I never saw my mother fish, but she spun many a story of her childhood summers casting her line at Lake Murray, a tiny fishing settlement in South Carolina. She would tuck me in with dreams of worms wriggling on hooks, the sticky-hot scent of southern summer air filling my mind. She was a fisherwoman, like her mother before her — sitting on the kudzu-smothered banks, dipping her toes and her line into the cool water.
In her stories, summers at Lake Murray stretched into a thousand lifetimes; a string hammock, a local boy who captured her child’s heart, and always, always a fishing pole.
Maybe that’s what got me started on fishing. The romance of it. The Faulkner-esque sense of summer and hot and fishing being linked irrevocably. The summer I was 12, my friend Lori asked if I’d like to go fishing with her. She’d asked other friends, but they were more interested in Nintendo, or Barbies, and most thought worms were completely gross. Not me. I’d been raised on fish stories, and like a spider spinning a web from the knowledge of her mother, and her mother, and her mother before, I knew even though I’d never tied a line, I could fish.
But we lived in a suburban subdivision, where the only bodies of water were the ubiquitous in-ground pools in everyone’s backyards. I wondered where exactly she was going to take me fishing.
When I told my mother about our fishing trip, she beamed and hot-footed it to the basement, where she dug up a wicker creel, an old fishing rod, and a stringer. She explained how to hook the fish on the stringer, then put them in the creel in the water to keep them alive. I was fascinated. Then she handed me a plastic ice cream bucket, pointed me to a perfect spot in the backyard to dig worms, and wished me luck. She never even asked where I was going to find a fishing hole in our neighborhood.
By the time my bucket was full of writhing worms, Lori had arrived — pole slung over her shoulder, neon pink T-shirt, and a soccer duffle full of snacks. We were Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, off on a grand adventure in the wilds of suburban Maryland. We strolled down the street, passing neatly manicured lawns and perfectly spaced homes with gleaming windows. The air was hot and still, except for the occasional roar of a lawnmower being started somewhere in the neighborhood.
About a mile from my house, Lori turned down what looked like someone’s long private driveway. She told me she knew of a pond just down this road, and that it was okay for us to fish in it. We pattered down the road a while until it forked off to the left and became a gravel drive. Just beyond a stand of trees, we found the pond.
It was a small pond, possibly meant for drainage, but someone had built a short wooden dock that just cleared the cattails growing around the edges. It was bordered by a cornfield, and the soft swishing as a breeze brushed through the cornstalks welcomed us like a sigh.
We settled in, grabbing our poles and our worms and set to fishing. We sat on the bank most of the day, listening to the frogs chirrup in the reeds; sipping on Capri Sun pouches as the sun burned our noses. We lost a lot of worms, from poor hooking and from the nibblers that got away.
In the late afternoon, when the sun was beginning to go golden near the edge of the sky, and I was almost asleep in the drowsy summer heat, my line jumped. My eyes popped open, and I jerked the rod, feeling the tiny tug of a fish. I reeled it in, and found I had hooked a little sunfish, just a shade bigger than my hand — big enough to keep, but it wouldn’t make much of a meal. No matter. I had done what I had come to do, and I strung that fish and carried it home in triumph.
I, too, was a fisherwoman.