Ralph Gardner Jr: Fishing For Prizes

Apr 30, 2018

Is there really any better, faster, more efficient way to build self-confidence in a child, not to mention a gentle reverence for nature, than fishing? 

I base this observation not on vast personal experience but on having attended last Saturday’s Ghent Sportsman Association’s popular annual fishing derby for young anglers. It’s held at the association’s picturesque pond just south of the town of Ghent in Columbia County.

My own relationship to the sport, besides including salmon and the occasional Dover sole in my diet, is spotty and somewhat problematic. 

My most vivid memory involves a pike my friend Aris and caught on Osgood Pond in the Adirondacks while at camp in the 1960’s. 

What could be more exciting than feeling the tug at the end of your line of another living creature? That’s communion with the natural world at it’s most visceral (somewhat dependent, of course, on the size the fish, or more likely clump of kelp, you’ve hooked.)

Aris and I managed to land the pike but that’s where our problems began. A couple of city kids, we had trouble extricating the hook from the animal’s mouth. Let’s just say that by the time we succeeded and returned him to his watery world we could hear the bugle sound of “Taps” playing in our minds. 

I also recall an attempt to fish on some fjord in Norway that ended in embarrasment. Only a bad fisherman blames his equipment. But based on my limited experience the odds of casting successfully – the line and lure describing a breathtaking arc through the air, waiting until the last possible instant to acknowledge the laws of gravity – are far smaller than getting the line, rod and reel tangled around your ankles. 

Probably the best way to avoid that fate is something of which I was woefully deprived – learning to fish at the knee of a parent who knows what he or she is doing, and who probably learned the sport from a family member or friend. 

In short, to be part of a noble tradition where knowledge and passion for the sport is passed from generation to generation.

That bond was on vivid display at the Ghent fish derby as about a hundred-and-fifty children and their parents lined the banks of the freshly stocked pond casting their lines. The Ghent Sportsmen had recently made things interesting by investing $2,500 in several hundred trout. 

The majority of them were ten to twelve inches long. But there were a few ringers over twenty inches and weighing several pounds. The derby was open to any boy or girl under the age of fifteen. (The age limit was because at sixteen one needs a New York State fishing license.) 

The hope, of course, was to land one of the big fellows, the reward not just good eating, unless you chose to release your catch, but probably far more important to the formative mind of a child, some great prizes for every hour’s biggest trout by age group. 

Not just trophies. But also things like lures and even new fishing rods. No child went home empty-handed.

The event, which was free, is supported by local businesses and the Columbia County Sportsman’s Association. 

Other events that the Ghent association sponsors include a day of fishing in early May for wounded warriors. They get served lunch and then head south to the Philmont Rod and Gun Club where they have dinner, spend the night, and go on a turkey hunt the following morning.

And in mid-May Ghent hosts veterans from the VA hospital in Albany. Two buses full of vets and their nurses attend, some of them casting from wheelchairs.

Last Saturday morning started with temperatures in the twenties, which may have accounted for the less than record crowds; the event has been going on since 1973. But the day was cloudless and by mid-morning the temperature was approaching fifty degrees. Breakfast, as well as hot dogs and hamburgers, were served.

Fishing was with worms only since lures winging through the air could have had catastrophic consequences. 

Chaos was also averted by parents supervising their children’s casts. Indeed, it appeared to me than more than a few dads had taken over the enterprise completely.

That wasn’t the case with the Sutton family, however. Their older son Liam sat peacefully in a folding chair waiting to hook his first trout of the day.

“He’s surprisingly patient for four,” his father Chris observed. 

There seemed to be more action on the other side of the pond where nine-year old Kolby Michalak had caught the biggest fish of the day thus far. The trout was over twenty inches long and weighed a healthy 4.3 pounds.

Kolby attributed his success less to luck than experience.

“I’ve been fishing since I’ve been two,” he boasted.

“More like five,” his dad said under his breath.

“Two or three,” Kolby said.

Why quibble over a few years. It was obvious from the elated expression on the experienced young sportsman’s face that his pride and excitement was as palpable as the first time a fish struck his line and took his bait when he was a toddler. 

No matter how long you’ve been at it, that feeling never gets old.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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