It’s an image I haven’t forgotten over the last fifty years, and at this point I’m fairly certain that I never will. It was a large turtle and it was hanging from a tree, strung up by his tail and slowly twisting as he swatted the air with his front legs, futilely trying to escape. A house was just a few feet away, although nobody was visible. I tried to imagine why somebody would do such a thing to a turtle. Dad thought that perhaps they were trying to “work the fight out of him.” I realize now that, whatever the excuse, it was just another in the endless line of human cruelties.
And so we floated by, Dad working the oars to the small rowboat he had rented for a few hours. Fishing from a boat was something of a treat, as we almost always cast our lines from the shore of some local lake. It was strange that it would be just me and Dad in the boat. Normally when we went fishing there were four of us: me, my two brothers and Dad.
In addition to always fishing from the shore, we also never used bait. Dad had taught us how to fish using lures. And as such, we almost never, ever caught anything. Time and time again we’d return home to report to Mom that, although the three of us had fished for hours, we had nothing but a sunburn and a bad smell to show for it.
Yes, the three of us. Dad himself never got much of a chance to fish, occupied as he was untangling his sons’ wayward casts from the overhanging branches and nearby shrubs. Or, on a particularly unlucky day, he might spend half an hour cutting out a fishing line “bird’s nest” from one of our reels. No, Dad didn’t get to fish much.
But on this particular day, with just the two of us, Dad not only got to fish quite a bit, he even caught one. I, on the other hand, was having my usual luck; that is, none whatsoever. Finally the afternoon shadows began to find us out near the center of the small lake, and Dad told me to try one more cast and then we’d head in.
And so I did, and as I reeled in I began to think about my plans for the evening, never expecting the results of my closing cast to be any different than the previous sixty. But they were:
“You caught one!” Dad said, as he reached into the water and pulled out an honest-to-god fish.
Right away I could see something was not right. I may not have caught many fish in my angling career, but I’d seen
them caught many times. I’d seen how a hooked fish with squirm around in the sun and flop around on the ground. This fish was different. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually dead when Dad pulled him in, but he did seem to be kind of, I don’t know, tired.
Also, the fish had not taken the lure, but rather had been hooked in the gill. Now, as you know from the opening paragraph, I’ve been around for a while now, and yet I haven’t to this day ever again heard of a fish being caught in this manner. Clearly something was…fishy. Still, I ignored this feeling and we returned home, happy and proud to report to Mom that we had each
caught a fish. Although, as they were both small, we had thrown them back into the lake.
It was years later, when I was in my twenties remembering that day, that it hit me. Wasn’t it strange that I would go through the whole day not catching anything, and then catch a fish on what had been declared the last cast of the day? And even stranger, how the hell does a fish get himself hooked by his gill? Was he just standing around, minding his own business, when my lure came by and whoops? Was it possible that Dad had kept the fish that he had caught and then, at the end of the day, quickly, and inaccurately, slipped my hook into the fish even as he was loudly declaring that I had “caught one”?
Four decades passed from the time I came up with my theory until Dad died. I thought about that day once in a while, but never asked him if he had done it. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Part of it, no doubt, is that it would have been yet another in our lifetime of awkward conversations. Also, I suspected he wouldn’t have remembered putting that fish on the hook even if he had. I suppose that, in the end, I didn’t ask him because, although I may have been a little disappointed if he had
put that fish on my hook, I would have been even more disappointed if he hadn’t.