The Sunfish

It was too small to keep. Or maybe it wasn’t.

By Ashley Walshe

This isn’t a big fish story. Quite the opposite, actually. And it starts right here on Lake James, the massive hundred-year-old reservoir lapping the eastern edge of our state’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

It’s the pinnacle of summer. High on a red-clay ridge, the whippoorwill, whose incessant chanting often stretches well into the balmy morning, has gone silent. The red dog is weaving among windswept pines, and I am sitting on the wooden deck of a Coachmen RV, a sparkling sliver of lake visible one half-mile in the distance.

My grandparents used to live here. Not in this 32-foot travel trailer, home to my husband, the dog and me for a warm and watery season. But on down the meandering shoreline, in the brick-and-stucco home with the vaulted ceiling, lakeside gazebo and sweeping view of Shortoff Mountain.

Papaw kept his pontoon at a nearby marina. If I close my eyes, I can almost see two kids swinging their legs at the edge of his boat slip. I’m the little girl with the auburn curls and wild swath of freckles. My younger brother, all blue-eyes-and-dimples, is perched beside me. Neither of us have fished before.

On this day, Papaw is cradling a box of live crickets, and Dad is showing us to how to hook them. The black-and-silver schnauzer, whose feet and beard are permanently stained from the red earth, is barking at the wake as a neighboring boat glides up to dock.

Once we cover the basics (don’t snag your sibling or grandpa), we cast a few lines, jiggling the rod to make our crickets dance.

Papaw watches from the captain’s chair as Dad teaches us a ditty from his own childhood. The song changes based on who’s singing it. Mine goes like this:

Fishy, fishy in the lake, won’t you swim to Ashley’s bait?

I sing incessantly. And guess what? In no time, I feel the coveted tug of what must be a whopper at the end of my line.

I squeal. I reel. And up shimmies the smallest sunfish you’ve ever seen. A bluegill, I think. No bigger than my tiny, freckled hand.

“Can we keep it?” I ask, twitching with excitement. 

“If he’s long enough,” says Papaw. Gripping my whopper in his leathery hands, he gently slides out the hook then slips the fish into a shallow bucket of water. “We’ll measure him later.” 

My brother and I cast several more lines — first at the boat slip, then out in a quiet cove on the water. Although the song appears to have lost its magic, that doesn’t deter us from our fervent chanting. We sing until the crickets are spent, my sunfish our singular catch of the day.

I know now, 25 years later, that we had no business keeping that tiny sunfish. But it was never about the fish for Papaw.

Peering down into the bucket, my grandpa announces that the bluegill is “just big enough,” then gives me one of his signature winks. I wink back from my seat outside the camper, smiling through time at a proud little girl and her very first fish.

That night, while the rest of the family ate crappie from a previous haul, I savored every bite of my pan-fried sunfish. It didn’t look like much on the plate, but the memory has fed me for a lifetime.   OH

Ashley Walshe is a former editor of O.Henry magazine and a longtime contributor of PineStraw.

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