out, one by one, like a heartless monster, before they even had a chance to grow up! And at first it was just a few. But then they just kept biting and biting until they were all go-”

Suddenly, the kid jerked his pole like he had just been hooked by Daddy’s beetle spin, an emotion-charged accident that happens more than you would think. The bream buster was bent into a dancing “U” and he was calling for parental backup. He had a fish. He had The Big Fish.

A few exciting moments later—moments filled with fatherly laughter and snapped advice and a couple of words we won’t tell Mommy about—and the fish was thrashing on the sun-faded planks of the dock. It was one of the most beautiful bluegills I had ever seen, even bigger than Old Tick, my world record holder, flapping around in a blue blaze of bittersweet beauty, its scales sparkling in the slanting afternoon rays of light like damp diamonds.

You never forget the sight of your first bluegill. Perhaps that’s why God made them so colorful, just for the memory banks of little boys. So they’ll be hooked forever. So they never forget. So they’ll always return to the ponds of their youth.

The kid, about to split his face from grinning, was bumping his gums ninety miles per hour in my ear. He was a better fisherman that I was. He ruled and Daddy drooled.  He couldn’t wait to get home and show Mommy and Grandma and take pictures. He rubbed the fish all over his face and shirt—why, I do not know to this day. Dixie and Jim were already back at the truck waiting on us, eating our bag of beef jerky and Cheese Puffs.

“Daddy, am I going to be crazy about fishing like you are when I grow up?”

“I hope so, kid. And something tells me you will be.”