A summer day, a peaceful stream and memories

July 15, 2009

People fish for many reasons.

Some do it to relax, to commune with nature or because they like to eat fish.

Others do it because they want to match wits with a creature that has a brain the size of a pea.

My cousin Joe Petro and I went on one of our periodic fishing trips to his favorite stream last week. As we cast, I realized that the most likely reason we both fish is because our grandfather loved it so much.

When R.D. Eblen retired from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in 1958, he left Lexington and moved back to the Henderson County farmhouse where he grew up. He dug a small, spring-fed lake on the farm and stocked it with bass and bluegill.

Each day in good weather, Pa would walk to the lake or, in later years, ride his Snapper Comet lawn mower. He could spend hours there in silent contemplation — an old pith helmet on his head and a cigar in his mouth — waiting for a big one to grab his lure.

Pa and Ma had a dozen grandchildren. For most of us, boys and girls alike, fishing was the highlight of a trip to Henderson. As we grew, we progressed from cane poles and worms to casting rods and artificial lures. If we were lucky, we would bring home enough fish for Ma to fry up for dinner.

Over the years, I have fished for bass with my father and brothers. When I lived in Atlanta, I learned to fish for trout with a fly rod.

It doesn’t seem safe anymore to eat fish caught in many lakes and streams. Thanks to my lack of skill at outwitting pea-brained creatures, this is rarely a temptation.

I don’t fish often, but occasionally Joe will call and say, “I’ve been working too much. Let’s go fishing!”

Joe is a successful visual artist who has worked all over the world, often in collaboration with an eclectic group of people, including illustrator Ralph Steadman, comedian Jonathan Winters, newsman Morley Safer and the late writer Kurt Vonnegut.

Joe says people used to ask why, as an artist, he would want to live in Lexington instead of New York City. “If I want to be in New York, I can be there in three hours,” he said. On the other hand, in Lexington, he could be at a favorite fishing hole in 20 minutes.

Joe is an interesting guy, and fishing gives us a reason to spend time together.

When we went fishing last summer, I made the mistake of using my hands to remove a hook from the mouth of a squirming bluegill. I ended up with the hook in my thumb, and I could swear I heard that little fish say “gotcha!” as he jumped back into the creek.

It took me five bloody minutes to remove the hook from my thumb. But Joe reminded me that was better than the time our cousin Jerry managed to get a hook sunk into the back of his head. Pa had to take him to the emergency room, otherwise known as the Fisherman’s Hall of Shame.

Last week, Joe and I waded upstream for a mile or so, hunting fish until nearly dark. We each caught a half-dozen little ones, but it’s a good thing nobody was counting on us for a fish dinner.

It made me realize, though, why I fish.

It’s about slowing down and taking time to notice the natural world. About studying the way a stream flows, and trying to figure out which murky pool might conceal hungry fish.

Fishing gives 50-something men an excuse to wade in a creek on a mid-summer afternoon. A reason to climb up on moss-covered rock ledges. An opportunity to watch as the setting sun dapples slow-moving water a dozen shades of green.

And last week, it gave us a chance to reminisce about the grandfather who took us fishing, and who remains vivid in our memories even as time has rushed by like a swift stream.