I guess memories that are forever engraved in our minds and hearts are those that bring you the most happiness or those that hurt to think about. This piece covers both extremes of those emotions because it is about my dad.
Everyone has something in their life that is as far back as they can remember. For me, it was 47 years ago at the age of 4. This fateful day was not my first time fishing, but it was the first time we got in to fish good – real good! In the course of less than an hour, I caught 50+ bluegills – keeper bluegills. I don’t even think dad got to fish during that hour – he spent all of his time putting worms on and taking fish off of my hook! Had he only known the fire that he fueled that summer day, he might have taken us back to shore early. That was not just the beginning of a passion for fishing; it would truly be classified as an obsession.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, and we did not own a boat when I was in grade school. Dad had a 5.5 hp late 1950’s vintage Evinrude Fisherman motor. We would go to Phanthom Lake in Mukwonago,WI, and rent a boat any chance we had. When I was 8 or 9 years old, we started to vacation in the Hayward area. Panfish were usually the target, but when dad thought it was time, he introduced me to walleye fishing, and then musky fishing.
Amazingly enough, I can remember many things about our fishing trips. Yes, there were the fishing items that he taught me, like reading the water, matching the hatch, driving the boat, stealth on the approach of an area, etc. There were many, many things that he taught me and I absorbed.
There were ethical things that dad taught as well. We ate fish a LOT. That being said, we NEVER, EVER took more than our limit of fish. If we caught a fish that was deep hooked and wasn’t going to make it, that fish became part of our daily bag limit. I learned that you never crowd other fishermen. I learned that if there was litter in the water or at the landing you picked it up, even if it wasn’t yours. I learned how delicate the habitat was and how precious the resource was.
By the time I was 11 years old, I had developed in to a pretty good fisherman and my head was starting to swell a bit. The resort we were staying at on Big Sissabagama had a weekly kid’s fishing contest. The biggest walleye caught by a kid during the week, would get the lucky fisherman a candy bar and a soda. Being a competitive little bugger, I wanted to win that contest. Fishing was tough that year, and we worked hard for the walleye bite. Three days into the week I caught a 17” walleye that I of course entered in the contest. The very next day, someone staying at the same resort followed us out to the weed bar we were fishing, and were anchored about 30’ from us. At dusk, the man in the back of that boat landed a nice walleye. When we went back to shore, they followed us and much to my dismay, one of the kids in that boat took his dad’s fish to the lodge to enter in the kid’s fishing contest. I was more than a little mad, I was hot! For a Milwaukee boy, I was very naïve – it was my first experience with cheating. How could anyone do something like that?
Dad knew I was fired up and he did what dad did best – he talked to me about it – not like he was talking to a kid, but like he was talking to a friend. When the conversation was done, I knew under no uncertain terms that what that family had done was between them and God. He finished the conversation by telling me that I was not just a lucky fisherman, I had skill. That meant more to me than any contest.
When I was 15 years old, dad bought a 14’ Mirrocraft Deep Fisherman with a 25 hp Evinrude. It was like I had died and gone to heaven!! Dad and mom had just built a new house, but even with all they had going on, dad was never too busy to take me fishing. Every trip I learned more about fishing and life in general. At that time in my life, I am sure I thought it was all about the fishing, but now I know better. It was a little about fishing and a lot about spending time with dad.
In high school I had a lot of friends, but none like dad. Our common bond was fishing and no other activity would trump that.
I left home to get married in 1982 at the age of 21. In 1986 we had our first child, a daughter named Holly, and then in 1988 we had our son, Jordan. During my own course of raising a family, working and trying to find time to fit in all of life’s duties, time spent fishing with dad, let alone visiting other than holidays became scarce. That lost time is something I regret, but I had to do the things for my new family that dad and mom did for me. What you get out of something, is inversely proportionate to what effort you put into it – I am blessed with a wonderful family!
So, all that being said, flash forward to January of this year when dad started to fail. This is where my sad memory comes in. He started to lose his footing and fall. His memory was going, and I mean quickly. By April, the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was replaced with metabolic dementia. That is a condition caused by organs shutting down and having too many toxins in the system from a lack of filtration. Even when he had forgotten so many things and could not find the words to say seemingly simple sentences, his eyes lit up when I would visit and he would always ask “how is the fishing?” or “do you have any tournaments this week?”
Days and nights got pretty messed up too. The last week in June, as I sat in the recliner next to his hospital bed, he was making casting and reeling motions all night long. He was wide awake until 6 am when he finally fell asleep. I’d like to believe he was in a happy place that night into early morning.
Friday, July 1st, mom called me in the morning and said dad was failing fast. I gathered up some clothes and made the 3 hour trip to their house in Central Wisconsin. When I arrived at the house I went into dad’s room – he recognized me, smiled and said “what the hell are you doing here?” He was unable to eat or drink and it was just a matter of time. Not once did he complain throughout his brief illness, but Saturday morning I asked him how he was doing and he just shook his head. He had a moment of clarity and knew what was happening.
Saturday evening dad kissed mom goodnight and the as weak as he was, he pulled her tight. It was his goodbye to her. Sunday night, July 3rd at 11:54pm he squeezed my hand and breathed his last breath – he was 85 years old. He died a beautiful death with me, my mom and sister in the room. He knew we were there and I am so thankful I was holding his hand when he passed.
I hope in the end, that I am half the father, friend and mentor that my dad was. All along I thought we were just fishing, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Fishing was a vehicle that carried life’s lessons and afforded dad the time to brand those lessons in my soul.
Thanks dad – I love you!!