The alarm clock rang at 5 a.m., but since I was 14 and used to sleeping till 11 on the weekends that my family wasn’t at The Lake House, I must have hit snooze. The next thing I knew it was 5:15 and I was tugging a sweatshirt on over my faded orange bikini, splashing some cold water on my face, grabbing my tackle box and my rod and reel and rushing out into the Missouri dawn. Mike, the neighbor from G14, was waiting at our dock in his metal flatboat with the five-horsepower trolling motor on idle. Two poles with jig-worms were sticking out from the back of the boat and he was wearing the only outfit I had ever seen him in: stained blue coveralls.
We exchanged “mornin’s” but I could not tell if he was mad that I had wasted precious early fishing moments, as he was a man of few words. I took my place in the bow and he backed her out, parting the glassy surface of the water and aiming us at some thick weeds over by R26. Bass love the dense weeds so even though you can get snagged without half trying, that’s where you catch the best bass, and today, we were after bass.
The Lake House was situated on the banks of manmade Lake Lotawana, the name being some developer’s idea of Native American–speak for “Lotta Water.” The drive from the suburbs of Kansas City to The Lake took about 40 minutes, and during the time it took us to drive there, a wondrous transformation took place. My parents flirted with one another and laughed, my brothers miraculously found no excuse to punch me in the arm and the whole family relaxed, stopping at roadside stands for baskets of fresh corn or peaches. The second the Buick arrived, I was bounding down the steps toward my rod and reel. At The Lake, I lived to fish. My mother marveled at this, commenting, “You’re usually so impatient and a good fisherwoman needs patience.”
“Catch us some dinner,” was all my father said, taking a Pabst from the fridge to deliver to our neighbor Glen. Glen and Eva were catfish people. I thought the catfish folks were to fishing what video games were to tennis: the passive version. Glen hung some heavy test line with nine-ounce cannonball sinkers off the edge of his dock. This line held triple hooks around which he molded stink-bait, some sort of cheesy clay-like substance that stank like ancient wet socks. That was pretty much it for Glen: lower the line off the edge of the dock and check the lines each morning. He loved to mention the 13-pound catfish he had caught the year before: “I’m telling you, the whole left side of the dock was practically pulled under water!”
I was a more active fisherwoman. At dawn and dusk, I walked along the stone banks of The Lake, boldly passing through people’s yards if need be to get to “my secret spots.” I ducked into spiderwebby boat docks, or investigated the spot where someone had thrown his Christmas tree last winter, where rumor had it a huge fish lived under its rusty boughs. I might thread a worm onto a hook, cast out a ways and wait for the bobber to go under if I was fishing for crappie, bluegill or perch, or use a spinner or a jig-worm. I cast closer to the stone wall I was standing on, wriggling the line as I reeled it in, imagining it underwater and moving it to look as lifelike as possible, trying for bass.
“Your family’s having a float-boat party this afternoon?” Mike asked. My father had a pontoon boat that often became a floating happy hour on the weekends; many of the neighbors enjoyed his rowdy sunset cruises around The Lake.
“Probably,” I said. Even though I was not old enough to drive a car, I could drive a motorboat with a water-skier in tow. The float-boat maxed out at 15 miles per hour, so I often skippered these sunset cruises while men in terry cloth jackets festooned with marlins danced with women in girdled one-pieces, their shoulder straps untied and luffing fetchingly in the breeze. Mike never went to Dad’s parties. He was not a city person who came up to The Lake for weekends, but a local who had raised his sons there. His sons didn’t like to fish.
“What’re you using?” I asked him.
“I’ve had some luck with that lime-green rig. Had some strikes yesterday, too, with a Texas Twister. You?”
“I’m stickin’ with the scented worms. I caught a two-pounder last weekend with a yellow one.”
I felt the thrill opening my tackle box that most girls my age felt opening a jewelry box. The little compartmentalized shelves opened like an accordion from both sides, and I had it all organized meticulously. Hula-skirted jigs, spinners that looked like candy-canes, bucktails, tiny-tots, slo-pokes—I loved them all. There were all sizes of hooks, bobbers and sinkers. There was the scalar and the sharp knife for cleaning the fish I would catch. My father had told me when I was very young that fish, worms and crickets had no nerve endings—an appalling lie as I look back on it. But that made me fearless about baiting my hooks or cutting off the heads of my catch, gutting and scaling them without blinking an eye, even when the gills on the now-detached heads continued to “breathe.” I was efficient and swift in this job and I always threw back any fish “smaller than a man’s hand.” I pan-fried my catch that very night rolled in cornmeal and salt and pepper, and there was something very satisfying about that immediacy.
The sun was coming up and the fish were not biting. Mike had three nice bass on his stringer and I had caught two.
“Head back?” he asked, pulling up the small anchor.
“Yep,” I said, unable to resist tossing my line one more time into that mysterious fish-forest of weeds.
Jill Koenigsdorf is a writer whose work appears frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. She divides her time between the Bay Area and Santa Fe, where she is working on a novel. She looks longingly at her rod and reel each time she passes it in the garage and hopes to do some casting into the deep weeds before Labor Day.
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