The summer I was six, my father taught me how to fish. We’d leave my mom home and drive out to Robert Moses State Park on the south shore of Long Island, past the swimming beaches to the fishing piers. We’d walk up and down one pier and then the other, watching the fishing people cast their clear lines over the rail and into the water.
I loved the sound of us walking on the wooden boards of the pier, clomp clomp clomping past the men and boys leaning against the wooden rails or sitting in webbed folding chairs, surrounded by buckets and fishing poles and tackle boxes.
My father and I would stop to look in their buckets and ask them what they had. Often we saw flounders and sometimes there was a gray blowfish, still filled with air, lying in the bottom of the bucket. Always there were screeching seagulls perched on the rails and circling overhead. While my father talked to the men I would lean through the rails and watch the colored balls bob on the wavy water.
I was usually the only girl on the pier. There were other kids my age, but only boys. It didn’t bother me and it didn’t seem to bother my father either. He always said that “whatever a man can do, a woman can do instead.”
After several trips to the pier my father said I was ready to fish. We picked a spot away from the other people and set our things down on the wooden planks. My father had his own tackle box. It was green plastic, about the size of a shoe box, with a handle and a silver clasp to keep it closed. Inside were two removable trays with more than a dozen compartments.
My father showed me the hooks and the weights and the colored balls and then picked out a teardrop-shaped weight and slipped it onto the end of his fishing rod.
“Now you need a bobber so you’ll be able to see where your line is.”
I picked a red ball from the box and my father showed me how to slide it on near the weight.
I leaned against the railing and my father stood behind me and put his big hands on top of mine on the smooth cork handle of the rod. “Look behind you and make sure there’s no one near you,” he said. Then slowly, he guided the rod around and behind us, lifting it up and swinging it forward.
The reel made a spinning whirring sound and the bright red bob at the end of the pole flew through the air and landed in the water about thirty feet in front of us.
“Now reel it in and we’ll do it again.”
“But when are we going to start fishing?” I asked.
“When you remember to look around before you swing your pole.”
I turned the spinner until the line was wound back in and we practiced casting together a few more times. Then my father stepped to the side so I could try it by myself. The first few times the weight barely made it over the rail. When I was able to hit the water four times in a row, my father said I was ready to bait my hook.
We had stopped at the bait stand at the pier where my father bought a cup of worms. They were slithering in the plastic container and I refused to touch them. “If you want to fish you’re going to have to get used to the bait.”
I watched him take a small sharp hook out of the tackle box and attach it to the end of my pole. Then he picked a worm out of the container and, as he started to hook it on the end, I had to close my eyes–it was just too disgusting. He handed me the baited pole and I held it as far away from me as possible. I was afraid if I didn’t cast it right, the worm would rub against me.
I looked all around me, then held the pole out from my body and swung it around and up and out. The reel whirred and the red ball landed about twenty feet out in the water. I was fishing!
I stood there next to my father, watching my marker bob on the water. I looked through the slats beneath my sneakered feet, mesmerized by the waves sloshing against the wooden legs of the pier.
I asked my father what made the waves. He started to explain about tides and the moon and gravity.
“Never mind,” I said, watching the tops of the waves disappear under the pier.
I felt a tug on the line.
“Reel it in. Slowly.”
My heart raced as I wound the spinner. When my line finally surfaced I saw that it was just some seaweed. I brought the line in and my father carefully removed the green slime. The worm was gone.
“You need more bait.”
I looked into the wormy container. “I can’t. Do it for me. Please.”
He put another worm on the hook. “Next time we’ll buy plastic worms.”
I cast my line back in and waited. I kept my eyes on the bobber moving up and down in the slapping water and imagined a giant fish eating the worm. I held my hand on the spinner, ready to reel it in. But the seaweed was the only thing I caught that day.
My father and I never caught a fish. But a lot of times I hooked a starfish. I was always squeamish about touching it, but it was so pretty that I did anyway. The tops of it’s five arms were rough and there were rows of hairlike fibers on it’s belly. I’d put it down on the pier and watch to see if it moved but it never did. Then I’d throw it back in the water.
Once I caught one with only four arms. My father said that if a starfish loses an arm it grows a new one. I wanted to take it home so I could watch it grow back but my father said no, it would smell too much. So I threw it back into the water like always.