Monday, March 26, 2012
None of that meant a thing to me out on Lake Silver, however, as I sat in a banged-up aluminum motorboat with my 250-pound grandfather, lightning crackling across the sky and rain pounding down upon us.
"Whassa matter, there, Chris?" Grandpap asked, unlit cigar hanging from his mouth like a wet sponge. "Yer not gonna let a little rain roon the day, are ya?"
If this was "a little rain" I'd hate to see what Grandpap would call a downpour, but the rain was the least of my worries. First off, there was the lightning. My third grade class had recently learned that objects made of metal, fishing boats for example, were excellent conductors of electricity. I was a nervous kid with more than my share of mortal fears, and being struck by lightning was right up there with fire, roller coasters and, of course, clowns.
"No, Grandpap, I'm fine," I lied, looking down at him. Grandpap's weight, combined with that of the outboard motor, created an imbalance that left me jacked way up in the air. I was not "fine", wasn't even in "fine's" area code. On a scale from one to ten, I was freaking petrified. My pants were soaking wet, and I assure you it wasn't just from the rain. I shivered in my bright orange poncho forgetting all about our pursuit of largemouth bass, picturing instead my body getting ravaged by lightning bolts, pitched into the water, and chomped to bits by a strike force of hungry alligators who were undoubtedly gathering off the starboard bow. All the while Grandpap, I'm sure, would be chastising me because my blood-curdling screams and thrashing around were "skeerin' away all the fish."
We braved the elements, though, (and by "braved" I of course mean there was no way I was going to muster up the courage to ask to go home) and after about half an hour, the monsoon subsided. We stayed out on the lake until sunset, Grandpap reeling in a string of monstrous bass while I caught six pounds of flotsam and pneumonia.
And that was but one of our many fishing expeditions.
Bill "Grandpap" Knight was my maternal grandfather and, as he was only too happy to tell anyone who would listen (or pretend to), he was the greatest fisherman to ever wield a Fenwick Trigger Stick fiberglass rod. The only traveling the Knight family ever did was fishing trips, or weekend jaunts up to Suwanee River country north of Gainesville to visit Grandpap's mother (known as Grammy) where they'd all go, yes, fishing. Everyone in the family fished, not just Grandpap. The menfolk would fish the river all morning for red-bellies, stumpknocker, shellcracker, bream, and whatever else they could fry up in a cast-iron skillet. Around noon, the rest of the family would meet them down at the riverbank for a fish fry. They'd feast on fish, grits, hush puppies, and watermelon fresh from the garden. As Mom says, true soul food is the food of people making do with whatever's on hand.
I was Grandpap's first grandchild and as such, I learned to fish before I learned to tie my shoes. I picked up a lot of fishing lingo just by listening to Grandpap, terms like "back-trolling," "crankbait," and "quit throwing stuff into the water." If we're going to be honest about it, though, I never really got the hang of the actual "fishing" part. While it's true that Grandpap spent many hours on the lake trying to teach me, whether or not I actually learned anything depends on your interpretation.
For example, he taught me to cast the line. In theory, it was simple. Pull the trigger on the Zebco 202 reel, bring the rod back over my right shoulder, then whip it forward and at exactly the right moment release the trigger, sending the baited hook hurtling out into the lake. Grandpap demonstrated this about ten times, and with a confident, "Awright, now'ts yer turn, give 'er a good fling," he handed me the rod.
I wound up and let it fly.
"Okay, now, next time yer gonna leggo the trigger jes' a little sooner," said Grandpap, calmly dislodging the hook from his left ear.
With practice, my casting skills rose to the level of "not horrible" but that was the extent of it. And in the many trips we took over the years, I never caught a single thing. Well, that's not entirely true. One time, my hook embedded itself in the downy skull of an unlucky mallard and while I thought it should qualify as a legal catch, Grandpap and the Florida State Game Warden had a different opinion.
"Grandpap, look! I caught a duck!"
"Ya shore did. Ya usin' live bait or jus' the plain ol' hook?"
Always the sportsman, Grandpap guided the boat over to where the duck was flailing around in the water, unhooked him, and set him free.
"Better let 'im go," he said with a chuckle. "That one's under the minimum size limit."
Over the years, my brothers went along on the fishing trips as well. My youngest brother, Bobby, seemed to inherit some of Grandpap's skill. He always caught a fish or two every time we went out, and Grandpap nicknamed him "Hot Rod." I wasn't jealous, though. Sure, my brother was a better fisherman than I was, but he never got to experience the "thrill" of lightning storms or the "prestige" of hooking our grandfather's ear.
Grandpap passed away about ten years ago, leaving a void in the lives of his family, Moose Lodge buddies, billiards rivals, and fishing companions.
But Central Florida became a much safer place for largemouth bass.