I don’t know how old you will be when you read this, but I want to tell you about the summer of 2015 when you turned 3 years old and I was 63. That was the summer that your dad and I decided to introduce you to the pastime of angling. But there was so much more to our plans than merely fishing, as wonderful a pursuit as it is.
The first morning, we went down to the creek behind the houses where your family and your grandmother and I live. (You called her “e-mama” that summer because you had trouble pronouncing your g’s.) You were in charge of carrying a blue minnow bucket and a small yellow “dipping” bucket that had served you well in your sandbox. Your dad toted a seine net, and our mission was to corral some of the aquatic creatures dwelling in the creek to show you the indescribably joyful pleasures of a stream alive with life.
Your dad held the seine, and you and I (holding your hand) charged through a shallow riffle, kicking over rocks and sloshing through the water toward the net and having a grand time doing so. I saw your wide-eyed wonder when we examined the net and observed minnows, sculpins, crayfish, and even a young smallmouth bass within. I talked to you about the roles of each of these creatures in the ecosystem: That smallmouth bass were predators and that one day we would fish for them. That minnows and sculpins were crucial to the cycle of life and just as important as bass. And that crayfish held incorrectly would pinch.
I knew that day you would not remember those initial lessons but one day in the future would start to comprehend. After about 25 minutes, your dad and I sensed that your attention span was waning (you spotted some child’s long-lost dump truck on the bank and wanted to play with it), and we had you release the teeming bucket of creatures back into the creek.
The next morning, the three of us went to my garden and dug through the soil looking for live bait. I wanted you to feel a sense of ownership in this endeavor, and you certainly did. You had your yellow sand bucket in tow again, and I let you use a trowel to sift through the dirt. It was a dry summer day, and we were only able to dredge up a few earthworms and grubs (you were fascinated with the former and slightly frightened by the latter), but it was enough bait for a little fishing the next day.
The following day, we drove to a small lake that contained everything a small child could need for a first fishing expedition: a bountiful bluegill population and docks to sit on. You watched as I tied on a hook and affixed a bobber to the line, and you were assigned the crucial job of holding a pair of red clippers used to snip the tag end of the line from the hook’s knot.
The rest of the family watched from the shore as we walked out to a prime spot on the dock. You had a little trouble resisting the urge to swish the line and bobber back and forth, but your dad instructed you on the value of patience and preparing for good things to happen — a life lesson for sure. Soon enough, you settled down and began intently staring at the bobber. An overly aggressive, four-inch bluegill found a sliver of worm appealing, the bobber began dancing, and before long you and your dad derricked the bluegill up onto the dock.
“I caught a fish!” you screamed, and your dad beamed and I laughed long and hard. Hesitantly, you picked up the bobber with one hand and touched the fish with the index finger of the other hand. Then you announced that you wanted to catch another one. After your dad released the bluegill and cast the line, you sat down between his legs and with great intensity locked your eyes on the bobber. Again, it began skipping about, dipped under the water, and you (sort of) helped your dad set the hook.
This time, you wanted to show off your catch to your little brother Eli, and from his stroller, he tried to clasp the wriggling bluegill in his hands. Your sense of pride and accomplishment were a wonder to behold. After you caught one more fish, you announced that you wanted to go to the nearby swing set, and your first fishing trip was over.
Your dad and I were proud of you, and I confess to being grateful for such creatures as small, hungry bluegills.
Over the years to come, I want to teach and show you (and, soon enough, Eli) so much about the wild world and life. I want to show you how to still hunt for squirrels, cast a spinning rod for river smallmouths, and a fly rod for stream trout. I want to sit with you high in a tree stand and watch as you draw a bow on your first whitetail. And sit beside you while you, trembling, watch a turkey striding in, gobbling at every step, eyes alert for the slightest movement.
More importantly, I want you to become a conservationist, to know the inherent values of soil, air, woods, waters, and wildlife. That these life-affirming things are worth protecting. I want us to stand side by side to plant trees, pick wild berries, and gather nuts and to roam the woods, wade creeks, and float rivers. To study wild creatures, learn bird songs, and identify trees and plants. To become a part of the wild world and be content, joyous, and thankful while there.
I hope to be along for a good portion of your life’s journey and be there when you need me.