“The Earth with its layers of land and water and air provides the space within which all living things are nurtured and the context within which humans attain their identity. If in the excitement of a secular technology reverence for the Earth has diminished in the past, especially in the western world, humans now experience a sudden shock at the devastation they have wrought on their own habitation. The ancient human-Earth relationship must be recovered in a new context, in its mystical as well as in its physical functioning. There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment.”
THOMAS BERRY, “Catching the Power of the Wind” in Evening Thoughts, p.135
I have worked for the last 16 years as a middle school science teacher instructing well over 3000 students. Since beginning my PhD work in Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE) last summer, I began thinking about a much-needed change in my working conditions where I taught over 100 students every day during those years. I knew at this point in my life I wanted to work with fewer and older high school aged students who might not fit in with typically large classroom settings. For one reason or another, I began believing some of these students who were falling through the academic cracks might find comfort and possible healing from learning science outdoors in a more quiet, peaceful and natural setting with fewer people and less distractions. However, in a public school environment, I did not even believe this kind of academic environment could exist for these students. Not only did I wonder if a teaching opportunity like this might ever come along for me in my school system, but I also wondered if it did, if this type of teenager might be interested in learning the sacred art of fly fishing in a place like this through a developed product of Environmental Education. If I ever got the chance to teach in a setting with fewer students, I knew I would want to start up a fly fishing club where I could begin teaching some of my 47 years of fly fishing knowledge with them as I worked to begin building an eco-contemplative fly fishing ethic and academy as part of my dissertation work at AUNE.
Suddenly, my prayers were answered as God’s steady hand touched my heart and soul. Last month, a new science teaching position opened up in my school system. On an after school afternoon in mid-March, a fortuitous conversation between me and an old colleague named Mike, who also taught in my school system, took place in our optometrist’s office. After catching up with one another, I began talking about my desire to change teaching positions. Mike looked at me and smiled. He told about a science teaching job opening that had just been posted at his school a week earlier. After learning the details of the job, the next day, I immediately put in a request for a transfer and was granted the new position. Now I am happily working right beside my friend, Mike, who is the social studies teacher. As the new high school science teacher now working for the small alternative school in my school system, I feel very honored and privileged to be serving to a much smaller group of students I can impact in so many positive ways each day. I know I can reach these kids in ways I have always dreamed as an educator. This new teaching journey has now begun along with the start of a new fly fishing club to anyone interested in learning more about the sacred art of fly fishing.
At the end of March, after working in my new science teaching position for just a week, our Spring Break vacation began. Knowing he was an avid fisherman, I invited Mike to go fishing with me on one of our days off to my favorite lake where I grew up fly fishing with my grandfather. He enthusiastically accepted. He showed up at my house early the next Wednesday morning with his fishing rods and tackle. I had the boat and trailer hooked up, my rods and tackle packed, and ready to roll. We arrived at Lake Holt a few minutes past 8:00 AM. We would be fishing for spawning crappie and perhaps a largemouth bass also on the spawn. We decided to focus most of the day fishing for crappie by dunking minnows with cane poles and bobbers, and tossing crappie jigs with ultra-light spinning gear around fallen trees and other underwater structure I knew about from the many years of catching them on the lake with my grandfather, sons and wife.
Once we launched the boat, I took us straight across the lake to a bank lined with a couple of boat docks. The day was a perfect 70 degrees, and sunny with a slight northwest breeze to keep us both cool. Using the trolling motor, I quietly positioned us next to the first boat dock and dropped anchors.
We both set out our live baits close to the dock posts. No action happened at first until we moved around the dock on the other side. When we got there, Mike was getting himself untangled from a corner dock post when my cork suddenly went under for the first time. I let the fish take the cork under far enough to get the bait and hook firmly set into her mouth and gently lifted the cane pole as it bent double to my first big crappie of the spring season. She fought hard, making three strong surges under the boat. Finally, she gave up and surrendered to the landing net. It was a good thing I netted her, because the hook quickly came out of her papery thin mouth about the time the net surrounded her. I call that a perfect catch, not even needing to take the hook out of her mouth. Mike had never eaten crappie before, so we decided to keep a few to make a meal for him and his family. Mike looked forward to eating a new kind of fish from the southeast. Living most of his life in upstate New York fishing mostly for northern pike, smallmouth bass, and walleye, I knew he would be in for a real treat that night tasting some battered up mild-tasting boneless crappie fillets in House Autry seasoning sided with hush puppies and coleslaw. With the first crappie slab lying on a cooler of ice, it was time to get Mike unhooked from the dock and settled back into our spot. A few minutes later, Mike suddenly had a bite, and came up with a medium-sized largemouth bass on the cane pole. He smiled from ear to ear now knowing he would not be skunked for the day. He gently let her go back to grow up some more.
The crappie bite cooled off at the boat dock, so we pulled up our anchors and motored down and around the corner to a cove where Michele, Devin, Aiden and I had caught some big black crappies a year earlier in the spring. We motored up to two fallen oak trees stretched out from their broken stumps along the clay bank, leaning downward into the watery depth. We quietly set out the anchors. I told Mike if they were here, it would not take long to get a bite. Sure enough, the first pitch I made into a forked tree limb submerged a few feet underwater produced a sinking red cork going underwater and out of sight. I gently lifted the cane pole and the line went slack. I missed her. I quickly baited another feisty minnow on my gold hook and pitched out my line to the same spot. At the same time, Mike yelled, “Get the net; I’ve got something really big!” I looked over and saw his cane pole pulsating about halfway under the boat. “Holy cow, I said! Play him easy, Mike! That is a big crappie! I just saw her flash in the water!” After a couple of hard-fought minutes, Mike slowly lifted his cane pole and eased the silver and black spotted slab into the waiting net. Mike’s first caught crappie of his life was now his, weighing about a pound. We high-fived each other and I took a picture of him and his prize. Mike gently laid her into the ice cooler beside my smaller 3/4 pound slab. She flopped in the cooler for a couple of minutes until the sound slowly faded away.
Over the next several hours, the crappie bite slowed down. We had to work much harder, and we caught only two more medium-sized crappie. During that time, I found myself silently contemplating how to get my fly fishing club started at my new school. After talking about my new teaching and fly fishing club ideas with Mike, he told me he thought my idea to teach science outdoors as much as I could and start a fly fishing club were both great teaching approaches to take with the students. He knew they would provide the students with therapeutic value, ground them more closely to nature, and give to them in a much more fun, experiential and engaging way to learn environmental science. I asked if he would join me in forming the fly fishing club with the students. He told me he would be happy to join in the festivities.
The rest of the day was a tough test, as a more brisk northwest wind constantly tested our patience. We both ended up squirrel fishing much more often during the next few hours than crappie fishing as constant 15 to 20 mile per hour gusts kept pushing our 16 foot skiff, poles, and baits into bushes and trees along the banks. We could not find much escape out of the wind, so we decided to call it a day. On the way back towards the boat landing, a nagging thought came over me. I wanted to go back to the boat dock where we started for one more try. Since the sun was shining fully up in the sky, I thought we might have a chance to catch one or two more crappies for Mike’s frying pan from the school I knew had to be lurking in the shadows out of the full sun under that boat dock. We got ourselves positioned in the same place on the corner I caught my first crappie. With only four in the cooler I wanted for me and Mike to catch just one more a piece for his family’s supper. I put out a fresh minnow a little bit deeper in the water column to see if it would make a difference. I then picked up my ultra-light spinning rod and started pitching a pearl mini jig under the dock. I turned to look at my cork, but it was gone. Instinct took over. I immediately grabbed my cane pole and lifted up. It did not stay up for long as the strongest fish I felt all day pulled the rod down into the water. I yelled at Mike to grab the net. After a minute or two of finally getting him to the top of the water, Mike reached out and got the net under the biggest crappie slab of the day. She was a beautiful fish, weighing about 1/2 pound larger then Mike’s trophy. We both smiled from ear to ear as we cemented our new friendship through the beautiful sacrifice of five crappies giving their lives for a great fishing story and family fish fry at Mike’s house that night. That was the last fish caught for the day. What a divine blessing it was to go on this first fishing trip of the year with a new life-long fishing friend to share my favorite lake and its treasures found within its watery world.