The Sweetest Music in the World

For the author, there’s no better sound than the joyful squeal of his son as he catches a fish—and learns about the wonderful world where wild things live

06-01-2006 // T. Edward Nickens

JACK STANDS on the creekbank in basketball shorts and hiking boots, casting a tiny gold spinner into a tea-colored pool time and time again. The late-afternoon light slants through the hardwoods, glimmering in the curved sweep of his line. He doesn’t seem to want to catch a fish as much as he wants to perfect the cast, and he coaches himself in the task. “Oh, man, that was close!” he exclaims, when the spinner falls delicately to the near side of a stump. I’m tempted to spur him on down the stream, but it’s all about him today. I lean my own fishing rod against a tall river birch and watch.

He is six years old and, for now, there is not one thing in this world so very fine as being out there—somewhere, anywhere—with “just me and my ol’ Daddy.” Fishing seems to suit him perfectly. The required motor skills appeal to his bent toward figuring out how things work; the places off the beaten path sate his yen for exploration. Fine with me. If he learns to love to fish, I tell him, a wonderful world will open to us. We can travel to the Rockies for trout, Belize for bonefish, the boreal woods of Ontario for pike. And to the little creeks, of course, that lie just down the road from just about everywhere.

And if he learns to love to fish, I think, he will be but a short step away from learning to care about and work for and invest in a world where fish thrive in creeks and streams that flow through woods and prairies and mountains and wetlands, unsullied by human hands.

“I got one! Daddy! I got one!” I see the fish flash above a sandbar a split second before I hear the sweetest music in the world: The frantic, high-pitched squeal of a child astonished that the line and reel finally worked.

Jack stands his ground, jaw set, the rod bent double, pointing to the unseen quarry in the dark pool but towards the future, too—towards a time when the fishing won’t be as much about wild fish as it will be about places where wild fish still have a chance to live.

“Way to go, big Jack!” I holler, and let him play the fish to his feet. It’s a redbreast sunfish, and I cradle it in two hands so he can see the bright red breeding colors. He is buzzing with unbridled joy. We slip the fish back into the water and slap off a high five.

He climbs onto my shoulders, piggyback style, and I wade across the creek channel. At its deepest, the water reaches my chest and soaks him from the waist down, and he hoots with utter pleasure. It’s just deep enough so that the creek lifts his weight from my legs, and for a brief moment we seem to be a single being, leaning into the steady current of the stream.

It’s all about him today. But in time, I hope, Jack will come to know that the creek and the river and the ocean are one and the same, and that he needs clean water and wild places no less than the fish and the bear and the hawk. In time, I hope, each cast will be less about him and more about the integrity of a natural world that holds out the possibility of a fish on every next cast.

North Carolina journalist T. Edward Nickens wrote about declining Neotropical songbirds and their winter ranges in Latin America in the April/May issue.

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