Afternoon on Bass Lake

Hot. Blazing hot under a bright July sky. No whisper of air moved. Sweat trickled down the boy's back, tickling as it coursed its way, and the air was filled with the dust of the dry, brown, waist high grass they shattered as they dragged the small boat along. Muscles ached, the boat made a hissing sound as it slid, and they grunted and coughed in the dust and the heat. Hot.

"Only a little more, now", the father said, and the boy was glad. The half-mile pull was beginning to seem much longer. He tried to protect his hands from the rope, thinking of the fishing to come. Blistered hands and a flyrod make poor companions.

It felt good to be working beside this man, this stranger who was his father. Too many years had slipped by since the parents parted ways, and now, at the age of eighteen, he felt an estrangement, hard to identify, but uncomfortable. As if some crucial ingredient were missing. Separation, years of the mother's unspoken disapproval, unpleasant memories and the passage of time had driven a velvet wedge between them.

The lake was small, round and perfectly flat in the calm air. The blue sky and scattered, puffy white clouds reflected perfectly on its surface. A rim of flooded, mostly dead trees cupped the western half, while the eastern was bordered by the dry grass fields they had sweated through. An active beaver lodge and an expanse of water lilies bulged from the shoreline in the northeastern corner.

They dragged the boat down to the water's edge through the rim of trees and slid it softly onto the water. The shade felt good to both of them, and they sat leaning against trees and rested. The boy was eager to get to the fishing, but the older man seemed in no hurry, rather seemed in a mood to talk. "I used to fish for bluegills a little with a flyrod", he said, "but I've never tried one for bass. I've always used bait casting rods for that." "Yes, I remember", the boy replied. His face remained impassive, but unbidden into his mind came crashing a scene from long ago, one painful and confusing to recall. Another day, another lake, he and his father in another boat. He, fishing with his father's flyrod, wrestling in his eight-year-old way with a fat bluegill, his first, his father's strident voice, clear after all these years, "Don't break my rod! Don't break my rod!" Nothing else remained of the patchy memory of that day, no praise for having caught the fat bluegill, no fatherly pride in his accomplishment, only relief that the goddamned rod survived the episode. The scene faded, and he thought, savagely, "Yes, you old son-of-a-bitch, I remember."

Certain that his emotions were plain on his face, startled by their intensity, the boy fumbled with the canteen, drank and made his way to the boat. The father followed, and they pushed off into the mirror smooth water.

The fishing was good. Refusing to fish, the father sculled the small boat around the shore, positioning the boy for his bass bugging. The boy fished hard all the afternoon, casting well, putting the Hula Popper in all the likely places. The eight weight bamboo rod handled the heavy flies well, and the bass were cooperative. "You say there are only bass in this lake, no bluegills or perch, no pike?" "Yeah, I've never caught anything but bass here. Don't know why that's so. We just call it Bass Lake, because that's what we catch here."

During the long, hot afternoon, they circled the small lake several times, and on each circuit the boy caught bass, more than he had ever caught. They were mostly small, about two pounds, but scrappy, aerial fighters.

The two chatted about many things as they fished, unimportant, everyday things. To a casual observer all seemed serene, just a boy and his father fishing the afternoon away. The boy felt detached, though, as if watching the scene from outside himself. He had never caught so many bass, he had never cast so well, and he had never had anyone to handle the boat for him, keeping him constantly in the perfect casting position. Yet, there was a tension in him which prevented complete enjoyment of the day, a sense of opportunities lost, beyond recovery. Worse, those unpleasant scenes from his childhood kept flashing into his mind at the oddest times, triggered by some word, some gesture, some sound.

He found himself sitting, feet dangling, on a small dock, fishing for yellow perch with a cane pole and worms, with tears trickling down his face and his jaw clinched tightly in anger, his mother sitting nearby trying to console him. Disappointment, doubt, confusion. Why had his father refused to let him go fishing with ...

"He's got it!" Jerked back to reality by his father's voice, he saw that his bug was floating slowly back to the surface, realised he had been wrapped up in the memory, wool gathering instead of fishing. Other than that one sharp alarm, the father remained silent about the boy's distraction, even when the incident was repeated several times during the afternoon.

Many sketchy memories were examined by the boy as he fished and remembered, remembered and fished, throughout the afternoon. Saving his money for his flyrod, teaching himself to fly fish, catching his first bass. That first cheap, dangerous shotgun that had a habit of firing when the bolt was closed, the first rabbit taken, the first quail. Squirrel hunting alone, with the no-name single shot .22 salvaged from an uncle's attic. All of it without his father there, without his father's guidance, advice, or help. No father to share with.

Bits and pieces of earlier, darker, more frightening memories came from time to time, memories of drunken yells, senseless violence, loud curses in the night, terror for reasons he knew not but remembered well. Too much father to share with.

As the afternoon wore on and twilight approached, the boy relived many things, wandered down pathways in his mind unvisited for many years. Some misty memories brought sadness, grief, loneliness to such a degree he could not trust his voice. Others brought such anger and indignation that he felt tempted to scream out his rage. Yet, through it all, he fished, he caught bass, he chatted with his father and he remained outwardly impassive. He was strangely aware that he was having the time of his life and had never been more miserable.

Each time they fished around the northeast corner of the lake, he took bass from the edge of the bed of lily pads, or from near the beaver lodge. Each time he considered casting back into a large hole in the pads, one that looked as good as any spot he had seen on the lake that day. Each time, he did not, sensing that it was just a bit out of his range.

The boy fished until it was quite dark, casting blindly into the same spots he had caught fish from during the afternoon, his sense of timing and distance honed by all the casting during the day. The bass continued to appreciate his efforts. Finally, the father said, "Well, it's been a good day, and I hate to quit, but it's getting pretty late. We've still got to drag the boat back to the car, so I think we had better be heading home." "Alright, I'm ready to go. I would like to fish that patch of lily pads one last time, though, if you don't mind, on the way out", the boy replied.

The father sculled the boat slowly along the edge of the pads, and the boy cast, as best he could guess in the darkness, close to the pads. As they approached the hole in the pads, the sky reflecting in it made it stand out clearly, and it looked even better than in the daylight. "Dad, I'd like to fish that hole, but I can't reach it from here. Can you nose the boat back into the pads a little so I can cast to it?" "Sure", the father replied, "but with the boat sitting in the pads, you're going to have a helluva time landing a bass if you hook one." "I'll try hard not to catch one, then", the boy cracked, grinning in the darkness. The father slowly and quietly sculled the boat deep into the pads, then turned it to give the boy a good shot. It was still a long reach, especially in the dark, but the boy false cast until he had out what felt to be enough line and shot the bug. In the reflections on the surface, he saw and heard the bug land just on the left edge of the pool, up on a pad, saw the disturbance as the line landed on the water. Certain that all the effort would be wasted, angry and embarrassed that he had placed the cast poorly with his father watching every move, the boy waited a moment, then twitched the bug to see if it was hooked on the pad. It wasn't, and came hopping cleanly off the pad into the water. Then disappeared. A tremendous disturbance exploded in the spot where the bug had been, and the boy struck hard. He felt a heavy, heavy weight for a moment as the bass lunged back under the pads, then the line stopped moving.

"Christ!! Almost made me wet my pants! Have you got him?" the father yelled, excitement in his voice, as he began moving the boat through the thick pads, toward the clearing. "I can't tell, the line feels dead, I think he hung me up on the lily pads", the boy said, his voice quavering. "Keep a tight line on him until I get the boat into the clear", said the father, sculling madly. He moved the boat into the clearing, then up close to where the bass had struck. The boy kept a tight line on the big fish, but felt a sense of hopelessness, certain the biggest bass of his life was gone for good.

"Ease up on the tension just a little, and see if you can feel anything, son", the father suggested. The boy did, and yelled, "He's still on, I can feel him move when I let up!" Maneuvering the small boat directly over the spot and bringing out a flashlight, the father shined the beam straight down into the clear water. "He's there, and he's one big son-of-a-bitch", he said. "He's wrapped the line around three or four stems, but he's well hooked, it looks like." And he started taking off his shirt.

Amazed as he realized what his father had in mind, the boy blurted "What are you going to do? You can't get down into those pads in the dark!" "If I can do what I think, I won't have to", the father said. "I'm going to try to reach down and cut the stems above where he has your line wrapped. I'll just grab the stems, follow them down as far as I can reach and cut them off. Maybe that'll turn him loose."

Kneeling in the bottom of the boat, tucking his feet under the center seat, he directed the boy to sit on his feet and legs, and opened his pocketknife. Then, after one last look with the light and getting a grip on the stems that needed cutting, he plunged into the water nearly to his waist. Holding his rod and line with one hand, sitting on his father's feet, while holding onto the gunnel with the other hand and leaning as far as possible to keep the boat upright, the boy sat in the darkness for what seemed a very long time.

Suddenly, the line moved, and he realized the fish was loose, and running again, in the direction of the pads. Snubbing him strongly, he stopped the fish cold, and it turned toward the clear water. With a great splashing and gasping, his father straightened up and collapsed into the bottom of the boat, wetting the boy thoroughly in the process, but turning him loose to fight the fish.

And fight him, he did. With the boy handling the rod, and the father quietly offering advice, they fought the fish together. And it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Jumping repeatedly, the bass fought long and hard, but the father and the son fought long and smart, and eventually the father was able to reach down and lift the fish out of the water. Holding it up and shining the flashlight on it, he said, "I told you he was a big son-of-a-bitch!" The boy took the bass, and turning it round, looked at it carefully, as though storing its image in his mind. Then, looking his father in the eye for a moment, he leaned over and slid the bass back into the warm, quiet water. They sat there silently for a time, each absorbed by his own thoughts.

Stirring, the father said, "Son, that's bigger than any bass I've ever caught. I can't believe you whipped him on a flyrod, in the dark, in this little pool. Hell of a good job. Congratulations." And he offered the boy his hand. Never realizing why, the boy lunged to grab his father's hand and gripped it tightly, like a drowning man desperately grasping at survival.

Sitting there in that small boat in the dark, drifting slowly in the quiet pool, they held each other by the hand for a long moment. Nothing was said, but volumes were spoken.

Copyright 1996 B.E. Spencer All rights reserved.


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