Tuesday, March 29, 2011

fishing for bony fish

the beech tree rises up tall and wide like an umbrella on the hill beside the water at the old homestead on boston's north shore. it can be seen across the pond, a majestic sentinel for all seasons. in mid-february it stood in three feet of snow, but the big old beech by the pond already had tiny buds forming. the wind whipped up across the frozen, snow covered water, and sent shivers through the naked, budding branches, daring spring to arrive in another month. the beech tree stood firmly in the snow. spring would arrive.......eventually.

northeasters make a mess of the frozen pond. growing up at the pond, in order to ice skate and play pond hockey, we had to work hard clearing off the snow to make a spot for ourselves. when i was in high school, before i had my driver's license, the pond was my short cut home, reducing my one mile walk from the school bus stop in half if i could get across it. i had to stick to the road when deep fluffy snow blanketed the ice. sometimes ice fishermen set up their huts in the direction i was headed. then i was in luck: the fishermen made great snow shoe trails over the snowy expanse. if the snow was heavy and wet during a raging storm and then the temperatures dropped, i did ok, too, because i could walk on top of the frozen deposits of snow.

those little make-shift houses perched on the icy pond were cozy, with unexpectedly homey touches. the fishermen "decorated" with comfy chairs and tables, radios softly broadcasting sports talk or country music, bags bursting with beers and sandwiches, thermoses containing steamy fresh coffee, portable heaters pulsing hot air - a brief tenuous intermission from the frozen drama that is winter.

the ice fishermen were friendly and waved and said hello. i usually didn't know them; they were from other towns and were willing to drive the distance to our out-of-the-way pond because it was so peaceful and pristine, not at all built up, with only a few houses and one road leading to it. and oh yeah, i almost forgot, the fishing was great, too.

those guys pulled out eel, black bass, pickerel and other pike, perch and catfish (and sometimes a small pondweed/pickerelweed encrusted snapping turtle!) from their carefully drilled holes. good stuff, except for the turtles. what we called sunfish were actually yellow, flat, round perch, tasty but full of bones. same with pickerel - nothing but bones, bones, bones! plus, watch out for pickerel. in addition to a body full of bones, they also have a mouth full of teeth. i have never had patience with eating bony fish. all those tiny, piercing splintery bones! what a nuisance! too much work! too awful if you swallow a bone and it gets stuck (yuck) in your throat! besides, what kind of self-respecting fishermen bring home small yellow sunfish (so manly sounding!) after a day of fishing, to proudly show off to family and friends? i only know two fishermen who fit that description.....

in the summer when we were kids, my brother and i dug up worms, pierced a bit of gooey worm body on a hook, and fished from our little rowboat, usually tossing back the fish we caught, unless our grandmother was visiting from germany. when she was in residence we were only too happy to present her with a bucket full o' fish. she liked to fry up our haul, bony sunfish and all. she removed most of the bones for us after she cooked the fish. bless her. we would sit in the shade under the beech tree and with our fingers pick at and eat the delicious fried pond fish. finger licking good! to this day, eating any kind of fish reminds me of summer, even if a snowstorm is howling outside.

my grandmother and my parents, however, knew how to eat tediously bony fish by removing the bones one by one with the proper fish forks you used to be able to buy. i wonder, can you still buy those fish forks? in europe you probably can. we americans have no clue about fish forks; we seem to only eat the wonderfully "boneless" species of fish, such as salmon, cod, trout, sea bass, and haddock fillets, swordfish, tuna and halibut steaks. we opt for shells instead of bones when having to commit to the serious and time consuming work of eating certain fishy types of food: i say bring on the clams, mussels, oysters, shrimp, and *yum* lobster.

the days of fishing for and then nibbling fried bony fish near the big old beech at the pond are long gone. no more bones to stick in my craw! hmmm....i wonder, wherever did our clever little fish forks go, anyway?

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