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Fishing Assunpink Lake

Memories of a fishing trip with my Grandfather.

Fishing the Assunpink

One of my favorite times of the year when I was younger was, no surprise, summer. School was out: I didn’t have to worry about homework, grades, or any projects for at least two glorious months. Since both of my parents worked, my parents had an arrangement with my maternal grandparents. My mother would drop my brother and me off at their house in the morning, then make the 10 minute commute to Mercer County Community College where she worked as a secretary. When she clocked out, she would swing back by and pick us up before heading home. This summer I was eight, my brother was 3. My mother had dropped us off about two hours prior and my grandmother had just settled Joseph, my brother, down for a nap. My grandfather looked at me and said the words I’d been waiting to hear since school let out: “You ready to go fishing?”

I jumped out of my seat without even answering and raced outside. One of the most enjoyable parts of fishing, at least, for me, was getting everything ready to go. We pulled the poles out of the shed, hooks and sinkers still tied from last year. We pulled the tackle boxes from the basement, gathered worms to use as bait from the garden, and pulled out old buckets to sit on and keep the fish in. Right before we left, my grandmother came out and gave us a bag of sandwiches and drinks. An hour after he asked if I was ready, we backed out of the driveway and headed to the lake.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled off the pavement and onto packed dirt road that led to the water’s edge. We had to make a quick stop at the local bait shop, however, because my grandfather needed a fishing license and we also picked up some night crawlers, another type of worm that fish seemed to love, or so I was told. Soon, we were off again, the tires kicking up a plume of dust behind us.

Assunpink Lake was actually a series of three different bodies of water that were all connected by a network of streams: Assunpink Lake, Stone Tavern Lake, and Rising Sun Lake. I had fished all of them over the years, but this morning we were heading to Assunpink, the biggest. Since we didn’t have a boat, we slowly cruised through a dirt trail that ran through the woods, looking for a cutout that didn’t have a car parked in the spot. Luck didn’t seem to be with us today: every area was taken. I wasn’t worried though; there were hundreds of spots to fish from, you just had to be willing to walk a bit. Our luck, however, was about to change. We broke through the trees and before us was the shoreline devoid of any vehicles or people fishing. I grinned’ inwardly happy I wouldn’t have to go hiking through the tall weeds and grasses that surrounded much of the lake.

We grabbed all of our gear out of the back of the car, set our buckets up, and baited our hooks. Before we cast our lines out, I searched around and found two sticks shaped like a “Y.” These would serve to hold the poles up out of the dirt and would also help us know when we got a bite, since the tip of the rod, being held steady by the stick, would twitch and jerk when a fish was at the other end. After finally getting situated, we cast our lines out. Mine went out far, but I was always amazed at how far my grandfather could cast. His hook and bait seemed to fly out farther than I believed possibly until it finally hit, with a splash far, far out in the water. We sat down, reeled the slack out of our lines, and settled in to wait.

The hours passed. We caught some small sunfish and a few catfish. They all went into the buckets that we had brought. A few other people had driven through the area, but all had passed by, leaving the area all to us. As we waited, another car came by, but this one came to a stop behind us. We watched as the man leaned over, rolled his window down and called out “How’s the fishing? Anything biting?” Always ready to talk to someone, my grandfather set his pole down and walked over to talk to the man. I still sat, resolved to watch both my line and my grandfathers, just in case something bit.

As I sat watching, I saw my grandfather’s rod tip jerk down, then straighten out again. I stood up and picked up his pole, reeled in the slack and waited: my grandfather was still talking to our visitor and had his back to me, unable to see what was occurring. I stood as still as a rock, muscles tensed, waiting for the second jerk that would indicate that a fish had taken the bait into its mouth. I waited, then the moment I had been expecting came. The rod twitched and I swept the pole up, firmly setting the hook in the fish’s mouth. Almost immediately, the pole almost leapt out of my hands: whatever I had hooked was big and would prove a fight to bring in.

As I struggled with the odd reel (my grandfather was left-handed) I heard footsteps behind me and turning my head slightly, I saw my grandfather. “Help”, I cried out. “I can’t reel it in!”

Instead of taking the rod, he instead started calling out instructions, telling me what to do. “Turn the reel over, use your right hand,” he said. “Lean back to pull the fish in, then lean forward and reel in the line. Back and forth, just like that! If the fish starts to run, let it go, it’ll tire itself out. Lean back and pull!” the orders came rapidly, but as I followed them to the letter, the fish slowly, inexorably, came closer and closer to shore. Finally, with a last lean back, the fish was in the shallows of the lake. My grandfather stepped into the water, grabbed the line and lifted up the catch. At the other end of the line was a six pound largemouth bass. Not a big fish, but a monumental struggle for my eight year old self. I set the rod back in the Y stick, then ran to examine my catch.

The fish was beautiful: black, green, and brown all over. True to their names, the mouth was gaping and cavernous and my grandfather pulled the hook out with a pair of pliers. He looked at me, smiled, and said “Guess that’ll teach me to go off and talk.” He laughed, finally pulling the hook loose and tossing the fish into the bucket. My arms still shaking a little, I tried to explain what had happened. “Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong. You did exactly what I’ve taught you and I’m proud.” This praise from my grandfather was unexpected, but made me feel good. I was all smiles as we each baited another hook and cast out again, probably for the last time this day as the sun began to set.

As we drove home, I kept remembering asking my grandfather for help, only to have him give me instructions instead of the physical help I needed. I finally asked him why. “What would you have learned from that,” he responded, watching the road, but glancing over at me. “You wouldn’t have learned anything. I gave you instructions in order for you to bring the fish in. I had no part of that catch, it was all you. I wanted you to know that you could do it, you don’t always keep help,” he finished as the lights from the town he lived in came into view. I sat back and thought about his response, turning it over in my mind as we pulled into the driveway and I saw my mother’s car, ready to turn towards home.

As the years have passed I have thought often of that conversation I had with my grandfather on that summer evening twenty three years ago. I now understand exactly what he was trying to teach me. I didn’t always need help when I thought I did. I was more than capable of handling situations on my own as long as I believed in myself. If I needed assistance, I should ask for advice before asking for help and follow the advice that’s given as long as it’s sound. My grandfather has been gone for a number of years now, but the lessons I learned have remained. They are as timeless and permanent as the lakes that we fished together. One day, I hope to impart the same lessons to my children and grandchildren, hopefully in the same spot at the same lake where I learned from my grandfather all those years ago.

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