Harold the Sparkly Pumpkinseed Sunfish

The first fish I ever caught was a Pumpkinseed sunfish. We were on holidays at my grandparents house which was located at the end of a bay, appropriately named ‘Cozy Cove’. When I think back on it, we spent more weekends and holidays in this sleepy little hamlet than we ever did at home.

In retrospect, my mother must have had many reasons for piling 2 kids, a fat (and gaseous) dog, along with 2 gerbils (aptly named Ernie and Bert because they loved each other so) into her car after a long work week, only to drive for hours and hours on end. In the winter months, sometimes poor weather would see us arriving near 11 pm, having left Toronto at 6:00! In the summer months, the drive could be equally as frustrating (although not as precarious), with everyone having the same idea, all at once, to escape the city on a Friday evening.

More than a few times we were left at a stand still on Hwy 401, sometimes in oppressive heat. With a scant few cars having air conditioning, people would turn off their vehicles and perch on their car roofs, waiting for an accident or road block to clear. Our mother (God bless her) would, for the most part, sit patiently behind the wheel with the radio blaring; windows rolled down, cigarette smoke curling around her head like a saints’ halo. She would re-fill the dog dish (which had spilled moments after pulling out of our driveway) and sigh, giving the ol’ panting girl a pat and sending a great puff of dog hair into the air.

Of course my brother and I would bicker…and in the sticky, dog hairy, smokey humidity of it all, it’s a wonder she didn’t turn off the car and run far, far away. But then again, that was why she had saved up enough gas money week after week, to make the trip to her parents home. To run away, if even for a short time.

That piece of property on the lake just outside of the small town of Tweed, was, in her mind I believe, very much her home as well; finding laughter, comfort, and I dare say, solace from a divorce she never quite got over. Never the less, the reasons were numerous, not the least of which was fresh air, room to run, a lake to swim in and adventures to discover.

Late one afternoon, my mother announced (whilst enjoying one or two ‘before dinner’ aperitifs with my grandparents), that we were to go fishing the following morning. She would be taking us out in Grampa’s aluminum row boat; she would pack sandwiches and we would make it a picnic of sorts. We were then sent outside to dig worms, being warned to take care not to disturb the massive hill of strawberries that were growing on the flank side of the detached garage.

We spent the next hour or so before dinner digging for worms while stuffing as many plump, crimson berries we could into our mouths. It came as no surprise to anyone, when called inside for dinner with our ruby stained hands and faces, that we had put the cart before the horse, having consumed more than our share of dessert! As for the worms, they stayed outside in an old tin can filled with dirt and a few rotten strawberries.

Early the next morning, after a breakfast of porridge packed with far too much brown sugar on top (according to my mother), we ran (mother walked) down to the water’s edge. In order for it to stay dry, our boat lay upside down on the shore, providing a superb hiding place for all sorts of small creatures; my brother and I peered expectantly underneath.

In the past, along with startling the assorted beetles and spiders who took shelter here, I had the good fortune of befriending bullfrogs, leopard frogs, toads and snakes-all of whom made wonderful companions, if even for a short period of time. Today we arrived too late, with the guests having taken an early check-out and so we were left with a few water beetles, burrowed deep in the damp weeds that had washed up on shore the night before and who scattered like lightening upon seeing our inquisitive stares.

My Grampa, along with Mom, flipped the boat right side up, throwing the cement block anchor inside and dragging it to the shallows where my brother and I stood. They held the boat as my brother and I grappled our way inside onto seats covered in cobwebs and dried up corpses of unfortunate insects. Mom passed the tackle box to my brother and the worm can to me. Grampa held the boat for Mom who stepped not so gracefully into the holding, all the while clutching a paper bag of peanut butter sandwiches and a jar of Kool-aid. Once she was seated, the fishing rods were presented to each of us and then with a shove, wide smile and a wave, Grampa pushed us out into the murky waters.

I had been out to the middle of the cove before to go swimming. We had a raft that my grandfather built. The slats on top were from the raised house deck my Uncle Rowly and he had constructed years before. Grampa had taken it upon himself to build the raft out of leftover pieces of lumber and the leftover styrofoam from the basement insulation. Although it was constructed for their eight grandkids to enjoy, it also came in handy when he ventured out in the Spring to drag their part of the cove with a long rake he had fashioned. Maneuvering the raft with the end of an oar, he would pull up heavy, blood sucker infested weeds with his rake, plopping them on deck into a foul, stinky mess. He then would pull himself to shore on a rope attached to the anchor on the beach, dumping mounds of slimy weeds onto the shore. My grandfather wasn’t a large man-but he knew his share of hard work. This wasn’t an easy task. The young grandchildren could then enjoy a ‘walk-in the shallows’ he would say. I found out later that it was a bit of a necessity to clear a few of those reeds and weeds, if only to maintain access into the lake!

As I was saying, I had been out into the cove before, but only once at the mouth of the lake and we were swiftly rowing toward it! It was an odd feeling I had in that row boat with my brother and my Mom. While they both chatted away, pointing out the scenery with their ‘oohs and ahhs”, I felt very small. And heavy. I began to imagine if the boat sprung a leak I couldn’t possibly swim to shore even with the monstrosity of a life jacket that encompassed me-it was suffocating!

The surrounding cove had a secure feeling for me and yet, the more my Mom rowed, the lower into the boat I slunk until, eventually, I was at the bottom of it, listening to the hard rush of water skim along the underside of our small craft and hugging our worm tin can as hard as I could, hoping we would stop right then and there. And so we did. She brought the oars up spraying water everywhere and said, laughing,  “For heaven’s sake Margaret, grab the sandwiches, they’re getting wet”! My brother dropped the cement block over board.

We set about putting the worms on our hooks. My mother showed me exactly how to do it-without a knife (like a girly girl would do). Taking her thumb nail and index finger, she deftly pinched it in half and weaved it through the hook. I macerated my first worm. After a long struggle, there was nothing left but bits of worm poop and slime. Wiping the remains onto my shirt, I pulled the next worm out of the tin and tried again, only this time using the metal seat as a guillotine. I quickly figured out that worms had some sort of magical ability to shrink and grow, become fatter and skinnier-the more I tried to steady him, the wigglier he became until he escaped to the bottom of the boat, where he was free to peruse his dreams of whatever it was worms did.

I won’t lie-I thought of biting the next one in half. I was very close to doing so when my mother said “Just put the whole worm onto the hook, and be careful you don’t poke yourself! (I did).  I’ll show you how to cast out”.

As any parent who takes the task upon themselves to teach a young child to fish will tell you…it was probably a gruelling experience. Half way between her yelling at me to not cast into the weeds, she painstakingly picked through my brother’s tangled fishing line. In the meantime, I announced I had to go pee and she replied in the most exasperated voice “Really Margaret? Really? Do you REALLY need to go?!”?

I told her that I definitely had to go and that I may already had done so, only that I wasn’t sure because my shorts were wet but that it may have been from lying on the bottom of the boat.

“Richard, turn your head. Margaret squat down and go pee pee, we’ll dump the boat out when we get to shore”. I hadn’t the heart to tell her that our peanut butter sandwiches that used to be in a paper bag were now at the bottom of the boat floating around in macerated worm guts and that I would be peeing on our lunch…

Anyway, to shorten things up, the sound of a good cast and a loud plop sometimes isn’t a good sound when your reel is nowhere to be found. It was at this point that ‘Mother Mary’ had had quite enough. Not a cursing women, I believe she may have come close to it that sunny afternoon out on the lake at Cozy Cove.

She began to row. Briskly. To shore. To the safety of her parents-to quiet, canned oysters and whiskey on ice. I trailed my line behind the boat which seemed to be moving much faster than when we had left.

And then it happened! Hollering in excitement, “I have a bite!!” I felt my line jerk here and there, tugging then slack, tugging then slack.

At this point, as any parent who has taken their child fishing will also tell you..she chose to ignore me and didn’t stop. Furiously rowing toward shore, she may even have been crying as she smiled and yelled to me…”That’s wonderful”!

My grandfather, seeing our small craft shoot across the water with the fury of an outboard, must have thought someone was hurt and ran down toward the water faster, I am sure, than he had run since he was a young man! He quickly grabbed the bow as we slid into shore. Seeing we were all alive and well with no outward damages, he pulled the whole boat in, onto a rocky patch of beach.

Mom got out immediately with a look of gratitude that she had made it without throwing one (or both of us) overboard. My line was still out. I began to reel it in slowly, hoping it wouldn’t get caught in the weeds. I smelled like pee and worm guts, but I didn’t care. I was content to know that we would be having a late lunch and that my Mom was curiously smiling at me now.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of orange and blue…reeling harder and now out of the boat, standing knee deep in the shallows, I was was deliriously excited. My Grampa grabbed the top of my rod and pulled the tiny fish ashore where he lay flapping against the sand and weeds. Sparkling in the sunlight, each scale a different coloured hue, just like glimmering jewels.

Grampa asked if we were having him for dinner and I replied with an emphatic “No”! He let out a deep,rumbling chuckle, unhooked the sunfish, teasingly asked if I wanted to kiss him goodbye (I did want to, but Mom thought it best just to wave) and then he was gone. Back into the safety of the coves’ waters and reunited with his family.

I talked non-stop about the ’first fish I ever caught’ that evening, repeatedly asking what kind of fish it was called. My brother was a trooper and didn’t once tell me to shut up (I had a tendency to maybe talk a lot…but only because I had so much to say about pretty much everything!). When my Mom tucked me in early that night, I helped her make up a story, as we often did. This night it was about a Sparkly Pumpkinseed Sunfish named Harold, who had the most wonderful adventures. Then, when the lights went out and I closed my eyes, I thought to myself that although I liked fishing, I liked catching the most. I also made a mental note to always bring a pee bucket when fishing in a boat-just in case. 

The next day I went down to the waters’ edge and made a cave of sticks and weeds, almost like a swim-in car park. I made a sign called Harold’s Cove and waited for him to come. Although I didn’t see Harold that day, I found a toad who made for some enjoyable company and a dead snake on the road that I scraped up with a stick and buried, complete with a cross of popsicle sticks. 

Cozy Cove memories are the best.


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