It was his first fish and his first time fishing--but when 5-year-old Jeremy Miller held up the 10-inch brown trout that had just lost an epic tug of war on a river named Rose, the kid was talking about bigger ones that got away.
"It's amazing," said Jeremy's mother Mary. "He's 5 years old and already he's telling fish stories."
First fish are like birthday parties and ice cream sundaes. You don't have to tell children they're supposed to enjoy them. Attach a kid to a line dipped in water and most will stay riveted to the rod through rain, wind and the failed expectations of their parents.
"We've been sitting out here in the pouring rain for hours," said Phil Kennett, a soggy father looking at his soaking wet, 3-year-old daughter Megin. What was visible under a yellow rain slicker looked ready to cry. But she clutched an oversized fishing rod with a grip that no doll ever enjoyed. "We went in the car to get a sandwich and she wanted to come right back out."
Saturday was wet, cold and nasty. It was also the first day of trout season in Virginia. So thousands forsook hearth and home to wade knee deep in cold rivers and streams, casting for wary trout. Even in the best of weather, opening day is no picnic for young anglers. Adult fishermen coming off a winter of enforced idleness can make a kid's first fishing trip an intimidating encounter.
But this year some members of a Trout Unlimited chapter in Virginia reserved a mile of the Rose River, 85 miles southwest of Washington, for kids 12 and under. Adults were welcome, but only to bait hooks, untangle lines and participate in a tradition that rivals any in American folklore.
"This is part of our heritage," said Joseph Coppola, who brought his 6- and 11-year-old sons to the river from Richmond and admitted it was as much for his own sake as theirs. "It's important to do things with your father."
Three hundred men, women and children showed up Saturday to fish the recently stocked Rose where it levels off after a wild drop through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some of them left after the first drenching downpour. The rest spread out on both sides of the river, creating a scene that would have kept Norman Rockwell painting for a century.
"Does it hurt the worm?" asked David Kohut, another 5-year-old, as he and 7-year-old brother Steve watched their father impale a night crawler on a sharp hook.
Orest Kohuk, who works for the Air Force in Camp Springs, Md., assured his sons that worms live for the chance to snare fish, then gave David one piece of fatherly advice.
"Make a good cast, and don't hit your brother in the head."
"You've got to respect the fishermen who came out here with their kids instead of fishing themselves today," said Rich Chefetz, a doctor and one of the Trout Unlimited members who organized the kid fish. "To come out here on opening day after they've been telling fish stories all winter, that takes something."
Chafetz remembered the first fish his own son caught last year more vividly than his own. "He was all full of himself. That's something you carry with you the rest of your life."
While Chafetz reminisced, kids were catching fish, rocks and shoreline foliage behind him. Parents shivered in the rain, while their kids seemed oblivious to everything but the hide and seek they were playing with the fish in the river.
"We picked a crummy day to start trout fishing," said Jean Davenport of Orange County. Her 7-year-old son Jack had a different opinion. "This is getting funner every minute."
A few yards upriver, Janice Skewes kept her 8-year-old attention half on the chocolate bar she was eating and half on the line that hadn't so much as wiggled in two hours. When asked what she liked most about fishing, Janice said it was eating the fish. But not just any fish would do.
"The fish you get in the supermarket have their heads cut off. I like to eat mine with the head on."
Janice's mother Anne admitted she knew as much about fishing as she did nuclear engineering. But the divorced mother said she made the trip from Charlottesville because her daughter deserved it.
"I think it's unfair for girls to miss out on the excitment of catching fish just because they're girls," she said.
While the Skewes waited patiently beside the river, there was a shout downstream. David Kohut, after five years of normal childhood, had just caught his first fish. His face fell, however, when his father told him it was too small and had to be thrown back into the river.
"I cried a little," said David, back at the job of catching fish. "But I'm okay now."