Years ago, taking my three young children fishing on the first day of trout season was an all-too-seldom bonding experience that combined fun, frustration, pain and pleasure. Were I given to philosophical hyperbole, I might call it a metaphor for life. But that would be true only in the sense that, in fishing, as in life, preparation doesn’t guarantee success. And in fishing, unlike life, you can buy happiness, especially if a pay-for-each-fish pond is nearby.
New Castle County’s trout season opens on the first Saturday in April. Just as alcoholics label New Year’s Eve “amateur night,” many expert anglers stay home on opening day because for them fishing is a tranquil, Zen-like experience, and they find the sights and sounds of amateurs flailing about creeks with spinning rods repulsive.
My children and I harbored no such prejudices. We looked forward to opening day. We even relished the preparation, which included several rituals, starting with The Digging of the Worms.
Earthworms are supposedly ambrosia to hatchery-bred trout, and gathering them was critical. The best spots for digging were our compost pile and vegetable garden. Sometimes, we soaked the yard with a garden hose, then used flashlights to spot huge night crawlers and pull them from the ground.
But bait wasn’t limited to worms. We assembled a veritable horn of piscatorial plenty: cheese, bread, corn, salmon eggs. Whatever delicacy the fickle fish might favor, we were prepared to offer.
Next came lunch. Trips into the wilds of New Castle County required abundant nourishment. We stuffed paper bags with peanut butter crackers, bologna-and-cheese sandwiches, apples, bananas, hard pretzels, and totally un-nutritious treats like Tastykakes, Twinkies and Moon Pies. Pathmark soda was our drink of choice. Thus provisioned, we could have survived in the woods for weeks, although our complexions may have suffered.
Early April days can start off freezing and turn toasty by mid-afternoon. Layering was the watchword. From skin out, it went: T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, jacket, baseball cap. Gloves, which made rod-handling difficult, were optional.
On the appointed day, we rose at dawn. Getting a 6-year-old girl and 10- and 12-year-old boys up at that hour is challenging, but they were game though groggy. We hit Brandywine Creek State Park well before the 7:30 a.m. start time so we could elbow into place on the banks of Wilson Run.
At precisely 7:30, lines went into the water, and the tiny stream became a frenzy of thrashing trout. We, meanwhile, tended to snag only flora and fauna. “I think I spent most of the day asking you to bait my hook,” my daughter remembers, “or unhook my line from a tree branch, plant, rock, or untangle it from someone else’s … one of you guys or complete strangers. I did not discriminate.”
Some years we did catch fish, but never anywhere near the limit (six per person). Watching others walk off with stringers full of trout while my kids looked on, fishless, was frustrating and painful.
But we had a back-up plan—albeit one that tested our pride. Usually, it surfaced while we sat under a tree forlornly eating our Brobdingnagian lunches. I would ask, casually, “Wanna go to The Easy Place?”
I can’t remember which of us invented the name, but it was code for Newlin Grist Mill, a pay-to-fish spot near Concordville, Pa., off Route 1. A Valhalla for the angling-challenged, its two small ponds were (and still are) stocked with stupid trout that virtually impale themselves on your hook.
We would consider this option for a nanosecond, then, stifling our pride, jump in the car and speed to trout heaven. Two hours later, my wallet somewhat lighter, we would arrive home with seven or eight fish.
With the zeal typical of boys, Steven and Tim cleaned the fish while Danielle looked on, grimacing, and our cat, José, waited for the heads and tails
That evening, thanks to my wife’s cooking, the trout would provide a tasty dinner—one nearly as delicious as spending the opening day of trout season with my children.