Real summer comes first when the lily pads and weeds along the edge of the river began to grow. It does not happen slowly, does not seem to occur gradually. One day the pads are not there and the weeds are all dry and brittle from winter and the next day the pads appear and the weeds are green and the summer water has life it did not have before.
The second sign of true summer is when the rock bass start biting down by the Ninth Street bridge.
It is thought that they start biting simply because the water temperature reaches a certain point — that would probably be the scientific answer. Or the weeds get a certain height, or the moon moves into a quadrant of the sky it must be in to make them hungry.
Whatever the reason, when they “come to start biting,” as the old people say, it marks the start of true summer fishing, and in this business of the Ninth Street bridge there are the first seeds of the real art.
It is not enough then nor now to simply bait a hook and lower it into the water and catch a fish and eat a fish. It has perhaps never been enough.
There are a hundred ways to do everything, but this principle seems truer of fishing by the Ninth Street bridge than of other things. Nothing is ignored in the search for perfection.
The rod, the kind of line, the hook — all are argued over, discussed to death.
“If the line is heavy you won’t feel their mouth on the hook …”
“Too much weight and they’ll spit the bait …”
“Wash your hands before you bait up or the stink will drive them back — nothing’s as bad as man-stink. …”
It is likely that if a bent pin were hooked to a piece of baler twine and some bait wiped on the pin, the rock bass would bite, but nobody believes it, nobody wants to believe it.
It must take more.
And so the ritual begins. Any worm would work, but the worms from Halverson’s backyard over near the corner of his clothesline back by his mother’s favorite flower bed in that crumbly dirt that smells of sheep manure just after it has rained …
Those worms, those worms are the best.
They must then be carried right. Best is an old lard bucket with some of the dirt from where the worms were dug and a little water to keep the dirt moist plus just a dab of Steve’s father’s stale beer to “feed” the worms and kill the man-stink. (The beer is open for much argument — as to whether it works or not, what kind of beer is best, how stale it must be, and the best way to make it stale. Steve contends two days open is enough, but Wayne Kline swears that it takes longer, and Harvey Overton says none of it works unless you pee in the dirt on top of the beer, except that nobody likes to reach into the can for a worm if Harvey pees in it.)
Types of worms — large, fat, short, thin — also make for discussion and for a long time it was thought the sex of the worms mattered. This until it was found that worms are dual sexed; but none of it, none of the talk of baits or rigs or time of day or temperature or peeing or not peeing …
None of it compares to the complication of the actual fishing for the rock bass.
All fishing is complex, but this first true summer fishing seems the most important. Later in the summer mistakes can and will be made but this first time things must be perfect, and even the arrival at the bridge must be accomplished carefully.
Rods are carried across the handlebars, hooked in thumbs, and the bikes are old, fat-tired, hard to pedal, but are ridden carefully across the bridge and allowed to coast to a stop lest there be any undue noise. This in spite of the fact that trucks cross the bridge regularly and rattle the old timbers until dirt falls in.
Bikes are hidden. Chrome reflects light into the water so they are pulled well back and laid carefully, quietly on their sides and the edge of the bridge abutment approached.
The water moves past the rocks and concrete sidewall dark and murky, still looking muddy from the spring ditch runoff, coiling in tight eddies and swirls, making black holes where the year before or the year before that Roger Vetrum who was just fourteen and a doctor’s only son and the papers said had everything to live for fell in and went under not three times but just the once. Just the one time and he didn’t come up and never came up until they found him two days later a quarter of a mile downstream with mud in his eyes and his mouth, packed and dark and thick and bite marks where the turtles had been at him.
Along the abutment wall is where the rock bass are, nose up into the current, smelling for food.
The worm goes on the hook one of two ways. A small hook. Either the worm is threaded full on the hook, the metal shank and curve going through the body so it is hard to pull loose, or it is threaded on in loops with a tail left on to wiggle and tease in case the fish are not biting well.
A heavy sinker is used to fight the current, or a light one is used and the bait swung forward and dropped to drift back.
Willy read an article in Field and Stream about fishing. In the article the writer talked about “presenting the bait” to the fish, and only Willy read it, so for summer after summer in conversations about fishing he was an expert:
“Yes,” he would say. “But that all depends on how you present the bait.”
“No,” he would say. “That depends on how you present the bait.”
And while we laughed at him and made fun of him, we all secretly, in our hearts, thought he was right.
We all thought it mattered, and we thought of it that way — not as throwing the hook in the water or lowering it but as “presenting the bait.”
It had to be “felt” into the fish’s mouth, lowered along the wall high to let the current float it back, slowly lowering the line and the bait until it comes to a rock bass.
They don’t bite hard, don’t seem to bite at all. They come to the worm and in some way make a grating feeling on the bait, a rubbing feel/sound that somehow comes up the line and can be felt with a wet — not dry, but wet — finger and thumb just where the line goes into the reel.
Still it is not time to set the hook. Many times fish are lost because the hook is set too soon. Waiting is everything. The grating starts and then the fish will move away, come back, must be coaxed to bite. The bait must be raised, lowered, teased until the grating comes again and maybe even a third time, and then, when the bait is well in the fish’s mouth, the hook can be set with an almost gentle but sudden raise of the rod tip.
The rock bass are seldom very large. A pound is rare. But they are very active and fight hard and often get loose from the hook, and, it was thought, learned from the experience to not bite again. At least we thought that until Duane Severson caught the same one twice, having dropped it by mistake the first time after landing it and recognizing a scar on its back from where a northern pike raked it.
The first one seems to take the longest, and some days they never bite and stringers go home empty. But when they start it can be hot and heavy for a time and usually enough are caught for a large meal for a family, and there is something special about the rock bass from the bridge. They are scaled but the heads left on for flavor and fried in clean fat, the fish rolled in a crushed-cracker batter, cooked until the skin just comes away from the meat and eaten the same day as they are caught, while everybody talks about catching them, bragging on this or laughing about something or another while chins get greasy and there is the knowledge that a whole summer is waiting to happen.
“The Ninth Street Bridge” from Father Water, Mother Woods by Gary Paulsen, text copyright © 1994 by Gary Paulsen. Used by permission of Dell Children’s Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.