Holding my flashlight between my teeth, on all fours, I carried my worm-filled cup while scanning the illuminated circle on the wet grass. I was determined to snatch up any night crawler dumb enough to think it could find love. I considered it doing them a favor. Love was smooth going down, but on the way back up it burned. I told myself there was no point in trying again. “And that’s why,” I mumbled from behind the flashlight, “I’m going fishing.”
I had left work at two in the morning and spent the next hour crawling through the town park, filling my cup up with worms. Then I got in my truck and drove down to the dale, headed for the footbridge.
Beneath the footbridge was a stone support, structured as three steps. Here I rested my tackle box and sat down. However, this was also the breeding ground for mosquitoes. Clouds of them moved around me in the dark. Normal repellent didn’t do anything against them, so I used a repellent so strong, it burned when it touched my skin.
After a few seconds, the mosquito clouds dissipated and I noticed how those that take from you are so quick to leave.
Hooking a worm is my least favorite part of fishing, and yet the most important. It may be cruel, but when fishing, you must look away from the parts that bother you. The worm can be hooked many ways: you can lace it around the hook over and over, thread the hook through the worm, or, my favorite, leave a little bit dangling off the end to get the fish’s attention.
I reached down to pick a worm out of my cup. Looking back up at the water, I saw the moonlight ripple in the current. The water tapped against the stone support under the bridge. The bridge itself was maroon in the sunlight, but at night it was black and blended in with the sky. Dark green vegetation lined the banks, where a few dead tree branches reached out into the water. I watch the stars’ reflection dance on the black water. I turned my attention back to the twisting worm held between my two fingers.
When you hook a fish you enter into a relationship. If you plan on keeping the fish, the relationship is less vital because you do not need to worry if it lives. But, if you are a “catch and release” fisher, which I am, you must be concerned for the fish. For example, if the fish swallows your hook and you can not remove it safely, you are forced to cut the line and return the doomed fish back to the water; preferably far away from where you are fishing, so its dying scent does not scare off the other fish.
When I hooked the worm, and bit the sinker onto my line, I got ready to cast. Casting, where I was fishing, was not as entertaining as some think. I remembered how, in the daytime, tourists watched me across the stream. They waited eagerly to see me cast as far as I could. And they scoffed when I disappointed them by just dropping my line straight down in front of me. They would turn away and question my backwoods credentials, but I knew that the fish I wanted were right in front of me.
I was fishing catfish. Catfish have stinging, sharp barbs. If one of them sticks you, you go numb and bleed. Catfish sit at the bottom, finding nooks and crannies to patrol. Under the footbridge, I knew there were plenty swimming back and forth below me. And at three in the morning, they were hungry.
I looked across to the pond that spat out the stream I fished in. In the daytime, the blue heron would fly over, a water muskrat swam slowly from side to side, and ducks and geese would land and honk at each other. But, at three in the morning, none of them were there. I was fishing to escape the evident pains of a breakup, yet only isolated myself further and reinforced the feeling of aloneness in my heart.
“Night crawlers got five hearts,” I told the catfish, who were circling my bait, taking small bites of my worm. “Come on! Quit robbin’ me and hit the damn thing!”
A bite is when a fish nibbles. A hit is when they take a mouthful. That’s when you want to set your line by pulling up fast. The hook and fish kiss and the fight is on.
As I sprayed more repellent around me, I got a hit. I jumped to my feet, set the line, and yelled out “Fish on!” When the fish did not immediately give in, a smile ran across my face. The longer and harder the fight, the more there is to fight for.
I stepped to my right and tugged at an angle, but each pull was met with resistance. I moved to my left and gave it two more big tugs. The fish broke water, but re-submerged just as fast. I saw how big the fish was, and fought harder, as it raced back down to the riverbed. Increasing my drag, I checked where my pliers were, and began reeling in with everything I had.
“Come on you little bitch!” My teeth were locked as I stared at the line drawing a rippling path in the water. The catfish broke the surface again and was facing up at me. It flailed its tail back and forth, its mouth wide open. I lifted it onto the stone ledge and it started to jump. I watched it bounce and waited for an opening. I took the first chance I had and was stung on the finger. I put my foot down on top of the fish to prevent it from jumping. I dropped my rod and reached in with the other hand, pushed back the barbs and finally got a hold on it.
“Woo! God damn you’re angry!” I cheered.
The fish blinked and spread its mouth open, then closed it to a pucker.
“Alright, now work with me here baby, we gotta get that damn hook outta you.” I took the pliers to look for the hook and realized the fish had swallowed it. I began to panic.
“I can kinda see it, girl, but you’re gunna have to keep your mouth open for me here.” I angled my head and reached in with the pliers. I felt the hard metal of the hook. Having failed to clasp it the first time, I got it on the second try. I started to pull away from the curved end of the hook.
The hook and its barb fought with the fish’s guts, and I tried not to tear anything. The fish twisted back and forth and one of its barbs got free and stung my finger again. This time my finger began to go numb and bleed, I gritted my teeth and gave the hook a final pull.
“Fuck.” The hook came out with more than the remnants of a worm. Blood began to pour out from behind the fish’s gills. It pooled up in the back of its mouth and I hated myself. There was nothing I could do but carry it back to the bank. The fish’s blinking got slower and, knowing what was coming next, I tossed it back into the water, closer to me than I wanted.
I wiped our blood off on my jeans and hooked another worm in silence. Had nothing to say. Tried to forget it. Forget how the fish was dead, just a few yards away from where I had hooked it. I tried to ignore it. I sprayed at the mosquitoes, switched to a new sinker, moved a couple of feet to the side, took a breath and dropped my line back in the water.
About the Author: Max Dolan is a student in college majoring in English, Writing and Literature. He was born and raised in Western Massachusetts and fishing is in his blood. He credits all his work to his enduring and patient mother and his teachers.