It was the 1960s, I was 13 years old and growing up way too quickly. In those days a boy was a man at 13 but that kind of thinking got me into a predicament.
You see, I was thinking about a huge bass, the one I had seen earlier in the year feeding around my secret fishing hole. My idea was to catch that trophy bass and get my story into the sports section of the local paper. Maybe then the tourists would pay me well to be their fishing guide. I could make some serious money with that reputation, but first I needed a plan to catch that bass.
There were obstacles to overcome and timing was of the upmost importance. The problem: On a regular day the area was always busy with people fishing and competition was fierce. If you caught a decent sized fish, the guys would crowd you and the big guys would just push you out. I decided that a Sunday morning was the best time to fish my secret honey hole. Nobody fished on Sunday as most everyone attended church; the problem was I also had to be in church. So what if I missed one Sunday? Was that such a bad thing? And just how would I manage that? I needed a plan, a perfect Sunday morning, some luck — and the will to stuff my guilt into my back pocket.
That Sunday came. I got up early, put on my going-to-church clothes and stealthily readied myself, slipping a plastic bag of worms into my pocket I headed for the door. As I was going out, Mom called, “Where are you headed, young man?” I innocently declared, “Oh, I’ve decided to go to early Mass today; it’s not as long as the later Mass and that way I can get more things done today.” Mom seemed pleased that I was being responsible and she did not have to push me to go to church. I yelled out my goodbye as the screen door slammed at my heels.
As I walked down the street the guilt sat heavy in my back pocket but I continued on down the street. It was a perfect morning to go fishing! Arriving at the church I walked up the steps and inside. Head down, I grabbed a church bulletin, left just as quickly and made for the lake. The closer I got to the water, the less guilty I felt. Relief washed over me — the toughest part of my plan had succeeded.
I reached the spot where I had stashed my fishing rod the night before, surveyed the lake and – with nobody around — hurried to my secret honey hole humming with excitement. I baited my hook with two humongous dew worms, set the big red and white bobber four feet from the hook and with one cast the bait landed in the honey hole. The waiting game had started: Was this my lucky day? Would I hook into that huge bass?
I sat on a big boulder at the shore and pulled the bulletin from my pocket, one eye on the bobber and the other studying the bulletin.
Now you might wonder why I would bother to read the church bulletin but I knew when I got home there would be the “test.” Questions like “What was the sermon about?” “What are the upcoming events?” “Which priest said Mass?” “Who did you see there?” It felt like I was on a quiz show. A thorough reading of the church bulletin had saved my hide on a few occasions.
Sitting on the rock my thoughts were easy; I wondered if this is what heaven is like. I was totally care free. It was perfect. But disaster was about to strike.
Twenty minutes ticked by before my big bass inhaled the glob of juicy bait and my hook. I jerked the rod back and set the hook. The battle had begun! This beautiful bass that God had created was putting up a tremendous fight: jumping, running, diving, and dancing on the water. I worried whether my hook would hold or my line might break; was the drag set properly or would the rod break? I hung on and at one point I almost fell off the boulder into the lake. That would have been a hard one to explain, why I was soaking wet after church.
What a fight, maybe I’d set a new record. It sure felt like this monster from the deep was a true trophy. A fish to be proud of! Wait till everyone sees this beauty — maybe I would make the front page of our local paper! My plan was coming together, all I had to do was land this monster. These thoughts flashed quickly through my mind. Finally the bass tired — inch by inch I gained line, he was almost in the bag.
Just when I thought he was done, my bass gave another jump and ran like a rocket. The line and rod were straining; doubt crept into my mind. This was a powerful fish; did I have what it took to land him? Was I going to lose him? Then, just as suddenly, he gave up the fight. I reeled him in, grabbed him through the gills and hoisted him high into the air. Victory was at last mine — the plan was a success. I had caught my trophy and I was one heck of a fisherman! Wow, wait until I show off this big bass, this will give me bragging rights for a lifetime.
Then it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t tell anyone this story. I couldn’t be caught out — thus my predicament. All thoughts of glory were suddenly struck down. What was I thinking? No one could know about this trophy fish — I was supposed to be in church!
My hopes of making some money as a reputable fishing guide evaporated as I realized my dilemma. What could I do? Church was almost over, the fish was almost dead and I could be in trouble. There was no way I could take the fish home and try to explain how I skipped church to go fishing. I could not put the fish back; it would die anyway. My parents would ground me for a lifetime and probably confiscate my fishing equipment. On top of that, I’d have to go to confession and tell the priest what I had done. That would be worth a few Hail Marys, for sure.
That’s when I heard the words, “Hey there young fella, that sure is a dandy bass you got there.” I turned to see a man with a beard, a friendly smile and a twinkle in his eye. I liked him immediately. “Yes sir,” I explained, “I just caught him, but I have a problem.”
What was I saying? I don’t know this guy.
“What’s the problem?” he asked me. I sadly told him what I had done to catch this fish and how I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
He chuckled and agreed that it sure was an unfortunate turn of events.
We talked awhile and then I just offered him the fish, “Do you like fish, cause you can have this here bass.”
“I love fish,” he said, “but that wouldn’t be fair to you, you caught that beauty and you deserve the credit for the catch.”
I answered him in a sad tone, “This fish seems to be more trouble than I reckon I need.” The stranger chuckled, “Tell you what, I’ll give you 50 cents for the fish, would that be fair to you?”
I thought for awhile and answered, “Jeez, mister, that would be really nice of you but you don’t have to.” Happily he felt he did have to, we shook on the deal man-to-man which made me feel like a grown man.
Just then the bell tolled, Mass was over. Time to pack up. There will be a test when I get home; now where is that bulletin? I thanked the old timer and we parted ways.
He walked up the hill through the towering red and white pines on the road. I took the short cut across the more open field, up past the church and down the street. As I walked home, hands deep in my pockets, I thought about what I had done; my happiness helped override any guilt. On one hand I had missed church; on the other, I had gained a life lesson. I was trying to reason it all out.
Hopeful that things would go in my favour, I walked through the door, “Hey, I’m home.” Dad turned to me and asked, “Did you learn anything today?” I could answer truthfully, “Yes, I did, Dad.” Dad smiled back at me; whenever he smiled that way I was left with the impression he knew more than he was saying. I believe he knew something unusual had happened and that it would eventually come out. How long would it take before Dad heard about a big bass caught by a young man down at the lake on a Sunday morning? I guessed the old gentleman would eventually tell that story to his buddies. How long would I have to worry about this? What a morning it had turned out to be. I didn’t think I’ll play hooky from church anymore but at least Mom didn’t “test” me that day. I pictured the big fish I had caught, my excitement, my disappointment and my guilt. Life is like that — you never know if, how or when it’s going to bite.
For a long time I worried that the stranger would tell the story of the boy and the big fish. I never did hear anything about it in town and strangely enough, never saw that man again. To this day I wonder who he was and where he came from but I do know he saved my hide that day.
To assuage my guilt I donated that 50 cent piece to the church and felt it was a fair exchange. One never knows, maybe that older gentleman I met was God’s way of keeping me on the right path in my life.
Fishing can be exciting, relaxing and spiritual in so many ways. Keep casting, keep dreaming, life really is an amazing adventure.
Photo at top: outdoorchoose.com