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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Vincent's First Bass

Eric M. Witchey has made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant for over 20 years. He has sold more than 90 short stories and several novels. His stories have appeared in six genres on five continents, and he has received recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer's Digest, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award program, Short Story America, and other organizations. His How-To articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer's Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.
"Go ahead," his father said. "Stand up."
Vince was a Vanderpender ninth-grader, and he'd seen flat-bottomed punts in his art history courses. Not that he liked art history. He was a math boy, but he'd seen pictures of men fishing from boats like his dad's.
They'd started rowing before sunrise. Now, they floated on glassy water in a back bay of Oleanta Lake in the rolling hill country near the Ohio river. Wisps of steam rose off the water, and a bird somewhere made a really spooky cry. At least his father told him it was a bird. A loon, he'd said. Vince wasn't sure if the name was a joke or not. The cry sounded crazy, and he supposed someone might have named a bird that made that sound the loon.
"It's safe," his father said.
He nodded. The boat moved if Vince moved. He could feel it. It was action-reaction--simple Newtonian physics. He should be able to compensate. The variables were known: his weight, height, angle of lean, center of mass, the friction coefficient of the surface area of the bottom of the boat against the lake water.
"Fish are waiting," his father said. "Daylight's-a-wastin', and they won't wait forever for us to pluck 'em out'a the lake."
His father? Vince barely remembered the man. He was weather-tanned and tall, broad like a weight-lifter but dressed in his olive green game warden's uniform. He was a myth, a wild country legend that Vince's mother despised.
Feet braced wide for a better center of gravity, Vince slipped his blue-jeanned butt forward off the front bench of the punt. Knees bent to create springs to absorb movement, he managed to stand.
"Good." His father sat, hands on oars, making casual, micro-movements to steady the boat. "It's really just physics," he said. "I hear from the school you're really good at that stuff." His father handed him a fishing rod.
Vince managed to nod without falling out of the boat.
"The reel goes on the bottom," his father said. "Open faced-reels hang down below the rod for balance."
Vince let the reel drop low. The stem that held the reel to the rod slipped in between his fingers.
"Don't worry, son," his father said. He let go of an oar and adjusted his cap. "I'll teach you what you need to know."
Vince was sure he looked like a rank beginner. He hated looking like a beginner in front of this man, which was pretty silly since they'd only just met. But his father was a Fish and Wildlife warden, and for the first time he could remember, he was spending time with his father like other kids. Of course, he'd seen the look in his father's eyes in the eyes of kids at school and in the eyes of other kids' fathers. The look said it all. Vince was a geek.
"The rod is a spring," his father said.
"Cool." Vince heard the shake in his voice. A spring, he thought. Knowable variables. Algebra. Hooke's Law. Calculus. No worries. He measured the length and taper with his mind's eye. He bounced the tip to test material tensioning against the weight of the bulbous gold and fluorescent orange lure at the rod tip.
"Let a little line out," his father said.
He bounced the tip again. The bright lure bounced. The silver, oval plate spinning on its side tinkled and flashed in the morning sun. No line came out. He tried to pull the line out.
"No," his father said. "Throw the bale, Son."
"The what?"
"The wire around the edge of the spool."
Vince nodded. "Oh." There was a rigid chrome wire around the edge of the reel. The line left the spool and slipped under a little guide on that wire. "Do I throw the whole rod?"
His father laughed at him.
Not good. Hot embarrassment burned his face. He should have said no when the lawyer came to Vanderpender for him. It was a moment of decision. He had created the wrong universe with his decision. He should have picked the universe in which he went to the chess tournament in New Mexico, but some other Vince was in that universe now.
"Sorry," his father said. "You'll learn. Try to relax. Hold the rod in your right hand and lift the bale away from the face of the reel until it clicks.
He listened. He did exactly what he'd been told. The bale clicked open, and the lure dropped like the lead weight it mostly was. It hit the bottom of the punt and made a metallic clank. Vince wanted to melt away and hide from the steady eyes of his father. "Sorry," he said.
"No need," his father said. "That's supposed to happen."
"Really?"
"Yup."
He searched the tanned lines of his father's face for signs of suppressed ridicule or judgment. All he saw was joy and confidence.
His game warden dad said, "Now, crank the handle with your left hand."
He did. The bale snapped back over the reel face and picked up the line. The spool turned, and the lure lifted from the bottom of the boat.
"Stop." his father said.
Vince did. The lure hung a foot or so off the rod tip. Vince started to feel a little confidence. He thought he was getting it. A counter-weighted lever: reel under slung, fulcrum at his wrist, tapered fiberglass spring, eighteen inches of eight-pound test monofilament with plus or minus 3 percent elasticity and a two-ounce weight dangling like a pendulum.
Manageable variables.
The boat rocked.
Vince almost lost his balance. It was a lot to keep track of: rod, reel, line, boat, balance... The equations danced in his head, but he managed to keep the numbers clean and ordered.
"It's okay," his father said. "My fault. We were drifting near a submerged stump."
"We could crash?" Vince asked. "And sink?"
His father laughed again. The laugh echoed off the Ohio hills. The weird bird trilled it's eerie response. "Bump and maybe rock," his father said. "Even if we had a hole the size of a basketball in the bottom, the boat would float. The seats are full of buoyant foam."
"Do I cast now?" Vince had once seen a guy cast while clicking through YouTube channels. The title of the video had been, "Surface Tension," and Vince had thought the video was about molecular cohesion. Instead, it was about a man who went fishing after a fight with his wife.
"Yeah," his father said. "There's big bass in these stumps. With a little luck, you'll pick one up."
He swung the rod tip back and let the pendulum weight ride its arc. He felt the rod-spring load. He calculated the rate of load and the point of maximum arc. He pushed the rod forward to increase the loading. He snapped his arm forward and let the rod tip unload.
The weighted lure came forward, swung fast around the rod tip, and spun in a fast eighteen-inch circle around the whipping tip. The lure went nowhere.
This sucked. He was sure he had done the calculations right. The weight should have pulled line out and gone approximately thirty yards in a rising twenty degree arc over the plane of the water's surface.
"Try again," his father said. "This time get ready for your cast by hooking and holding the line with your index finger then throwing the bale."
Vince nodded. He considered tossing the whole rod into the lake. He could probably get away with it. His father wouldn't know it wasn't just a stupid kid's accident. Instead, he opened the chrome wire covering the face of his spin-caster. It rotated out and clicked into place. The gold and fluorescent lure dropped to the punt bottom again.
His father chuckled.
Vince's face warmed. He avoided his father's gaze; instead, he looked away and off across the misty pond. Cold, wet air filled his nostrils with the smell of algae, muck banks, and the surrounding forest. This wasn't his world. It was all wrong. He sniffed and blinked back tears. He'd made the same mistake twice.
"I'm sorry, son. I should have said to pull your finger in tight. Like this." His father reached up and wrapped a large, calloused hand around Vince's small, pale hand. He positioned Vince's hand and finger. "Like you're squeezing a trigger so the line doesn't fall away."
Vince reeled in his line. He pulled his finger tight against the line. He threw the bale again.
"We need to get out together more," his father said. "Too much time in those math books makes you forget how to explore possibilities. If everything is by the numbers--all formulas and figures, physics and calculations--you start thinking you have to have a right answer every time. It's just not true, Son. Some things don't have right answers. Some things you have just have to feel to really understand."
Vince set the tip of the rod back. He flipped it forward. He pointed his finger at his target. The line released, and the lure arced out over the lake. He said, "Twenty degrees. Three meters of rise. Sixty meters of travel." The lure splashed down.
"Perfect!" his father said. "That was perfect. You've been practicing."
"Conservation of angular momentum augmented by the spring loading of the fiberglass tip resulting from momentum. The lure weighs 2.5 ounces, according to the package. The tensile strength of the line is 8 lbs. The thickness is negligible. Elasticity is maybe 3% over three meters. The coil friction in unwinding is a primary variable in achievable distance and must be weighed in a function against the acceleration imparted by unloading the fiberglass spring."
His father stared at him, his olive green cap high on his forehead. "What?"
"Formulas and figures, Dad. A right answer."
"Uh-huh." His father recovered a bit. "Maybe there's math for that cast, but there's no math for the brain of a fish."
"The Rule of Very Large Numbers. Chaos Theory and I suspect a certain amount of quantum synchronicity could be applied." Vince grinned. Fishing was starting to make sense.
"You're saying you can tell how to catch a fish using math?"
"I'm saying that if a person really needed to, he could probably figure out where the fish are and when they would bite by knowing a lot about where the fish aren't and when they don't bite."
"I have to get you away from your mother and her damn boarding schools before you're ruined," his father said.
Vince was confused. He thought he'd done it right. He cranked his reel, and the bale locked shut. The rod tip dipped, and Vince jerked his arm up.
"Easy, boy. Take it easy. That's just the lure hitting bottom. Water's not deep here. Only about ten feet. Just reel the lure in."
He nodded. He reeled. The line cut a V-shaped wake in the water.
"Feel the tip bumping? That's the lure action, son. You want that. Reel too slow, the rod tip gets quiet. Reel too fast, and the lure spins differently. You need to get the lure to look like a fish moving along with a gimp fin."
"Point five revolutions of the crank per second. Spindle rotation is 3.5 RPS. Tip bob at 2 BPS."
"BPS?"
Vince grinned. "Bobs per second. I made it up."
His father actually laughed at his joke.
The rod tip pulled hard. It went down almost to the water.
"Lift the tip." his father said.
Vince lifted the tip of the rod over his head. He felt the deep drag of something heavy on the line.
"Okay, now reel enough to keep the line taught but not enough to drag the fish in."
"How big is the fish?"
"I don't know."
"Then how do I know how hard to reel?"
"Feel it in your hands."
"How?" Vince was frantic. He had no math for this. His numbers left him, and the line was darting to one side, the tip following. He tried to reel, but the rod bucked in his hand. He lost his grip on the crank.
The V slipped sideways one way, then the other. The bent rod tip followed like it was alive.
"Feel that?" his father asked. "You have to feel the fish now. Keep the tip high. Lead him."
"How!? Where!?"
"It's a big fish, boy. A damn big one."
Vince recovered the crank. He reeled. He felt the pull of the fish, but it didn't mean anything. It was just pull. His reel clicked. Line dragged out against the gears of the reel.
"I'm reeling, but the line goes out."
"Good. That's good. Just keep tension on the line."
"The line's still going out."
"The drag is set to let a big fish pull without breaking the line."
"How strong is the drag?"
"I don't know."
Vince didn't like it. He didn't like it at all. There were too many variables, too many possibilities. If he lost a big fish, his father would laugh at him again. He couldn't lose the fish. Couldn't!
The fish darted left hard.
"Keep him out of the logs!" his father called. He pulled on the oars. Vince almost fell. He lifted the tip to the right as high as he could. His mind raced. He wanted to see the fish, to know what he had hooked.
The answer came to him in a blinding flash, a white hot thought born of the need to see his father smile. It wasn't Newtonian at all. It was a probability alignment problem. Quantum geometry. He had to force the correct configuration of line, rod tension, and fish movement. He might be able to create a synchronous probability point and access universal potentials.
He led the fish with the rod tip. He didn't have time to crunch the numbers. A perfectly correct answer would take years and computers he didn't have. He had to approximate, to find the configuration. Odds were stacked badly against him. The dark energy rip expansion death of the universe had better numbers than him landing this fish.
He had to try.
"Feel it," his father yelled.
Of course, he thought. His father understood fishing--could feel it. So could he.
The rod tip dipped. The fish turned. The boat twisted. The line made a sound like a piano wire breaking.
A universe Vince did not want to live in was about to be spawned by his failure. Vince's mind raced, searching for the feel of the thing, the way of it, the moment of solution.
He found it in a white-hot flash of understanding, and the sound of the loon bird stopped. The tiny lapping of waves against the side of the boat went silent. He and his father stood on the still deck of the punt. The line went out from the tip of the rod to the surface of the water. Tendrils of motionless mist hovered in the silent air. Breeze-driven ripples stood in long wave lines, motionless, even where interference effects cancelled or amplified the intersecting wave forms. Fifty feet from the boat, a large-mouth bass hung in the air, frozen, surrounded by motionless water spray and refraction rainbows.
"What the Hell?" his father said.
"Hold this," Vince said. He handed his father the rod. "Keep the line tight. Don't let the rod tip dip."
His father's mouth gaped. Still, he nodded and took the rod.
Vince stepped out of the boat and walked across the surface of the lake to the fish. He carefully unhooked the bass then walked back to the boat. He put the bass in the five-gallon paint bucket they had brought for their catch.
"Okay," he said, "Give me the rod."
Silent, eyes wide, his father gave the rod back.
Vince gave the reel a sharp crank. The rod tip snapped upward. The line streaked up out of the water, slicing a line of spray across the surface of the lake. The lure shot back toward the boat, a steaming red-hot streak. It hooked his father's cap and dragged it right across the boat and into the lake. Hat, lure, and lake boiled and steamed.
"What in Sam Hill?!" His father put a hand to his bare head.
"Sorry, Dad." Vince reeled in the cap.
"Holy Mary and Joseph!" his father said.
Vince unhooked the warm, wet hat and handed it to his father.
The mist twisted. The ripples rolled. The weird bird called out across the empty lake.
He'd done it. Vince inhaled a lung full of the fresh, lake air. He'd caught his first fish, and his father seemed impressed. Finally, he looked in the bucket at his fish. It was a big one. Maybe six pounds. The fish thrashed its tail and splashed water up out of the bucket.
"You got it," his father said. "It's real."
"Did I do it right?" Vince asked.
"You walked out there and got the fish." His father pointed out over the water.
"I did okay?"
"How?"
"I didn't do it right?"
"What did you do?"
"Are you mad at me?"
Vince's father dropped his oars and let them float free in their oar locks. He twisted his cap to get the water out. He put the wet hat back on his head. "No, Vince. I'm not mad. I just don't understand what you did. It all happened so fast. The sun must have gotten to me. I could have sworn you walked out on the water and picked up the fish. Hell, it looked like the fish just waited in mid-jump for you to come and get it."
"I was afraid it would get away," Vince said.
"So you walked out and got it?"
Vince nodded. Embarrassed that he hadn't done what his father had wanted. "How was I supposed to do it?"
His father looked at the fish in the bucket. Then he looked at his son. "Boy," he said, "You did it exactly the way you were supposed to. I just didn't know you had it in you. I've never been more impressed by anyone or anything in my whole life."
Shocked, Vince looked at his father. "I mean, I just did what you told me. I was afraid I'd lose him. You told me to just feel it."
Beaming, Vince reached in the bucket to touch his fish.
"Can we let it go, Dad?"
His father grinned at him and nodded.
"Son, you've got a feel for it you didn't learn from your old man, and if you're willing, I'd sure love to learn it."
"Sure, Dad." Vince lifted the bucket and let the bass slip back into the lake.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 13th, 2014


Vincent's First Bass began as an homage to my father's infinite patience, an attribute I best remember him exercising while teaching me to fish. The story quickly evolved into an exploration of his belief in the infinite magic that is the universe. He saw beauty and mystery in everything. At the time of the writing, I was engaging in an ongoing conversation with my brother, Dr. Nicholas J. Witchey, who is a Ph.D. Particle Physicist. Talking to him is often like talking to Douglas Adams' computer, Deep Thought. Dr. Nick sees the universe as a pattern of probabilities. He once said to me, "There is a non-zero probability that you will suddenly dematerialize then rematerialize on the surface of Mars. The thing is, the probability of time running out and the heat death of the universe occurring is much higher." My brother's thoughts collided with my father's patience and magic. Vincent was born.

- Eric M. Witchey

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