If they went fishing every weekend the growth of the boy wouldn't be as obvious, but what with one thing and another they only get out every month or so, and a month is a long time in the life of a third-grader.
Between late spring and high summer, the father learned, the boy had become a fisherman. Last time out the boy had shrunk from baiting his own hook and would grow bored between bites and wander off to explore. He was always hungry and thirsty, and ready to go home with the sun still high.
This time the boy wanted to start out at 4 a.m. so as to be on the water before sunrise, he said, and he wanted a closed-face spinning reel that wouldn't tangle on him, and he wanted to go to a place where there are real fish, fish that fight and are good to eat, and lots of them.
The father decided it was time to try the secret pond a man had told him about, one that is public but not on the maps, half a mile from a back road with only a cryptic sign, and seems to be posted but is not. Only real fishermen go there, the man said, there are hardly any beer cans. It is small, he said, but full of big mean tasty bass.
Allowing for boyish enthusiasm, the father let him sleep past 4:30. He hit the floor clear-eyed and disappointed by the little betrayal. He checked the tackle and the bait and remembered the supplies the yawning man forgot. All the hour on the road the boy chattered about the one that got away, the giant cat or carp that had taken his hook in a Missouri River slough in June and had paid the 10-pound line no more mind than if it were a cobweb.
It was that moment, the father realized, when the boy had felt the power and mystery of the big fish, that he had become a fisherman. The father listened with some envy, being himself not a true fisherman but one who fishes as an excuse to be outdoors and think about things that go stale when considered too long from an armchair.
The pond was all that was promised, tucked into a fold of rolling ground that had been logged and farmed to exhaustion and now is reverting to woods. Half-hidden in the predawn mist, it was laced with ripples from the comings and goings of beavers that, because the man and the boy walked softly, did not become aware of the intruders until they reached the water's edge.
With sunrise came the bees. Always before the boy had dodged away from them in fear, but now, involved with the question of how to deal with the baby bluegills that were stealing his worms, he scarcely noticed them bumbling around his legs.
With the first undersize bluegill he landed came another surprise. A year before a game biologist had patiently explained to him that it is not kind but cruel to return small bluegills to a pond because there always are too many of them for the food supply, so that both the bluegills and the bass are stunted. The boy had listened, but had kept on tossing them back. Hit it in the head so it won't suffer, he said this day. Throw it in the woods for the raccoons.
After a while he got the hang of the new reel, and was casting to the deeper water. Without advice, as the hot sun rose, he placed his bait in the shadowed water, and soon was taking pan-size bluegills. Then something hit hard, and fought hard enough to slip the loose drag. Before the father could get there to tighten it, the fish had snagged the line on a beaver lodge. But as it broke off it jumped clear of the water, a deep-bellied bell-mouthed bass, and the boy's expression as he wound in the line was not disappointment but joy.
He would not stop for lunch, grabbing bites and gulps while minding his rod, and as the heat built in the afternoon it was the father who grew bored and wandered off to explore. He found where soldiers had played war games, but the boy was too busy to come see the old concrete bunkers.
The next bass that hit was nothing like so big, but the boy stopped reeling as soon as he was sure it wasn't another bluegill. What's the matter, the man said. Nothing, the boy said, I just want to see if he'll jump.
Sunburned and bitten, the boy would not put down the rod until all the worms were gone, then wanted to search the woods for rotten logs with grubs in them. On the sweaty hike back to the car he carried more than his share of the load, and insisted it wasn't too heavy. It was too heavy, and made the boy gasp so he could barely speak. Which was just as well, because the father was preoccupied with armchair thoughts.