Fish feed the body, soul

Posted: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Several days a week, my daughter says, "I wonder if it is a good day to go fishing?" or "I wonder if the fish are biting today?" This is her very sneaky attempt to get me to take her to Twin Lakes where the fish are small, but reliable.

I grew up fishing too. A highlight of my week was fishing early every Saturday with my dad. Our suburban neighborhood would be quiet when our huge car rumbled the half-mile or so to our dock. My dad would crank the boat lift, and the grinding chains lowered us to the water. And then we would cruise some more, this time in our wooden boat, dragging our lures behind us.

I sat next to the engine, on a small box seat covered with astroturf-like carpet. At speed, I would sing my lungs out, knowing the engine would mask my voice. And we would fish, hour after hour, boat chugging along as I imagined monster Northern Pike hunkered below us, sometimes stretching for miles, their wide, toothy grins poised for my lure alone.

While I have not consistently fished as an adult, fishing seems like a reliable specter in the background. When I lived on the Kvicack River, in western Alaska, I would lie down on the ice with the village matriarch, tree boughs cushioning us. We talked some, though not much, and watched the massive trout slip below our holes. Though we were side by side, I watched her fish freeze solid atop the ice, lamenting my lack of skill. She usually took pity on me and handed me one of her fish, which I carried home in an old grocery sack.

So it is a little surprising that my brother had to introduce my daughter to fishing. He warned her of the fickleness of fishing, of the disappointment of staring at a still bobber. She nodded, chin bumping her life jacket.

But seconds after the tiny fish egg hit the water at Twin Lakes, a little fish had gobbled her hook. It happened so fast she didn't even know to reel. She squealed and hopped in primal joy, and I was relieved she was hemmed in by the railing. The pictures show her clutching the little fish so tightly its eyes seem strained even in death.

The little fish was not the only thing hooked. We are back into fishing.

When our hooks hit the water lately, I think as often of that elder as I do my dad. Both of them loved to fish, but I see their approach very differently. In the few photos I have of my dad, he almost always shares the frame with a fish.

While we always ate what we caught, fishing was a sport, not unlike playing softball or soccer. It was a way to pass time, to be outside. The matriarch saw fishing as a way to stay alive, a way to feed a family and a soul. It was anything but sport.

When I clean my daughter's catch, I find myself moving away from fishing as sport and toward fishing as an extension of life. I am starting to embrace these fish on my own terms, seeing them as a step toward sustainability. This is why the matriarch gave me fish when I didn't catch any. She knew this fish ended its life for a sacred purpose, and I was part of that purpose.

But some things don't change. This week my daughter drew a picture of herself catching a whale from the dock, which had been keeping company with a sea turtle and a few seahorses. A mermaid arced over her. The imagination and optimism of the child who fishes never diminishes.

• Marie Ryan McMillan is a Juneau parent and teacher.

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