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Off the Hook: How I Got Hooked on Fishing

In my favorite picture, I’m four and hold a three-foot sand shark by the tail. I wear a sailor’s hat, a pair of navy-blue corduroys, and a face-filling grin.

I caught that fish, and many others, when visiting my Grandma Katie at her winter digs in Miami Beach, Fla. Every winter, our family would book a charter and stalk Atlantic ocean fish together. The day I caught that shark, I sat on my father’s lap, shrieking and laughing as he battled the fish. For the last five minutes of the fight, Dad placed my hand on the rod handle, and together we reeled in the exhausted baby fish. Forever after, that baby sand shark was known as my first catch.

Whenever I bunk down at Montana fly-fishing lodges, someone asks me where I learned to fish. I think they mean who taught me to cast a drag-free fly but when I think about who taught me to love fishing, I think of Gram.

Katie Modell Kaplan, my father’s mother, grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York City but lived on the water for most of her middle and old age. In the winter, she was a Florida snowbird, renting a new place every few years either on the Atlantic or Intracoastal Waterway. In the summer, she decamped to a waterfront cottage on Lake Oscawana about 40 minutes north of the city.

I fished with Gram wherever she was living. She’d throw on a housecoat and straw sunhat, grab a pack of frankfurters, a spin rod, and aluminum lawn chair, and march us to the nearest dock, me following duckling-style. Gram showed me how to attach a bobber, punch a hook into a slice of hotdog, and cast the rig into the water. As she sat and watched, I’d fish for sunnies and perch in the lake, or blowfish and whatever were running in the Intracoastal’s brackish water.

Most of the time, I was just one of 11 grandchildren whom Gram fed and wrangled during family gatherings. When we fished, it was only me. Gram wasn’t a hugger or a small talker but during hours on a dock, I was the center of her attention.

Everyone wants to feel special, and fishing has always been my ticket. When I attended my first fly-fishing school, an Orvis-run weekend in Vermont, I was the only 20-something woman in a class of men and boys learning to tie barrel knots and match the hatch. When I fish around Montana, more often than not, I’m the lone woman on the water.

My husband loves me for many reasons – I cook a mean brisket – but fly-fishing is one. No, he doesn’t fish, but he loves to brag on his wife; and Greg frequently manages to work into conversation that his wife is a fly fisher, which makes him feel special by association.

I know I’m not the only woman angler in Montana but we’re still a small club, and the number never seems to get perceptibly bigger.

In some ways, I’m glad. At 65, the same age Gram was when she’d unravel the mess I’d make of her fishing line, I’m often invisible. Without the power of youth and beauty, I’m mostly lost in a crowd of other suburban wives, mothers, and now grandmothers.

Mostly, being a face in the crowd is oaky with me. A few times a year, I need the spotlight, a fix of specialness. That’s when I pack my rods and fly to Montana, where I’m often, still, the center of attention.

Thanks, Gram.

— Lisa Kaplan Gordon

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