I am going salmon fishing to Wisconsin this weekend. I assure you getting ready for the trip and not having time to write a blog has nothing to do with me posting the first piece of writing for which they paid me real money. I actually had someone request it. Okay, the guy I’m going salmon fishing with is the one who requested it, but that has nothing to do with why I’m doing it. I just thought it was time for another encore presentation.
(Joan was originally published in the April/May issue of IN-FISHERMAN magazine.)
by Joel Jurrens
When I was young I fished a little creek outside our small South Dakota town. Mom wouldn’t let me go fishing by myself, because if I didn’t come back she wouldn’t know if I had run off or had been kidnapped—I guess she wanted to know if she had to file a missing persons report or a runaway report. Normally this wasn’t a problem because I had a lot of friends who liked to fish. But every now and then in the summer, all my friends would be on vacation with their families or at church camp or reform school, and I wouldn’t have anyone to go fishing with. That left my three sisters. I wouldn’t ask my oldest sister to go fishing because she was mean and she scared me. If the fish weren’t biting, I was afraid she’d get bored and drown me just to have something to do.
She’d tell Mom I accidentally slipped off the bank. Mom would look sad and maybe even cry, but she’d be glad that at least she didn’t have to fill out any stupid reports.
My little sister was too young to go fishing. She was pretty much useless for anything but scientific experiments, like tying her to the clothesline to see how far away I could get and still hear her yelling–even then my mean sister untied her before the experiment was over and told Mom just to get me in trouble.
So that left Joan. Joan was a year and a few months older than me. She didn’t look like a girl yet with her roly-poly body and chubby chipmunk cheeks. I’d ask her to go fishing and she’d say no. So I would ask her again, and she’d say no again, but I’d keep asking until she either agreed to go or socked me in the arm.
When she agreed to go it would always be with the same condition. “I’ll go, but I’m not touching the worms or the fish.” She didn’t look like a girl but she acted like one.
We rode our bikes out on the paved road to the creek west of town. I’d carry the worm can and my pole and stuff hooks, sinkers and a rope stringer in my pants’ pockets. Joan carried her own pole across the handlebars of her bike.
When we reached the creek we would hide our bikes in the tall grass in the ditch and slip through the barbed-wire into the pasture. Sometimes cattle were in the pasture, and Joan would ask the same question every time. “Are any of them bulls?”
There never were any bulls. They were just steers cows and heifers and in the spring small calves. I’d reassure her about the absence of bulls and we’d go fishing.
One time I decided to have some fun with Joan. We were about halfway across the pasture when I stopped suddenly and studied a group of cattle about twenty yards away. “I think I made a mistake,” I said the way a point man would announce that he just led his squad into a minefield. “That big one over there is a bull.”
The color drained from Joan’s face. She dropped her pole and ran back across the pasture without saying a word. After she’d scampered over the fence, she jumped on her bicycle, and took off pedaling for home as fast as she could go.
When she’d left, I laughed so hard that I had to sit down to keep from falling over. I laughed until I couldn’t catch my breath. When I finally stopped laughing, I realized I couldn’t go fishing without Joan. I grabbed her pole and my pole and the worm can, and jumped on my bike to try and catch her and tell her it was a joke. Balancing the fishing equipment on my handlebars, I didn’t catch her until she had reached our house, and then I couldn’t talk her into going back to the creek. In fact, it took two weeks of begging and getting socked in the arm before I could get her to go fishing again. After that there were never any bulls in the pasture.
The creek where we fished had two kinds of fish in it: bullheads and carp. The bullheads were all yellow-bellied, but there were several different kinds of carp: bug-eyed carp (walleyes), toothy carp (northern pike) and regular carp (buffalo). We kept the bullheads and threw the rest back because our dad had told us carp weren’t good to eat.
The poles we used were metal with old level-wind reels spooled with thick Dacron line that you could tow a Buick with. Dad had picked them up at some household auction for a quarter. I kept my drag loose so if I caught a fish of any size it would take line, and I could spend some time fighting it. Joan kept her drag as tight as she could get it, and cranked the fish in with all the finesse of a tow truck pulling a pickup out of the mud.
For sinkers we used whatever I could get my hands on: nuts, bolts, and WWII fifty caliber bullets that Dad had drilled holes in so I could tie line to them. I’d put about a half pound of weight on the line and whatever hook I could scrounge up. The stiff level-wind reels screamed against the weight when I cast them out, and I looked more like a hammer throw contestant than a fisherman. I always threw out both lines because Joan never figured out the part about putting your thumb on the spool. Every time she’d cast, her line would become so snarled in the reel that she would spend the next half hour trying to get it untangled, until she finally gave up and wanted to go home.
I also baited Joan’s hook with worms from the garden and took the fish off the hook. That was our deal. Sometimes I pretended to be a Canadian fishing guide with Joan as my client. When the fish were biting fast, I would be so busy baiting Joan’s hook and taking fish off and putting them on the stringer, that I didn’t have time to fish myself. Joan would whine that I wasn’t doing it fast enough, until after an hour I would have thoughts of throwing her in the creek—a thought that I imagine comes to a real Canadian fishing guide from time to time.
When the fishing slowed, I’d move from pool to pool looking for fish. Joan would put her pole down and lay on her back to watch the clouds or go off and pick wildflowers. Because I spent more time than Joan in the outdoors, she would bring me flowers to identify: bull thistle, mustard, alfalfa clover, a pink one, a white one, POISON IVY! I’d tell her that sometimes just to mess with her–as long as I was sure it wouldn’t send her running for home.
Eventually we moved from South Dakota to a bigger town in Iowa that had a river running through the middle of the town. I learned to swim, became a teenager and became so obnoxious that mom decided I didn’t need anyone to go fishing with. I guess she figured it was silly to think anyone would intentionally kidnap me, and if I ran off, she really wasn’t out that much.
Since I didn’t need her to go fishing with me, Joan didn’t fish much after we moved. She started to look like a girl and found she could catch boys without touching bait or fish. Other than family gatherings and with a few boyfriends who took her fishing, Joan’s fishing days were over.
Breast cancer has always been our family’s curse. It took my grandmother, my aunt and even Mom. Joan knew she was cursed and her chances were good that someday she might have to deal with it. Five years ago Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took it well. She decided she could fight anything as long as she didn’t have to touch worms or fish. As she battled the disease her roly-poly body slimmed and her chipmunk cheeks sank into her face, but she never gave up and never stopped fighting.
Last summer I found that you can never give up and never stop fighting, and still lose. Now I’ve lost a very rare thing: a sister who would take her little brother fishing even if she didn’t want to just to make him happy, and God gained someone he can go bullhead fishing with—as long as she doesn’t have to touch the worms or the fish.