Gone fishing in troubled waters

indexGenetically mutated mackerel. Chemically contaminated carp. All manner of medical waste.

This is what I imagine catching if I fished in the Hudson River off Manhattan where I’ve lived for a year since moving here from North Carolina. I’ve never dropped a line in. Never been tempted to. But there are tiny clusters of fishermen every day lining parts of the beautiful tree-lined esplanade that runs along the river. Some are catching and releasing. Smart. Others are taking it home and frying it up in a pan. Crazy.

I remember going fishing with my Uncle Toby one day in a canoe in a mountain valley lake near Asheville. The day was beautiful. Fish were not biting. But we were talking. I always love talking with my Uncle Toby even if mosquitoes are involved. He is a salty and lovable educator in a small town in Georgia who writes beautiful prose and regularly produced quarters out of my ears when I was a child.

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Uncle Toby grew up in West Asheville long before it became trendy to live there. It was a small miracle that he caught the attention of my pretty aunt since Anna Lee grew up in the Beaverdam section of Asheville. People from Beaverdam weren’t too sure about West Asheville products like my uncle Toby. The manufacturing process for children of good character in West Asheville was dubious in the eyes of most hifalutin’ Beaverdam folk. Many of these children were subject to factory recall as far as Beaverdam could tell. Even though my uncle was literally from the wrong side of the tracks, everything has worked out pretty well for them. The result is that I have a wonderful trio of cousins who are each unique and upstanding individuals carved out of the same solid oak as my aunt and uncle. Those cousins have a passel of beautiful children, all from the right side of the tracks.

indexUncle Toby and Aunt Anna Lee live in smallish Warner Robins, Georgia and have so much faith in mankind that they habitually leave everything unlocked, including both cars and their home A few years back they employed a neighbor’s son to come over and watch the dog while they were on vacation out of town. A few weeks after getting back they received a large cable bill for pornographic movies they would never think of ordering. The evidence led directly back to the neighbor’s son. He had legitimately been in the house to care for the dogs. But because they never lock their doors, he could have come over at any time he liked and plunked down on their couch and ordered up some porn. Strong winds have sometimes blown their front door open. The police would come looking through the house with guns drawn, believing that someone had broken in. “No, officer, nothing is missing,” my uncle would respond. “This is just how we left it.” The police officer nodded. “Could you please lock your doors from now on?” he asked. “I’ll take it under consideration,” my uncle responded, when I believe in my heart that he later made a point of going on to not lock anything up for the rest of his life.

My uncle says this Georgia branch of our family now speaks of me in hushed tones because I live up North. They talk about me in the way that you would whisper about a crazy aunt locked in your attic. One you hope will not be discovered by neighbors if she were to somehow escape her chambers and flee down the street in her bathrobe, pedaling madly on a child’s bicycle. Yes, I did move to New York City, viewed from afar as a capitol of indulgences where you can do anything and everything you want and no one is there to tell you not to or report back on what you did. But I am not giving out on demand cable porn to the neighbor’s kids. So, I ask you, who is more degenerate?

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But this is about fishing. My wife’s Uncle Paul, who lives in Texas, bought a large fishing boat a few months back. Why not? Uncle Paul loves to fish. He is ever optimistic that something in the murky depths wants to hook itself to his line and flop into his bucket and get fried up in his pan with some butter. He’ll have a nice can of beer with it and smile. God bless him, but I don’t like the taste of most fish and routinely rejected fish as a meal when I was a child. When my parents took me to a local fish camp restaurant near Salisbury, North Carolina, I would eat a ton of hush puppies, drink a gallon ice tea and try to order a hamburger if I was still hungry.

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Many years later my wife and I were in a fish restaurant when my wife asked me to try something in a bowl she had been eating. “What is it?” I asked. “Just try it,” she said. I took a leap of faith. “That’s not bad,” I said. “Now, what is it?” She smiled. “Calamari.” Really. I thought, chewing away. “What is calamari?” I asked. “Deep fried squid,” came the response. I tried to spit out the food discretely, but of course, she noticed. I had to hear a lecture about how I had no culture and knew nothing about sea food and judged it based on some primitive prejudice against slimy things in the ocean. She was, of course, completely right about all of that. But I didn’t appreciate the lecture.

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All that changed one day in Charleston, South Carolina in a little fish shack. We were hungry, and she somehow convinced me to stop at this small place with giant wooden wagon wheel tables with a hole in the middle where you could throw your trash. Shrimp and corn. Loved it! Scallops. Tuna. Salmon. Oysters. Lobster. Gimme more! “You just like eating here because you can throw your trash away in the middle of the table,” she said. That was definitely one reason to love it. Put a hole in the middle of the table where I can throw trash and give me a big roll of paper towels to wipe off my face, and I’m a happy camper.

indexI have not mastered the proper dissection of a lobster. There’s a delicate finesse required for this kind of operation. I just want to bring a large mallet into play where surgical skill and patience is required. We were at a restaurant in Kennebunkport, Maine eating the best lobster ever. My wife was getting tired of doing all the work for only half the meat. “You’re doing great, honey,” I prodded. “Just go a little faster.”

My sister is also not a great sea food lover. She doesn’t like sea food for the same reason she doesn’t eat chicken on the bone. Growing up I remember her eating chicken nuggets and boneless chicken breasts, but never chicken legs. Why? “Because you can see the bones,” she said. I questioned her anatomical aversion. “Do cows not have bones?” I asked. “How do they stand upright without them? I see a lot of cows in pastures on my way to school every day, and they all look like they have bones. Yet I notice you eat hamburgers without a qualm.” She defended her position with dogmatic logic. “Yes,” she said.”Cows do have bones. But hamburgers come in patties. With no visible bones.” And she gave me a look that made me feel like I was an idiot even though I’d been sure to that point I had the upper hand in our discussion. Long years of practice have gotten her quite good at giving looks like that.

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About four years ago when my sister’s daughter Carrie was visiting us in Ocala, Florida, my lovely wife let my niece go off with a reporter to cover a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protest outside a chicken restaurant. It featured a nearly nude model surrounded by picketers outside the chicken restaurant. My sister called to complain a week after my niece returned to Kannapolis, NC. They couldn’t get her to eat their standard family Sunday lunch after church – a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “And when we’re eating chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, she just sits there quietly muttering “murder” under her breath and looking at us with pity in her eyes.” My niece may have hoped to prompt some revision in the family diet, but that idea was a non-starter. “We’ve had to ask her to eat her fries in the living room,” reported my sister.

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But this is about fishing. I may have improved when it comes to eating sea food, but my fishing skills are dubious at best. I feel the slight tug of a wave in the ocean, and I start reeling in a fish that isn’t there. I sit on slow bake in the sun waiting for something to happen. Slowly, I become convinced that I have the wrong bait, the wrong line, the wrong type of hook. Fishing is not my sport.

indexOne day, I was determined to catch a fish. I struck out to the pier at Kure Beach. The pier at Carolina Beach where I lived always seemed gloomier and not as welcoming to beginner fishermen. The Kure Beach pier features a bait shop that also sells beach chairs, sunscreen and ice cream. It houses pool tables and video games. I bought some fresh shrimp and stuck it on the end of my line. After three hours, I had a sunburn and two spot (an unremarkable type of fish) of dubious length. I showed it to my father-in-law with pride. “That’s good,” he said. “Now go back and catch two more that size, and you’ll have enough for a light lunch.” This was like a punch to the stomach. I went back to the pier and got even more sunburned and caught two more spot. I brought all the fish back to the house, and Robb cooked them because I had no clue how to do that. I ate them.

I told him they were the best thing I’d ever eaten.

Gone fishing in troubled waters

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