The u-fish were biting

Just past Issaquah on Interstate 90, where the old highway curves up into the hills on its way east to Preston, a train trestle used to pass over the road. I don’t recall ever seeing a train on it, but the bridge was there until 1975, my thirteenth year, when it was removed so that the highway could be widened into a freeway. A few yards east of where this trestle was the highway crossed the East Fork Issaquah Creek, which drains Tiger and Taylor mountains, two of the ancient mountains that the sylvanophile and hiking-book author Harvey Manning named the Issaquah Alps.

The Northern Pacific Railway using its trestle in 1955.

“Northern Pacific Railway’s North Bend Local at Issaquah, 1955″. To reach our fishing hole we parked right about where this photo was taken about a dozen years earlier.

It is certainly dangerous and probably illegal now to pull off the freeway unless smoke is coming out from under your hood or your tire is flat, but in those days a man might without worry pull his old but well-cared-for ’57 Chevy wagon over to the side of the highway early on a Saturday morning and leave it there, leading his young son a few yards through the damp understory of salal and sword fern to the creek’s edge, where the bespectacled and fretful lad would have a hard time casting his fishing line into that deeper, darker water just behind big boulders, which is where — his father said — the fish were resting on their journey upstream. I don’t know how many times we fished there, but my memory of the place seems to encompass multiple events. I also don’t know whether or not it was my first fishing experience. I think not. At least, I think it was not the first place I caught a fish, because there is a very clearly tagged memory in my head of a place — God only knows where, now — called Helen’s Cove, a place of morning sun on the shore of what I remember as a good-sized lake, where there was a fishing dock, and where my sister Jeni and I fished side by side under my father’s tutelage, and where for the first time in my life I saw my pole, which was not in my hand because I was jumping around on the dock at that moment, I saw my pole begin to wiggle and the red and white plastic bobber out in the lake to dip under the surface of the water, and my father shouted to me that I had a fish on and told me to reel him in, and I did, and it was a perch, and it was the first fish I ever caught. “Perch”. I never forgot that word or that fish. I believe that the morning I’m thinking of now was sometime after that sunny morning at Helen’s Cove, and I believe we caught some trout this time.

I remember the fact that the highway crossed the creek because I remember being almost directly underneath the bridge, standing on wet pebbles reflecting a grey sky, when my father kneeling at my side showed me how to smack the fish’ head smartly against a rock so as to kill it quickly. I don’t know that dispatching the fish like that bothered me much at the time, but I do know that I have never forgotten that moment.

I thought of this a few weekends ago. Mara, who is now eight, has told me once or twice that she wanted me to take her fishing. While looking for a fun weekend thing to do on a Saturday morning that promised to warm into one of the last beautiful Saturdays before the darkening of the season, I found Old McDebbie’s Farm and Jim’s U-Fish online. Old McDebbie’s was a petting farm in Spanaway where kids could ride ponies and feed pigs and goats and donkeys (and a camel), and hang out in the barn petting kittens. There was also a pond there stocked with rainbow trout. We piled into the car.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

It turned out to be the perfect place.

Spanaway is south of Seattle an hour and a half or so depending on traffic, and the farm was a little further south, just off Highway 7. It wasn’t so much a farm — no agriculture was being undertaken there that we could see — as someone’s 10-acre rural backyard, into which every rural or outside activity a kid might like to engage in had been provided for. At first blush it seemed a little cheesy for a farm — a putt-putt golf course would not have looked terribly out of place here. Fun, jokey signs and decorations were everywhere, and there were picnic tables and benches here and there around the spacious lawn, which was green and lush. A fountain feature burbled into one of the two ponds at the back of the property near the woods. There was a playground with swings and a play structure, and there were lots of outside games around, like bean bag tosses and hula hoops and the thing where you toss two bolo’ed balls at a ladder of horizontal bars in hopes of wrapping the balls around the highest bar. Angela and I looked at each other a little dubiously; we tend to value authenticity highly, sometimes perhaps too highly for our own good, and we were expecting more of a working farm that happened to have also some accommodation for little people. The carnival atmosphere made our artistes’ hearts quail for a moment.

But the girls loved it and they loved it immediately. It turned out to be the perfect adventure. A fin gets you in, no matter your age, and although almost everything you do costs extra, I considered it a good value because the place was such a rich condensation of fun and hands-on furry activity for the kids (note: there’s no food concession here, so bring your own picnic lunch unless you want to eat candy). Both girls took a pony ride (another $5 each), Mara on Dotty and Millie on Henry, once around the ponds led by one of the helpers there. We fed the animals in the barn ($3/bag of scraps), which was kinda scary. The larger donkey bruised my thumb trying to chomp the stick of celery that I was feeding to the smaller one. One little girl got bit by a pony. In the barn at least, the farm experience was authentic. Millie sensed the potential danger and didn’t want to feed anything larger than a hamster. Mara bonded with some of the barn cats over the course of the several hours we were there. A baby pig was penned in a little circle of fence right in the middle of the yard, with a little umbrella for shade and a sleeping black rabbit for company, and small children who might be intimidated by the full-size pigs in the barn were invited to get inside this pen and pet the piglet.

A responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

The responsible child leads Millie around the pond on Henry.

In the end, Millie was more interested in the bunny.

In the pigpen.

The girls had a gas. They got to hear the donkey bray, which was a really unusual sound, and the goat kids bleat, which was another really unusual sound. I imagined that a lot of the sounds Millie has been told animals make in her books were that day realized in a new, first-hand way. I say “meh-eh-eh” when I’m reading her a book with goats in it, but the real thing is the real thing, and it’s easy for adults to forget that until you hear the real thing, you have not heard a goat bleat.

Then we fished. I rented poles from Debbie at the gift shack ($2 per pole includes one baited hook, which should do for several hours of fishing; additional bait extra) and we took the girls to the pond’s edge. Fish were jumping out of the water every minute or two, as though they had been trained. It seemed unreal. The hook came with a brightly colored green or orange ball on it, which was supposed to attract the fish, although I don’t know if it was actually food. The lines had no bobbers, which confused me at first. The girls could not cast the lines; I had to do it for them, and it took me an embarrassing dozen or so tries — during which both girls began to get bored — before I could successfully get that hook to sail out over the pond. Debbie had said that the fish liked to hang out in the cool water down deep, so let the hook sink a ways before reeling it in.

Millie's first fish.

Millie’s first fish. Fun, she’ll aver, except for the killin’ part.

So I cast out for each of the girls, then we let the lines sink before the girls began reeling them in. Bingo! Within about four casts, Millie caught a fish. Millie caught a fish! My three-year old daughter caught a fish! She was actually holding the pole when it bit, and Angela helped her land it on the grass. This was where things started getting sad. I got the hook out of the fish’ mouth pretty quickly, and lo, there was a large smooth rock protruding from the grass at my side, just begging for a fish to be brained on it. My impulse was to smack the fish quickly (as I had been taught by that venerable fisherman, my father), but the girls were right there and I had until then failed to consider how this execution might affect Millie. I asked Angela to take the girls away a few yards — a gross dereliction of duty on my part, I now realize, since it was hiding the truth — and I beaned the unhappy pond-dweller on the rock. It’s difficult to hold on tightly to a fish in any weather, but when you’re trying to swing it like a hammer it’s particularly challenging, thus I think I only stunned it the first time, so that its side fins fluttered like butterfly wings. It was over in a few seconds, but I felt like the suburban desk pilot that I am, and also a death-bringing ogre.

Mara's first fish.

Mara’s first fish. This one was still jumpy. If you look closely you can see the fishing line running into its mouth.

Angela took Millie to ask Old McDebbie what we should do with our fish, which I’d put in a bucket with some pondwater. We wanted to keep it so I could cook it up at home. The rule was you had to either take any fish you caught with you ($5) or donate it to charity via the farm (still $5). There was no throwing maimed fish back into the pond. I was worried Mara would feel left out if her little sister had caught a fish and she had not (this turns out to have been more my worry than Mara’s, as usual), so I kept casting Mara’s line out, and bam! it wasn’t more than three more minutes before Mara’s line dipped and she reeled her first fish in. I helped her land it, but the hook was deep and I couldn’t get it out because the pliars-like implement Debbie had given us would not close fully, and I didn’t want to whack the fish with the hook in — not only did it seem, well, not cricket somehow, but it also seemed dangerous, since the fish kept flopping in my hand and I didn’t want to get the hook through my palm. Eventually I carried the writhing fish and the line and the bucket with the other fish (the dead one) over to Debbie’s shack, where she removed the hook (with a better set of pliars), and after asking me whether I wanted to cook it with the head on or off, took the fish to an outdoor washtub and sliced off its head with a knife while it was still alive. I inwardly cringed. In another instant she had gutted it and scraped out its entrails. She was busy talking about the 10-year-old girl whom she had hired to help her that day, how the kid was better than any teenager you could hire; more responsible, more alert, better with the animals, better with the customers. I was thinking that by rights I should have cleaned the fish. In the tradition handed down to me (this part by another fisherman, my friend Jeff’s dad), you clean your own fish.

Angela is fond of old goats.

Angela is known to have a soft spot for an old goat. This is not that goat.

Angela was rather dismayed by the whole affair, and anyway didn’t want me to cook the fish in the same iron skillet I use to make Dad’s Sunday Morning French Toast. “Get another skillet for savory,” was all she said while making a face, and I could tell she’d have been content if the whole fish thing had never happened. The next day I bought another skillet, googled “how to cook trout in an iron skillet”, and went to it. Flour, butter, oregano, some dill, a squeeze of lemon, and the magic of hot iron. We thanked God for the fish and thanked the fish for laying its life down so we could eat, then tucked in. Angela and I agreed that our scaled friends made a good meal. Mara tried it and was not strongly put off, which is to say she ate more than her “no thank you bite.” Millie abstained entirely, and was later heard to say “I wish we didn’t have to kill the fish so we could eat,” this a delayed response to the conversation that Angela and I forced upon the girls about the uncomfortable truth that something — animal or vegetable — must perish in order for us to eat.

Here is one of the wishes I have that will remain an unfulfilled wish as long as I live: I wish that while my dad was alive I had asked him to tell me more details about the places where we fished, what fish we caught, and how we caught them. The business of teaching your children to fish, it strikes me now, is an enterprise to which you want to bring the full collective knowledge and traditions of your tribal ancestors. My dad’s fishing lore would have been a treasured link to my forebears, a bridge from the present to an eternal past. Its loss is like the pulling down of the old railroad trestle at Issaquah, which removed a historic path between two sides of a valley forever but escaped my notice until years later, when I peered out the back window of the family car and wondered what trick my mind was playing, whether this could really be the place I was thinking of.

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8 Responses to “The u-fish were biting”


  1. 1 aplscruf October 23, 2013 at 09:07

    What a wonderful place to explore with your family, although the fishing part made me squirm (but I’ve had to hit a few trout on the head back in the day, too). To quote one of my favorite musicians, Marshall Chapman: “Sometimes life IS perfect!”
    I understand that need to pass along those ancestral traditions, too. My dad and I spent many days and weeks of my youth on miles of hiking trails. Unfortunately, neither of us kept notes or made journals of our journeys; and now all those hikes seem to blend into each other. Was that Cascade Pass or or Twin Lakes? Pasayten or Packwood?

    • 2 Matt October 23, 2013 at 13:44

      Hi Aplscruf,
      I think you’ve mentioned your hikes with your dad before — both hikes in the far past and hikes more recent, and I believe he yet lives, no? I wonder if he has any info that might bubble up over a cup of joe. As a dad, I got started late, and I hope I live long enough to survive that period of my daughters’ lives when they won’t care fart nor farthing about the details in my memory. I expect it to be decades long, if my own history is anything to go by. Alas, therefore this journal. Thanks for your support here.

  2. 3 Angela October 23, 2013 at 13:14

    I read this post out loud to Millie, and she corrected me when I read the part that she had said. Here’s the quote, according to Millie, “I wish we didn’t have to kill the fish to be able to eat it.” It seemed important to her, as she repeated it a couple of times! We both enjoyed the post very much, by the way :).

    • 4 Matt October 23, 2013 at 13:48

      That’s my little stickler for accuracy. We should get a biography of Edward R. Murrow and start reading it to her for bedtime, maybe mix it in with the Little Bear and Eloise. I think she’s got a great mind for journalistic integrity. Thanks for inflicting that bloody experience once more upon our child. :)

  3. 6 leatherhead109 October 23, 2013 at 22:10

    Brother,

    I remember the fishing place, but not the bridge so much. I used to get it confused with the trestle by 405 on the way up the “Connector”. I was very young, you might recall. My memory is of the same place, however,..unable to use my small measure of patience, I left Dad and Clark to fish, whilst I ran the trail along the creek, back and forth jumping tree root and bush, as if being chased by the elusive enemy, ..adventure afoot! Besides, it was always gray and rainy there…

    And I know what you mean by the lore. I wonder why we didn’t fish more. His tackle box grew old. They do you know, and there is always an old salmon egg, shriveled, lying in the bottom. When I was a younger dad, the girls and I fished a lot, each summer. But now, with responsibility and commitment, it seems it had gotten so hard to go fishing with the two little ones. There is this older fireman who gave me a little row boat. Barely hold the three of us I think. He always asks me if I’ve taken them out in it. I always answer “No, ..but we have fished this summer…” He grips my elbow and grimaces. His wife told me once, (while knitting another stitch in her quilt thing) that he hardly ever took his kids out either, he was always teaching or working and now they’re all grown. So I think I need to get that boat in the water. There are more fish to be caught and lore of my own to make.

    • 7 Matt October 24, 2013 at 06:25

      You have a memory of Dad and Clark fishing? Well, I never…! How could I have missed that one?

      I used to have the same confusion about this bridge and the Wilburton trestle by I-405 (which is still there, by some fluke of omission in the planning of those who destroy all good old railroady things). Before I had any sense of geography, these places just seemed like islands of locality in some disconnected medium (pectin, maybe), but gradually I realized that there was this other trestle, a smaller one, further away off east. About the time I started to understand where it was, we had moved to NC and back, and then maybe we didn’t go out that way for a year or two, and then the next time I went looking for it it was gone. I wrote “the back window of the family car” but that was literary license — I was 13 when the bridge came down and the next time I went through there probably would have been when we were driving up on our own to hike Si in high school. Apologies (as always) to Edward R. Murrow and journalistic integrity.

      There was/is also a string of trestles on the Old Milwaukee Road line going up to Snoqualmie Pass on the south side of I-90. When I was younger and we drove past there we could clearly see those trestles, some of them collapsed in the middle, but it seems that maybe the forests have grown up or maybe some of them have been removed. At least one or two remain; the rails have been removed and the grade is now a hike/bike path called the Iron Horse Trail.

      I want to bring the fam up next summer if we can work it out. Help you get that dinghy into the swamp. I trust you have a good iron skillet up there?

      This should have been a letter on some other medium (paper, maybe).


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