Catherine Creek feeds north from the Southern Tier into Seneca Lake, the deepest and biggest of the Finger Lakes in central New York State. Each spring when the snow melts, rainbow trout swim upstream, driven by their biological need to spawn. The cold, clear runoff waters swell the otherwise trickling streams and create hiding spaces for wary fish traveling on their annual migration.
"Come on, Bobby, it is time to get up," I remember my Dad whispering to me. It was five thirty in the morning, pitch dark, but that first week of April was the opening of trout season. I roused, slowly at first, then realizing, "My dad is taking me fishing. " The excitement would hit me and I would say to myself, "Hurray!" We were going fishing, regardless of high water, darkness, or anything else, including school or work.
As Dad and I did our best to fry bacon and eggs, make and butter toast, and eat quickly, my mom would get up, check us over to make sure we were reasonably well fed and warmly clothed. Once we passed her inspection, she would wish us the customary, "Good luck," and dart back to bed.
Dad and I would do a slapdash job on the dishes, check quickly to make sure we had rods, tackle, clothes, and food for lunch, and then hurry to the car for the half-hour's drive so as to be on the stream at seven in the morning. That was the official opening time, although we sometimes saw a lucky fisherman or woman lugging a huge trout towards their car even as we parked and headed to the stream.
Once on the bank, ten anglers might be busy working twenty feet of space near the good spots, particularly the deep holes. Where a hundred feet of rapids or a heavy overgrown bank stifled activity, only one or two people might be fishing. Some anglers did not like to wrestle with the willows, rocks and slippery mud. We would try to find a reasonable combination of space and freedom in which to cast, using our nightcrawlers, a wet fly, or the best of all, from a tiny muslin bag, yellow tapioca balls resembling fish roe.
Warm clothes were essential. Once baited up and on the bank, we might stand in place for hours, flicking the bait upstream, then watching it float or sink gradually while drifting towards us, then pulling our line out when the bait finished its downward stream course. Catherine Creek is small enough, in many places you could easily jump across, but the pools and some rapids were still sufficient to hide even a big fish. And, some of the many trout were big indeed.
The exciting time, of course, was the rare moment when you got a fish on, even more, if you succeeded in landing one. That was ecstasy! I remember my first big fish, and the joy that overwhelmed me then. Even now when I recall what happened some forty years ago, my adrenalin rushes. Dad and I were working over a deep pool, while downstream, a couple of his workmates were fishing the next hole. We kept an eye on each other, wishing each other well, although eager to be the first to land a fish.
I was dangling a nightcrawler in a deep hole, when suddenly the line jerked. I jerked right back, and before I could call to my dad, a monster of the deep jumped right up in the air over the middle of the pool. "Dad, I have one on. " I yelled, "and he is a big one!" The fish jumped a second time, and headed towards the rapids just downstream. "Keep your rod tip up," Dad yelled back. He ran to the rapids and positioned himself with the net, watched for the fish and prepared to be ready to help.
Meanwhile, his two workmates heard us calling, saw what was happening, and started to move towards us to watch. I like to think they were going to give aid. I was busy trying to keep my rod tip up, the line taut, and then, I stumbled over the rocks on my way to the rapids. "There he is," Dad yelled at me, "I think I can get him," as he swung the net while I managed just barely to stay upright.
The fish somehow escaped from my hook as Dad swung, and though he had the fish in the net, he too stumbled on the rocks in the middle of the rapids. The water was only two or three inches deep at that point. Fortunately, he was able to reach down and then scoop up the fish by hand-tossing it onto the rocky bank. I ran and grabbed while he sent up a shower of spray with his continuing effort to regain balance. I am sure the workmates downstream were laughing while also applauding our efforts. Naturally, they came up to have a look, too.
I recall lifting the fish and holding it upside down with its head down around my knees. I was suddenly surprised when the tail came flopping up to hit me squarely in the face. Yellow eggs began spurting out and I almost dropped her on the rocks. But, I was able to set the fish down gently, and then we tried to direct some of the eggs back into the stream. Even with the loss of roe, our fish weighed in at nine pounds and two ounces-a fine catch and the only one of the day. That sure made my day and launched me on a forever-after fishing career.
Dad's friends amplified their observations dramatically for the newsletter that was published next week in Dad's shop. The story bore little resemblance to the truth, particularly my Dad's role in "almost succeeding in knocking the fish back into the water. "
Dad and I had many other fishing adventures, but none were quite so exciting for me. My father passed away recently at age 79. I hold his memory dear through this and other stories—for such events embed the deepest and most profound feelings in the many memories I retain of my Dad.
© 1998, Robert J. Gregory