Young or old, every fisherman’s dream is to bring home a big catch. The bigger the better, although catching a great number of fish at once is also considered a mark of success. Still, it is the weight and the length of the “catch” that establishes a fisherman’s reputation among his peers. And nearly every little boy’s dream, among that type of little boy who likes to play with sticks, get dirty in the mud and dig for worms, is to be big enough to go fishing. Once he’s got a fishing rod in his hand, he’s big enough to make an impact.
I remember happening into a young Czech fisherman last summer when we were camping in Český raj. As we walked along the road beside the campground’s pond, we saw a boy sitting alone on a wooden dock with his fishing rod and a small tackle box at his side. He was about ten years old and had come to the pond on a bike which was lying off to the side of the dock. He was dangling his feet in the water and looked every bit the part of Huckleberry Finn without the wide-brimmed straw hat. As we watched, he got a bite. He jumped up and pulled a small fish from the pond’s water. Our children were speechless. Oliver had spent most of that morning without success trying to attach part of a rohlík as bait to a long supple branch he’d found by the swimming portion of the pond. He wanted desperately to catch a fish.
The little boy seemed as glad to have an audience as we were to witness his catch. He posed for a picture with the fish and then with our children. When I looked back at the pictures later, I realized that while Anna Lee and Samuel were looking into the camera and smiling obediently, Oliver was looking at the boy and his fish. I could feel the intensity with which he wanted to fish. I have never spent much time fishing myself, but the look on Oliver’s face made me want to do whatever I could to fulfill his dream.
Oliver’s fishing desire was granted a few weeks later when we met several of Radek’s friends at a private pond near the Bykoš pumpkin farm outside Prague in the direction of Beroun. It was a bright, sunny autumn afternoon, and the banks of the pond were decorated with streaming fishing lines. But much to Oliver’s disappointment, he wasn’t able to catch any fish in the pond that day. Nor did anyone in our party, despite efforts to use a variety of fishing rods and a mixture of worms and corn bait.
There was one exception, a tiny bait fish that Oliver and our friend Marta caught together on a bit of line thrown into a run-off pool. Marta released the fish as soon as they caught it, although the fishermen in the group chastised her, saying it would have made good live bait to hook a bigger fish in the main pond. Oliver was excited by the small catch, but he was disappointed that he hadn’t managed to bring home a fish for dinner on the grill. Last summer, he’d had the experience of catching a trout in the river near my hometown and later grilling it for dinner. Although Oliver had a soft-heart for animals, when it came to fishing, he believed that the fish he caught were meant to be eaten.
As a teenager Radek fished with his grandfather, but as an adult he hadn’t cast a line in years. Once during a beach trip to South Carolina, my dad had rented space on a deep sea fishing boat. Instead of my dad being able to show his son-in-law a good time fishing in the sea, Radek got so sea sick that they had to come in early. In recent years, Radek’s děda has given up fishing, saying that he is just too old to fish. In truth, Radek noted that most of his grandfather’s fishermen friends had either died or gotten too old. Without the camaraderie, Děda didn’t have the desire. After hearing that we’d taken Oliver fishing, Děda reached up into his closet and pulled out his tackle box and the large canvas bag he kept his fishing rods in. He went through the entire collection and bequeathed everything to Oliver. Delighted, Oliver spent several hours looking through the boxes of baiters, flies, sinkers and boppers. He examined each item with patient curiosity. Soon, it would be time to test out all his new equipment.
When the start of fishing season arrived at the beginning of May, our neighbor offered to take Oliver fishing at the ponds near our house. Since Oliver wasn’t yet eight, he couldn’t hold his own permit; however, he could accompany a licensed fisherman. As our neighbor explained it, he was allowed to have two lines and there was no harm in Oliver holding one of the lines as long as he liked. Oliver was ecstatic about the chance to fish in the ponds that we often walked or biked past, and he was even more excited about fishing with strejda (uncle) Jirka, our kind-hearted, down-to-earth neighbor who keeps a large-grill and a keg of beer on his back porch. Jirka is an expert handy-man and a good ‘ole boy who was brought up on a Czech farm. We buy honey and get farm-fresh eggs from Jirka’s family. If he couldn’t teach Oliver to fish, I didn’t know who could.
Although Radek initially balked at buying a year’s permit for the private Unetice ponds, saying that he’d probably never get his money’s worth, eventually he conceded, knowing how much it meant to Oliver. The day that they agreed to fish Oliver could talk of nothing else. When I picked up him from preschool he burst into tears upon realizing that he still had to wait four hours before Radek would be off work and they could go. As soon as we got home, he ran to Jirka’s house and waited there until Radek came from work. They loaded up their fishing gear, camping chairs and a bag of snacks and set off down the hill toward the ponds.
An hour or so later, I got an emailed picture of Oliver and Sammy sitting in their camping chairs with rods dangling in front of them. No sign of a fish, but the boys looked happy. An hour after that, I received another message: “Get the bathtub ready.” Knowing our usual Christmas routine of keeping a carp alive in the bathtub for a few days, I expected they’d finally caught a fish and were planning to bring it home.
Another half an hour later, I heard the front door slam and Oliver’s excited cries. He marched into the house carrying a large plastic bag with the biggest carp I’d ever seen. It didn’t look like the bag had water in it, so I wondered if the carp was still alive. I followed Oliver as he hefted the bag up the stairs to our bathroom where he plopped it on the floor and commanded me to start the bathwater in the bathtub. I was beside myself with the idea that we had a live fish in a plastic bag, but Oliver calmly hoisted the carp out of the bag and thrust it into the running water. As the bathtub filled, he patted the carp and stroked its scales, noting how it turned back upright when the water level was high enough.
For the next twenty-four hours, Oliver tended the carp, patting it and filling the tub with fresh bubbles every few hours. He nicknamed the carp čumáček (little nose), and worried that the carp might be lonely when we left the house to run errands. In turn, I worried what would happen when it was time to kill the carp. I suggested that Radek and Oliver return the carp to the pond, but they both told me that they couldn’t do that. Radek explained that they hadn’t actually caught the carp; the fisherman beside them had. When he saw how much the boys had wanted to bring home a fish, he gave them his. Radek felt like it would be in bad faith not to eat the carp as the fisherman believed they would. Oliver also wanted to have fish for dinner, and he even wanted to watch Radek butcher the carp, but we didn’t let him.
Oliver turns six tomorrow, and what he really wants for his birthday is an animal. Although we haven’t made our definite decision, after watching him interact with the carp, I think it’s time to let him have a pet. He wants a gecko lizard, but I believe fish might be a nice option as well. Regardless of which animal he eventually settles on, I know that the best birthday present was most likely the evening he spent with his dad, strejda Jirka and his little brother, taking the first steps in becoming a bona fide fisherman.