I grew up in Jefferson County in an area about as flat as flat gets in Wisconsin. We knew who farmed most of the land we drove past on the way to church each Sunday, and more than a few of those families sat in the pews around us.
When the Brewers were on, we listened to Bob Uecker call games on AM radio while we worked in our garage and my dad smoked cigars. With the Brewers came summer, and with the summer came trips “up north” and to “Honey Creek.” At both places my attention was riveted to water, and my focus was fishing.
It’s hard to say exactly where or when I caught my first fish. It was probably a bluegill, and I probably caught it standing on a pier that my paternal grandfather, dad, and uncles had built in my family’s ancestral “up north” water, Miller Lake.
The first non-bluegill that I can recall catching was a largemouth bass with my father from a boat he was oaring within casting distance of the aforementioned pier, using a minnow that he’d put on my hook, and in a chain of events that probably began with a cast he’d made.
After he handed me the rod and the bobber that he’d put on my line went down, my Zebco 404 combo rod came apart while I fought my prey. Surprisingly cool given the 10” leviathan that his son was now engaged in epic battle with, my dad reassembled the halves of my rod, and he then lifted the fish from the water for me.
I was clearly a natural.
It’s equally hard to say where or when I caught my first trout. It was probably a brown trout, and probably out of a hole formed by a perched box culvert along Alder Lane. When we were not headed up north, my family headed with my maternal grandfather and grandmother and my mom’s brothers and sisters to western Wisconsin, where we helped my grandfather band birds and listened to whippoorwills sing through the night.
Primarily because I loved water, and perhaps because I did not enjoy being bitten by birds, I spent my time throwing every lure in my fully stocked Plano bass and pike tackle box into that little road hole.
If I couldn’t catch a fish, I was determined to scare them out of the water while trying. In what can only be rightfully described as a moment of divine pity, a trout no bigger than my hand eventually hit a spinner I’d tossed, and I was able to hold my first trout.
These are my memories, and they have shaped my life. Most of you reading this column — if indeed
anyone has managed to make it this far — have similar memories. The names and places and lures and rod models might be different, and maybe someone else built your pier, but we all have our first fish and our first trout. For each of us, I’d say it is a safe bet to assume that our first fish and first trout are a big reason we’re involved with TU.
My dad gave me a fish, and my mom gave me the Driftless. Those simple gifts made me want to learn
more about fishing, more about water, and eventually more about coldwater conservation and ensuring
that future generations can enjoy the same things that I love so much.
Like the farmers we grew up around, my parents had planted a seed simply by exposing me to water,
giving me a chance to enjoy it, and allowing me to bother the trout that live in it.
As members of TU, one of the most important things we can do is get kids outside, get them in the water, and get them fishing. Not every child will respond as we all have to our first fish, but some will. And the more kids we can get out fishing, the more success stories we’ll have. The more kids we get hooked, the more kids will be likely to care about our waters, and the more kids we’ll have growing up with a respect for coldwater resources and for our mission.
Just a few days ago, my wife I took our daughters for our first-ever family weekend in the Driftless. In
between climbing around a dragon park, eating in a restaurant that has trees inside, and picking out cheese at the co-op, we did a little fishing. We took off our shoes, waded in the river, and caught some brook trout.
I cast, they splashed, and when the trout came in, my three-year-old daughter petted it and my five-year old daughter fell in the river. With a start like that, we’re expecting big things from both.