Friday, June 3, 2022

the wisdom and faith of a child

Editor's note: Chad Wilde is a gifted writer and good friend. This story, a fine tale about his son's first encounter with a northern pike, is the last installment in a series of guest posts...for a little while at least. All of Chad's work is worth reading, but anything on getting the next generation more passionate about the Great Outdoors sits particular well with me. Enjoy...

Sometimes, though it may work against your conventional knowledge, it is wise to listen to the ideas of a child when fishing.  Children come from fresh places.  Their experiences are always building.  They pay attention to what works and seek to replicate it, as they pay attention to what doesn’t and seek to eliminate it.  

For my son, River, he always has ideas about what fishing lures, techniques, and methods should work.  And I gently try to impart him with what knowledge I’ve picked up through four decades of angling while also giving him the leeway to try out his own ideas.  On a blustery cold November day when fishing for pickerel, if he wants to throw an eight-inch top-water snake lure, by all means have at it buddy.  But after a while I’ll say, “Maybe we should try subtle little jerk baits?”

Sometimes, it is a hard stop no.  Like, a spinner bait just won’t work dangled below that giant bobber.  Even if we do tip it with a live nightcrawler and add several pieces of split shot for some unknown reason.  But I try to listen, and in his learning, I learn as well.  

Everyone who knows me as an angler should know that my favorite type of fishing is predator fishing.  Give me Esox whenever available.  Pickerel, northern pike, muskellunge.  These are the fish that have my whole heart.  

I’ve instilled this in my son.  River will gladly and readily fish for anything that swims, god bless him, but given the choice of venue he’ll usually ask me to take him to The Pickerel Palace.  This is a small, weedy pond near us here in Willington that is infested with pickerel.  

“Esox, they’re like dinosaurs, Dad,” he tells me.  I agree.  And who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

When tasked with doing a class presentation project on a wild animal, River naturally chose the pickerel.  He studied them, he wrote up a report about them, and we printed a number of pictures to use as visual aids.  When it was time, he dressed up in his suit and tie and presented his findings to his class.  

“Esox, they are dangerous fish”, he said.  “Like dinosaurs!  Look at their teeth!”

We both love the perceived violence of the Esox fish.  We like their teeth, their aggression.  We love the places they live, slow flowing rivers and warm water ponds.  Their hiding places, deep weed beds, downed timber.  They move in our minds like silent menaces, and when we find them while fishing we are one with that menace and we connect with something different inside ourselves.  

All humans are animals, after all.  And in Esox fishing, one can connect with the deep places where the luxury and softness of modern life is stripped away.  We become the hunting predators we once all were.  And in Esox fishing, the predator chases the predator and we’ll see who comes out on top.

Last Fall, when River was turning 10, I decided it was time to expand his predator fishing and get him off The Pickerel Palace and on some better waters.  Waters where I hoped to help put him on his first northern pike.  To this effect, I reached out to my friend Steve Pogodzienski.

Steve is a pike guide and friend who has taught me more than anyone else about fishing for predators.  It was time for me to call in the big guns and get River in touch with a fish that would gladly eat a Pickerel.  But first, Steve and I had to talk strategy.

It had been a remarkably wet summer and the river we planned to fish had been on a rollercoaster.  Huge storms regularly dropping inches of rain that made flows impossible to fish for long periods of time.  Impossible to fish, and for fish to even eat.  

This worked for us in a sense.  We would have to watch the flows as summer gave way to fall.  And we would have to find a relatively dry period where the river would drop to an acceptable level for a float.  Steve told me that when a window opens up and the flow is right, those fish will eat.  I believed him fully.

I knew River would relish the chance to go fishing with Dad and Steve on a serious trip, and I wanted to make sure he had a shot at catching a fish.  We timed it perfectly, and we hit the water in early October during a window that was wide open.  At the launch, my son was a ball of excited energy.  He was ready to go.  He had so many ideas about what would work, and he brought a number of his own personal lures to use.

He was excited that I got to use my fly rod.  When we fish, generally I do more guiding and less fishing, as it should be.  And he notices this.  A wise friend had once told me you could be a dissatisfied angler or a satisfied guide depending on how you approached fishing with your child.  I chose wisely there, but today I wouldn’t need to guide since we had Steve.

Our plan was to get on the board with some bass fishing.  River is a very good bass angler, and I wanted to make sure he connected with at least one fish on the day.  I told Steve as much. He decided to work us up into a backwater cove off the main river that Steve knew held bass.  Before we entered he told me, “Throw your fly up in the mouth there.  Pike will post up just outside these coves sometimes.”

I did.  And a solid pike literally left the water trying to eat my fly.  I was a bit rusty, I panicked and trout-set.  The line was limp.  We all knew then, as the water’s surface calmed from the eruption and I cursed at myself inside, that the window was indeed wide open.  A good sign.  No more than 20 minutes into our trip and I had an aggressive take.  

The cove itself was one of those deeply weeded places you just know hold warm water fish.  We discussed lures to use, and River had a series of suggestions.  Steve settled on a pink Slug-Go for River’s spinning rod.  I sat back and watched my boy get into the fishing, and he fished well.  The benefit of the pink Slug-Go was that we could all clearly see its darting glides through the cove.  

It was impossible to think the bait wouldn’t get River an eat.  Before long, I heard his small boy voice say, “Got 'em!”  He was on his first fish of the day.

He proceeded to pick a number of bass out of the cove as well as a giant crappie, and he was thrilled to do so.  As he released a particularly chunky largemouth he said, “Don’t go get eaten by a pike!”  He knows the food chain, and he knows who sits at the top.  I was proud of him.  With the skunk off, it was time to go look for pike.

I have to say, I rebounded nicely from the early miss.  I took a deep fish.  I had counted down the fly until it disappeared below the dark water, carried by a full sink line.  Once it felt down enough, I began to work it.  A ghostly strike.  There is a point in a deep retrieve with a pike fly where the whole thing suddenly gets a bit weird.  

You can’t feel anything, no slack, no fly, no line.  The rod just feels weird, fully empty.  What has happened here is that a pike has inhaled the fly.  Some unseen transaction has occurred and the lack of any feeling means the fish has eaten and moved towards you with the fly hopefully still in its mouth.  This is when you quicken the strips until your mind’s eye tells you, “Now.  Strip set!”

This doesn’t always work out, but it did this time and the strip set placed the iron in the jaw.  After a brief fight, we had our first pike of the day.  It was a great moment to share with River, and Steve.  River had never seen a northern pike first-hand.  This clearly fired him up and I could tell he wanted one of his own.

Shortly after, I got another eat.  This one on top, like the first that I had missed.  The fish materialized only one strip off the bank, below some overhanging tree limbs, and swirled the fly.  I waited, nicely, and set hard.  We had a second pike.  As we admired and released the fish, River suggested maybe he should try a different lure.

He had won a swimbait in a charity raffle.  I don’t know a damn thing about swimbaits, but I asked around.  It was a 3:16 bait and apparently retailed for $150.  This perfect bait for pike fishing he refused to cast, due to the potential financial impact of losing it. “What about jerk baits?,” he said. “ Maybe they’d eat a perch looking lure, Dad?”

We considered this but collectively decided that the Slug-Go would be the best bet.  A properly tied pike fly with a Buford-style head behaves just like a Slug-Go.  That side-to-side sway, so sexy in the water.  Steve and I felt it best to keep the soft-plastic on, for now.  The window was open, and we were scoring fish with my presentation on the fly rod.  The Slug-Go acted like the flies I was using so we stuck with it.  We fished on.

It got slow, and I could tell River was tired.  We had woken and left early, and through the afternoon we had fished hard.  He sat for a while, quiet, had a snack.  Did some more fishing, reeled behind his back for shits and giggles, bombed casts, kept fishing.  But the early luck had run dry.  

I was fishing the B sides of the water, when I was fishing at all, gladly giving River the preferred lies.  I really enjoy just watching him fish, and I wanted him to get a pike.  I already had a pair.

As his energy level dropped even lower, we anchored up on a long slow bend in the current with a dying weed bed on the inside edge.  “Ok, little buddy,” I said. “Let’s make it happen.”.  

After hours with the pink Slug-Go, he was determined to try a new approach.  He rummaged in his backpack for a lure that had come in his Mystery Tackle Box that month.  He held up a two-inch rubber paddle tail grub in a sunfish pattern. 

“This is the one,” he said.

“Are you sure, buddy?,” I answered. “That one?”  I sort of looked at Steve side-eyed here.  It was just a little thing, definitely a decent little bass bait, but Steve could tell how bad I wanted him to get a pike and this selection didn’t seem to fit the bill.  I pulled back, and placed trust.  

“Ok, if you say so,” I relented in a sigh.  It wouldn’t work, I thought, but he had faith.  Steve tied the tiny lure on to a length of bite tippet.  

Now at this weed bed, he insisted I fish as well.  No more sitting around, Daddy.  We’re on a fishing trip!  So, both of us went to work on the weed bed.

I knew there was a fish there, and I felt pretty certain I was going to get it since he was forcing me to fish and I felt pretty confident in my presentation by this point.  These pike, I knew they were eating.  River pitched the weighted bait into the weeds.  I started to work slightly downstream of them.

On a pike float, when it comes, it just mesmerizes the whole boat.  And suddenly, it came.  River made his usual utterance, “Got ‘em.”  I turned to watch, was this a snag?  

I saw motion in the weed bed, something was there.  He had a decent amount of line out, and the bend in the rod told me this was a decent fish.  I thought it was a good bass.  But then I saw it flash in the water as it ran, free of the weeds.  No, this was a pike.  It got serious, real quick.

He fought that fish well, gave it no chance really, and licked it quick.  He did well, and we all began screaming when the pike was netted.  “What’d you catch!?,  I yelled.”

“LET’S GO!,” he screamed back.  “I caught a ginormous pike on a lure that my Dad didn’t think would work!”

They know, they always know.  What we show them we must show wisely as they are always seeing and always learning.  We must trust them to follow but walk on their own two feet.  We must tread carefully as they will certainly follow.  When we’re too tired, they’ll carry us as we would them.  But it is best that we walk together.  We must trust them and trust ourselves to teach well and learn hand in hand.  

River’s fish was bigger than either of the two I had caught.  A proud moment for me, watching Steve hand him the fish.  He knew how to slide his hand below its gill to grip the bony structure there.  He supported it and grinned for the photos.  Steve held the fish up current and we all watched it regain its strength.  

We grew quiet.  He called it a dinosaur.  The beautiful fish steadied itself.  “I told you that that was a good idea,” he whispered.

“You know, I’m not gonna lie…,” I couldn’t finish as I broke out laughing.  

Steve said through his own laughter, “I know.  I know.  I saw you watching him.”

We retired the lure, and now it was his turn to sit back and watch me.  He had an unforgettable look on his face.  Now, not to toot my own horn, but with the monkey off his back I felt free to get as many more as I could.  The window was clearly still open.  So I did, and ended the day with four pike, but who's counting really?  River didn’t get another one on the pink Slug-Go, but we surely weren’t fishing the two-inch paddle tail.  That lure is up on his bookshelf right now.

As we drove home, he fell soundly asleep in the seat beside me.  The cool fall air outside, the warmth of the car’s heater within, a belly full of fast food.  Maybe he dreamed of dinosaurs?  When I finally slept, I didn’t dream of nothing but the wisdom and faith of a child.