Nancy looks back at the years she spent fishing with her dad on an old leaky boat.
When I was about 10 or so my father bought a fishing boat. It was a little wooden boat, certainly not longer than 15 feet long, painted red, white, yellow, and blue. It was ugly. I don’t know how he came to the decision to buy this boat or where he found it. And I don’t remember its homecoming or its beginning in our family. For years it was just a part of our lives.
Dad never did anything halfway: he dived into whatever project he set his mind to with all his might, mind, and free time. The boat was one of those projects. The results of the purchase of that boat go broad and deep through several years of my childhood.
I’m sure dad realized that the boat was in need of repair before he bought it. In addition to repairs he had some changes in mind. Some of the ribs were rotted and the outer finish was in need of repair (or at least Dad didn’t like the finish that was on it). He removed a section of the top (I don’t know boat terms here, so look at the photos) so more of the boat was open toward the front. And the back of the boat where the motor attached was completely rotten.
After he removed the rotten ribs he cut new oak to size. The new ribs didn’t slide into place through the slots that held the old ones: they needed to be hammered in and they needed to be pliable enough to bend. To prepare them my father set up a steam trough at the back of our yard using metal rain gutter filled with water. He placed bricks under either end and built small fires underneath to heat the water, then heat the oak strips. When they were pliable he positioned them into the slots in the boat, then used a mallet to hammer them into place. What a lot of work!
After the inside was in good order, he removed the paint from the outside of the boat then he stained it and put on some kind of finish. But that first summer the boat never saw water.
The next spring my father got the boat ready to use. To make it water-worthy, he poured water inside. It might as well have been a sieve. He explained that the water would make the wood swell, thereby making a tight seal. He repeated the drenching several times until no water dripped from the outside. He was right.
For my dad, the sole purpose of the boat was to go fishing. He bought oars, a motor, life jackets, and, most importantly, fishing gear. He bought me a tackle box and filled it with all the fishing gear a “fishergirl” would need: hooks, line, sinkers, and plenty of other accessories. There was a discount store on McKinley Avenue in Niles that we haunted for tackle. Of course he had his own tackle box and we both had our own poles and reels.
My father nearly always took me fishing with him but sometimes my mother went fishing with us, too. As a non-swimmer she was very uncomfortable around water. It didn’t help that Dad occasionally rocked the boat to tease her. Dad sometimes took my grandfather, often took my brother, but never took my sister fishing. Her only interest in the boat was whether it would pull water skiers. It never did. Skiing didn’t fit into my Dad’s plans or purpose for the boat.
To save money on our fishing activities Dad started a worm bed. Now I think “Ugh!” but at the time it was an interesting challenge to catch worms. He sank two washtubs into the ground and filled them with dirt. At night after a heavy rain, flashlights in hand, we headed to the back yard where we let the light glance over the top of the ground. If the light shone directly onto a worm, zip, it was gone. We had to be really quick! (We didn’t know about covering the flashlights with red cellophane.) We learned to look for the worms that were furthest out of their holes and tried to be quicker than they were. We dropped the worms into 3# coffee cans, filling them over half full after an hour or so. Dad took the cans to the washtubs, removed each worm individually, and placed it into one of the worm beds. Worms are very messy creatures! The worms were inexpensive but our favorite bait eventually became “minnies” which Dad bought at a store near the lake.
With boat, bait, motor, and gear, we were ready to take the boat on water and begin fishing. To my mind there were several challenges. As I mentioned earlier, every body of water was at least 30 or 45 minutes away. My father’s working turns didn’t make finding a block of time easier. Dad worked at Copperweld Steel 5 days on, 2 days off, rotating from days to afternoons to night turns. At the end of that cycle he had an extra day or two off before beginning the cycle again. When he worked days we ate an early supper, then took the boat out. When he worked afternoons, we could go in the morning if we went early enough to be back for him to eat lunch and clean fish before leaving for work at 2:30 or so. When he worked nights (midnight to 7 a.m.), he sometimes came home and slept a few hours, then we drove to the lake.
Mosquito Lake was Dad’s lake of choice. It was (and still is) a long, narrow, man made lake. It seemed huge to me and I could never tell where we were but my father was a good navigator and we always arrived where he wanted to fish and back to the parking lot without a problem. The best spot for fishing was often over a submerged bridge, left there from before the lake had been built. Dad said the fish congregated there.
Occasionally, when in the middle of the lake, Dad let me man the engine and steer the boat. It was great fun. We started out with a small motor but at least once or twice, Dad bought more powerful motors which allowed the boat to move faster. I remember that sometimes the front end of the boat tipped higher than the back end where the engine was in the water. We always carried oars and used them to help guide the boat to shore. My father also gave me the experience of rowing: I was a sad failure. It was just too big a job for a 10-year.
I had no problem baiting a hook, reeling in the fish, and removing the hook from the mouth of a fish — except for catfish. My father took care of the catfish. We caught crappie, blue gill, walleye, perch, and an occasional catfish.
Sometimes we returned home empty-handed after hours of fishing and many changes of fishing spots. Other times the fishing was excellent. It will sound like the proverbial, exaggerated f—i—s—h s—t—o—r—y when I say that we sometimes caught so many fish in such a short amount of time that it took longer to clean them than it took to catch them, but I’m grateful that my brother can attest to the truth of the story. We loved fishing on those days. It was a continuous cycle: bait the hook, drop the line, wait a minute, pull up a fish and repeat. It was very exciting. Only once in a while did we catch large fish. We never photographed anything about our fishing experiences except the photos of Dad and the boat and this one particular catch at right. It doesn’t look very big to me now but it probably seemed big at the time.
When we first started fishing my father cleaned the fish in the old way, by scaling, cutting off head and tail, then gutting. He eventually bought a filleting knife which alleviated the need to gut and allowed us to eat without worry about swallowing bones. At first my job was removing scales but I gradually advanced to gutting then to filleting.
We never ate fresh fish. After the blood and gore of gutting and filleting, my father wasn’t interested in eating them right away. So all the wonderful fish we caught in summer my mother froze until winter. She packaged it so that we could eat to our hearts’ content. She breaded the fillets in egg and cornmeal and pan fried them in just a bit of oil. And then we ate fish! Delicious!
I never tired of fishing but after four or five summers we quit going. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps my father lost his fishing companion when I grew into a teenager who was busy with friends. More likely it was that my father’s interests moved from boats and fishing to wood and clock-building. We all have seasons and times in our lives. The boat stayed in the garage. I probably secretly hoped he’d take it out again but we never did. He finally sold it, years later.
My father did a lot of things when I was a child that I just took for granted. He seemed to know how to do nearly everything (and without the benefit of internet research). It never occurred to me that the things he did were hard, unusual, or uncommon. Looking back from my adult view, when I think about the work on the boat it seems like a huge job. And yet I doubt anything was impossible for my father.
As I consider the lessons my father taught me and as I think about him and the boat, I realize that perhaps, without intention, he taught me that work should come before play, and that the measure of effort one puts into something determines the amount of pleasure one gets out of it.
I’m thankful for the years we went fishing and for the memories the experiences created.