When I saw catch-and-release fishing featured in Time Out New York (in Harlem Meer at the top of Central Park), I decided to take Lilly and Oliver, the kids I babysit. They are always up for an adventure — like hunting for the biggest leaves in Central Park or the greatest picture books in the library — so I knew they’d be game.
We took the subway uptown from the Upper West Side just a few stops one morning and skipped from the sidewalk all the way down to the lake. Oliver, a mature six-year-old, noticed people watching. He stopped. Lilly, three, and I kept skipping until a raindrop hit her nose.
“Hey!” she yelled accusingly. “Who did that?”
Unexpected clouds loomed above the lake, covering the expanse of calm water. Only geese and ducks marred the surface with their incessant swooping and paddling. We stepped inside of the ancient park office to grab two poles and a cup of kernels at the front desk. “This is catch-and-release,” the woman said, as she brought out the poles. “That means you have to let the fish go.”
“Fine by me,” I said.
“I thought you didn’t like fish,” Oliver said. We found a spot by the water’s edge, which lapped up to the edge of the sidewalk. There weren’t many people around, no doubt due to the impending rain.
“I don’t, but we don’t have to keep it,” I reminded him, as I hooked the corn kernels on to the end.
“You have to touch it,” he said.
“Okay, well let’s see if we catch one first. Then we’ll deal with that part,” I said. What kind of hardened city fish would go for corn, anyway?
They began to stir the water vigorously, like cake batter.
“I got something!” Oliver cried. He yanked the pole out of the water, dragging a load of greenish-black watery gunk.
“Ew!” Lilly screamed, as the mass of dripping algae swung toward her. After several more false starts, and mysteriously disappearing kernels, we spotted a fish.
Lilly and Oliver screamed, and it darted away.
“Shhh,” I said. “You have to be quiet for the fish.” I wasn’t really sure, but it sounded right.
Two kids and their babysitter, a few yards away, laughed.
“Any luck?” I yelled.
The babysitter put down her book. “We’ve never actually caught one.”
“But you keep coming back?”
She pointed to the kids, who were watching the water like it was an episode of Spongebob.
“They’re never coming,” Lilly said after 10 minutes. I untangled her pole from another clump of black-green algae strands.
“Maybe we should move,” Oliver said, glancing around at some of the other fishermen: an elderly man who may have been asleep, a dad and his daughter, the kids and their babysitter. That was it.
It wasn’t FAO Schwartz, but I was surprised by how empty this place was. In New York City, even sidewalks feel like a major attraction.
“They’ll come,” I said. “Just wait 10 more minutes.” I almost believed myself.
“What’s that sound?” Lilly asked.
“Cicadas,” I said. It was then I realized I hadn’t heard a car honk or siren in a while. Fish or no fish, clouds or no clouds — I patted myself on the back. This was a great idea. I texted their parents about it.
“Where?” They texted back. “Send pictures!”
“Hey!” Lilly yelled suddenly. She struggled to yank her pole back. “Stop it, Oliver!”
“I’m not doing anything,” he insisted.
“Hand it over,” I said. “It’s just more of that yucky green stuff.” Then I caught a glimpse of something silvery-yellow in the depths. “It’s here!” I cried.
The nearby children rushed toward us and their babysitter followed. The old man put down his book. The man and his daughter turned to watch.
After several moments of tugging, I managed to wrestle the fish out of the water. There it was: a handsome silvery yellow, gasping for air.
“I can’t believe it!” the children said. I handed the pole back to Lilly and tried to take a photo of the flying fish.
“Put it back!” Oliver yelled.
I took the pole back and dunked the fish in and out of the water, trying to help it survive the trauma. It wasn’t helping. I contemplated setting the pole down and running away.
“I’ve never seen anyone catch one before,” said the babysitter. “Hooked in its belly, too.”
I hadn’t even noticed that part.
“Can you get it off?” I pleaded. She did, while I videotaped on my iPhone.
We returned the fish and the poles. “We caught one,” I said proudly to the women at the front desk.
“They caught one!” she said to another man in a dark green park uniform. “That’s great!” he said.
Then we headed home, facing 15 minutes of sprinkling rain, cars, streets, sidewalks, people, damp subways and the pungent scent of rehydrated dog pee on the way.
My fishing experiences as a kid growing up in California always started in the mountains — a long, winding (puke-filled) drive from home. I’d dangle the lure provocatively in the clear water until some poor fish bought into that song-and-dance (they were country fish). Then I’d reel it in the way my dad told me to. Not too much, and not too little. That’s where my job ended. Once it was out, my dad took care of the rest.
Next time, maybe I will too.