I grew up in the state which prides itself as the land of ten thousand lakes. Many of my childhood summers included week-long stays a couple of hours north of my home with my grandparents, who owned a resort on Lake Mille Lacs, now embattled over dwindling counts of its famous walleye. My grandfather took guests out on a launch boat for fishing outings, but when my cousins and siblings and I were around, he rented a pontoon at a smaller neighboring lake that was stocked with sunnies so he could take us all out at once, without fear of one of us overzealous young fisherpersons overturning the boat. Zeal was never his greatest challenge when it came to having me on his boat; rather, the challenge was wheedling me into removing a fish from the hook, which I still say would be made easier if the fish would close its eyes and hold its breath, or at minimum, stop breathing from outside its body. Gills, to my young mind looked like nothing less than a bear trap made for a six-year-old’s hand. In the end, I couldn’t take a fish from a hook to save my life, nor, sadly enough, that of the fish.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been out, but as a grownup, I find leaning back with my feet resting on the edge of a fishing boat, wide open water on every side, to be one of the most relaxing things on earth. I like having nothing more to do than watch a red and white bobber bobbing around the surface of the water, waiting for the visual cue to tell me whether the hook has brushed by a weed or if I’ve snagged Moby Dick. A confession: I often prefer the weed because I still don’t prefer to take the fish off the hook.
In the absence of a boat, and a fish wriggling on the line, fishing poems offer a fine relaxing substitute. We’ve netted 10 fishing poems for you to enjoy on a day when you’d rather be fishing. The best part is you don’t have to find someone to bait your hook.
Water-flesh gleamed like mica:
orange fins, red flankspots, a char
shy as ginseng, found only
in spring-flow gaps, the thin clear
of faraway creeks no map
could name. My cousin showed me
those hidden places. I loved
how we found them, the way we
followed no trail, just stream-sound
tangled in rhododendron,
to where slow water opened
a hole to slip a line in,
and lift as from a well bright
shadows of another world,
held in my hand, their color
already starting to fade.
— Ron Rash
The women who clean fish are all named Rose
or Grace. They wake up close to the water,
damp and dreamy beneath white sheets,
thinking of white beaches.
It is always humid where they work.
Under plastic aprons, their breasts
foam and bubble. They wear old clothes
because the smell will never go.
On the floor, chlorine.
On the window, dry streams left by gulls.
When tourists come to watch them
working over belts of cod and hake,
they don’t look up.
They stand above the gutter. When the belt starts
they pack the bodies in, ten per box,
their tales crisscrossed as if in sacrament.
The dead fish fall compliantly.
It is the iridescent scales that stick,
clinging to cheek and wrist,
lighting up hours later in a dark room.
The packers say they feel orange spawn
between their fingers, the smell of themselves
more like salt than peach.
— Erica Funkhouser
As dark begins to dissolve the body—
the crown of his head, the belly’s swell, the ankle—
I watch him sleep, recall how he settled back
on his heels just hours ago, sent a line keening
swift and precise over the lake. Everyone knows
a cast is not a question of strength so much
as a relinquishing, that the line’s release
is an extension from the wrist to the lunge
and snap of a Cutthroat Trout. I sketch in the ribbed
trunk of a cottonwood, label it Populus trichocarpa.
Something of what the eye took in is translated
to joint and grip of finger, until ink gives back
the crumbled snag of bark, the silver-sided leaf
dipping like a fish through the evening air.
The wing of his hand is the last thing to go.
— Anne M. Doe Overstreet
With adams, caddis, tricos, light cahills,
blue-wing olives, royal coachmen, chartreuse trudes,
green drakes, blue duns, black gnats, Nancy quills,
Joe’s hoppers, yellow humpies, purple chutes,
prince nymphs, pheasant tails, Eileen’s hare’s ears,
telicos, flashbacks, Jennifer’s muddlers,
Frank bugs, sow bugs, zug bugs, autumn splendors,
woolly worms, black buggers, Kay’s gold zuddlers,
clippers, tippet, floatant, spools of leader,
tin shot, lead shot, hemostats, needle nose,
rod, reel, vest, net, boots, cap, shades and waders,
gortex shell and one bent Macanudo—
I wade in a swirl of May-colored water,
cast a fine gray quill, the last tie of my father.
— Michael Sowder
I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.
My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas. Grandmother’s hips
bulge from the brush, she’s leaning
into the ice chest, sun through the trees
printing her dress with soft
I am staring jealously at my brother;
the day before he rode his first horse, alone.
I was strapped in a basket
behind my grandfather.
He smelled of lemons. He’s died—
but I remember his hands.
— Rita Dove, author of Grace Notes
the surface of the lake
silver coins slip
through his fishing net
— Dave Read
Bamboo stick and he flicks his wrist,
swings the line across continents.
I can hear it swish, slice clouds.
It goes wherever there’s water.
Its hook dangles from the slide at the city pool,
claws at sewer caps, attacks a fireman’s hose.
In the morning, I find it
clipped to the soap dish in my shower:
question mark glistening steam.
I am too busy getting clean to answer.
— Marjorie Maddox
On the gold rock,
we used to sit
with our primitive poles.
Sticks we gathered
pins we tied by the head
onto white string.
The sunnies swam
in her lake, near the sand beach
she brought in
herself. We always cheered
when we hooked
the surge of body and fin.
But I also cried
at the blood, the shining hole,
and more often than not
I threw the breathless sunnies
— L.L. Barkat
9. The Fish
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
marks of abuse are present on this
all the physical features of
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.
10. A Boy and His Dad
A boy and his dad on a fishing-trip—
There is a glorious fellowship!
Father and son and the open sky
And the white clouds lazily drifting by,
And the laughing stream as it runs along
With the clicking reel like a martial song,
And the father teaching the youngster gay
How to land a fish in the sportsman’s way.
I fancy I hear them talking there
In an open boat, and the speech is fair.
And the boy is learning the ways of men
From the finest man in his youthful ken.
Kings, to the youngster, cannot compare
With the gentle father who’s with him there.
And the greatest mind of the human race
Not for one minute could take his place.
Which is happier, man or boy?
The soul of the father is steeped in joy,
For he’s finding out, to his heart’s delight,
That his son is fit for the future fight.
He is learning the glorious depths of him,
And the thoughts he thinks and his every whim;
And he shall discover, when night comes on,
How close he has grown to his little son.
A boy and his dad on a fishing-trip—
Builders of life’s companionship!
Oh, I envy them, as I see them there
Under the sky in the open air,
For out of the old, old long-ago
Come the summer days that I used to know,
When I learned life’s truths from my father’s lips
As I shared the joy of his fishing-trips.
Photo by William Doran, Creative Commons license via Flickr.