Ever since we moved to Tennessee, my wife has been dreaming of buying a big plot of land somewhere and becoming more self-sustaining, raising chickens and goats, growing our own vegetables, and fishing in the many nearby waterways. We currently live in a subdivision and will for at least another year, but when school let out for the summer, she reminded me we don’t need our own mini-farm to go fishing.
My girls are huge fans of Man Vs. Wild, Survivorman, Dual Survival, The Alaska Experiment, and pretty much any show where people have to kill their own food, so as soon as they heard my wife mention fishing, they began begging me to take them shopping for fishing rods. So I did, figuring two fishing rods would be enough for the family. Then both girls selected pinks ones. Frankly, I’m not secure enough to stand around in public waving a long pink stick, so I chose a third fishing rod in a manly shade of deep green.
The trouble with owning fishing rods is that after a couple of days of using them for make-believe fencing matches, the kids actually demand to go fishing. Since there’s a public fishing area on the Harpeth River less than three minutes away, I quickly ran out of excuses. We went fishing on Monday.
I’ve held a fishing rod in my hands maybe three times in my entire life. My dad’s interest in lakes and rivers was limited to figuring out how to retrieve his golf balls from them, and when I once asked about perhaps taking my brother and me fishing someday, he patiently explained that fishing is just an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer, which we could do in our own back yard.
So even though I’m 52 years old, this whole fishing business was all new to me … which became painfully evident when we climbed down the steep banks of the Harpeth River and opened our little plastic boxes of tackle.
“What’s that for?” my wife asked as I stood there flipping a wire semi-circle back and forth over some spool-thing attached to the rod. (This was after I’d spent ten minutes figuring out how to keep the spool-thing from falling off the rod.)
“Uh … I think the line goes around it. Or over it. Or under it. I don’t know.” We took turns seeing who could spend the most time fussing with the spool-thing without accidentally accomplishing anything useful.
Fortunately, two teenage girls who were fishing a bit downstream recognized that when a grown man stares at a fishing pole for more than two minutes without moving, it’s a subtle cry for help. With the born-and-bred southern hospitality that makes this area such a pleasant place to live, they set down their poles and came over to serve as instructors. After feeding the line through some ring-things on the pole (which, as it turns out, you have to screw together first) and demonstrating how a reel works, one of them even tied a hook onto my line for me. Then they both moved a safe distance away.
Much as I adore my wife, she has a couple of annoying habits … one of which is being good at things she’s never tried before. On my birthday several years ago, she joined me for a round of golf on a par-three course. Since she’d never so much as taken a practice swing at the range, I gave her a two-minute lesson while we waiting on the first tee. Apparently wanting to flatter me as an instructor, she responded by landing five of her nine tee shots on the green. If she could putt a little better, we’d be divorced by now.
So I wasn’t surprised when she pulled a decent-sized fish from the river about thirty seconds after casting her first line. She held up the fish for the obligatory picture, then dropped it into a cooler filled with ice.
I spent the next three hours proving that if water-logged sticks provided complete protein, I could feed my family with nothing more than a fishing pole. I also caught several large rocks. Unable to reel in the rocks, I kept having to cut my line and start over. That’s how I discovered that fishing line is specially formulated to tangle itself into impossible knots no matter how carefully you try to unwind it. I also discovered that with the proper flick of the wrist, it’s surprisingly easy to toss a hook into the highest branches of a tree. (Since I was facing the river, the tree limbs I hooked were of course above and behind me.)
My six-year-old caught a fish that was too small to consider eating, so she threw it back. By the end of the expedition, my wife’s fish was the only one in the cooler. But it was big enough for a meal, so we drove home feeling victorious. We came. We saw. We caught our own wild food.
After thumbing through some recipes for fish, my wife set the cooler on the kitchen counter and reached in to retrieve the main course. At that point, she turned to the rest of us with an excited expression and said, “BWAAAAAAHHH!!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “I know I’ve been expressing a lot of enthusiasm lately for getting back to nature and sourcing more of our food by raising chickens and goats on our own mini-farm someday and learning to fish in the local waters in the meantime, but up to this point in my life the only fish I’ve cooked came from grocery stores and fish markets where you know for a fact the fish are really and truly dead when you pick them up, and while I assumed putting a fish on ice for four hours was 100 percent fatal, it turns out this fish is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I found somewhat surprising.”
After dropping the wriggling fish back into the ice chest, she ran to her computer to read up on how to humanely kill it. Then she went to the toolbox to retrieve a flat-head screwdriver. I was beginning to wonder if she’d just learned how to disassemble the fish and remove the spark plugs, but then she grabbed it, set it on a cutting board, and jammed the screwdriver into its head behind the right eye.
“Uh, honey … are you sure you didn’t get your instructions from an online guide for mob enforcers?”
“That’s what you’re supposed to do with a fish. That’s where the brain is.”
Confident she’d dispatched the fish once and for all, she grabbed a knife and made an incision in the belly. Then she stopped cutting to remark, “BWAAAAAHHHH!!” – which is this cute way she has of saying, “It turns out I missed the brain and jammed the screwdriver into whatever you’d call the fish version of a neck, which you would think would be enough to kill a fish even if you do miss the brain, but it turns out they’re tough little creatures, and this one is still alive and kicking, which I must admit I find somewhat surprising.”
The fish — which by this point had been frozen, stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver and partially gutted with a knife — was looking at her with a fish-eyed expression I interpreted as “For the love of God, lady, just @#$%ing kill me already!” I suggested she might also want to water-board the fish for good measure, but she explained that fish don’t mind water-boarding and I should really shut the @#$% up now. Then she grabbed a cleaver and did a Marie Antoinette number on the thing.
To her credit, she calmly finished cleaning the fish and cooked up a tasty fish-and-tomato stew. When I asked later if this experience had dampened her enthusiasm for becoming a latter-day pioneer woman, raising and catching and killing her own food, she said no.
Good. I’m looking forward to the first time she goes after a live chicken.