This was the summer of mackerel. On the second evening of our vacation in Castine, Maine, my son, Spencer, caught his first fish, a shimmering black, green, and silver mackerel of between 12 and 20 inches in length, depending on when Spencer regaled us with the story.
The three kids and I had been hanging around the dock as a school of mackerel chased ``baby fish'' into the beach. Several other boys with fishing rods were hauling in a fish with each cast. Spencer, usually reticent, asked the most successful of the fishermen if he could have a cast, and, with the borrowed rod, he promptly caught his trophy.
Or it would have been a trophy if he hadn't balked when I went to hit the fish over the head and bring it home for dinner. He had a tentative desire to eat the fish, but didn't want to dispatch it. We tossed it back in the bay and marveled at the delicate wet sequins it left sticking to our hands.
That catch was enough to induct him and his sisters into a new pursuit.
Within a few days, I noticed, as Spencer was describing to his uncle David the magnificence of his mackerel, that he had picked up some of the lingo of the fishermen. ``We just fish for sport; we don't eat them,'' he explained over the telephone. How did he know what the sport was?
It reminded me of my first important fish, a pickerel, which came after weeks of patient tedium at the edge of the neighborhood pond on the other side of ``the big woods.'' I had been pulling little sunfish up out of the shadows beneath lily pads for a long time, but this wasn't truly sporting as I hardly needed bait to get them on the hook.
But one dusky afternoon, I was shocked by that shiver the rod makes when a larger fish hits the lure. I played the fish, eased it around the logs and weeds, and pulled it up on the gravelly shore: 12 and 20 inches of sinewy sport fish. My buddy Jeff told me it was a pickerel, or I wouldn't have known what I had caught. It looked to me like a small barracuda.
I bagged it and skipped up the path back home. Mom asked if I wanted to eat it. Fortunately, Jeff knew how to pre-
pare it for the pan, and he slit it down the middle, to discover a minnow in its stomach. A ``baby fish.'' It had been pregnant, I mistakenly thought. I lost my appetite.
If my kids wanted to fish for sport, I could back them up, I decided, and headed off the next day to buy rods and reels for all the kids. I selected some mackerel jigs and, the lure of choice in Castine, a Swedish pimple.
And so we began to fish daily and in earnest, revising our visits to the dock according to tide and probability of the mackerel running.
Hilary got the hang of spin-casting very quickly and would flick the bailer over efficiently, hold the line with her index finger, and toss her pimple into the harbor, beckoning the fish with a cheerful ``Here ya go, sweeties!'' She became a specialist in snagging the small harbor pollock that lurk between the large boats and the wharf.
Ariel was the most determined of us all but wasn't too clear on the sport aspect of the endeavor. A three-year-old has a hard time grasping the meaning of the reel; but as long as she was holding a rod over water - this was fishing. Her real preoccupation was inspecting the catch of the day wriggling in the buckets beside successful anglers. Not the least bit squeamish, she enjoyed touching their slick sides and glazed eyeballs.
Spencer and Izaak Walton would have had fun together, for he thought deep thoughts as he flogged the stream. What do fish do while they sleep, he mused? He had an epiphany about the phrase ``holy mackerel.'' And I especially liked his poetic instructions to Hilary: ``Cast into the dark cloud of minnows.''
While catching fish was the ostensible goal of standing on the dock, rod and reel in hand, to Spencer it became more of a pastime, the activity being an end in itself. It was a chance to look astute, nonchalant, even blase about reeling the writhing chrome minnow through the tide. On some mornings, his fishing stance was more reminiscent of playing air guitar than fishing, as he strode the dock with the rod perched over his shoulder and twirled around as he reeled and plucked the line.
The lure usually fell to the bottom and snagged the seaweed, creating the illusion of something big and fishy on the line. Many of the fish that got away were nothing more than clumps of seaweed dislodging themselves.
Fishing spawns new units for measuring the passage of time. ``I'll come home after five more casts,'' ``I'll just catch two more fish,'' or ``Let's go to the dock when the tide is just short of slack'' were the new minutes and hours in the passing of a summer day.
It is also the Ahab mind-set: There's a leviathan out there and my next cast will catch it. There can never be a last cast, only the present or the next cast. And so we stand on the dock, cranking our reels, keeping the lure in perpetual motion, always about to catch a huge fish, always just missing a big bite, always seeing in any ripple of wake or tide the flick of a trophy fin.