Father’s Day: The allure of fishing
My father and I were fishing a snowmelt lake in the High Sierra, and I was on the shore, deciding whether I should throw back the little trout I’d just caught.
It was something my father and I had always wanted.
We had vacationed in the woods every summer since I was 3 years old, fishing in lakes accompanied by pine shade and a place to doze off. We weren’t as avid as the anglers who wore rubber waders and inner tubes and treaded into the middle of the lake where the big fish were, but we fantasized about catching a native trout, a breed natural to the lakes, something truly American.
It was our 23rd summer in the woods. and we had only ever caught rainbow trout, the descendants of hatcheries. Although technically native to the West Coast, rainbows are now spawned in warehouses and reintroduced into lakes and streams to support the region’s sport-fishing economy. My father and I wanted to catch a brown, brook or golden trout, species that, although native to the Sierras, are rare catches. It would be a trophy whatever its size, though we would never have it mounted.
We daydreamed about what it would taste like with slivered almonds and pats of butter.
We were doing well this particular day, so well in fact that we didn’t have time to net every fish. We stood a few yards apart, reeling in rainbows simultaneously and yelling for the net only when we thought we’d hooked a big one. It was drizzling, and the fish thought each droplet was a resting fly. I pulled in a pan-sized one and gently flung it onto the dry shore, watching it bend and flop in the pumice (local fishermen call this technique “corndogging”). I unhooked it and washed it in the water’s edge, expecting a familiar rainbow flank, but instead found mottled gold with blooms of scarlet. Twisting, it gave me a sidelong glance, as if to size up someone who can’t see what’s right in front of them.
I knew that, like a rainbow, this too was a trout. My father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and although he has become less observant, he instilled in me the most important philosophy of kashrut: that an animal should not feel the pain of its own death. He would never try hunting, but he also knew fishing was different: There are no rules in the Torah regarding the killing and eating of scaled fish. Thus my father, a thoughtful doctor, learned the sport and shared it with me, his only child. It has long been, and probably always will be, one of my favorite activities.
On this particular day, however, I found myself regretting my cast. I was holding a thing that needed mercy. Although catching native trout was legal in that lake, I knew that this thing, whatever its species, was one of the last of its kind. I didn’t want my father to suffer the dissonance I was feeling, of choosing between a dream and a feeling, though I know he would have chosen the latter.
I guided the fish’s snout into the water and felt it sidle out of my hands.
My father and grandfather aspired to be real “American” dads. My grandfather was a Polish Jew who charged Nazi tanks on his horse. He married my grandmother in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The war was raging, the shtetls were gone. No ligaments tied the couple to the bone. They chose Brooklyn. My bubbe worked a cash register, and my zayde sewed, though he was not a tailor; he made clothes in a room with no windows, but always wore a suit and tie. He took my father to Fourth of July and union parades, and although he didn’t have the time or the means to take his kids on vacations in the woods, he wanted his sons to know that he was equal parts Jewish and American. Although he wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver, he strived to be what he believed was the “all-American dad.”
My father had been a bookish and queasy kid, but he eventually taught himself to love fishing, camping, wrestling and grilling. He wanted to be the father his father had wanted to be. I now realize that their concept of American fatherhood had something to do with self-reliance, with teaching one’s children that the world was truly theirs. My father and I devoted our summers to the High Sierra, listening to bluegrass and finding bliss in the glacial sting of early mountain mornings. He cleaned the trout himself, slicing open the fish bellies and scooping out their innards with his bare hands. He reminded me that, not too long ago, humans survived this way, and that I should know where my food comes from.
Once, he found a sac of orange caviar inside a female trout. The eggs slid out of his hands and popped and frothed down the drain. With his eyebrows furrowed, he wrapped the fish in foil and put it in the freezer, separate from the rest. He had to lie down and listen to the pines creak in the late afternoon.
My father could never separate the self from the act. If American fatherhood is about self-reliance, Jewish fatherhood is about reliance of the self, of teaching one’s kids to remember that feelings, not dreams, make a successful person.