Bait Fishing

When I came to Montana to teach at the University in Missoula, we moved into a house next door to a widower who worked on furnaces and air conditioning. It was he who taught me to fish for trout, giving me advice over the backyard fence.

“Learn to bait fish with a fly rod first,” he said, “then I’ll teach you to fish with flies.” So he told me how to make a screen for catching hellgrammites and crane worms and May Fly nymphs from the streambed. “You’ve got to know what the fish are eating and when, in order to become a good fly fisherman,” he said.

Under my neighbor’s tutelage, I became an avid fisherman. I was out on the stream every chance I had, often way before sunrise when the deer were trotting over the cobbles.

I’d spend my first hour of daylight catching bait. I’d hold my screen down in the water and kick over rocks with my booted feet and check to see what nymphs had drifted onto my screen. They crawled on the wire netting and clung to bits of wet wood. I picked them off and put them into my bait box at my waist. Then I’d fish, drifting my baited hook along riffles and into logjams and deep pools.

Eventually I learned that the nymphs I used for bait would one day crawl up onto the shore and transform themselves into salmon and other flies. The bushes and trees along the shore were heavy with salmon flies during the hatch. And soon I had graduated to fly fishing, going out later in the day, when the hatches fluttered on the surface of the stream and my fly line arced behind me so beautifully in the descending sunlight.

It was about this time that I wrote a poem entitled “Trout Fishing,” commemorating all those early morning when I crept out of the house, abandoning my family, and appeared on the Clark Fork River near Turah or on Rock Creek way before anybody else did. 

This is the poem:

Crawl naked from the cold bed.

Shuck your skin on cobbles.

Fold and unfold your fragile self.

Wing to trout in dark pools, rising.

Die for what you catch.

I imagined myself changing from a submerged creature to a winged creature, only to be consumed shortly thereafter by what I wanted to catch.


When my father worked on weekends, I would sneak off with his casting poles and box of tackle and go fishing off the point at Lanikai. I always came back empty handed.

I had no luck shore casting, the kind of fishing my father loved to do. He caught ten and twelve pound oios off Lanikai Point, once two on a single line.

I loved to listen to his wonderful tales about fishing at night off the lava cliffs at Makapuu. He reeled in 30 to 50 pound uluas or Jack fish from those lava shores.

He used large curved hooks for two reasons. One, they slid over the reefs with out getting snagged and two, they were easy to swallow, setting not on the fish’s lip but deep in its gullet.

I remember when Dad taught me to tie bait onto one of these curved hooks. He lashed a slice of squid onto the hook. He held the hook up, and made the dripping squid tentacle sway as if it were in the ocean. He said, “Doesn’t that look delicious.” Then he pretended he was the fish swimming around the tantalizing bait. He made gobbling and swallowing noises, the kind he imagined a fish would make. “Mmmmm–good!” he said. And suddenly surprised and like any hooked fish, my father leaped into the air and twisted and shook himself.

What I learned that day and eventually as I came to Christ in a meaningful way was this: You had both to be the delicious bait and to become what you catch. You had to be the dangling tentacles of the squid and the hungry ulua, or the mayfly fluttering on the surface of the water and the rising trout.

In order to catch us, Jesus had both to be God’s son and, as Paul writes, to empty himself of divinity and become fully human like us, die on the cross, be resurrected, and ascend back to the Father. Thus he drew each of us, who believe in him, back to our home in God.

Great Fisherman, in more ways than one, had to die for what he catches, and so do we.