My Old Man and the Puget Sound

A Personal Introduction to The Old Man and the Sea


I haven’t fished for years for many reasons, not the least of which is that I tend to get violently sea sick.

Still, reading Richard Hugo’s poems reminded me just how important fishing has been to my life. My earliest, and most vivid, memories of my father are directly linked to fishing, probably the greatest joy of his life.

I was three or less when I started fishing with my father. I can still remember being dragged out of bed half asleep to make sure we were on the water at dawn when the fish were most likely to hit. I hated getting up that early, but it was worth the sacrifice to be out on the water with Dad, sometimes my mother, and my brother Bill. There are still some things worth getting up that early in the morning for, but not many.

I’m sure it would have been easier for Dad to leave us home and go fishing with friends, but salmon fishing was a family ritual. Thinking back, I feel sorry for dad who had to spend the first thirty or forty minutes of fishing baiting Bill’s and my hooks. I suspect, though, that I learned how to correctly bait a hook before I learned how to tie my shoelaces. But I wasn’t allowed to bait my own hook, or at least drop it into the water, until I could do it correctly. I remembered this ritual years later when I read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.

If you’re going to be a successful fisherman, Dad taught, you do everything right. First, you found the best place to start fishing, no matter how far from the boathouse that might be. Lazy fishermen were willing to just drift for salmon, not Dad. Dad would slowly row the boat while our lines were out, at least until we were able to afford a small motor to attach to the rented boat. Even at three you had to keep your line taut, not let the bait drift down too far. Few things are as embarrassing as bringing in a bottom fish when you’re fishing for Kings.

There seemed to be as many rules to fishing as there are rules to life. When someone in the boat had a fish on the line, you always reeled your line in as fast as possible. Whenever someone else brought a fish in you complimented them on the catch, no matter how much you wanted to catch the biggest fish of the day. It was really, really hard to sound excited when you had the biggest fish going, especially when you're the littlest guy on the boat. And have no doubts that everyone, Dad included, wanted bragging rights to the biggest fish of the day. Bragging rights lasted until the next fishing trip.

Of course, sometimes you could be saved from the biggest fish put-down, because Dad would point out that certain kinds of salmon, though I was too little to tell the difference between anything but big and little, tasted better than others. And we weren’t just fishing for fun. It was important to be recognized at dinner by someone saying, “This is the salmon Loren caught.” We lived a good part of the year on those salmon and on the vegetables we had harvested from our garden. Whenever food became scarce, we always had salmon waiting in the freezer.

But most of all, I remember Dad’s sheer enthusiasm for fishing. There are still vivid images of Dad standing up on the edge of the boat trying to net a huge salmon while Bill and I would desperately try to balance the boat by hanging out the opposite side of the boat, our combined ninety five pounds no match for his two hundred pounds. “Don’t rock the boat” has a very special meaning in the middle of Puget Sound for a four-year-old who can’t swim.

Even when things had turned rough, yours truly had lost his breakfast over the side of the boat, the water would be breaking over the bow, the boat would be filling with water no matter how fast Bill and I bailed, and we would appear to be going backward, Dad would yell across the roar of the wind and water, “We’re having a great time, aren’t we?”

Strangely enough, we were.

My hiking partner has noted that when we get stuck in a precarious position -- say six hours out on the trail, little or no food left, it’s getting dark, and we’re not quite sure where the hell we are or which trail to take to get us back before dark-- that I always break into a laugh, a special laugh reserved just for such moments, a laugh that says I’m alive and having a great time.

That’s when I know I’m Dad’s son, even if I don’t fish anymore because Dad isn’t around to go with any more and because I can’t stand paying good money to throw up.

What do you think?