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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I grew up fishing. My dad had a 16-foot tin boat with an outboard motor, and we’d zip around Charlie Lake just outside Fort St. John, B.C. Mostly we’d catch walleye and pike, and he’d tell us stories of muskies (“They’ll come up and bite your finger clean off!”) as we trailed our fingers in the water. We often saw other folks, at the boat launch or on the dock, and without fail we’d hail each other with, “Catch anything?” which would usually move into a comparison of the day’s catch, or traded suggestions on lures and locations and a few ones-that-got-away glory stories.

My children are now growing up fishing. The kids were the right age to get into it when we were living in Fort McMurray, Alta. We spent many days out on the Snye or the Athabasca River, mostly catching enormous pike on big lures like Five of Diamonds or Red Devils. When we moved to Scotland, we kept fishing. There we caught occasional rainbow trout in the highly managed fishing ponds or mackerel in the North Sea on big ocean rods off of the harbour wall in our small town.

We’ve lived and fished in lots of places, and I enjoy fishing. However, my son Gordon loves to fish. He can spend a full day, sun up to sun down, casting his line and changing lures. When he sees someone else fishing, he wants to know everything they’re doing. Did you catch anything? What lures do you use? Are you allowed to use bait here? Do the fish taste good? What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught? He’s relatively introverted and usually quite reluctant to talk to strangers; but if they are a kindred fisherperson, he connects instantly.

When we were visiting Paris, we had a full day going up the Eiffel Tower, touring the Louvre, eating fresh flaky croissants. On our evening walk back to our accommodation, Gord spotted a fisherman on a quiet part of the Seine. Dragging us down several staircases to reach the river’s edge, we sought out the fisherman for a conversation about his catch. Despite Gordon speaking almost no French, they had a great conversation as he showed us what he caught, indicated if it was a good size or smaller than normal and it ended up with Gordon being given a fish, which I needed to cook for him that night. The shared joy in fishing reached across language and age barriers.

While in Switzerland, we passed through Bern where we stopped for lunch. We grabbed some picnic materials at a grocery store and went for a walk in the local park. We made our way down the riverbank to the river Aare, stopping on a bridge where we could actually see the fish in the river. They faced upstream, gently waving their tails to stay motionless in the river’s current in the shade that the bridge cast across the water. From our vantage point, we could see a fisherman just downstream of the fish. Gordon couldn’t contain himself – he ran to the guy, gesturing to where the fish were in the bridge’s shadow. They didn’t speak each other’s language, but in their communication, it turned out he had not caught anything that day, he was using some kind of baitfish and he let Gordon try a few casts on his rod. He was casting into the bridge’s shadow when we had to drag Gordon away to continue our journey.

In Rome, we passed by the Tiber River, spotting a few people fishing in several places. We couldn’t see the path down to the water and had other plans for the day, but we did end up spending several minutes watching their lines bob in the water, Gordon scanning the banks to see if anyone had fish beside them or not.

Between moving back from Scotland and COVID-19, in the past few years we haven’t travelled nearly as extensively as we used to; however just this summer we went out to Quebec. While there, we canoed the Jacques-Cartier River and spent some time near the Ottawa River. Watching others on the shore, who had caught a few good-sized fish, we looked up the regulations and ended up heading to Canadian Tire to get a fishing rod. We caught a few pike, some sunfish and a largemouth bass – the highlight of the vacation according to Gordon. It must be in our genetics, because it reminded me strongly of my dad, who I had seen buy a fishing rod on family trips where he’d neglected to bring one, never passing up an opportunity to hook a big one.

Recently walking along the river’s edge in Calgary I saw a person in hip waders gracefully arcing their fly rod, looking for the perfect placement. I couldn’t help it – I called out, “Caught anything?” Not missing a beat in his cast, the guy called back, “Yeah, a couple of small rainbows!” It’s a conversation we would have had in any country, in any language and fully understand.

Teresa Waddington lives in Calgary.

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