The first time I got out of baiting a hook I was too young to know better.
I was five years old and big enough to hold a pole, which was reason enough for Dad to put one in my hands. The first worm was always a freebie. He’d string up the bobber and bait the hook with one hand, tipping the circular container in the sunlight so that I could see the silhouette of dirt against blue plastic. There was a very distinct smell to it, earthy and good and kind of wormy. I was afraid to touch the punched holes.
Once he was done I’d jitter with fisherman-like zeal, sending ripples out from the shore as I jerked the line to make it more interesting to the fish. When that failed I’d dangle the line right above the water, worm spinning in lazy circles against the surface as I waited for my well thought-out plan to succeed.
The desperate need to catch something was outweighed by only one thing: the desperate need to keep the worm on the hook for as long as possible. I spent most of my time looking to see if the bait was still there, relieved when it was. With five-year-old enthusiasm I’d re-dunk it, wondering if a worm could drown.
The result was unavoidable. My sister and I would need to re-bait our hooks.
We usually waited until we both needed to get another worm, with the comforting thought that the other person would go first. We’d start poking at the night crawler container with high-pitched “eee!” noises before the lid came off, increasing in volume every time we dropped one. Four or five “eee!”s in and Dad would come over and tell us in a carefully patient voice that we needed to be quiet or we’d scare the fish.
(Our older brother, standing with calm certainty on a rock along the shoreline, wouldn’t look at us when this took place, though he did always manage to adopt a general air of disdain that was impossible to ignore. Or maybe that was just basic smugness.)
Dad had this wonderful way of sighing without noise. He’d let out the breath in one long exhale of silence as he squeezed the remaining half of the worm onto the end of one hook then the other, a motion that could have been “I love you” or “why did I think this was a good idea?”
The real trick was that I’d known better for years.
I could have baited my own hook, but Dad had already reinforced my behavior (there are articles about this in parenting magazines), and I got out of it for years. Inevitably, however, the “eee!” wore out and I was back to hoping my sister would go first. The worms hadn’t gotten any less creepy.
(I didn’t actually have a problem with touching worms. Once, when pulling the weeds out of my mother’s lilacs, I found a juicy worm that had to be taken to Dad in the living room immediately. He declined the offer, thanked me as he looked around for Mom, and told me to put it back where I found it. I was insulted, and felt the enormous waste of the quarters that went into the stands that sold nightcrawlers. It was squeezing them hard that creeped me out, the way they’d wriggle in your hand when you were forcing the powerfully floppy things onto a hook.)
Adversity breeds creativity. Even if it’s not that creative. As soon as the worm was lost I suddenly had a hundred and one things I could be doing. I’d be unexpectedly thirsty, off to the pickup for a can of pop, finally ready for my bathroom break maybe. I even stared at a tree once, looking up at the leaves with my wormless pole in hand, and told my dad how pretty it all looked when he came over to see what was the matter.
He baited the hook, since he was over there anyways.
One day, I turned into a girl.
It was looking in a mirror that did it. I suddenly wanted to grow my hair past the mushroom-cut I’d sported for years, and wondered if shopping was really so bad as it at first seemed. We’d moved at that point, but every summer the family came back to Montana and for a couple days Dad would disappear with my brother, my uncle, and my cousin. They returned with sunburns, pictures, and a cooler layered with rainbow trout and salmon. I’d look at the pictures, consider how impressed I should be by the size of the fish, and think how it wouldn’t be fair to break into the annual guy trip.
The first few times they went (years before we’d moved) the entire family came along, all sixteen of us: cousins, Aunts, Moms, even Grandma. We walked for miles, caught very little, and a few years later my mother said “no thank you,” my two Aunts said they’d be fine shopping, and my sister and our female cousins said “nah” a little tentatively, like they didn’t want to upset anyone but they didn’t really want to go either.
“Do you want to go?” I asked my sister once. I sounded accusatory, more “who would want to go?” and less what I was really asking.
“No,” she said. “Why? Do you?”
I remembered standing out on rickety rocks, casting lines into the water while Dad carefully pretended not to watch, the skin-crawling sensation of a worm trying very hard to get out of your fingers.
“No,” I told her, and that was the end of that.
I preferred spinners and Dad knew it. I’d recently dared to buy myself a fishing license for the summer, and Dad had taught me how to use a lure. In-line spinners were my favorite, twirling in the clear water as gold winked off the surface of a river, and I figured the trout in beaver creek had to be nearly as interested in the Jag as I.
But there were largemouth bass lurking in those depths. “Rumor has it that bait is the way to go.”
“Rumor” meant someone from church had a strong opinion on the subject, and there were enough decent fishermen in the congregation to make it worth listening to. Despite any protests I might have. Dad held out the blue plastic container and I took it. I opened it and he pushed it out of the patch of sun I was holding it in, back into the shade.
He demonstrated, pulling out a worm with confident fingers. Dad had already cut himself helping me fix my hook and the dirt bled into the cut. I envied his lack of hesitation.
The years had erased the fact that you had to thread the worm halfway through the hook before jabbing the metal out the other side. I had an image of smashing the center of a worm onto the hook, which is probably why I always ended up with half a worm to work with when I was a little girl.
I couldn’t be a sissy. I grabbed the worm and immediately felt it strain at my fingers, bunching against my thumb and index finger.
I simultaneously dropped it and remembered, keenly, why I’d made those “eee!” noises fifteen years earlier.
I laughed, nervous and embarrassed, and fished it out of the river bank, sure that I had lost points with Dad.
He was smirking when I looked at him. “Want me to do it?”
“No,” I said, and I jammed the bait onto the hook, feeling hard metal work its way through the soft flesh of a struggling, creepy worm.