I was about eight years old when grandma took me down to the dock to learn to cast. I had fished with her many times before. For my sake, she had always insisted on baiting the sharp hook for me, instructing me on how to drop the hook and line from my child-sized fishing rod in a way that would keep the reel from getting tangled or keep me safe from catching the hook on anything before it hit the water. With her, I learned about the different kinds of hooks and weights she kept in her tackle box and what their purposes were. She taught me how to tie a knot for the hook that would not slip and showed me how to attach the little egg shaped weight on the line about a foot or so above the hook so that the bait could float free at some distance from the bottom.
On sunny days you could see the many varieties of fish meandering about the pilings and beneath the walkway through the murky greenish brown water. There were large sheepshead there with their black and white stripes, congregating usually four or five at a time. They were the ones we would most often see down below, but there were always more lurking just out of sight. The waterway was teeming with fish of all descriptions, from sea robins, with their pretty folding fan wings to soft and slippery catfish. We caught sting rays, flounder and skates; also brown eels and silvery croakers, red snapper and pompano and Porgies with their gorgeous orange and white horizontal stripes and black spotted silver cheeks.
Florida fish love shrimp. I never connected these nasty smelly things to be the very same things I loved to eat at dinnertime. These were brown animals with little eyes on stalks, their heads looking like tiny armored medieval helmets with jagged noses protruding like fearsome weapons and strange insect-like mouths. Casually, she would tear off the head, preparing the hook by threading it into the shrimp from the apex of the tail toward the open fleshy part, careful not to expose the hook point.
With my line down, together we would peer over the dock’s edge to watch the goings on beneath us. It was just clear enough to be able to see the creatures below as they tentatively approached and retreated toward the bit of raw shrimp.
When she caught a fish, she would show me how to hold it with a rag, so I wouldn’t get my hand pierced by the dorsal spines as the fish struggled to get free of my grip. She had a pair of pliers that she would use to remove the hook, releasing the fish back into the water with a splash, or placing it in a salt water bucket to take home. I loved looking up close at the graceful fish in the bucket circling, eyes moving, gills, mouths and fins opening and closing like small dancers from another planet.
I had seen her cast hundreds of times, but today, she had decided that I was old enough to learn to do it myself. Except for sheepshead, the bigger fish were farther out where she liked to cast. At eight, I was going to learn to fish with the big girls. I was excited.
She had bought me a somewhat larger and more grownup rod with a spinning reel on it, and nylon filament line like she had. First, she supervised the preparation of the line, allowing me to do it all myself. Carefully, I attached the sinker and the hook. She then proceeded to show me the method of throwing the rod in an arc, while releasing the line at the exact moment that the bait and sinker flew overhead toward the desired spot. I practiced some preliminary casts with her at my side, until I was pretty comfortable with the whole process.
Then with no further ado, she instructed me to stand at the far end of the dock, facing away from her to do it myself for the first time. Carefully, I baited my hook and took my position. This was my moment! I took a deep breath and swung the rod in a large arc which came to an abrupt stop just above my head. “What happened?!”, I thought, disappointed in my clumsiness. When I turned to see where I had snagged the hook, I could see my grandmother at some distance, the line clearly leading upward to a trickle of blood that was just beginning to flow down her upper lip. I had snagged my own grandmother straight through the septum of her nose!
“Grandma! Grandma!”, I cried, “Oh, Grandma!”
I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t know what to say! I was frozen with fear. My first thought was that I had killed her. How could this have happened?!! What now? Should I run for help? I was too young to know what to do.
My grandmother said softly, “That’s OK honey… It’s OK.”
I watched horrified, as she slowly rummaged through her tackle box, while the Adolph Hitler red mustache was now flowing downward past her chin, droplets of blood falling silently onto the weathered boards at her feet like confetti. Very methodically, and with no fanfare, she pulled out her pair of wire cutters, cut the metal loop from the line end of the hook and pulled the cut end out. At the same time, she grabbed a paper towel and applied pressure to the spot to stop the bleeding. By now, I must have been weeping wildly. I was bereft and frightened and I wasn’t sure what would happen next. She comforted me and soon enough, the bleeding stopped. She washed the blood off her face from the spigot and went directly back to fishing, telling me to go back to the same spot on the dock to continue casting. She never mentioned it to me again, not that day or any other. To her, it was just something to deal with at the moment so that she could get back to fishing. And to my everlasting amazement, that’s just what we did. Of course, to this day, I never cast without looking behind me more than once- just to be sure.