I'M afraid I will always be a worm-fisher. It's nostalgia, actually; digging for worms out behind the barn with Grandpa, on another sweet, sweaty day. Too hot to do anything else. He'd turn the layers of manure, and I'd pick out the fat wigglers. It was the summer I turned 11. If it was too hot behind the barn, we'd hike out to the woods, to the cool spot by the sinkhole where he had dumped manure once. If it was really hot, we'd drive to town and invest a quarter - those lucky city kids could just pick night crawlers off their lawns each night. Then we would drive out to one of our many spots and fish for the day. We'd hike through cornfields and private pastures. Those ``No Trespassing'' signs didn't include fishermen, and besides, Grandpa knew everyone. I saw a monster one day, under a railroad trestle. Grandpa had gone down to try the ``riffles,'' and I was alone with my daydreams at the shady pool. Then I saw this gargoyle's head swimming toward me, the ugliest thing I'd ever seen in daylight. I jumped back - dropping my pole. With a ``kabam'' the creature was gone, under the surface, and I was left to decide whether or not it was safe to pick my pole up. It was later that my grandfather laughed and said, ``It was just a beaver.''
Some days the fishing would pick up in the evenings. We'd stay too long, trying for bass but catching mostly ``suckers'' for the cats. We'd hurry back across somebody's pasture in the dimming evening light. Then I would drive the old Dart home, because Grandpa couldn't see at night. I'd drive slowly on the gravel, neck craned, sucking in the rich smell of earth and fresh-mown hay, content with the evening start, the drone of the motor, and Grandpa.
Often we'd return to the brick house to find Great Uncle Vic and Great Aunt Laura's old black Ford in the driveway. ``Don't tell Vic where we were today,'' Grandpa would sternly warn, ``or he'll tell everybody.'' Uncle Vic loved to fish, but we were concerned about him, and didn't want him to drive or fish alone.
He was a civil engineer, not a farmer, and my grandparents were convinced his life style was to blame for everything. ``Don't put out too many doughnuts,'' my robust grandmother would warn, ``or Vic will eat them all.'' But sometimes, when we had to go to town anyway for night crawlers, we'd stop and pick him up. We'd find an unpromising hole on the Upper Iowa, swat bugs, and sweat. The only sound we could make was to whistle back at the little birds that swooped over the water and popped in and out of the brush. Vic loved it.
Then one day, by accident I suppose, Grandpa took Vic to our best fishing hole. An elm tree spread over the river, and though its roots stole hooks, they also housed some fine black bass. Vic was ecstatic. I think it was the first time anyone had taken him to a good spot. At mid-afternoon my mom came by to take me swimming with my cousins. So I left the two old men there, silent by the river.
That afternoon there were several cars at the house. Uncle Vic had been overcome by the heat, fallen backward in the weeds, fishing pole in hand. My 80-year-old grandfather had carried him up the steep bank. ``He stopped sweating,'' Grandpa said, ``but I knew I was OK, I was sweating like a pig.'' Vic, too, survived to tell the tale. Within a week there wasn't a fish left at the old elm, and beer cans and empty reel boxes lined the shore. I suppose Vic hoped his fisherman friends would take him along when they went.
We switched to fishing for trout with cheese on my grandmother's family farm. My great-grandfather had bought the land because the bluffs reminded him of Norway. From somewhere too deep to dive to flowed one of Iowa's two trout streams. We could take Vic there, it was cool, and everyone already knew where it was.
Vic and the old elm died the next year, and Grandpa a few years after that. But sometimes on a muggy-warm evening, with the sound of gravel under my tires, I'll take a deep breath - hoping for a whiff of that summer.