FORUM: Big Fish

I often recall my “earliest” memory from six decades ago—the first episode in my life about which I have vivid recall of my intellectual and emotional responses. Prior to this event I never heard of nor saw any media reports about fishing. We had no TV. I didn’t know anything about nets. In the absence of knowledge, exploration and discovery were my driving forces.


I was five years old. Dad, Mom, my little sister Suzy and I had recently relocated from Chicago to New Jersey.

Mom often took Suzy and me across the street into a forested area in which there was a gently babbling creek, two to three feet in width. The bottom of the creek was sandy, mostly brown with streaks of white and yellow, and there were many small dark rocks and pebbles—most the size of a marble or smaller. In fair weather the water flowed slowly but steadily. Usually the creek was a few inches deep, except for one deeper hole (I later learned it held about a foot of water) located where the creek changed direction.

I checked the “deep hole” every time we visited the creek—it was amazing! At least a half-dozen “little” fish (1/2” – 3/4” long, thin, silver/translucent) continuously zoomed in (from the creek) and out (into the creek) of the hole. This intrigued me—I wondered what else these fish do: where they go to, and where they come from; if, how, and when they sleep; what they eat; why they all look identical; how big they get; and so forth.

However, what captured and commanded my imagination was the lone “big fish” which stayed at the outside edge of an underwater cavern dug by the current into the side of the creek bed in the deepest part of the hole. Noting that this fish didn’t roam, I reasoned that it lived in the cavern in the deep hole. Very interesting…

Without mentioning this to Mom or Dad, I decided that I had to catch the big fish. There was no asking “why” I had to do this in my mind—only “what” (to catch the fish, though I had no idea what to do subsequently), “how” (I must devise a method), and “when” (now).

This was the very first mission of my life: perhaps why it is my earliest memory.

First, I decided to do this alone because I desired maximum stealth and patience: I’d learned through repeated observation and interaction that fish see everything going on around them.

Second, I reasoned that a direct assault—using a small drinking glass to pin the big fish between the back of the glass and the back of the cavern—was too risky because my arms weren’t long enough, and I was afraid of slipping face-first into the hole and drowning.

So, I had to figure out a way to catch the big fish in the deep pool.

I imagined I needed to lure the big fish out of its cave using food. I recalled that birds in our yard eat bread crumbs, so maybe the big fish will come out of the hole to get a bread crumb. But how can one snag a big fish with a bread crumb?

I remembered how many times I stuck myself while playing with one of my sister’s “safety” pins. I imagined that I can put a bread crumb on the point of the pin, and then when the big fish comes to eat the crumb, the pin will snag the fish! But how to get the pin down to the fish, and how to pull the pin up once the fish is snagged?

It occurred to me that I could use the thread which my Mom uses to sew clothing for my sister and me! But, I wondered, how to control the thread and drop the bread-baited pin in front of the big fish?

I then realized that I can tie the thread to a fallen tree limb, and have excellent control of the thread and pin!

I executed my plan. I got a small piece of white bread from the bread box. I got a safety pin from my sister’s bedroom. There were plenty of fallen tree branches at the forest. All I needed was thread, and my Mom kept that stuff on her sewing desk.

I asked if I could have some thread. Mom asked why, so I had to tell her my plan. Mom agreed so long as I took my sister with me, and Suzy wanted to go! Ach! This may ruin the experience, I argued. Susy will disturb the big fish and foil my hunt! She will ruin my concentration because I will have to watch her, not the big fish!

Mom wouldn’t change her mind, so off my sister and I went to the fishing grounds. On the way to the woods Mom told me to be sure not to hook Suzy in her head. I thought that idea was ridiculous.

We carefully got to the spot. There is the big fish. I decide I need to swing (i.e., cast off) my thread and pin, to make sure it goes out far enough. I could extend the stick and lower the pin—but I was afraid of getting too close, falling in, and drowning. (In retrospect, the idea of a longer stick evaded me—I must have been overly gung-ho.)

I cast off—not?!

I cast off—stuck!?

I turn around and Suzy is just finishing sucking in a sufficiently large volume of breath to enable her to produce the flesh-melting scream which little ones emit when they become upset. She was holding the pin—stuck right in the back of her head!

As soon as I pulled out the pin, she went ripping towards home and Mom, but she stopped dead in her tracks after she stepped on a nail. I pulled her foot off of the nail, carried her and my fishing equipment to the house, rang the doorbell and ran away as rapidly as possible—thinking “now I’ll never catch that big fish!”

I have no further memory of this incident, which I have never forgotten—my earliest memory.

SPOILER BAIT: Forthcoming Related Posts

Did you ever hear of the cliché, history repeats itself?

Flash forward four decades to my first cardiac arrest (this story merits a separate post). Before going unconscious on the operating table, my second-to-last thought was: “I never caught a big fish”. My last thought was: “I won’t be able to raise my child!” When I awoke after surgery, my first thought was: “I’m alive—I will raise my daughter! My second thought was “I’m going to catch a big fish.”

Flash forward another decade and I was at the peak of my game, with numerous big fish notches of many species on my fishing rods. I was on a trip to some of the best fishing water within a thousand nautical miles of San Diego. Taro was deck boss, now he is a famous and beloved Captain in the San Diego Fishing Fleet. We were in a school of young yellowfin tuna, and the anglers were happily getting after them. I enjoyed watching the bros fish and the mates prevent chaos, and offering a hand when the opportunity arose. One of the bros shouted out: “Hey Planet, why aren’t you fishing?” Taro immediately replied: “Plan-it only fishes for big fish!”

I do love my fishing bros, and probably all fish…

QUESTION: Have you caught your “big fish” yet?

Tight Lines!

Big Fish
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
December 30, 2020

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