From Chicken Soup for the Father & Son Soul

Rite of Passage

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Albert Einstein

A gray dawn broke over the leaden waters of Lake Eugenia, heralding the final day of my fishing trip with my son. So far it had been a disaster. Everything had gone wrong. We had snagged our propeller, tangled tackle, lost lures, and punctured a hole in our inflatable boat. Worst of all, we had not caught a single fish!

Our misadventures began after my nine-year-old, Rob, talked me into taking him on his first fishing trip. Now, you must understand that I have a decidedly limited enthusiasm for outdoor activity. Walks on nature trails and fishing off the dock at a friend’s cottage highlight my wilderness experience. Rob, however, was determined to have an outdoor adventure with Dad.

When we arrived at the lake, we noted the partially submerged stumps and lily pads dotting the surface of the bay. The conditions were ideal! We could almost see the fish flicking their fins, daring us to catch them!

We eagerly emptied the truck and made camp. Then after inflating our boat, we mounted the motor, loaded our fishing tackle, and launched. However, our quest for fish got off to a slow start. Initially, much of our time was spent dodging stumps and constantly cleaning our propeller of weeds. Then after we had barely wetted our lines, the wind rose, the waves crested, our small electric motor began to labor, and we started to drift! We forgot about fishing, and in desperation unshipped the oars. With Rob rowing and me coaxing the motor, we fought our way safely back to shore. I was certain I heard the fish giggling.

Well, no matter! Dining in the “great outdoors” would lift our spirits! We began to prepare our first camp-cooked meal: steak and home fries, seared over an open fire. The wind blew, the flames flickered, smoke swirled, and our eyes watered. But regardless of singed eyebrows and second-degree burns to our hands, we persevered! And despite the fact that our steaks were charred on the outside, raw on the inside, and seasoned with first-aid ointment, we dined with relish. We topped off our meal by toasting some marshmallows, then retreated to the tent to sleep. I dozed off to the sound of waves lapping gently against the shore. Apparently Rob didn’t. He maintains that my snoring not only drowned out the music of the night, but also would probably have deterred a rabid wolf.

Awaking refreshed, at 5:30 AM, we shivered over cardboard boxes of snack-pack cereal and sallied forth at first light. The fish, however, decided to sleep in. By noon we had had enough and limped back to the dock with a still empty stringer and literally, “that sinking feeling.” Not only were our egos deflating, but so was our boat! A submerged stump had holed the largest floatation chamber in our rubber raft, and we were losing air at an alarming rate. Undaunted, we dug out the patching kit and carried out running repairs. We could cope!

And then, the rains came!

Donning sou’westers and looking like Atlantic fishermen in a toy boat, we struck out again. Damp but determined, we stuck with it, stalking our finned quarry around the lake, trying every lure in our tackle boxes, and testing each technique; all in vain. The sun came out, but the fish didn’t, and our lures remained untouched.

Eventually time ran out, and as the sun began to set, I was forced to turn the boat for home. Rob sat facing me, his shoulders slumped in disappointment and trolling his bait behind while we concocted elaborate excuses to explain our lack of success. We were fishing failures!

As our bow approached the dock, I shut down the motor and Rob reluctantly began to retrieve his lure. Suddenly, the line jerked taut and streaked away from the boat. He pulled back and a huge large-mouth bass exploded from the lake. The fight was on!

Rob’s rod bowed as fins and fingers strained in combat. His wily opponent leaped, twisted, turned, and dove, using every trick it knew in its fight for freedom. But the hook held and Rob slowly gained ground. Then catastrophe struck. In the midst of this titanic struggle, our temporary patch popped loose and air began to hiss angrily from our rubber raft. We were sinking!

I sprang into action! Alternating between pumping, panting, and shouting enthusiastic, if not expert, instructions, I did my best to keep us afloat. But it was a losing battle. We were going down fast!

As our boat sank slowly to the bottom, that mighty fish broke water time and again, dancing on its tail, trying valiantly to throw the hook. The struggle continued, and my heart pounded in my throat as father and son stood side by side, knee deep in water in our sunken craft, working together to land that battling bass. Then the line went limp!

Time stood still as Rob reeled furiously, taking up the slack. Was our quarry still hooked? That question was answered in an instant by another great leap. Scales of green and gold glistened in the spray as that bass burst from the water and splashed down right beside us. I scooped and with a cry of triumph netted our catch.

Shaking with excitement, we abandoned ship and waded to shore, bearing our prize on high. During the struggle some fellow campers had gathered near the dock and their cries of “Way to go, kid!” and “Great fish!” filled our ears! My chest swelled with pride as Rob lifted that “lunker” from the net and strained to hold it aloft. Cameras clicked. We noted the measurements. Then Rob gently placed that monarch of the lake in the dockside holding tank.

That night we sat at our campfire, reliving the battle. Instant celebrities and now seasoned veterans, we dispensed sage angling advice to any and all who stopped by to see “the fish.”

Morning came. We loaded the truck. It was time to go, but we knew we had one thing left to do. Rob walked alone out onto the dock, paused for a moment, and then carefully tipped the tank, spilling the water and returning his fish to its watery lair. A magical moment, a rite of passage, and a special memory in the lives of both father and son. We would share many more.

John Forrest

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