Monday, September 20, 2010


I have mostly had a love-love relationship with fish. However, I have also made a few mistakes. I think the earliest mistake was on a fish that I had caught. I was probably 10 years old. We were visiting the Warners in Grosse Pointe Woods some Sunday afternoon. They lived next door to the don of Greater Detroit. He was in charge of racketeering, prostitution, and cement shoes for enemies to be dumped in the Detroit River. But he was much loved by his wife, his children, and everyone else in the neighborhood, who attended his lavish parties. I didn’t know this at the time, of course.

Anyway, the Warners were of impeccable character and members of our church. For some reason, I had been offered use of their kitchen to cook my fish—probably a sungill of modest proportions. I made the assumption that if some spice is good, more spice is better. So, I doused the fish in a mixture of herbs and spices and fried it in butter, then ate it.
About an hour later, I became very sick. At the time, I thought it was because I had used too much flavoring. In retrospect, however, I think it had nothing to do with the herbs and spices; a virus had populated my body, but I hadn’t yet developed the symptoms. The fish threw me overboard.

A second fish memory is of a joint vacation between my family and my aunt and uncle’s family. One summer in the 60’s, we vacationed together in the Badlands of South Dakota. We stayed in a campground that was bordered by a stream that flowed from a well-stocked lake. We were told by officials at the campground to use Velveeta™ for bait. So, we impaled pieces of the iridescent cheese and dropped them in the small stream. Wham! A sizable trout! On the line! This happened 20 more times, and we all enjoyed fish for supper.

A few years later, I was hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park by myself for a week. One day, I hiked up to 12,000 feet and camped at the base of a glacier (probably now melted and gone). There were two men up there as well. They had been fishing all day with very expensive equipment and had caught two very small trout. I walked up to a 2-foot-wide rivulet emerging from under the glacier, unwound my line (complete with sinker and hook), attached Velveeta™ and on the second try: Wham! A sizable trout! On the line! I pan-fried it for supper—this time without herbs and spices, and I slept very well that night under the stars.

Once, my father and I were out fishing in a canoe on Lake Muskoka in Ontario. It was August, it was evening, and the aurora borealis hung overhead in all its grandeur. Usually, my father fished and I took care of details. Instead of earthworms, he was fishing with dried crickets. He said, “pass the cadavers,” pointing at the can of crickets. For years after that, every time I heard a cricket chirp, I would exclaim: “Listen to that cadaver chirp!”

In 1965, our family was on a 12-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, right on the border between Minnesota and Canada. We were completely cut off from civilization, never seeing another human. We ate blueberries, blueberry biscuits, and fish. Fish for breakfast. Fish for lunch. Fish for dinner.

My father and I would spend hours on the lakes, fishing for pike and walleye, which we ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 12 days. This was a great lesson in wilderness survival.

Once, my father caught a particularly large Northern Pike. These are especially vicious creatures with large mouths lined with very sharp teeth. My job was to use the net to bring it out of the water, pick the fish up by inserting thumb and forefinger in the gills on both sides, then, while the monster is flipping its tale, extricate the hook. This one time, the fish was particularly strong, and it threw the hook into my hand.

OK, so here we were, 3 days from the nearest doctor. What to do when you have hooked your son rather than the fish? Why, of course, you cut it out with the razor blade you use for shaving.

I remember my father saying, “Son, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Uh huh. I watched the tip of the blade dig into my tender flesh. He did it with determination, and I have two quarter-inch scars in my left hand to this day. Yay, Dad!
Years before, we went deep-sea fishing in Melbourne, Florida. My grandparents lived at the time in charming, unspoiled, carefully planned Melbourne Village, a work of genius and thoughtfulness. Not too many people can claim that they live in a well-planned community in this country of laissez faire capitalism. This thoughtfulness was marred, however, by the town’s refusal to allow a famous Jewish musician the right to live there.

Melbourne Village buzzed with cicadas. It was crawling with other creepies: scorpions in the shower, 3-inch spiders that scurried down your chest when you ran through a vacant lot. People kept “pet” alligators in their backyards.

We once drove to Cape Canaveral to take a fishing boat out to a “reef” created out of wrecked cars. We chugged for about half an hour before we came to the reef. As we sat there, pulling in triggerfish and other reefers, a large whale swam right next to the boat. Or, was it a submarine? I’ll never know. What I do remember, is the boat keeled over so far that I was looking straight down, the gunwales awash, and dishes in the pantry came crashing off their shelves, plummeting into the sea.
No one looked scared, the cook just swept up the broken crockery off the deck, and we continued to fish.

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