Fishing With Dad by Zoe Sutton Harris

I’ve heard other Canadians claim that New Brunswickers name puddles. Water, water everywhere including 2,500 lakes and 60,000 kilometres of streams and rivers in my beloved Maritime Province. A plethora of ponds and lakes surround my village. I grew up in Ketepec during the fifties and sixties on the Saint John River, about seven miles by boat from our world-famous Reversing Falls.

Fishing lay at the heart of special memories with Dad. Well known to his family, his angling prowess stands out in his ability to catch trout with miniature-coloured marshmallows. No fancy flies for him. At eight years old, I found trout fishing boring, standing still and quiet for long periods of time.

Ice fishing held far more adventure. For several years, Dad pulled our fishing shack on a trailer to the cove below our house and rolled it on logs out onto the frozen river. Once settled in place, he cut a large rectangle in the ice inside our shack. Dad spread a red wool army blanket on a low wooden bench so our bums didn’t freeze. A wood-burning stove kept us cozy and warm on the coldest of days. Through our cut in the ice, the river water glowed green and clear, a window on the fish world. Smelts flashed like silver ribbons below our fur-lined boots.

Tarpaper shanties dotted every curve in the shoreline. A small community sprang up in a day below our house. Thin wisps of smoke, coming from the tin chimneys, hung in the cold air signalling the beginning of the smelt fishing season. Sometimes, fiddle or harmonica music floated across the ice, and fishermen gathered around sharing stories, and a swig of rum.

One exceptionally cold winter day in 1958, we trudged down the path to our cove. No cozy shack waited for us. We found ourselves in a predicament brought on by a gift my siblings and I received from one of Dad’s army buddies.

In the spring, a box sat on our kitchen table holding five Easter chicks dyed rainbow colours from Woolworths before the Humane Society banned the practice. In no time, the adorable chicks smelled bad and looked worse. Now, covered in straggly white feathers, they flapped their wings trying to escape their box. Mum wanted them out of the house for many good reasons.

One day when I arrived home from school, the chicks no longer greeted me with their mad scramble to get out of their box for treats.

“Where are our chicks,” I asked, panicked. Mum didn’t look up from her tea, her cigarette burning on the saucer.

“No one listened to me when I asked the lot of you to get them out of my kitchen. They’re out back in your father’s fishing shack.”

Our chicks lived in the shanty, now a chicken coup, all summer. One night at dinner after the first snowfall, Dad said he planned to take our chicks, now chickens, to a farm. By then the shack held a distasteful aroma. Burning it, the only solution, left us without shelter.

When the river froze, we stood stoically around a hole cut in the ice with our poles, with no protection from the elements. We shivered amidst the village of cozy fishing shacks. Out on the ice, our breath, visible, hung in the chilled air and our toes tingled.

Before we left the house, Mum packed us salmon salad sandwiches, and a thermos of tea, and insisted we bundle up. She knit mittens, toques and scarves throughout the fall ensuring her family stayed warm in the coming winter. That day Dad and I donned our new red woollen mittens and matching toques.

Image by Dmitriy Gutarev from Pixabay

Mum didn’t know how to round off the tops of hats or the tips of mittens; they both came to points. We looked like Christmas elves. Mum attached my mittens with a string of yarn threaded through my coat sleeves to prevent mitten loss. With five children, Mum fretted and fumed over missing mittens. 

“Come spring, I’ll find lone mittens strewn about the yard.”

Despite her prediction, she never found one.

At lunchtime, Dad and I crunched on frozen sandwiches and the hot tea burned our lips. Word on the ice circulated; winter smelts, a small, boney sweet-tasting fish, began showing themselves in schools under the fishing shacks. 

Sometimes we caught a larger gray striped inedible fish that Dad called a Tommy Cod; we used them for bait. Of course, my first exciting catch of the day, Mr. Thomas Cod, fought like a son-of-a-gun. Dad laughed at the battle between his daughter and the fish. When I hauled him out, he flopped around, his tail slapping the ice.

 “Zoë, hurry. Take it off the hook and break its neck. We need bait.”

When I dislodged it from the hook, a difficult task while wearing pointy mittens, Thomas wriggled out of my grasp and went skittering across the ice. After many failed attempts, I managed to hold on to the slippery, wiggling fish. I yelled to Dad in a panicked voice. 

“What do I do? He’s going to get away.”

 “For God’s sake Zoë, snap its head back.”

Unable to maintain a firm hold on the fish, I began dancing around with my catch. Squeezing the fish tight, I bent his head back. Immediately, Mr. Cod’s eyes popped out and froze to my mittens. There’s a science lesson in there somewhere, warm mittens and cold Tommy Cod eyes.

The horror of seeing fish eyes stuck to my new red mittens, with the fish still attached to those eyes on thin blue cords, sunk in. I started screaming and running around on the ice, frantically shaking my mittened hand. I failed to dislodge Mr. Cod. His eyes remained frozen to my mittens. Fishing shack doors flew open; smelters thought the worst upon hearing the screams of a child out on the ice.

My father grabbed me on one of my flybys. He yanked the mitten from my hand, breaking the mitten-saving yarn string. Mr. Tommy Cod, still attached, flopped around on the ice in a death dance with my mitten. Dad’s one raised eyebrow and furrowed forehead under his pointy woollen hat did not bode well either.

“It’s time for you to go home. Ask your mum if you can make yourself useful.”

Mr. Tommy Cod flipped into the open hole in the ice with my mitten attached, trailed by Mum’s ingenious yarn string. Dad lunged for the string and ended up sitting on the ice. I ran for the path, up the bank, across the highway, and up our bluff, bounding through our kitchen door, startling Mum.

 “How was the fishing?”

 “I lost my mitten.” I burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to tell her I’d disappointed my dad. The horror story of the fish eyes, too overwhelming to explain, left me sobbing in the kitchen.

Mum looked perplexed and concerned.

“I’ve knit an entire box of mittens this year, all the same colour. Go get another one.”

Around dinnertime, Dad returned home smelling of rum and coke, his toque askew. He’d spent the day cozy inside a friend’s shack and brought home a string of smelt. He smacked my errant wet mitten on the kitchen table. Dad chuckled, telling Mum about his daughter and the Tommy Cod dance. Fine, I thought. He still possessed his dignity, whereas humiliation burned my cheeks. Incredibly, father-daughter fishing trips continued.

Somewhat shaken by Mr. Tommy Cod, my ability to bait a hook found me waiting for the next fishing expedition. I kept a can of earthworms ready in Grammy’s woodshed in the off-chance Dad took me fishing for perch. The many streams flowing into our Saint John River beckoned to him, his raison d’être—trout. Rainbow, Speckled, and Brown; he loved them all. Before I turned eleven in May, he took me fly-fishing on the Cains River, a small tributary of the bigger Miramichi River.

Dad spent time and patience on the quiet bank showing me how to cast the line. I grew tired of standing still and quiet. I handed the rod back to Dad and started skipping rocks. Dad caught my throwing arm in the backswing.

“Zoë, there’s big trout here. You need to be silent or you’ll scare the fish. They’ll hide. Trout like the water to be smooth and calm.”

I tiptoed downstream wading in the shallows looking for smooth white stones. I reached down for flat iridescent rock, then horror of horrors, a huge hideous, slimy black leech lay swollen attached to the top of my foot.

So, for a second time in the saga of father-daughter fishing trips, I started screaming and thrashing about. The screeching heard for miles on the quiet morning air, brought my father slipping and sliding out of the stream. Shrieking, I made a beeline straight at Dad, who looked past me for the bear he imagined chasing me.

When he found out that a leech attached itself to my foot, and not his worst fear, he looked relieved. In my dash to Dad, I dragged my foot along the sand and pebbles. The leech let go under such an assault. Dad examined my foot and saw the purple and black mark oozing blood, and he shivered.

“You know you’ve scared every fish for miles? His voice sounded stern and then he softened. “Leeches are nasty. You know they’re easy to remove? We can find one and I’ll show you how.”

With a vehement shake of my head, Dad put his arm around my shoulders. He gave my ponytail a tug.

“Let’s go home.”

Fishing ended for the day. Lucky for me, we didn’t go home empty-handed. Dad caught a small Brown Trout and two big Rainbow Trout earlier that morning.

On the drive home, Dad lectured me on the various ways to remove leeches. I shut out everything he said about the slimy creatures, trying to shed the vision. Since my parents prohibited me from carrying matches and a pocket full of salt made no sense, I intended to rely on my foot-dragging in the off chance I ran into Mr. leach again.

Later that year having breakfast on a Saturday morning, we feasted on Dad’s famous baked eggs with Worchestershire sauce. Suddenly, he put his newspaper down, looked at me, and slapped the table.

“Let’s go fishing.”

Dad, eager to try out his new fishing rod, took me to the second lake behind our house. He caught a Speckled Trout there, a beauty. We couldn’t wait to show Mum. On our way home, a large collie dog looking like Lassie from the TV show confronted us.

I’d never seen a collie before except Lassie in black and white. I fell in love.

“Oh, Daddy, isn’t she beautiful?”

In a blur of flying fur, the dog circled behind us, lunged at Dad and bit him on the calf. A puncture on Dad’s khaki army pants and a circle of red seeping around the hole frightened me. I hid behind my father hanging onto his belt in a death grip.

Scary Lassie, still growling, circled us. Dad, to protect me, broke his new fishing rod over the dog’s back. The dog dashed back to her owners, its beautiful coat floating around her.

Dad made me wait on the gravel path. He met the owners at their front door and words flew. Lassie stood by her owner’s side, growling. Dad learned the Collie’s name. We now knew who bit Dad—Sheba. I never felt quite the same about Lassie after that encounter. Dad came back to me red-faced. He didn’t speak for the rest of the walk home. The owners never compensated my father for his broken fishing rod.

I didn’t catch any fish that day, but I stood by Dad as he cleaned his trophy. Dad made me clean every fish I caught. I still hear his words.

“You’re not a true fisherman if you don’t take your fish all the way to the pan. It will taste better.” I’m not sure that’s true, but I treasure those memories of fatherly wisdom.

I think somewhere along the line of the trilogy of misadventures on father-daughter fishing trips, my dad began longing for my baby brother to come of fishing age. At that time, I’d gladly bequeath my can of worms to any male family member. Dad’s gone now and my heart aches for one more father-daughter fishing foray.

Corrienne Zoë Heinemann writes under the pen name of Zoë Sutton Harris. She has written four short stories, one of which is in the process of being published. She is also in the editing stage of a coming-of-age memoir about growing up in the small village of Ketepec on the Saint John River in New Brunswick Canada.

Zoë graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s degree in social work.

She has lived in California for forty-three years with sojourns to The Bahamas for four years and to Kazakhstan for eight years. She now lives in Northern California outside of San Francisco with her husband and rescued mutt, Lucy. She has two adult children.

30 thoughts on “Fishing With Dad by Zoe Sutton Harris”

    • Debra, I’m happy you enjoyed my story. Fishing with Dad stands out for me as a wonderful childhood memory. I think I was proud of his ability, and he included me in something he loved.

  1. A fun story by Zoe. Her descriptions definitely remind me of the many fishing trips we took. Her humor is intriguing and the story is delightful. Thanks Zoe.


    • Roseann, thanks for your comment. It’s neat to look back on some of those childhood moments that made us truly happy.

    • Phyllis, I agree sometimes a little humor, and remembering happy childhood moments, lightens the constant barrage of day-to-day life.

    • Allen, thanks for reading my story and leaving a comment. I enjoyed writing it and remembering lighter moments of growing up.

  2. I really enjoyed this story about the father/daughter bond. Such lovely memories for the author!

    • Cathryn, thanks for reading my story and leaving a comment. I think Dad held high expectation of my fishing ability. Unfortunately, I am not a fisherwoman, but I love the taste of those sweet smelt, trout and perch.

  3. Loved this story! The multiple adventures so well portrayed, kept my interest all the way through and It brought back fond memories of trout fishing with my own loving father.

    • Cecilia, thanks for reading my story. I’m happy it brought back fond memories of fishing with your dad. I miss my dad and wish he hadn’t left us early. My children would have loved going fishing with their grandfather.

  4. Brought back memories of fishing with my Dad. Catfish! And I never did learn
    how to bait a hook.

    • Donna, thank you for your comment. The fishing part is fun, but the baiting and cleaning is definitely not my forte. I could bait a hook though!

  5. I loved this story. Found it very captivating and descriptive. A little history brought forward to be read by all. All of your short stories just go to remind each and every one of us, how precious our family memories are. Looking forward to what else you have for all of us.

    • Dorn, thanks for your comments. I’m happy you liked the bit of family history. My coming-of-age memoir is coming soon, just a bit more polishing.

  6. What beautiful memories you have of your father and your fishing adventures. I giggled out loud at the idea of cod eyes frozen to your mittens! Beautiful story.

    • Kim, thanks for the comment. Yes, the cod eyes were a memory best forgotten, but the story was told many times over the years at my expense. I loved fishing with my dad and wish he’d been here to take his grandchildren on fishing adventures.

  7. Very capably constructed story, touching and humorous in the same way that excellent Canadiana typically gestures toward. Thank you for sharing.

    • Nicholas, thank you for the wonderful comment. My coming-of-age memoir is similar in nostalgic genre. My synopsis: Elizabeth Maud Montgomery’s, Anne of Green Gables merges with Jeannette Walls’, The Glass Castle. Sweetness and light marry dysfunction and denial. Meet the Harris family, a wonderful dichotomy of both. It means so much when another writer gets your work.

  8. Zoe, you brought back fond memories of tramping through the woods with my father when I was a boy of the same age as you on your fishing adventures with your father. Regardless of your response to Cathryn Ward, I have heard rumors of your fishing prowess striking fear in denizens of the deep in waters south of your childhood home. Looking forward to future stories.

    • Mark, thank you for your comments. I may have downplayed my expertise. My memoir is coming!

  9. Loved the story! So vivid were the descriptions that I felt like an onlooker at the fishing scenes. Such lovely childhood memories with your Dad. Precious times indeed.

    • Anjali, thank you for your comments. I’m so happy you saw the fishing scenes vividly. It seem like yesterday to me.

  10. What a wonderful memory and story! I love your description of the events. It brings back fond memories of fishing with my Granddad. Looking forward to more of your stories. Beautifully told.

    • Ben, thanks for the comments.I’m happy it brought up fond memories for you. I hope to publish my memoir soon and its chockablock full of stories like Fishing with Dad.

  11. Another enjoyable short story by Corrienne. She uses phrases that makes it easy to picture exactly what was taking place. I also had a father I was very close to, and it is easy to see the relationship between Corrienne and her Dad.

    • Eloise, thank you for your comments. I’m happy my story brought back memories of your dad.

  12. I loved this fishy tale! Zoe has a way of creating vivid pictures through her stories that are enchanting. This story leaves me wanting to move to New Brunswick and go ice fishing!

    • Nancy, thanks for the comments. Yes, New Brunswick is a wonderful province with loads of lakes and streams where you can cast you line. Ice Fishing is for the hardy, but smelts are tasty and worth the frozen toes!

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