Illustration by Curtis Parker
In Florida, if you’re lucky to be the first who wakes up, you are treated to a private welcoming by the still salt air, the plum-colored light.
My two younger brothers remained asleep in our motel room at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. No sound from my parents and sisters next door.
We had arrived late the night before, after two endless days and over 1,300 miles on U.S. 41 in my father’s green ’63 Pontiac station wagon. This was my family’s first visit to the Sunshine State — its nickname in white letters on every blue license plate in the motel lot — and it was time to rouse Kenneth, 12, and Pat, 11, to join me for reconnaissance. I was 13 years old.
Palm trees, snowy egrets, pink houses with clay-tile roofs: It was all alien to three boys from Chicago. The focus of our search turned up just a block away. A place to fish: a length of canal with no houses in front, its dark surface boiling with concentric circles and bulges from creatures below.
Suddenly a fish resembling a bowling pin launched a foot into the air before crashing back into the water. We looked at one another open-mouthed and sprinted back to the motel for our rods.
After a slight detour to a 7-Eleven, where we bought a box of Mrs. Paul’s frozen shrimp for bait, we returned to the canal and set up on the bank. Almost immediately, we caught several fish that looked like bream but hurt to handle, like grabbing a fistful of briars.
When I cranked in one catfish with lethal-looking fins, and Kenneth balked at landing a very unhappy “sea serpent,” which we later learned was a skate, we sent Pat to fetch our father for help. Dad was our mentor in all things piscatorial. And our obsession to fish wherever we traveled was, for better or worse, implanted by the old man.
It was not any plan on his part. A traveling salesman who’d grown up in a city apartment, Charlie McGrath never even held a rod till he met my mother in 1939 and accepted an offer he could hardly refuse from her father, Joe Cichoszewski, to soak some earthworms off a muddy creek bank for bullheads and sunfish near their country cabin in Beaverville, Illinois.
He liked it well enough that the two went again, dropping baited hooks over the seawall on Chicago’s lakefront, Dad going so far as to propose marriage to my mother — though he swore that the jumbo perch he and Joe caught, so big they resembled lunker bass, had not figured in his decision.
Not long after the wedding, the fish and fun came to an abrupt halt when Dad left town to serve as an anti-aircraft artillery officer in World War II. When after four years he finally came home, he had to find work, along with a place where my mother and he could raise children — eight of them, eventually.
But Dad never forgot the pleasures of fishing. When he finally earned enough money working for his uncle at Consolidated Tile, he rented a housekeeping cabin on a lake up north in summer, for the two weeks of annual vacation from the company.
That first summer at a fish camp in Spooner, Wisconsin, he taught all of us — my five brothers, two sisters and me — the rudiments of angling. He had rigged fiberglass rods and Sears bait-casting reels for himself and my two older brothers. For the rest of us, he provided cane poles with black, braided line and split shot above a steel leader and J hook, with which we spent hours on the dock snaring bluegill, perch and bullhead.
Every morning at sunrise, he took my two older brothers in the rowboat to a secret spot out on the lake. The early hour, the darkness, the chill — I was considered too young and would have to wait until next year. Which drove me insane.
Mid-morning, I would stand on the dock and peer across the water for their vessel. I tried to imagine what it might be like to fish out of the boat over unfathomable depths. Each night, I would fall asleep and dream of the giant, exotic fish teeming below.
The three finally returned around lunchtime with a stringer of fish that Jimmy needed to hoist with both hands. It included several bass, an alligator-like pike and bluegill five times larger than those we caught off the dock.
The commotion, excitement and Charlie Jr.’s ceremonial gutting and scaling in the fish-cleaning shed, somehow made me despair about ever ascending to their lofty rank.
Then, after another night of deep-sea dreams, I awakened in the semidarkness, and Dad was standing beside my bed.
I can still hear his gravelly whisper. And I remember how hard I tried to stifle my shivering as he rowed us out onto the misty lake — Charlie Jr. manning the anchor at the bow, and Jimmy and I sharing the transom seat.
My father had his own way of rowing: first the left oar, then the right, instead of both at once. The squeaking of the oarlocks was rhythmic, like a metronome. And I would have liked for the music to continue the entire breadth of the lake. But when he paused, looked around and whispered for Charlie to drop the anchor, I could sense his intimacy with the lake and the creatures below.
He showed me how to release the Sears clicker while using two fingers to slow the line as the spool unwound — the weighted rig with the succulent bait falling to the bottom.
He explained how I must “see” underwater through my hands and my head: A single tick in the handle might be a cautious bluegill. A series of vibrations, likely a perch going at the red worm like a woodpecker. A jolt was a big fish, a hit-and-run bass, so hang on.
But after all that, at the first bite, I dropped the rod on the floorboards, so startling was the sensation of a live creature agitating from 15 feet down. And I remember my father’s deep laugh, after which he picked up my rod and showed me how to take up the slack and reel the fish home.
What I learned that morning, but which I could not articulate at the time, was that our journey in the boat was not just for fishing. It was about the allure of nature and the unknown. The closeness among four “men” sharing a mission. Each individual’s discoveries became everyone’s. Each accomplishment a matter of pride for all.
Though I could not have known it at the time, the last fishing trip I would take with my father happened one fall when I was not working because of a teachers strike. When I called and asked if he wanted to join me for a road trip to Wisconsin, he agreed without hesitation, saying it was about time he broke in the new rod and reel he received as a retirement gift from the Calgon Corporation, for which he had been a regional sales manager.
“You take care of the car and gas, and I’ll handle food and lodging,” he said, trying to make it sound like a fair split. I did not argue.
I did worry, however. Not about money, the stoppage of my paychecks notwithstanding; but about how the two of us would get along. For as we got closer to our departure date, I realized we had not been alone together in years.
Certainly, we saw each other plenty: birthdays, barbecues, Sunday visits.
And since childhood, I had become even more immersed in fishing, participating in tournaments and writing stories for outdoor magazines. I built a cabin on a 2,000-acre lake, and he and Mom would drive up in the summer so they could fish with their three grandchildren, the way he did with me.
But the prospect of being his partner around the clock, with no wives or children around, gave me pause. Whether in the car or the boat or the cabin, would we be compatible? Would we have enough to talk about?
Would he tire of my company, or vice versa?
My fears vanished after we walked through the door of a café in Cornell, Wisconsin, when we stopped for breakfast.
We were welcomed by the abrupt hush with which townies often welcome tourists. And I was apprehensive since my father had this big, booming voice to match his frame. Whereas the café was tiny, crowded with farm antiques in every corner and on wall shelves, and miniature serving tables nearly touching one another. Like a dollhouse.
“Table or booth?” asked the host.
“Whatever won’t collapse under all this,” said my father, his palms held out.
“Wait till you try to get into the bathroom,” said another big man seated across the room, gesturing toward the narrow door. Laughter jingled. Conversations resumed.
My father was no comic, but wherever we went those few days, he managed to make people feel comfortable. Including me. It was with good reason that he was the top salesman at his company all those years.
Our first morning, however, was a mistake. I took him muskie fishing on Moose Lake, casting big plugs and spinners almost until noon. A lone, wary fish followed my bucktail but turned away boat-side. My father had tried to remain enthusiastic, but the hours of standing and casting took their toll.
The second morning, we stopped along the county road where a sign said “Nitecrawlers — Self Serve,” and left two dollars for one of the plastic tubs we took out of a fridge next to the garage.
I knew of a secret, deep pool where we might catch some walleye. It was drizzling at the boat launch, but Dad said he had a windbreaker with a hood that ought to keep him dry.
After anchoring, we cast slip sinker rigs toward the hole and tightened our lines. The river wasn’t more than 50 feet wide, and we sat inside a tunnel of trees, the leaves all scarlet and yellow. We could hear water flowing from rapids around the bend.
My rod shaft banged against the gunnel, and I took up the slack and set the hook: A smallmouth bass, a two-pound jackhammer, surrendered finally to the net.
Before I could remove the hook, my father had one of his own. His fish made a desperate dash beneath the boat.
And just as my father guided it into the net, it twisted and splashed him in the chest and face, and his booming laugh echoed through the woods.
The rain picked up, and the bite got stronger. It was like fishing on a near-shore reef when your shrimp never makes it to the bottom.
“Are you cold, Dad?”
The windbreaker was saturated, but my father couldn’t stop smiling, his eyes beaming like headlights with each strike. He hastened to extract the hook from each fish so he could hurry his rig back into the hole.
After catching and releasing several dozen hungry, angry smallmouth, we finally headed back to the cabin. I helped Dad out of the boat, and we turned the heater on high for the ride home.
“Boy, that was something,” he said, still shivering.
My thoughts as well. For the indescribable “something” included not just the bass feeding frenzy, but what felt like a spell cast by the river: sharing wonder and beauty and the unspoken bond between father and son.
I can still see his eyes. And his pure joy in nature, which, I realized, he had bequeathed to all of us.
He’s been gone over two decades. Still, some mornings I lie awake and hear those sounds: The rhythm of the oarlocks, thirsty for oil. The river murmuring. My father’s rumbling laughter.
Fishing. And we are together again.
An emeritus professor of English at College of DuPage, David McGrath is contributing editor of Florida Sportsman magazine and author of South Siders, a collection of his stories and columns on life in the Midwest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.