November 23, 2021
I guess I was about five years old when my dad taught me how to fish and shoot, which is about usual for a kid growing up in the South. My love of fishing began at a little “for pay” lake that was stocked with bluegills for me, and bass for dad. He fished with his spinning gear, tossing those magical lures with names like Mepps, Shyster, Dardevle, and Jitterbug. I had a little Zebco closed-face spinning reel and a kid-sized rod with a small brassy hook on the end of the line, and a red and white plastic bobber about a foot or two above the hook.
The night before fishing, we’d go out into the yard with a flashlight and an empty coffee can looking for earthworms to use as bait the next morning. The worms never seemed edible to me, but the bluegills sure liked them. On those days when we didn’t have worms, my dad would just hand me a little jar of salmon eggs, which looked like candy to a five-year-old.
When we arrived, there was a ritual we adhered to where we’d go to the tackle shop, and dad would pay for the day of fishing. He’d also buy me a hot dog with yellow mustard, a soda, and a Dolly Madison fruit pie—usually apple. We did it the same way every time as if any variation would bring “bad mogumbo” to the whole deal. We arrived at our usual spot on the lake every time, and dad would look at me with his serious dad-face and say, “Steve, stay out of the water!”
“Sure dad,” I replied.
After I fell in—which I always did—he’d hang my britches on a tree limb in the sun to dry, and I went on fishing in my Fruit of the Looms, which worked out fine because it was getting hot by then anyway. You can get away with that sort of thing when you’re a five-year-old boy, but people seem to frown on fishing in your underwear as you get older. That’s a damn shame. Growing up is not all it’s cracked up to be. I guess that’s why as I get older I’m becoming more childlike. All I seem to want to do these days is play outdoors and eat junk food. It feels good to be back in my second childhood, although I’d joyfully skip the aches and pains that come with the mileage.
For all his casting and spinning and Jitterbugging, dad didn’t seem to catch many fish. Sometimes I almost felt sorry for him. I mean, every now and then he’d hook a bass, but I was hauling in bluegills like it was the easiest thing in the world to do.
Dad always brought a five-gallon bucket for me to fill with lake water so that I could entertain myself by filling the bucket with bluegills. At the end of the day, dad would look into my bucket and say, “Well, you sure did catch a lot of them!” Then he’d have me help him carry the bucket to the water’s edge, and together we’d release all the little fish I had captured. Even then, catch-and-release fishing pleased me. I remember that when we dumped the little bluegills back in the pond, some of them would sort of mill around like people at a train station not sure of where to go. In time, they’d find their way home, just like me.
Later in life I moved up from a cane pole to a fly rod. I began targeting bigger fish that I caught less often, but that according to the grown-ups were a lot more satisfying. And I enjoyed catching bass and later traveling around the world fishing and hunting for everything from bonefish to kudu. But I have to admit, none of it thrilled me any more than a bucket full of bluegills.
Bluegills fill my fondest childhood memories. As I moved up to a fly rod and fishing the fast-moving and spring-fed Texas Hill Country streams, I began targeting other sunfish that all seem to fight outside their weight class and often look like they were painted by Vincent van Gogh. In time, I became a father, and I introduced my daughter Megan to nature via fly fishing and the short hikes we’d take to get back to the streams. Her first fish on a fly was a bluegill, which she caught in one of the ponds that line the headwaters of the Sabinal River. The fact that it was tiny made no difference to her. From that moment forward, she was forever a participant in nature.
Life is a circle, not a line. Circles describe nature from a bird’s nest to raindrops striking a pond. I’d like my life to be round, like that. I’d like my life to be natural. When we see ourselves as participants in the biome, nature and the best of human nature carry us forward. It all comes down to love and respect for self, others, and the Earth.
All across America this outdoor ethic is being lost to the e-generation who are existing in a virtual world, not living in an actual one. But this does not have to be, and frankly, if this trend continues, the nature of our nation, world, and humanity will suffer. The point here is threefold. First, we only protect what we come to love, and we only love what we come to know. Second, a growing, rather than decreasing, supply of “nature participants” is needed to ensure the future of our wild spaces and wildlife. Third, introducing children to nature through angling and hunting as well as other less consumptive outdoor interactions such as nature walks, and even organic gardening is vital to our future, and beneficial to the health and well-being of the children. Every time we introduce a kid to nature, we are planting a tree of sorts. I don’t remember much about my early childhood, but I recall every detail of my fishing trips with my dad.
In her wonderful book entitled, Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams makes a compelling argument about the importance of nature in our lives. She writes, “The dramatic loss of nature-based exploration in our children’s lives and our own has happened so fast we’ve hardly noticed it. We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize that they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic, and more apt to engage with the world.”
It seems to me that most American children and adults are suffering from what author Richard Louv has coined as nature-deficit disorder. We all see it, even in ourselves. We spend our time multitasking or sitting in meetings or stranded in traffic and in the end, we are left fatigued, isolated, anxious, and depressed. It’s not natural.
Nature is restorative. Connecting with nature is a skill that requires practice like any other skill. As I write this, America is in the middle of a global pandemic, racial and civil unrest, massive unemployment, and environmental degradation, but I remain optimistic. Nature taught me to be adaptive, resilient, and present in the moment.
Not long ago, I returned to the Sabinal River with my little 4-weight glass rod and a desire to feel young again. I strung up my rod and walked to a clear, wide, lazy pool along the headwaters of the river. Not much has changed since my time as a boy fishing with my dad at that little pay lake. I still like to stand in the water as I fish; it seems that getting wet is all a part of the fun for me. It was early spring in the Texas Hill Country and the bluebonnets and scarlet paintbrushes were in full bloom, while the Texas mountain laurel flowers were just coming to an end.
I could see a few fish out in the pool, and I began casually casting toward the closest ones. It didn’t take long before I got a follow and a take so that my little glass rod doubled over and throbbed to the pull of a hefty bluegill. I brought her to my wet hand, slipped out the barbless hook, and gently returned her to the river. At first, she milled about like someone at a train station, not sure of where to go. But in a moment, she turned and swam confidently toward the part of the river from which she had just come. When I saw her stop over a gravel bed on the other side of the big pool, I knew that she had found her way home . . . just like me. I smiled and then I cast forward, once again. It’s what I do.
Steve Ramirez is the author of Casting Forward (Lyons Press, 2019). His new book Casting Onward will be available from Lyons Press in April of 2022.