Drowning worms, just like in the good old days.

11 July 2009

When I was a kid my mom and I used to drive out to North Park Lake in western Pennsylvania and spent the evening (and sometimes most of Saturday) sitting on a bench on the shore with a tackle box, two fishing rods, and a couple of dozen nightcrawlers from the gas station at the bottom of the hill.  We never caught anything really newsworthy - at most a handful of panfish and only once a pair of rainbow trout, but we had some great times out there.  Sometimes a flock of ducks would go swimming in the lake and we'd have to reel our bait in to keep them from going after the hooks, sometimes we'd watch a muskrat or two scratching around in the weeds along the shoreline.

I'm no sportsman by any means, but when my father-in-law proposed taking Lyssa and I out one weekend this summer to go fishing in rural southwestern Pennsylvania I jumped at the opportunity.  I got rid of my gear a long time ago but Bill had a couple of fishing rods in the garage that we could use.  So, after work last night we loaded a bag or two of stuff into the car and set course for southwestern Pennsylvania and Lyssa's parents' place, which is far enough off the grid that even Google Maps doesn't have a whole lot of data.  It came as no great surprise that we got stuck on a ten mile stretch of the DC Beltway for better than an hour and less so that the one place to get a decent meal on route 270 barely had room to park.  All told, we arrived around 2330 EST5EDT last night, checked our e-mail, and then caught a couple of hours of sleep.

Around 0645 EST5EDT this morning Lyssa got me out of bed and aimed in the general direction of the bathroom to take a shower, wake up, and attempt to make myself presentable.  The general idea was to hit the hardware/sporting good store in town as early as we could to get temporary fishing licenses and then hit the lake before everyone else could to see what we could catch.  As it turned out, 0730 was too early for the store to be open so we killed some time at the local supermarket by making a breakfast out of stromboli fresh out of the oven and crappy coffee from the bakery.  By the time 0800 rolled around True Value was open and we spent some time talking with the owner, who's known Bill and Lyssa for years on end.  I killed a little time prowling around the sporting goods shelves (which were stocked with the sorts of kit that you'd expect of a hunting/fishing/fixing stuff store in an old coal mining town) while Bill drove off to talk to someone the proprietor had suggested about fishing in the area.  As it turned out, an older guy named Clyde is a friend of the store's owner and he let us fish in his private pond so long as we didn't keep anything that we didn't accidentally kill.

Clyde takes very good care of his fish pond - he's got it stocked with a couple different species of game fish and the Pennsylvania Fish and Game Comission is impressed with how well he takes care of the pond.  As you'd expect of a small pond there are a lot of weeds along the shoreline, but the lilypads are in bloom, there are tall stands of cattails, and you can hear the cries of nesting birds and frogs in the early morning.  Also, there are a few species of freshwater clams and snails in the pond so decaying organic matter doesn't stay around long.  If you smell a handful of muck brought up from underwater, it doesn't smell like rot.

We started off the day using nightcrawlers cut in half as bait and caught a half-dozen panfish by the time 1000 EST5EDT rolled around.  I think we must have caught every bluegill and sunfish in the pond because nothing else seemed to be active though we're pretty sure that the larger fish (bass, maybe some catfish) were having fun tugging on our hooks just to watch us jump.  At one point Bill was reeling his line in and accidentally gigged a three-inch perch through the gills about six feet from shore.  I spent about an hour fishing the shoreline just past the weeds using Slim-Jims as bait and wondered what in the hell was batting at the bobber on my line.  I couldsee a pair of eyes and a bump in between cruising back and forth near the little white and purple ball of plastic.  As it turned out the bits of pickled beef sausage I was throwing out there had caught the eye of a box turtle who figured out where the bobber ended and the line began and then stole away with my bait in his jaws.  I watched him swim into the weeds with the bit of almost-but-not-quite-meat in his mouth and presumably back to whereever he was nesting.

Bill tried to show me how to fish in deeper water by replacing the bobber wish another split-shot sinker when we got sick of hauling in sunfish but after many years I still don't quite understand how to do it.  I think I know what I should be feeling for but the right combinations of technique and bait continue to elude me. I tried fishing off the dock a couple of times (Clyde has a small dock and one of those miniature paddleboats, presumably for pond maintenance), at first using live bait, later artificial bait, but aside from a lot of weeds I wasn't able to reel anything in.  I think we caught more salad than fish this morning.  I also understand how easy it would be to fall in; there is no railing at the end of the dock and more than once I caught myself stepping perilously close to the edge while not paying attention.

As requested, we threw everything back.  Bill and Marilyn are vegan anyway, so there was no point in keeping them.  Bill drove us back to where I'd parked my car (me in the jumpseat of his truck, Lyssa riding shotgun) and from there we headed home to wash up.  I think it's going to take a few more washings to get all of the junk out of my fingertips and out from under my nails.  I knew I shouldn't have worn contact lenses this morning...

I felt a bit of regret threading worms onto my hook today, something that I don't think I've ever felt for a lifeform that much farther down the food chain than me.  I also felt a pang of regret while trying to remove the hooks from the fish I'd caught.  Most of the barbs went clean through the fishes' mouths but exited perilously close to the eye; in some cases, it actually emerged from the eyesocket itself.  I feel kind of bad about inflicting such harm for the sake of sport.  In one case the fish was pretty badly torn up though I think its cheek will heal in a couple of weeks.