Keep & Release

Every podcast recording session starts out the same way: Emily, exasperated, looks at Nate and I and asks, “Do you guys have a ‘Keep’ and ‘Release’ for this week?”

If you’ve never heard the show, a) consider yourself lucky and don’t click this link, and b) Keep and Release is the segment where we give a little shout-out to whatever the one thing is that we want to talk about this week in a positive light (Keep), and the one thing that irritated us or aggravated us in the previous week (Release).  A release could be leaky waders or faulty spinning reels or lousy internet service or duck ID posts on social media or any of a litany of things.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a joke behind the scenes, the rants that accompany release.  So much so that, while listening to the show last week, Will looked at me before we even got to “Keep and Release” and said “Dad, what do you hate this week?”

“Hate?  I don’t hate anything?”

“Dad – you hate EVERYthing . . . “

His exasperation hit me kind of heavy.  I took a breath, right there driving to school, and replied:

“I love a lot of things, too.

I love hot summer mornings when your shirt sticks to you before you step outside, and the chill of an ice-cold window unit AC when you get back home.  Fall mornings when there’s just a hint of crispness in the air, and winter days when they’re gloomy and overcast and your breath hangs around all day, and spring time when the greens are so bright they hurt your eyes.

I love duck hunting, and decoys, and dogs and hearing the birds before you see them and the way a wood duck whistles or a mottled grunts and the noise a huge flock of divers make, feathers and wings and air harmonizing on this weirdly deafening rumble.  I love the quacks and the tweets and the burrs, the kerplunk of a fresh shell, the chill in the air, how your hands can’t ever get warm once your glove gets wet, and ‘Take ‘em’ and ‘Cut ‘em’ and ‘Kill ‘em’ and ‘Shoot’ and ‘Fetch ‘em up’ and ‘last one’ and ‘think they’re done’ and ‘I got that one’ and ‘y’all wanna go get breakfast’ . . .

I love bird dogs, wacky and rangy and as distracted as a teen-aged boy at a cheerleader convention, locked up and birds brought to hand and sharing peanut butter crackers in between stops . . .

I don’t hate everything.  I love snook, and that glorious pop that sounds like someone launching potatoes into the shallows, the way they’ll chase your lure and tap it around and not commit, or the way they’ll over-commit and miss it entirely, big ones and little ones and in between ones right in the slot, and watching all of them swim away.  And I love redfish, the way they have to almost turn upside down to inhale a topwater plug, and the wake behind your bait right before everything goes crazy, and the tips of their tails signaling you on low tide to stop and hang out for a few.  And don’t forget tarpon, man, I love tarpon, cartwheeling and catwalking and somersaulting and basically doing things that would’ve gotten them burned at the stake in the 1600’s, 120 lbs of gills rattling and tail smacking fun, turning the beach into swiss cheese . . .

I love lots of things.  Turkeys and trout and teal.  Yeti’s and Yellowfins and Searks and Carolina Skiffs, the tackle department at Stone’s and gas station Cuban sandwiches and chumming for whitebait and Spanish Mackeral and under-slots and decoy bags and Zara spooks and picking up spent shells after the hunt and cutting down palm fronds for blinds; wet bird dogs and the way they smell, 2 stroke motors burning oil, cork rod grips and Cabelas catalogs and Mack’s Prairie Wings catalogs and podcasts and new waders and long lines and hi-vis PowerPro.

I love taking you and your sister outdoors, and kids’ first ducks and dogs’ last ducks and limits of mangrove snapper . . . Sunsets on the boat, and sunrises on the boat, sometimes in the same day; wade fishing, and shrimp runs and mullet runs . . . Beagles and Berettas and bobbers and bream . . .

When you say I hate ever-“

“Dad” Will interrupted . . .

“You still hate Duck ID posts, right?”

We hugged.

Why are we Fishing?

When I pulled up to the school, I was ready.

The back of the truck had rods and reels rigged to go. I’d picked up earthworms from the local bait shop, and my buddy had given me a tip to a pretty solid bluegill bite.

As his art teacher opened the door, Will hopped in the truck . . . We made normal small talk about how each other’s days were, lunch, pretty girls, the usual. We stopped for an Icee, and it wasn’t until we pulled up to the bank of the creek that he exclaimed . . . “Dad, are we going fishing? WHY?”

Why? Why are we fishing?

I began to unpack the tackle and bait hooks as I answered him . . .

“Why are we fishing? WHY ARE WE FISHING???”

“To sit on the bank all afternoon with my son, watching the storms building and debating about whether or not it’ll head our way.”

“To watch to dancing of a bobber as an unseen bluegill or catfish or trout decides if it’s worth the risk . . .”

“We’re fishing because it’s part of who we are, a legacy passed down from fathers and grandfathers to their sons and daughters . . . A heritage of harvesting a few bream for the frying pan, or watching a big spawning bass swim away to make more babies. It’s getting skunked and realizing that great blue heron is a vastly superior angler. It’s the rattling of a kingfisher
doing acrobatics overhead. It’s the dolphins and the manatees and the snakes and the bobcat we saw that one time . . . It’s pitching a frog onto a lily pad . . . It’s skipping a greenback under a mangrove, just in the perfect spot . . . It’s earthworms and eagles and channel cats and stringers and tackle boxes . . . ”

“We’re fishing because of possibility . . . Because we have no idea what’s going to come tight on the other end of that line, or when . . . Because of a 5 lb redfish who thinks they weigh 50 lbs . . . Because of the bass that eats the breadball and puts on an aerial display to rival a tarpon . . . Because we love the idea of the drag screaming as line peels off, no idea what’s attached to the
pointy end of our rig . . . The sight of a topwater plug, worked beautifully across a point, knowing, just having absolute certainty, that it’s going to get slammed . . . And that feeling you get when it happens . . . And that feeling you get when it doesn’t . . . ”

“Why are we fishing? WHY ARE WE FISHING? We’re fishing because it’s romantic; it was the vehicle of Hemingway and Walton and Grey . . .We’re fishing because it’s nostalgic; we fish accompanied by the ghosts of our fathers and their fathers before them . . . Why are we fishing? We’re fishing because it’s a challenge, from crappie and carp to tarpon and trout, there is no lure in the world that can MAKE them bite . . .”

“Will, you may not realize it now, but we’re fishing for you . . . To ensure that you know that in this time of xboxes and iPads, that there is a REAL world outside, full of hope and wonder and beauty and nature . . . That somehow, by being disconnected you can actually be more connected, if that makes any sense.”

“We’re fishing because this is America, and that’s what we do. We’re fishing because it’s fun. We’re fishing because it was a cheap way to kill three hours this afternoon and maybe bring home dinner. We’re fishing because it’s a great way for a father and son to spend an afternoon, talking on a creek bank.”

“Son, what I want you to understand is . . . ”

“Dad,” Will interrupted me, staring wide eyed as my rant had gone on for several minutes . . .

I looked in his eyes, bright brown, the only reminder of him as a baby as now here stood a young man before me. I smiled, believing this was one of our moments, that he got it, that he understood what all this meant to me, and what all of it meant to him . . .

“Dad, what I meant was, ‘why are we fishing’ when today’s your anniversary? Weren’t you supposed to be at dinner, like, 20 minutes ago???”

Good talk, son . . . Good talk . . .