As I write this, I am looking out at the boats of Wickford Shipyard only a hundred yards away. I am struck by the fact that almost 30 years ago, almost to the day, I was doing exactly the same thing while casting about for good ideas for my little blond five-year-old’s birthday and Christmas presents.
I recalled that Andy loved walking on the docks when the sport fishermen returned from the waters off Block Island, to see what they caught. It was usually quite an assortment—blues, stripers, fluke primarily—but on occasion, there would be an impressive swordfish, tuna, or mind-stamping mako shark. George, Sandy, and their fishing buddies on “G” Dock took a liking to young Andy and offered to take him fishing the following year when he was “grown-up,” and I just knew that he would not forget about the invitation.
“How about a fishing rod?” I asked his mother, Abby. She was a bit dubious, but sure enough, a couple of days before Christmas she tracked down this stubby midget of a rod made by Fisher-Price. Now, any adult looking at the hastily wrapped present on Christmas morning would know exactly what it was, but not a five-year-old. When Andy did unwrap the skinny package with a bulb-like appendage near one end, you could see that this was going to be the thing under the tree that he would like best. But, as fairly new parents, we never foresaw how a last-minute inspiration would influence the course of a lifetime.
From the outset, that rod got used, both across the street and whenever we happened to be near water. A favorite family memory is of Andy fishing off the end of a dock extending into upstate New York’s Raquette River with his grandfather, Gene Earle. They would be out there for hours at a time, not speaking a lot, but enjoying themselves nevertheless. There was this good-sized bluegill that you could easily see about three feet down, directly under where Andy stood on the dock wearing his bulky red PFD. That poor fish must have been hauled in 40 times, and it is amazing that it had any lips left by the end of our vacation there. Apparently, an agreement had been made that Andy would continuously feed this fish worms, and the fish would, in turn, allow itself to be hauled up from time to time, as long as Andy gently removed the de-barbed hook as Gene had taught and let him go. In subsequent years, I swear that same fish was in the same place; fish and boy apparently continued to operate under some kind of implied extended contract.
As Andy grew up, his fishing experiences expanded and I cannot claim to have imparted any great amount of piscatorial knowledge to him. Rather, I acted as his fishing facilitator and sometimes companion. I liked to be with Andy when he fished more than I ever liked to fish myself. The real teaching of techniques came from neighbors, uncles, older friends, and dock denizens who truly did like to fish. They recognized in this kid a strong interest in and love for a great sport. By the time Andy was ten, he would row a boat or take an inflatable out to fish (under supervision) and knew which lures worked best at what times and where. At a tender age, he was a competent boater, fisherman, and mate. Though I wished that he enjoyed sailing more like the rest of the family, I knew deep down that Andy would always be a good sailor, but would look at family cruises primarily as an opportunity to fish Block Island, Cuttyhunk, and any promising fishing grounds we passed such as Beavertail, Brenton Reef, Point Judith, and Gooseberry Rock.
Inasmuch as it is possible to reliably catch fish, Andy would. One time, his Boy Scout troop had an island campout where the kids were supposed to eat only what they gathered or caught that day. They got a late start, and as the afternoon progressed too quickly after setting up the tents, it was apparent that the campers needed to think more seriously about option 2: eating only assorted bivalves and periwinkles, or option 3: subsisting on a limited number of marshmallows for 24 hours. At that disturbing prospect, a scout suggested sending Andy and a small group out on Narragansett Bay because “Andy Coppa always catches fish.” Undaunted by the group pressure and forever securing his place in the pantheon of Troop 1 Saunderstown heroes, Andy and company returned an hour later with three equally large fish: a striper, a bluefish and a squeteague. (Interestingly, nobody had seen a squeteague in that area for many years.) Needless to say, nobody starved that night and a fishing legend was spawned.
In high school, football, lacrosse and girls competed for Andy’s fishing time, and Abby and I wondered if this activity would be put aside as the years went on. The answer soon came when an older girl, code-named “Green Backpack” (or GB) by the siblings, asked Andy to his first prom. Looking very handsome in a tuxedo and cradling a corsage in his nervous hands for GB, my wife chirped the way moms do, “Have a good time, Andy!” as he was about to leave to pick up the young lady. His instant and taut reply, “I’d rather be going fishing,” put aside any further discussion about our earlier speculation.
When Andy left for college in New Hampshire, he was happy to find that his randomly assigned roommate, Will, was also a fisherman, which served as a bonding agent during a year that can often be stressful. Will taught Andy about ice fishing, something that Andy had never done before. They even built a shack that cold winter and dragged it out on a lake, then fished while drinking a local concoction to keep warm, the way college kids sometimes do. Andy reciprocated the following summer and Will got to learn about Rhode Island-style angling. Fishing, it turns out, is a great ice-breaker and not only in winter.
Perhaps much later than it should have, it occurred to me that encouraging a young kid to fish is much more important than just instructing him or her how to land dinner. My son learned about the importance of conserving marine resources from his angling companions. At an early age, I saw that Andy became comfortable with being around adults through the sport. He enjoyed learning from them, talking to them in a way that kids too often do not. Good communication skills and a social competency developed that transferred to many other aspects of Andy’s life; eventually, via rod-and-reel experiences, he mentored younger local kids and cousins the way he had been mentored himself.
When Andy goes someplace new or gets a new work assignment, he almost always runs into a fisherman. Discussions initially begin with the usual questions, but then lead to invitations into a social circle that would not be accessible (or at least as quickly accessible) to him. The early establishment of a common interest is critical to developing relationships in new situations.
I still get a kick out of seeing my 35-year-old son fish whenever I can. I love that little grin on his face and sparkle in his eyes when he pulls something in, but I love more the assorted discussions we have had on beach and boat while waiting for the bite. Over the years, Abby and I have given Andy many gifts. As much thought as went into all of them, the best gift ever was that little toy fishing rod given 30 years ago to a youngster born to fish.