I’m a poor angler. Not that fishing plays a big role in my life as an adjunct lit teacher in Milledgeville, Georgia. My students thread fishhooks into the bills of their caps, and the relationship just about ends there. (Though I guess there’s a shared history, too, between literature and fishing—Aesop, Moby Dick, Hemingway—but that doesn’t exactly haunt me.) The sprawling lakes in central Georgia—Sinclair, Oconee, Lanier: “Georgia’s lake country!”—are all man-made and part of the power grid, so from April to November they’re warm and brown, and from a boat or a pier you can’t see far enough in to tell if there are even any fish alive in there. For a similar experience, try to see if there are any moles in your backyard. But I do know there are fish in Milledgeville’s Lake Sinclair, because little Georgia College has a nationally ranked angling team, of which my old thesis adviser is head, and they host tournaments in that lake all the time. Though I’m not sure if they actually catch the fish with traditional rod and reel, or just float along with a net and scoop all the dead ones off the surface. Lake Sinclair shares its shoreline with a coal plant, and is also host to flesh-eating bacteria.
But for a few weeks now I’ve been traveling, gratefully, to the north, currently staying with my girlfriend—fellow Troppist Elizabeth Bohnhorst—in Northern Michigan, on the shores of that extraordinary eponymous lake. This is real lake country. They call it the Third Coast. The North Caribbean. Without consulting Liz, I can name Michigan, Long, Silver, Crystal, Bar, Bass, Platte, Mud, Green, Ann, and Dubonnet—all lakes within thirty minutes of her driveway, all of them sizable, all unique, and all strikingly, chillingly beautiful. Sylvan shores, glacial water, clear, and, when the sun’s on the horizon, fucking prismatic. And yes, full of fish.
So the second evening we’re there, right around sunset, Elizabeth’s dad, Tom, offered to take us out on Lake Dubonnet for a little bass fishing. Tom just bought a spiffy new fishing boat—nothing boastful, maybe a fifteen-footer, but outfitted with a sturdy floor for standing casts, and an enormous outboard motor of which Tom seemed Tim Allen-proud. But don’t get the wrong idea—Tom doesn’t own top-siders or pastel polos, nor does he mount animals on his wall or thread fishhooks into his hats. He doesn’t even wear hats. Man’s got more hair than a hedgehog. And he wears sensible tennis shoes—Avias, I think. The Bohnhorsts, I should take care to say, haven’t had an easy go of it, but for years they’ve worked sedulously and intelligently and humbly, and have earned themselves what looks to be, dare I say it, “the life,” which, if you live up here, includes a modest fishing boat with sturdy floor and megaton outboard motor fueled by testosterone.
Except this evening, that new motor wouldn’t work. The ripcord wouldn’t budge. Tom yanked and hauled, spat and cursed, dug in his heels and pulled like Bugs Bunny after an absurdly big carrot. He wiped sweat. He pulled levers. He tweaked knobs. He pounded the motor with his sensible shoe. He pounded with his cushy skull. I said something unhelpful about “the housing” or whatever. He glared at me murderously. Liz remained unflappable. Tom took some things apart. He put them back together. He hitched the ripcord over his shoulder like a strongman. He took a running start. So great were these efforts that the kinetic energy of him just trying to get the motor running actually carried us halfway across the lake. Visibly upset, embarrassed, he gave up, flicked on the auxiliary electric motor and we puttered along the lake from hole to hole. Liz read a book. As we’d had no luck with the motor, we had no luck with the fish. We saw them leap, break water, even felt them hit our fake bait, but neither of us could get one on. Soon enough, the sun sank to the horizon and struck the lake gold. Liz pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head.
And then I got one. Nothing boastful, but a respectable largemouth bass—thirteen inches, a little over a pound. Liz shrugged. Now I said before that I’m a poor angler, and I am. Fishing, it seems to me, has little to do with the casting, with the waiting, the reeling—anyone can do that, can land a fish if they’re patient or lucky. This Lake Dubonnet fish I landed was luck. But being lucky doesn’t make me a poor angler. What makes me a poor angler is this: it’s that after I’ve got the fish on the line, have set the hook, have reeled and slacked and tugged and reeled again, have held the line and fought off the last-ditch dash under the boat, have pulled the fish wriggling and gasping and gleaming up and out of the water, have held the arcing rod steady over the boat, the fish just spinning there, exhausted, defeated, I have no idea what to do with it.
When I was little—seven, eight—I frequently fished off a dock with my grandfather at Woodside Lake, in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia. Woodside was more Georgia than Michigan: small, placid, weedy, brown. We caught only small sunfish, and they’ve got spiky fins, so my grandfather always took them off the line for me. It was masterful, how he held his hand just so, laid it on the fish’s back and smoothed its fins, plucked the hook. Whenever I see something done well, I still get a flicker of that image, the shape of his hand settling those spiky fins. Liz is the first and only person I ever told about that image, and I don’t know how she got it out of me, but when I told her, lying in bed one morning a couple of years ago, I cried. For the first time in years, I cried. I hadn’t cried when my grandfather died, fifteen years before, but now I wept, gasped, admitting that memory to surface.
So now, when I’ve got the fish reeled in and beaten, spinning in the boat, there’s a protracted period of silence where water just drips off the fish’s forked tail and patters on the boat floor, and after a few seconds of this whoever else is in the boat with me realizes that I’m not admiring my catch—I just don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Then whoever it is—in this case, Tom—politely clears their throat and pulls the line toward them, smooths any spiky fins and plucks the hook. This Lake Dubonnet bass had swallowed the hook, so Tom had to pull hard on the line, and unlike the motor’s ripcord, this line gave, and he came up with the hook, tossed the fish back into the water and wiped his hands on his shorts.
Tom had no luck that evening—no bites, on top of his broken motor—and before my bass had disappeared back below, Tom suggested we head in to shore. Before I could say anything, he turned around to give the motor another pull, and this time the cord caught, and the engine woke up, and the boat leapt forward just as it should have, and we sped toward the shore.
It’s idiotic to catch a fish when you don’t even know how to remove the hook. Because it’s not about catching anything at all—it’s about knowing what to do with what you get, with what you have, be it a hooked fish, be it a memory, be it a great love, a great lake, a great outboard motor. And just as we hit top speed, Tom pulled the rudder hard to the right and swung us around, held it there, and we circled the middle of the lake, making two tight, concentric swoops, our wake colliding with itself in the center, a whirlpool, a wormhole, beautiful, confused, triumphant. I laid my hand on Elizabeth’s back, and her father took us home.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.