Throwing ’Em Back in Hackensack

A Nonfiction Story

Like my own kids, my brother Rob raised his two girls with an equal love for the outdoors and for all things fishing. His eldest, Alison, to this day is happiest when she is outdoors with a fish on the line. This love for fishing most often, though not always, starts at a young age in people. I’ve always said what draws people into the sport is the wonder of the unknown. Big fish? Small fish? Bluegill or a rogue bass? It is for these same reasons that one of my favorite games as a kid at carnivals or festivals was the fish pond. Put your line over a curtain and when you feel a tug, lift it and see what you got. It’s a strange obsession, but there are a lot worse things kids could be passionate about.

Every summer the town of Hackensack, Minnesota, where our vacation resort was, held a weekly fishing contest for kids on the municipal pier. When Rob and I heard of it, we thought it sounded like a great opportunity to engage our daughters, both under the age of five, in an activity that they both loved in a friendly, competitive environment.

On the morning of the contest we loaded the girls into Rob’s truck and headed into town. The girls were close in age and, little did we know, this outing would be the first of many fishing outings they would embark on over the course of their lives growing up together. There was an excitement and buzz in the truck as we pulled up to the nearly full parking lot at the pier. Rob and I both looked at the crowd, then at one another and raised our eyebrows grinning that grin that says, oh my god, what have we done?

“Little crowded,” I said sarcastically.

Rob pinched his index finger and thumb an inch apart and said, “Just a bit.”

We both laughed. Young fatherhood had taught us both that raising kids is no easy task under normal conditions. Throw a crowd, rules, and a side of chaos at a parenting situation and it can be nothing short of exhausting. The stark difference between how you picture an event and how it actually pans out became strikingly clear as Rob put the vehicle in park. We both smiled that knowing smile that what we were about to undertake would create forever memories, but would likely involve three hours of baiting hooks, releasing fish, and trying to keep our daughters’ attention focused. It was all good, especially given the knowledge that we’d be able to laugh about the whole ordeal over a couple of beers at the cabin after it was all over.

We piled out of the truck, unbuckled the girls from their car seats, grabbed our gear, and walked over to the event registration table. The coordinator took the girls’ names and ages and reminded us that life preservers were required for all kids on the dock. They also said the rules would be explained at the start of the event at 11:00 a.m. Rob and I nodded our acknowledgement and made our way out to the dock to stake our spot.

We found an opening midway down the dock and settled in. At 11:00 the main judge called for everyone’s attention to go over the rules.

“Okay, everyone, there are just a few rules to the contest. It will run until 12:30. All fish caught must be brought to the recording table so we can tally for numbers and sizes. At the end of the contest we will have prizes for the first fish caught as well as the most, the largest, and even the smallest. There will be consolation prizes as well.”

Because of Rob’s hearing loss, I explained the rules to him after the judge finished. When I got to the part about bringing the fish to the judging table, he showed his surprise, much like I had done during the rule rundown. From a fish health perspective, it seemed like a sketchy procedure to say nothing of the potential traffic flow issues on the dock. At the same time, I understood that to be fair, the only way to actually count and record the fish would be visual proof. We’ll see how this goes, I guess.

At 11:00 they called out the start. Immediately, every kid on the dock dropped their line into the water. As a merciful precaution to the start, the judge reminded the crowd that overhead casting was not allowed. The thought of thirty to forty hooks flying through the air at the same time was frankly horrifying, so thank goodness for small mercies. That would be nothing short of asking for an emergency room visit, making this the most important rule of all.

After a minute, a kid down the dock a ways hoisted the first fish of the day, eliminating that prize category almost before it started. Rob and I helped Alison and Sarah drop their lines in the water, then handed them their rods. With kids to our immediate left and right, our concerns about crossed lines were real. It was one thing to untangle your own kid’s line, but no one is keen on the idea of having to untangle it from a neighboring participant.

Ten minutes later, Sarah’s bobber went under.

“You got one, Sarah! Reel it in,” I said.

Sarah cranked the Scooby reel and brought the Bluegill out of the water.

“Yay, Sarah! Swing it over here so I can take it off.”

I took the wriggling baby Bluegill off the hook and made my way up the dock to the judging area. When I got there, a person ahead of me was getting their own fish recorded. I stood patiently, fish in hand, thinking to myself, well this is about as dumb as it gets.

When my turn came I stepped up to the table and said, “Sarah Landwehr, one fish.”

“Okay, got her. Thank you,” the judge said.

To their credit, they were quick about the recording process. I thanked the judge and turned away. At the first opportunity, I dropped the fish back into the lake. I walked back to our spot to find Alison reeling in her first fish. Rob beamed with pride as he worked on getting the hook out. He released it as I grinned at him and said, “The line starts right over there, bud,” pointing to the judging table, the busiest place on the dock at the moment. Rob gave me that knowing look and made his way toward the judging table with her catch.

Rob came back and said, “Well, this could be a long day.”

I laughed and nodded my head in agreement.

As quickly as I could get Sarah’s hook baited and in the water, she had another one on.

“Got one, Dad!”

She pulled it in and swung it toward me. It looked remarkably like the previous one, as well as the one Alison had just caught. “Hey, nice one, sweetie,” I said. I crouched down, unhooked it and made my way up the dock to the judging area. Again, there was someone ahead of me. Again, I saw both the absurdity and necessity of the process. I registered it, returned to our spot, and set it free.

This controlled lunacy continued for the next hour and twenty minutes.

Catch, carry, record, release, repeat.

Forty-five minutes into it, Alison’s interest began to wane, forcing Rob to tend her line while she watched. Five minutes later, Sarah followed suit and I was forced to tend hers. It seemed the kids contest had turned into an adult contest. Rob and I were determined to finish out to see if one of the girls could win a prize. Some people say fishermen aren’t competitive. Ha!

The contest ended promptly at 12:30. Most of the kids on the dock had lost interest by then anyway, including a few who had left altogether. Rob and I decided to stick around for the awards ceremony to see what the winning numbers were, but also to see what the consolation prizes might be for the girls. The ceremony dragged on and on. There was the usual sponsor recognition and altogether too much pomp and circumstance. I half expected the mayor to show up and say a few words.

We waited until the consolation prizes were announced at the bitter end. Our girls each won a coloring book and crayons. The girls were both well pleased with their prizes as Rob and I looked at each other with that sucker look again. We both should have known better and cut out when the girls lost interest initially. Live and learn.

Looking back, this contest was a win in other ways for us as fathers. For starters, it gave our wives a much-deserved break for a couple hours from the rigors of motherhood. Then there was the quality time with our beautiful daughters, as well as time together as cousins for them. Finally, there was a shared experience for my brother and me. We were both new to this fatherhood thing and doing the best we could to create idyllic memories for our kids, while exposing them both to a sporting pursuit that we loved. At the end of the day we were one daddy-date richer, and that to me was the real prize in this small-town contest. I think my brother and the girls would agree.


Jim Landwehr has three memoirs, Cretin BoyDirty Shirt, and The Portland House. He also has five poetry collections, Thoughts from a Line at the DMV, Genetically Speaking, On a Road, Written Life and Reciting from Memory. Jim is a past Poet Laureate for the Village of Wales, WI. Visit: Author Jim Landwehr.

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