My Dad Took Me Fishing

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  • My father died 40 years ago when I was 30 years old and he was 67.  With Father’s Day looming I can’t help but to think of him, but the truth is that I think about him at some point on most days anyway.  One aspect of those thoughts among the many that I have to be thankful for is that my dad took me fishing.

    To this day there are a few people, including relatives and others who take the time to tell me or others what a great person he was in the course of describing his kindness or generosity to them.

    There are even places etched into my memory that I can’t see or think about without still seeing him, and many of them involve fishing.  Some examples:

    • The jetty extending from Hospitality Point was one of those places.  Most of our visits took place in the evening after he got home from work as a house painter, following retirement as a Chief Warrant Officer after 20 years in the Navy from 1930 to 1950. Most of his service was spent aboard tin cans (destroyers) in the Pacific Fleet.  The primary target on those visits were the halibut that had to pass through the channel en route to or from Mission Bay and he caught a fair number of them, almost always on salted anchovies which he regarded as superior to frozen.
    • While it was being dredged, and long before the arrival of sportfishing landings or boat repair shops, Quivira Basin was another favored spot  while it was being dredged.  Most anglers avoided the dredge in the belief that there was too much mechanical commotion and the conditions too stirred up for fishing.  My dad sensed that the spotfin croaker held the dredge in the same regard that an offensive lineman might hold for an all-you-can-eat-buffet as it churned up not only sand, but dug up and revealed the invertebrates the fish called dinner.  Both my dad and the spotfin as well as other species preferred pencil clams over the razors and cockles.
    • Spark plugs. If we stopped at the little Signal gas station on 26th and B Street for discarded spark plugs, I knew we were headed to Sunset Cliffs where it was better to lose a useless spark plug delete rather than the “expensive” lead weights we bought at Pacific Surplus or Midway Bait and Tackle.  When we didn’t hang up on the bottom, we caught a mix of opaleye, calico bass, assorted perch and the occasional kelp fish.
    • Although my dad loved any form of fishing, it was the freshwater fishing I loved best and maybe it was because a bored and rambunctious kid found more to do playing around on a shoreline where the only danger was a rattler, compared to tumbling off a cliff or falling through the rocks on the jetties.
    • I remember the very first opening days of El Cap and Sutherland when I was eight years old, my first opening day at Lower Otay when the fishing float broke loose and drifted a ways across the lake before the staff motored out and towed us back to shore. All the while we continued to soak saltwater chubs in order to catch the crappie that hid under the dock.
    • I’ll never forget the day my dad kept telling me to quit playing around with the stringer of bass we’d caught next to the dam at Sutherland. Not listening, I continued to toss the fish end of the stringer as far as I could into the water from the steep embankment until the other end slipped out of my hand and went with them.  Unable to reach out and get them, my dad held me by one ankle and extended me submerged until I was able to stretch and recover the stringer of bass.

    I remember all of that and so much more because my dad took me fishing.

    mike-brown-with-otay-bass

    Author’s father, Mike Brown, with the 2nd ever bass over 9 pounds caught at Lower Otay as Florida strain largemouth bass began to emerge

    The mystery of all this is how someone with his childhood and upbringing could become such a good person, husband and father when he did not have a model for same.  Born in 1910, he was one of  six children born to a shiftless and alcoholic father, a gambler  regarded as a low level as a Tammany Hall operative.

    Raised primarily in Hells Kitchen when it really was a hell and long before gentrification, they at one time lived in most if not all of the boroughs because they were regularly on the move from tenement to tenement to avoid debt and bill collectors.  With their father off drunk and their mother working as a weaver and dyer repairing rugs in the homes of the wealthy, the kids, particularly the three boys ran the streets.  Truancy violations and interventions by social services resulted in the children being removed from the home by court order and the Irish Catholic boys shipped to a reform school run by priests and nuns in upstate New York on more than one occasion.

    The boys were in a gang and at one time my father suffered stab wounds in his side from a rival gang when they ventured into the Italian neighborhood so that his brother could see a girl that he would eventually marry.  The streets were tough, but so was my father who did a little amateur boxing.

    Along the way, he somehow found peace and a respite from his life when he discovered fishing for the first time in a Central Park pond.  Finding a piece of discarded line and a hook made from a pin, he caught his first fish, a small bluegill.  It was a fish that changed the trajectory of his life and I believe mine as well.

    He acquired some gear and began fishing in earnest – the East River, Montauk Point and the Catskills where he and a brother cobbled together enough money to buy a used and battered canoe.  Once repaired, they hid it the woods near a reservoir they snuck into to fish.  A train ride and then a bit of hitchhiking got them back and forth on their fishing trips which were frequent, since he was only able to go to school through the eighth grade.

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  • At 16, his father was murdered over a card game debt and his mother died soon after, leaving the family in his care and that of his older brother who at 18 was considered an adult and accepted responsibility for his siblings.  All of the boys worked at menial jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table until the two girls were old enough to marry.

    At the age of 20 my father joined the Navy, which he credited along with his fishing as the things that saved him, although he barely survived service in the former and was eventually retired on a medical disabilities due to combat injuries that included the loss of one lung and half of the other.

    Most remarkable is that during his time in the Navy his love for fishing never diminished and he took advantage of every opportunity to catch a few fish, ranging from a huge marlin (a black I think) and a large shark (white or Atlantic mako) that were mounted and hung on display at the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia for many years.  In a box I’m still looking for, there is a photo of my father and two others in an Admiral’s launch stacked to the brim with tuna.

    When he wasn’t painting houses and other handiwork to support his family during the post-retirement years, he fished, often and hard.  When it came to offshore fishing during the 50’s it was aboard the Miss Norris a Special Services boat operated from North Island or with Manny Silva on the Malihini.  If not offshore or in the bays, he fished the lakes and streams of the county.  He simply loved to be fishing and as I grew to be less of a nuisance and at least somewhat manageable, it was a love he shared with me.  My dad took me fishing.

    I emphasize that phrase with italics to demonstrate how the love for fishing he shared with me, influenced my life at every turn.  I saved this story for today in order to pay homage to him by sharing it with others around Father’s Day.

    With that said, I fully appreciate and understand that others, particularly those of my generation shared similar experiences whether they were introduced to fishing by a parent, another family member, a neighbor or family friend.

    At the same time I am fully aware that such mentoring with regard to fishing is increasingly rare in an era of single parent families or homes where both parents must work to make ends meet and time is so precious.  As a result I have no doubt we have lost something with regard to the future of fishing, not to mention the art of parenting and nurturing .

    On a per capita basis, fishing license sales in California have declined dramatically along with services to the fishing community by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, despite a steady rise in the cost of those licenses.  With less young people being introduced to fishing and therefore caring about it, I’d guess our average age in the fishing community has steadily increased – and that’s not a good sign.

    Our son and daughter enjoy fishing, but it is not a passion for them and I know I could have done a better job with that.  Certainly the time spent coaching baseball, softball, basketball and even soccer which I knew nothing about and still don’t was not wasted – but I wish we’d used some of that time for fishing together.

    Prior to having my own kids, much of my work included specifically teaching kids to fish.  As a playground recreation leader for the city in Barrio Logan, I came up with a program involving a Police Community Relations office in which we used a police prisoner bus to transport kids from their neighborhood playgrounds to Lake Murray.  Upon arrival the kids were provided donated tackle by police officers who volunteered on their own time to serve as guides and taught the kids how to fish.  When I moved to Chollas lake we replicated the program there with my father, uncle, a cousin and a few others dedicating a day or two each week to teaching kids to fish.

    Throughout my career managing the San Diego City Lakes I worked at trying to get more kids involved in fishing, and as a member of the Police Athletic League we worked to include fishing in their activities.  I had a lot of help from others who played a bigger role than I did because of their own passion for fishing and kids.

    Despite appearances, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here.  What I am trying to do is shine a light on kids fishing and encourage others to give some thought to taking a kid fishing, and that might include you.

    To that end, I’m working a little now with a few kids who already have a love for fishing, but very little opportunity.  As a certified volunteer with City Schools, it is my hope in the next school year to start up an Outing Club designed to get kids involved in outdoor activities that with the help of some volunteers and maybe a boat or two will include fishing.

    Also of course, I wanted to pay homage to my father who in addition to overcoming some great obstacles in life simply to survive, was so kind and generous to others, including teaching so many others how to fish.  I believe he figured that if fishing could make his life better, it could be of benefit to others as well – and I’m living proof of that.

    My dad took me fishing.

    We gather at SDFish because we love to fish. If you have a comment about learning to fish from your father, another family member or friend, feel free to share it with us in the comments section below.

    About Author

    Jim Brown

    Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.

    5 Comments

    1. Great article, Jim! My dad first took me fishing in Hawaii (he was in the Navy and stations there) where I caught my first bass. With a lot of help from dad, I won the less than 5 years old division of a statewide kids fishing contest.

      Then dad was stationed in Butte, Montana. As soon as the ice was off the lake, we spend the weekend fishing, first from the shore then from a small boat. Mon and Dad did most of the fishing at the lake, catching mostly rainbow trout (mom got a huge one…8 1/2 pounds).

      To make a long story short, eventually the family came to San Diego, where we spent many days fishing both salt water and in the bay, with an occasional offshore foray on a sportfishing boat.

      Though he’s been gone for a while, I do still miss him.

    2. Tremendous story of your fishing relationship with your dad . But even better a story of a generation that many have no idea of. Your Dad , as many did, broke a cycle of destitution and brought some dignity an pride to his progeny. Great writing as always Mr. Brown.
      Jim Kermott

    3. Jim Brown

      Thanks for your kind comments guys. I’m hoping that others who had a similar experience about fishing help/encouragement from their father or anyone else will share their stories.

    4. Rick McNary on

      Jim, Thanks for writing about your Dad. After spending time with you and listening to the stories you told me of him, this article was much richer. I love the photos of him and, in particular, the story of the stringer of bass. Thanks for carrying on the tradition and instilling it into the lives of young people you are reaching.

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