In the classic film, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the main character, George Bailey asks at one point, “Do you know what the three sweetest sounds in the world are?”
Lovable but single-minded Uncle Billy answers, “Sure. ‘Breakfast is served’, ‘Lunch is served’, ‘Dinner is served’”.
Now, while I would generally tend to agree with Uncle Billy, I would also add to the list the phrase, “Uncle Dan, will you take me fishing?” with “…And the winner is…Dan Zambrano” as a close second.
But anyway, the former phrase is the one that caused my heart to race this past weekend as our niece approached me and begged me to take her fishing.
Who am I to deny such a humble request from one so sweet? Especially when it was followed with one of those pleading little faces that kids intuitively seem to know will melt our tough-guy façade like hot…uh… coffee on snow.
So, with only a little bit of scheduling adjustments and some quick conferencing with her mom, we planned for Sunday afternoon as the big adventure day.
I already knew exactly where we would go: Laguna Park in Fullerton. I also knew exactly what sort of rig we would use and I already suspected I could enlist the help of my fishin’ buddy Sean.
Sure enough, when Sunday afternoon rolled around, a certain ten-year old was duly deposited on my doorstop with the motherly advice, “Do exactly what uncle Dan & Sean tell you to do and you will catch a fish”.
No pressure there.
Soon, we were at Laguna Park and we quickly fell into the pattern that we would follow pretty much for the rest of the afternoon. Sean led with his 5-wt fly rod
rigged with a hopper-dropper combo while Holly and I used simple bait rigs suspended about eight inches beneath plastic floats.
As Holly tangled or fouled her rig, I would let her use my ultra-light Pen Rod while I reset her gear. I would then fish her pink and yellow Snoopy pole for a while. When she fouled the Pen Rod, we would switch off and I would reset that rig.
In between re-rigging, I did manage to quietly catch a few fish on both poles. Holly however, had her eyes fixed on Sean. His rig was bringing in fish about every other cast.
This strategy, coupled with the steady number of Bluegills that Sean kept pulling in, had the effect of keeping Holly interested, busy and excited at the prospect of her first fish.
We fished for about fifteen minutes (a life time to a ten-year old) but she had not tied into a fish. She was keenly aware however, that Sean was several fish ahead of her and she had some catching up to do.
(How’s that for attitude and positive thinking?)
After a short time, I realized that she was getting bites but she could not pick up on the subtle movement of the traditional round bobber. In the time it took for me to tell her to set the hook, the fish would be off. So, I switched her over to a bright yellow pencil-float and that seemed to telegraph nibbling Bluegill much better.
Sean let her borrow his polarized glasses for a moment and with them she could see the little bluegill attacking her bait.
Suddenly, it all clicked and you could pretty much see the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place within her head.
Soon she was reading the bobber signs quite well and, even better, she was catching fish on a consistent basis.
Before long she was striving for first place in our impromptu catch and release fishing tournament.
So, train whistles, boat whistles and airplane engines may have been the sweetest sounds in the world to George Bailey but that’s probably because he never heard the sound of a kid that has just landed her first fish all by herself.
That sound is one of the sweetest sounds of a wonderful life… that and the phrase, “Your chicken McNuggets are ready, sir?”
Never underestimate how closely you are being watched.
That warning is especially true if kids are around. Sure, they might not LOOK like they are paying attention, but you had better quickly drop any misguided illusions that they aren’t.
If you’re doubtful, try this little experiment: Say something derogatory about something like a particular brand of product when the kids are within earshot and then go shopping with them.
Deliberately put the aforementioned item in your shopping cart and watch what happens.
You are being watched.
Now, the upshot to this is that through careful mentoring and guidance, you can instill your love of the outdoors and fishing and such into those same malleable kids who would unwittingly pass along any disparaging remarks you made about the neighbor during dinner one night to that very same neighbor during your annual summer block party.
Since you are being watched, I say – use it to your advantage
Case in point: our God-daughter has heard me talk long and lovingly about fishing since she was old enough to understand the meaning of the word. By carefully encouraging her and coaching her on the virtues of fishing (there are some!) she naturally now wants to go fishing with her Uncle Dan. I have even given her a pink Barbie pole and tackle box just to let her know that fishing can be chic and stylish. I carefully and deliberately model my behavior and speak enthusiastically about the “benefits” of things like hooking yourself, and getting spined and stepping in duck droppings and using porta-potties that are long overdue for emptying and…well, you get the picture and, as far as my God-daughter is concerned, all those things are part of fishing and are somehow part of the fun – though sometimes she is not quite sure if I truly understand the definition of “fun”.
Nevertheless, she likes fishing and always wants to know if I still like fishing even after a fishless expedition.
I know I am being watched.
So a couple of weekends ago, I had an opportunity to once again expand my God-daughter’s idea of what constitutes “fun” when it comes to fishing.
Through a series of convoluted scheduling changes I was able to spend the afternoon at Downey Wilderness Park with her and our fishing gear. I hadn’t read of any recent fish plants so I knew the odds of actually catching anything there were already pretty slim but it was the place with the easiest access within the time frame we had.
With this information already in the back of my mind, I decided to put the emphasis on technique and style. I rigged her pole with a fairly heavy egg sinker and I let her pick the color of Power Bait (despite my dislike of bait-fishing). We settled on neon green which I dubbed “booger bait” much to my protégé’s delight. I baited her hook, pretended to lick the leftover “booger bait” from my fingers, again to her delight and disgust, then reviewed proper casting technique and finally just let her go for it.
Sure enough her first cast sailed halfway across the narrow section of the pond I had deliberately chosen and her confidence level soared. Anyone within earshot surely heard how amazing that first cast was. Then, after untangling the ensuing birds-nest and re-reviewing the intricacies of spinning reels in kidspeak, I set up shop next to her.
I intentionally choose the fly reel with yellow floating line and tied on a big, gaudy dry fly despite the slim chances of anything actually making a surface hit. I then made sure to make my first cast near to her line so that she could immediately brag that her casts were farther and better than mine.
Everything was going pretty much according to plan…then the mosquito fish showed up.
Now, I should have remembered from previous trips that in the eyes of a seven-year old, fish of any size are likely targets. So when a swarm of mosquito fish hustled up to the bank in front of us in the hopes of picking up some scraps of our lunch, suddenly the objects of our pursuit seemed all the more real and attainable – so real, in fact that the bait on the end of a certain Barbie pole rig lost some of its appeal and catching mosquito fish grew in importance.
So much so, that a certain young fisher-girl raced excitedly up and down the bank shouting out questions about mosquito fish as they alternately fled and followed her.
I answered a multitude of questions about mosquito fish. More questions than I knew I could be asked about mosquito fish. I made mosquito fish sound like the absolute best harbingers of big fish that one could come across.
And then it happened.
In the excitement of the moment, a certain young fisher-girl misjudged the uneven terrain between grass and concrete and within a split second was suddenly sitting in six inches of lake water.
The look that followed was a mixture of shock, mild fear, a little pain and embarrassment. I knew that I had to think up a positive spin on the situation and I had to think one up quick.
I knew that she wasn’t hurt and I knew from the way she was sitting that she wasn’t in any danger but I also knew that I only had one chance to save seven years of careful and deliberate work.
“Oh my gosh!” I blurted out. “ You did it. You actually did it. And year’s ahead of schedule even.”
The change in facial expression from near tears to puzzlement told me my ploy was working.
“You have accomplished in one afternoon what it takes some fisher-folk decades to do.”
“What did I do?” She asked with a slight whine and a little tremble in her voice while climbing slowly out of the water.
“You have learned the all-time greatest secret of fishing.”
“I fell in the water and got my shoes wet and my pants are dirty and …”
“Shhh.” I hissed, with a silencing wave of my arms and furtive glances about, “Don’t say another word or you’ll reverse everything. This is great! This is newsworthy. This is a proud day in fishing history. Come over here and I’ll take off your shoes in the special way so we don’t waste what just happened.”
Intrigued, my soggy fishing buddy dutifully squished her way over to me. Kneeling down, I gently removed one shoe, held it up ceremoniously and poured out the collected water from inside. I then did the same with the other shoe and also with each sock.
“You have now entered the Society of Tried and True Fisher-folk. Fish will forevermore fear you and your trusty Fishing Pole of Victory. You came to the park today thinking we were just going to have some fun, but you leave a full-fledged fisher-women. Congratulations.”
The smile on her face spoke volumes. Her posture straightened, her head lifted, her eyes sparkled. Her soggy pants didn’t seem to matter quite so much.
“Can we tell Mama? Can we tell Papa?”
“Oh, absolutely. In fact, we must tell them and we must document this great day with pictures. Go stand by your tackle box.”
And just as quickly as it began, the crisis was averted and we ended up spending another hour pleasantly moving around the lake chasing the ever elusive “monster fish that lurks in every pond where mosquito fish are found”.
Yes, you are being watched and if there is any lesson at all to this little story it is that we veteran fisher-folk can model positive behaviors and help the next generation (one that is generally becoming less and less attuned to the realm of nature that we so much enjoy) develop a keener, finer sense of the great outdoors…and maybe a sense of humor to boot.
However, should you doubt the conclusions drawn from this episode, Let me offer you a little proof from the other day: Just two weeks after the great “splash down”, my God-daughter enthusiastically invited herself to accompany me and my fishin’ buddy, Sean on an impromptu afternoon getaway at a local lake.
Once we arrived at our chosen lake, she happily cast away between us as we worked our way around the perimeter, never once shying away from the water’s edge. She even agreed to pose for a picture while lipping one of the small Bass Sean managed to pull out with one of his custom shrimp flies.
The three of us had a great summer afternoon enjoying the sun, the sounds of ducks and kids, the sparkle of the water and the occasional zing of a tightening line.
Yeah, I am being watched and hopefully I am making it clear that I love this addiction called urban fly fishin’.
We hadn’t planned on going fishing. There were a few too many things that needed doing and too few hours to do them but then my God-daughter walked into the house with her pink Barbie pole sticking out of a pink tote bag.
She set the bag at my feet and confidently told her mom and dad, “Uncle Dan can fix it.”
I glanced in the bag and saw that the all-in-one pole/reel combo was in several pieces. Closer inspection though, showed that nothing was broken, only disassembled.
“Lily did it!”
“Doesn’t matter…I’ve seen worse… Give me a few minutes.”
Sure enough, within a few minutes I was casting the rubber, fish-shaped plug that came with the pole across the living room at the cat, much to my God-daughter’s delight and my wife’s consternation.
Suddenly certain things seemed far less important than trying out the refurbished pole.
So, while Abby and her Dad piled into the back seat of the Toyota, Sean (who along with his wife had joined us all for lunch) and I loaded up our gear and weighed our options as to where we ought to go. We decided that Laguna Lake Park would be the likeliest place to hook a few Bluegill and maybe some Green Sunfish with the Barbie pole while offering the possibility of tying onto something a little more challenging with our fly rods.
Thirty minutes later I was tying up a size 18 ant imitation about ten inches below a bubble float on the Barbie pole and giving a quick casting refresher before turning little fisher-girl loose. Sean and I stationed her at a spot on the shore between us while fishing license-less Dad took up a coaching position on a nearby bench. In retrospect, it must have looked like a seven–year old princess was on an outing with her bodyguards.
Now, during the car ride over to the lake, Sean and I had felt pretty confident that we could arrange it so that she would catch a fish. But once we were there…doubt reared its ugly head as several casts later Abby was still fish-less and her enthusiasm flagging.
Fortunately about that time, Sean hooked up on a Bluegill, sending a certain someone into squeals of delight. Of course, Abby thought it was hilarious that a grown man would break out in squeals of delight over a four-inch long fish so she too began to laugh and her enthusiasm returned.
Taking advantage of the change in mood, I decided to up the odds by switching her rig to a size 22 black midge suspended about five inches below the float and have her fish it about two feet from the shoreline.
That was the magic formula. Within two minutes we watched the bobber dip and the line go taunt.
Now, there is probably a certain amount of confidence that is gained by being seven years old and having three burly guys who would lay down their lives for you standing there yelling encouragement as you bring in your first fish but whatever the case, my god-daughter responded to the tug on the line and landed her first Bluegill single-handedly.
The reality of the moment was that in her surprise she raised her arms in the air and fairly yanked the fish out of the water. Still, she did it all on her own and the moment was not going to pass without great fanfare and admiration.
Remember, we want the girl to LIKE fishing.
The other folks on the lake were surely amused as the three of us high-fived each other, high-fived Abby, whipped out our cell phones and snapped historic photos that were making there way back home to Mom before that poor little bluegill even knew what hit him.
Of course, it is one thing to land a fish but it is entirely another thing getting it off the hook. My God-daughter is competitive and adventurous but she is still all little girl, so despite our combined coaching, she simply would not touch the squirming ‘gill on the end of the line. That is a job strictly relegated to Poppa and /or Uncle Dan.
Eventually the hapless fish earned its freedom and the little midge imitation went back into the water.
Two more fish fell to the Barbie pole get up.
All was going smoothly until a blood-curdling scream pierced the late afternoon air. My God-daughter had got her first fish that day, now she was experiencing her first hook in the finger.
Sean immediately went into 911 mode and (I’m quite certain) ran on water in an effort to reach Abby while her Dad charged in from the other direction. I happened to be standing next to her and grabbed the line to take tension off the hook, which then simply fell away from her finger (remember it was a size 22 midge).
Though the wound was minor and bloodless, an appropriate amount of attention was made over it before we tried to resume fishing. Abby declared loudly and forcefully that she wanted nothing more to do with fishing and tried to give the pole to her Dad who, in a moment of great Fatherly wisdom said, “Hey, get back on the horse.” — which is one of the reasons I love the guy so much.
So after a few moments of stares and looks and body language that only a father and daughter can understand, (and during which Sean and I quietly moved away,) the little fisher-girl was back in the saddle, so to speak.
Two Bluegill later, the “Great Hooking Incident” was all but forgotten and order was restored in the universe.
By the time we were ready to leave the park, Abby could claim five fish to her tally. The conversation focused on the catching and naming of the fish we had caught and who had caught the most and the biggest but nary a mention was made about getting snagged – priorities are in fact learned young. Likewise, the car ride home, as in our previous adventure, was a non-stop chatter-fest about the great adventure of the day – and indeed it had been.
Got a call from an old friend last week inviting me, my fishing buddy Sean and anyone else we cared to invite out for a Saturday morning of fishing off of Cabrillo Beach pier.
Now right off the bat, a lot of guys would immediately say thanks but no thanks to such an invite.
Pier fishing in SoCal doesn’t always have the greatest reputation: The fishing can be painfully slow and tedious, the catch isn’t usually safe to eat and many piers are dirty and lacking in amenities.
But Sean and I already fish the L.A. River as well as some other questionable locations so a quarter mile walk down a slippery pier while dodging a gauntlet of hooks and hardware to get to a graffiti covered porta-potti isn’t that big a deal.
Besides, the inviting party just happened to be Larry Fukuhara – Programs Director for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.
For those of you who don’t know it already, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is one of the oldest and definitely one of the coolest public aquariums in SoCal and has educated several generations of Angelenos about Grunion, Gray Whales, tide pools and more from its humble beginnings as a card table filled with shells next to the lifeguard tower to its current state of the art facility on Cabrillo Beach.
Likewise, for those of you who don’t know Larry, he is a dynamo of creativity, adventure and plain ol’ fun and while he isn’t one of the oldest, he certainly is one of the coolest — and best — saltwater fisherman I know. Over some twenty-five odd years he has, literally, taught me more about saltwater fishing than anyone I’ve ever fished with; so when he asked me if I wanted to participate in one of his “Fishing with Uncle Larry” events, I was only too ready to say yes.
Thus, on the appointed day, Sean and I drove over to Cabrillo pier and made the long walk to the large shade covering at roughly the center of the pier where there were already several tables set up under some large banners, a library’s worth of info and a rack full of a couple dozen pre-rigged poles.
Besides Larry and a couple of Aquarium staff, I was surprised to see an army of enthusiastic volunteers from United Anglers of Southern California.
Turns out, this particular event was being co-sponsored by United Anglers and they were providing gear, manpower, information and a ton of raffle prizes for the kids.
Within seconds of arriving, it was obvious that the primary focus of the event was kids and teaching them to fish.
The next several hours was a blur of cutting bait, untangling bird’s nests, re-rigging terminal tackle, helping kids haul Tom Cod up onto the deck and…having a great time doing it.
Several kids caught their very first fish ever and there was plenty of fanfare and encouragement no matter what the size of the catch. Each kid got a picture to take home, thanks to some innovative technology, and every volunteer worked extra hard to make sure every kid caught something. I really enjoyed the positive attitudes and upbeat spirit that permeated the day.
There were plenty of great moments and smiles that keep things moving along even when the bite slowed down. I had a blast teaching a mom and her six year old how to fish and then later congratulate them on their first catches.
I even got to dust off my training in invert. Zoo. when, during the gross out moment of the day, a rather large fish louse fell from the gill cavity of a white croaker and then started giving birth — think the movie, Alien –right in the middle of a circle of kids. We couldn’t have planned it better.
Anyway, all that to say, it wasn’t flyfishing and it wasn’t a mountain stream but “Uncle Larry” came through again and likely increased the rolls of the fishing fraternity by a couple of dozen this past weekend.
Wikipedia defines Recreation as: “the expenditure of time in a manner designed for therapeutic refreshment of one’s bodyor mind.”
Presumably, this is why I fish.
After a week (or several) of nose to the grindstone, hittin’ the bricks running, full speed ahead activity necessary to maintain a roof over our heads and food in the larder, the ol’ body and soul simply need a break.
My chosen form of recreation is fishing, usually with a fly rod. However, the older I get and (theoretically) the more experienced I get at my chosen addiction, the more gear and the more technique I acquire such that a quick trip to L.A. River or a local park often ends up resembling a commando raid with highly specialized, mission specific gear, top-secret notebooks of info, and maps marked in an alien code indecipherable to all but me.
Alas, even in leisure, my type-A personality creeps in and organizes a day on the water into a task-oriented blitzkreig.
So it was a real eye-opener yesterday when I had the good fortune to take my seven-year old god-daughter fishing for a couple of hours while her Dad got some well-deserved rest and her mom and “aunts” did the girls afternoon out thing.
I had already opted to use the spinning gear for this little venture and had already rigged one of my back-up poles for some sunfish action when my little fishin’ buddy showed up decked out in protective booney hat, her favorite hiking clothes, old shoes and…a three-foot Barbie pole.
Now, there is no way I would ever intentionally squelch the passion of an aspiring angler or bad mouth her shiny, new gear (so enthusiastically wielded) so I quietly stowed my pre-rigged rods behind the door, made a slight re-arrangement of tackle packs in my bag and formulated a detour in my plans to pick up some bait.
When we arrived at our selected lake, I was happy to note mostly clear water, an abundance of floating algae, only a few anglers and a slight breeze to keep things cool as we fished.
My fishin’ buddy, on the other hand, noticed the dancing ducks, lots of benches for eating snacks, the bridge for walking across the lake to get to the other side quicker and the bubbles (from the aerators) which “probably meant that there was a giant fish sleeping on the bottom”.
As we set up shop along the bank where I knew there were always some sunfish, we happily discussed the need for bait and why it smelt so bad and how we would get the “monster fish” onto the shore if my net wasn’t big enough and whether we would eat the monster fish or let him go. (We decided we would let him go).
I have to admit, I was caught off-guard.
Me – the one who generally hits a lake with military precision, carries minimal gear in carefully balanced and easily accessible packs and rarely talks while fishing. Here I was forced to slow down, engage in meaningful, albeit seven-year-old appropriate, conversation and notice things from a long suppressed point of view.
We admired the color of the bait, speculated on the purpose of red and white on the plastic floats and plotted more strategy on how we would catch the monster fish when it finally woke up.
I had to explain why ducks pick on each other and how they eat without teeth.
We tried to figure out if there was some way to make money from all the algae we had to keep pulling off of our rigs. We day-dreamed about what we would spend all that money on.
We watched a kid in a yellow shirt drive his remote control boat around the lake and wondered if THAT would awaken the monster fish. We giggled at the antics of the tiny sunfish along the bank as they tried to steal the bait from our hooks and we just sat in the grass and watched the ripples on the water.
Soon it became time for snack. I knew this because my god-daughter clearly said so. We pulled in our lines, walked back to the car and fetched the big, blue lunch bucket and smaller snack bag that her mom had packed and we went over to one of the shore-side benches to sit and eat while we soaked more bait.
This was a drastic change from my usual fishing meal of beef jerky and canteen water eaten while on the move… and I kind of liked it.
I experienced (or rather re-experienced) how much better cheese and crackers taste when you scribe a happy face in the cheese and I remembered how much fun it is to pull Oreos apart before eating them.
And for the first time in a long time I smiled at just being out on the water. Not about the trophy fish I just hooked, or the new, secret spot I just discovered or the way my cast laid out in a perfect loop or the path my fly took as it rode the current – I smiled because I was having fun with someone who thinks fishing is mostly about doing cool stuff outside with someone you want to be with.
We watched the dragonflies zip around just above the surface and we laughed as they hovered in front of us, eyeing our bait as we got ready to cast it out.
We kept this up until close to dinnertime and then just as I had given the “ten more minutes” call, she saw him — cruising about a yard from the bank, a twelve to fifteen-inch Largemouth Bass – the “Monster Fish”.
Much to my delight, my god-daughter, uncoached by me, made a perfect cast in front of the Bass, using the Barbie pole.
Now, I would like to say that the Bass hit the bait and we landed it for a grand photo-op that would provide Christmas portraits for the grandparents, but it was not to be.
Instead, the fish rushed the perfectly presented offering, bumped it and then swam off.
You’ve heard of the expression, “jaw-dropping”? Well, it’s true. I saw a seven-year old do it, though I did not expect it to be followed by a squeal of delight.
So, although we did not bag the “monster fish”, we did stand and stare him in the eye… and he blinked first.
And as I drove home, with a certain someone chatting happily and animatedly in the back seat, I felt completely refreshed.
Nothing says “go outside and play” like the Fourth of July holiday. When said holiday falls on a weekend…well, exposure to sun, dirt and non-chlorinated water is almost mandatory — which is how we found ourselves up at Big Bear Lake last weekend with 100,000 or so other patriotic Americans.
Generally speaking, my wife and I avoid weekend crowds at the lake as much as possible, preferring to head up the hill late Sunday while everyone else is heading back down to do the Monday through Friday, nine to five grind. Now, don’t get me wrong, we put in some 40+ hours most weeks too. We also just happen to own the business, so we get to set the schedule and part of that schedule includes occasional Monday mornings on uncrowded mountain waters with a fly rod in one hand and a full thermos of freshly brewed java in the other– hate the game, not the player.
Anyway, this weekend, the pleading eyes and sweet smile of our god-daughter worked their magic and we threw our convictions out the window long enough to wind up in the miles long queue of SUV’s headed to higher elevations.
Though she is only six, Our Little Organizer already had a full agenda of activities lined up for us which, much to my delight, included having Uncle Dan show her how to fish. That little fact alone confirmed my suspicions about just how special that kid really is.
So, with the knowledge that I would be passing down hard-earned and sacred information to my little gem, I kept a weather eye out for the opportune moment as we jostled around the village and shoreline.
Finally, about an hour before sunset I noticed a general migration away from the lake by a very ragged and slightly reddened horde of tourists and fisher-folk. Seizing the moment, I fairly shouted, “let’s go fishin’”.
Ten minutes later we were down at the water watching carp pretend they were trout as they leapt after skimming insects against a rose colored sky.
The slap of their bodies against the surface was loud enough and random enough to keep the novice fisher-girl excited and interested while I rigged her pole with a baited hook.
Big mistake. For the record, six-year olds don’t want to wait for something to take bait. After 5,724 queries as to whether she could reel it in I decided we needed to teach her the fine art of casting.
I rigged a floating Rapala on a spinning rod and had her stand next to me, “Finger pulls the line tight, open the bail, cast and close the bail”
“I know Uncle Dan, Let me try.”
Three fouls and a hit.
The rest is, as they say history.
Now, unless you’ve been there, your gonna have to trust me on this but when you watch a disciple transform the knowledge you’ve so carefully imparted into actual practice — it’s magic.
It did not matter one lick that the only thing we caught in the next half hour was an honest-to-goodness Frisbee, she was hooked.
As the sun slipped behind the Western peaks, I knew that on the anniversary of our nation’s birth, a sports-woman had been born.