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I am holding a newspaper clip from the sports section of the Miami Herald dated August 26, 1957, stapled to a faded photograph of me at age 6, rod in hand, a fish dangling limply at the end of the line. The snippet of newsprint, rescued from its gentle decay in a folder, is the consequence of a trolling expedition into the past provoked by my father’s death a few years ago.

My father was a public-relations consultant with the flamboyance typically associated with that profession, and the piece was his doing. He’d pitched me as an all-too-cute column item to Alan Corson, the Herald’s fishing editor, who rose to the bait. “My favorite fish is a grunch (a grunt),” I told my interviewer. “And,” I added with precocious certainty, “when I grow up I want to be a ickologist (ichthyologist).”

My favorite fish is no longer a grunt. The ambition to be an ichthyologist evaporated early. The passion for fishing endures. That’s also my father’s doing.

I grew up in the South Florida of the 1950s, long before its current incarnation as the hip Latin-infused nexus of la vida loca. We lived on Miami Beach — my backyard was literally Biscayne Bay. A tangle of rods and reels in the garage. A skiff on a trailer in the driveway. A bag of frozen shrimp in the freezer. Family lore has it that when we went out in the skiff, my parents would leave the first fish caught tied to a rod to keep me busy for the day, but I am certain that even then the fish didn’t matter as much as the fishing. Fishing was family; my younger brother was crazy about it, too.

Daisy Winn telegraphed her pure joy from landing a nice fish to everyone on board.

Daisy Winn telegraphed her pure joy from landing a nice fish to everyone on board.

As far back as I can remember, there was always a fishing boat in the picture. Every few years, it seemed, my father would trade up one boat after another in incrementally larger models. First an outboard skiff, then a Chris-Craft inboard-outboard, finally a Hatteras sportfish. My brother Andy would be sent into the engine well as the proxy mechanic to address any signs of trouble. Mostly we would troll off Haulover Inlet where the Gulf Stream veers in toward the South Florida shore for kingfish, or hover over a reef for snapper and grouper. If you’ve read Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, you’re well-versed in the connective tissue of fishing and how it provides a common language for family members who might otherwise talk past each other — or not talk at all — but even that net has holes.

When I interviewed Norman’s son, John Maclean, for a story that appeared in Spring 2021 issue of this magazine, he summoned a darker, more caustic side of that common language. “Hell was when I lost a big fish in front of him,” Maclean said of his father. “What did I bring you here for?” his father would chide. “How could you have muffed him? You muffed him.” He softened with age, Maclean added, and fortunately most difficult memories do, as well.

Quoting a Spanish proverb, my father used to say: Esta vida es un fandango, y el que no lo baile es un tonto. Life is a fandango, and he who doesn’t dance is a fool. He’d named one of his boats Fandango and did dance fiercely, something not without cost to the rest of us. I think that ferocity and the casual carelessness that was its collateral came from having survived combat in World War II. He flew missions over Germany as a navigator-bombardier on a B-17, and not everyone who flew off returned. La vida es corta — life is short — was another adage he often summoned. If you’ve landed safely in a heavyweight bomber that lumbers along at 200 mph after successfully dodging a flak-flecked sky, why wouldn’t you dance as much as you damn well please?

We all have our secret sorrows. Children sense tension even if they don’t have the language for it. The me in that picture holding the rod found consolation watching the green of Biscayne Bay erupt into froth as a school of jacks went flailing after baitfish. In later years, I would discover the quiet found in the middle of a trout stream watching for the soft kiss of a rise. “The thing about trout fishing is that a lot takes place beneath the surface,” Maclean said to me. Beneath the surface lay shadows and subtext. I learned to read them.

Fishing was an anodyne — safe territory where abrasions could heal in the astringency of salt air. I learned about connections. The connection between a sky full of wheeling gulls and a school of bluefish. The connection between a cruising tailfin and a bonefish. The bonds formed from sharing a stretch of water with someone we love. Father and daughter. Sister and brother. Friends.

Once when we went offshore fishing, I hooked a dolphin. “If I bring it in, will you mount it?” I asked my father.

“Sure,” he said. I don’t think he was certain I would succeed.

I must have been 11 or 12. The line was fairly light, and the dolphin was 25 pounds or so, but I pulled that opalescent fish within gaffing reach, and the deal was done. Today, the idea of having a fish mounted makes me wince, but in retrospect, I realize it wasn’t so much a dolphin that hung on the wall as the gift of an indulgent father.

I knew my father was getting old when he stopped fishing. Two knee replacements, a titanium rod to stabilize a vertebra in his neck, fractured in a fall, and advancing age compromised his balance. There was no way he could keep his footing on a boat tossed about in the Atlantic. For his 95th birthday, I’d offered him one of my bamboo fly rods as a gift, figuring a gentle trout stream might be a safer bet, but he turned that down, too. Rocks slickened by moss and moving water would be no less forgiving of instability.

Inevitably, he was consigned — resentfully — to a walker. The mind was irrefutably sharp; the body had said enough. Even so, he yearned for one last fishing trip. He would get his wish, but not quite in the way he wanted.

My father was 96 when he died. He’d directed that his ashes be dispersed in the Gulf Stream where we had fished for so many years. A stiff wind off Islamorada in the Florida Keys tipped the ocean with white caps that day. My brother, nephews, stepmother and I scattered his ashes on the water, and as they unfurled into plumes of gray that disappeared into blue, the head of a big loggerhead turtle popped up from the waves. I swear it winked.

Of course, we went fishing afterward. It was, you could say, my father’s last fishing trip — and in a fitting coda, my nephew Michael, his youngest grandson, caught his first sailfish.

My father would have liked that.  

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