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Is It a Whopper?

Being an adult has its benefits, but nothing matches the thrill of being a child with a fishing pole in your hand. Give a child a fishing pole, and she is transported to a world of suspense and imagination. On top of that, you have the child out of doors, interacting with the natural world. And the best part of it is, you get to share it all vicariously.

Minnesota is known as The Land of 10,000 Lakes. Other states may exaggerate their attributes, but Minnesotans are modest by nature. In fact, we have something like 11,800 lakes of more than ten acres, not to mention hundreds of miles of rivers and waterways. The happy result is that just about every Minnesotan has access to a nearby lake or river. The luckiest have a family cabin on a lake. There are well over 100,000 lake cabins in the state, ranging from little shacks to huge mansions (the latter being ridiculous, of course—it defeats the purpose to go to some gigantic place that merely duplicates urban living).

We’re among the lucky ones. Our extended family has an old log cabin at the end of a dirt road, with pine trees, a beat up dock, and just enough beach to get into the water if you don’t mind stepping in a little muck. The old wooden dock sticks out about twenty yards, and from the end you can look down into water the color of ice tea. It’s clean, but it has lots of iron and tannin for coloring. If you look closer, you will see the backs of little sunfish swimming in and out from under the dock, and if you throw in a bread crumb or a dead mosquito, within a few seconds a sunny will come out, gobble it up, and dart back into the shadows.

After you’ve done this a few times, every little kid in the vicinity will be crowding around, wanting in on the game. So you give them some bait and you rig up some fishing poles. This can be the crudest of equipment; even an old stick will do for a fishing pole, so all you need is a supply of hooks and a few feet of line. You rig the pole, stick a kernel of corn on the hook, and put the pole in a little girl’s hands. She lowers it into the water and watches for any sign of a fish. At the end of our dock, she will not have long to wait. It rarely takes more than a minute before a sunfish goes after the bait, and your daughter feels a tug on the line. After that, it doesn’t really matter whether the fish is hooked, or the bait is stolen, or the whole fishing rig is dropped in the water. It’s all good. She is fishing.

Eventually, some hapless sunfish gets hooked, and next thing you know your daughter is holding the pole up and hollering, while a little sunfish swings back and forth in the air. It's a moment of pure joy, for the daughter at least, if not for the fish. You have two jobs at this point. The first is to share in the joy by issuing extravagant praise. The second is to deal with the fish. Some fathers are all about teaching survival skills and self-reliance, and they show their children how to grab the fish without getting poked by the fins, and how to twist the hook out of the fish’s mouth so that it can be thrown back in the lake. But my daughters believed in a strict division of labor—they were responsible for catching the fish, I was responsible for getting the fish off the hook. So I was kept busy and slimy while they did the serious work of catching sunnies.

As for issuing extravagant praise, I excelled. Each new fish they caught was another astonishing feat, another stupendous trophy. A daughter would lift up the pole with a five- or six-inch sunfish wriggling on the line and swing the critter in my direction. I knew my lines. “Wow, what a fish! That’s a whopper! Way to go!” etc. Soon enough, the girls would swing the fish in my direction, urgently asking “Look at this one, Dad. Is it a whopper?” I assured them every time that they had indeed caught a whopper, regardless of the size.

Flash forward ten years. The girls are teenagers. We are having a grand time recounting childhood experiences, and the discussion turns to fishing off the dock. I tell them that, at some point, I realized they thought a “whopper” was a kind of a fish, rather than a descriptive term for a big catch. There is a pause. They look at each other in confusion, then back at me. And then we all explode with laughter. Until that moment they hadn't known . . . .

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