The One That Got Away

A dad tries to rekindle a family’s father-son fishing tradition — but his son fails to take the bait.

by Mike Diago
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Stocksy
The 2023 Outside Issue: Fatherly Dives In

As a dad, I don’t take many stupid risks anymore. For example, I won’t drive through blizzards unless I’m doing it in the name of fatherhood itself. That’s happened twice: Once to drive my wife to the hospital when she went into labor with our first son, Marcel, in February of 2015, and then two Februaries later to go ice-fishing.

I left my wife and young son at home, in upstate New York, and drove with three friends toward the Canadian border in white-out conditions, sliding through intersections and backsliding down hills all the way to North Hero, Vermont, to go fishing, like it was some kind of emergency. We dragged a sled heaped with gear over the ice through the whipping snow for half a mile, to the refuge of a plywood fishing shanty. We set our lines and tip-ups over the holes in the ice, then retreated to the shanty to watch from the warm glow of the woodstove. For most of the day, we took turns checking the holes outside, reaching our hands into the gelid ice water to re-bait the hooks as needed.

Baiting a hook with frozen fingers felt clumsy, like learning to eat with chopsticks. Except I don’t love fishing like I love eating noodles. I just wanted to learn so I could teach my son. I imagined, years into the future, being able to sit on a frozen lake with my Marcel, imparting wisdom through fishing metaphors.

Most of the other traditional father and son bonding activities were unavailable to me. I don’t play sports, I don’t fix cars, I don’t hunt, and I didn’t spend much time with my father growing up. For a model, I could only look to the old photos of my great-grandfather Leopold Arbour, holding massive northern pike by the tail or dozens of lake trout on strings.

I’d always longed to be as rugged as [my great-grandfather]. As a new father, that wish had suddenly intensified.

I’d grown up hearing tales of great-grandpa— the exemplary rugged outdoorsman in my family tree — and his fishing adventures on Lake Champlain, hunting the mythical lake beast “Champ” and the fanged northern pike known locally as the waterwolf. He was an actual lumberjack from Quebec who’d worked his way down through the Adirondacks as a teenager.

He never took me fishing, but I used to visit him in the summers at the Adirondack cabin that he’d built, swimming in the cold pond out front that he’d dug by hand. I’d always longed to be as rugged as him. As a new father, that wish had suddenly intensified.

Courtesy of Mike Diago
Courtesy of Mike Diago

Back in the shanty, my best impression of Leopold Arbour wasn’t good enough. Five hours passed with no movement on the tip-ups. I pulled Grandpa Arbour’s flask out of my coat — a glass one wrapped with leather and emblazoned with a Canadian maple leaf — hoping to ingest some of his hard spirit in the form of Wild Turkey. We each took ceremonious swigs followed by less ceremonious swigs until it was gone.

As the daylight faded, the guide came in to see if we’d caught anything — we’d hooked one minuscule fish (most likely re-caught bait). Eager to demonstrate Vermont’s lax weed culture, the guide packed a bowl and told us between puffs, “I think you just got here too late, man.”

The spring my son turned 5, the old idea hit the surface of my brain like a fanged northern pike charging from the depths: I should take my son fishing.

It was the final snag in a long string of fishing failures. Once, when I was a teenager, my father had taken me on a deep-sea fishing trip off the coast of Gloucester during one of his bi-monthly weekend visits. It was a good change of pace from our usual routine — bowling, a movie, and a night at the Red Roof Inn — but we didn’t know what we were doing. We watched the other father-son duos pull in coolers-full of fish while we only caught two inedible dogfish and froze. Everyone else was wearing heavy seafaring coats, and I spent most of the trip in the cabin, trying to wrap every available inch of thin cloth from my Beer City Skateboards hoodie around my trembling hands.

I’d tried to approach fishing with renewed vigor in my 20s, heading out once with a guide and once with a friend from work, only to get tossed by currents. After the ice shanty incident, I decided to hang up my pole for good.

And yet, the spring my son turned 5, the old idea hit the surface of my brain like a fanged northern pike charging from the depths: I should take my son fishing.

Fishing, especially under tough conditions, still just seemed to contain so many of the lessons a father should teach his son — self-sufficiency, patience, and grit.

I bought a new fishing pole, and Marcel and I marched down the banks of the Hudson River. We trudged over the driftwood and the water chestnuts, and I imagined that we were emulating the way Grandpa Arbour and his son used to seek out fishing spots in the Adirondacks, near Lake Tear of the Clouds, where the Hudson originates. I liked to think that despite the chasm between our skill levels, we were drawn to the water by the same forces. But I doubt it. I think Grandpa Arbour was mostly in it for sustenance. He famously kept his bathtub full of live fish during the Great Depression so that his family didn’t starve.

Marcel spent most of our time sitting on a rock behind me and asking if we could leave. On the rare occasions when I caught a fish, he cringed and looked at me sideways as I reached into its mouth with pliers to release the hook.

Being on the water, part of the network of oceans and streams that connect the world, releases the tension in your chest and lets you breathe deeper.

Three years later, despite his lack of interest, I tried again. But before I could, Marcel used all the fishing line on our only pole to construct a makeshift drone like the one he’d seen on his favorite cartoon, Craig of the Creek.

He tied helium balloons — “Happy Birthday” balloons, several SpongeBobs, and a few pink hearts — to a transparent strawberry container. We pressed the record button on my wife’s old iPhone and taped it inside. Marcel flipped the bail on the reel, and the drone hovered low, too heavy to get off the ground. We removed the phone and tried again. This time the balloons blew forward violently and tangled. Marcel turned the handle a few times, and then a powerful gust carried the whole ensemble over the tree line. The reel buzzed, and Marcel twisted and pulled like a marlin fisherman. Finally, the wind ran away with all the line and left him staring at a bare rod with his mouth hanging open. The SpongeBobs grinned their manic grins until they shrank into a cluster of specks in the blue sky. I looked down to see if Marcel was crying. He stared up blankly for a moment and then burst into a fit of joy, jumping and cackling. He bolted through an active volleyball game toward my wife, screaming, “Mama! Mama! It worked!”

The rest of the week, we followed more of Marcel’s inspirations along the Hudson and Fishkill Creek. We built a catapult for the black spiky water chestnuts that cover most of the beaches; we constructed an elaborate driftwood hut; we discovered a massive bald eagle's nest; we found a way into a disused brick hat factory and explored its ruins. After each long day, Marcel and I biked home in the evening glow. I saw in his face that he was invigorated but relaxed. He’d been deeply breathing in the river’s calm might all day long.

The Hudson is tidal — water flows upriver for six hours, and then flows back out for another six. As Marcel and I worked on our driftwood hut by the river’s edge, the water line inched up the shore until it wet our shoes and socks. The primary forces of the universe were lapping at our feet. Being on the water, part of the network of oceans and streams that connect the world, releases the tension in your chest and lets you breathe deeper. The vastness of it inspires a vastness of imagination and a smallness of self that make conversation and creation easier.

You don’t need a fishing pole for that, but it helps to have something to do. As we built our driftwood hut beside the water, I taught Marcel how to build a simple lever to hoist large pieces of driftwood into place. He was amazed by its primitive utility.

Standing there, I realized maybe I like everything about fishing but the fishing itself.

We met other river people: dog walkers, bird watchers, photographers — an elderly fisherman named Phil, who, like us, never seemed to be fishing. We first met Phil on a beach overlooking an inlet. He told us that he grew up fishing for crab by hand with his father in the freshwater pools of western Puerto Rico and that he’d been fishing the Hudson for 40 years. He saw Marcel’s binoculars and asked if we’d seen any great blue herons. We had just seen one at the base of a waterfall by the creek, standing like a statue, staring at the water. We watched it for about 20 minutes, but it never moved. Phil said, “He’s fishing for herring. The herring come up from the ocean around this time, and the stripers are right behind them. When I keep seeing that blue heron fishing for herring, I know it’s almost striper time.”

Courtesy of Mike Diago
Courtesy of Mike Diago

We saw Phil each of the remaining vacation days, in jogging shoes and a Kangol hat, strolling along the shoreline of the Dennings Point Peninsula and along the river beaches, with his hands clasped behind his back. I wondered why he wasn’t fishing yet. All around the riverfront, striper fishermen were already sitting patiently next to their lines in the water, but Phil was always without a fishing pole.

One afternoon, we stood next to him on a dock by the Fishkill marsh, where there is an especially serene vista. The water, perfectly still, mirrors a patch of reeds that blow gently against a panoramic backdrop of the Hudson Highlands. Osprey and bald eagles hunt there, and in early May, you can see spawning stripers writhing in the shallow water. It occurred to me that Phil might not care about fishing as much as he once did. Maybe he didn’t need to fish anymore. Maybe he just liked to be there, observing the animals, releasing his energy and absorbing the energy of the water.

Standing there, I realized maybe I like everything about fishing but the fishing itself. I like to be by the water, I like to understand the patterns of nature, I like wearing overshirts with lots of pockets, but sitting with a line in the water feels like being tethered to the river bed. I reflected on my great-grandfather and the other things we did together. He was also an avid gardener. Once he saw me pluck two juicy tomatoes off the vine and bite into one, and then brought me inside so my great-grandmother could make a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich — white toast, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and one big tomato slice. I sat with him at the table and ate one, then two, then I asked my great-grandmother for another. Grandpa Arbour looked at me, grinning. He suggested I skip fourth grade to spend the year gardening with him. He wouldn’t have wasted our time with fishing because he could tell I wasn’t into it. He saw me for who I was.

Back at the marsh, a train cut across the vista like it was gliding on the water. Phil spotted a great blue heron and pointed it out. We watched the svelte bird transform into a dinosaur as it opened its wings, spanning 6 feet across, then fly low over the reeds. I never realized how big they were until then. It had looked so meek a few days earlier — almost invisible — standing, staring at the water with its neck crooked, waiting for a fish.