The first time I saw my grandpa play the piano was the last time i saw him alive. despite countless weekends fishing with grandpa at his mobile-home-turned-cabin on a little lake in northern minnesota, i never knew grandpa could play piano...
At 89, a failing heart made trips to the cabin purely a memory for Grandpa on the day I saw him last. My son Joe was with me, and we were putting on shoes to leave Grandpa’s condo. Stalling to extend our visit, Grandpa dragged his oxygen tank to the piano, patted the chair beside him and said, “Come sit with me, Joe.”
Grandpa played a simple song; Joe plucked a few keys beside him.
A week later, I took Joe and my dad fishing on the St. Croix River, my grandpa physically unable to join but on the phone afterward to hear about our catch with mixed emotions. Two weeks after, Grandpa died.
We continued to fish the river that spring, of course, a high-water year with abundant fish if you could find creases in the current behind wing dams and fallen trees. It was still three generations of Capecchis plying the waters for walleyes as we had for decades, but I now found myself the middle generation, delighting in my son’s enthusiasm for fishing while grappling with my dad suddenly being the eldest.
The river’s current rushed along with no regard for the past. Thoughts flooded my mind. What would Joe remember about my grandpa, or my dad, by the time he was my age? How would Joe look back upon our shared adventures on the water? Would our pre-dawn boat rides through the foggy river valley mean as much to Joe as they did to me?
A new goal emerged: maximize the memories, minimize the intensity, make it fun for father and son.
We evolved into our new roles––my dad, no longer the middle-man between an ailing father and a 30-something son who wanted to fish longer, harder, better. Dad thrived in the role of playful grandpa in ways that even his father before him could not. We implemented “Grandpa’s Fishing Tip of the Week,” whereby Joe made sounds imitating a banjo and Dad told a simple tip, often including a story from his past. I wanted Joe to realize learning is ongoing, and to know details about his grandpa’s life.
I took pride in Joe’s ability to reel in large fish. I handed Joe every hook-up, urging him to hold the rod tip high and wind as fast as he could while catching bass, pike, walleyes, trout, suckers, carp, catfish, even sturgeon longer than him.
I pushed––and at times exceeded––the limit of how long you should expect a kid to sit in a boat. My 10-hour fishing day cut in half was still too long. But Joe was a good sport, and I bribed him with cookies and candy.
My son and Mother Nature partnered to remind me that fishing trips are about more than fish. When Joe was 2, we brought him on our annual Father’s Day trip to Fireside Lodge, in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. He did remarkably well in the boat, save for throwing my cell phone to bottom of the lake our first afternoon.
On last year’s trip, we caught muskies, smallmouth bass and a hundred pike a day, but the story Joe told his wide-eyed friends upon our return was of the black bear we saw along the roadside. We pulled over, and the bear approached. It stood on its hind legs, leaning its front paws against the van––its nose against the rear window and its eyes mere inches from Joe’s.
An unforgettable moment.
When Joe turned 4, we were blessed with our daughter, Anna, whose first time on the river provided an amusing tale. For simplicity, we anchored upriver from a deep hole and dropped nightcrawlers on the bottom.
I’ve found this an effective way to fish with kids for multiple reasons: fewer snags, you catch a wider variety of species (our motto is “any fish is a good fish”) and young ones can hold a kiddie pole to learn what a bite feels like, or simply watch the rod tip for a twitch.
Anna caught her first river fish, a redhorse sucker. Dad set down his pole to take a picture of Anna and me holding the prized catch, only for another fish to promptly bite his unattended line and pull the rod into the river.
Adding insult to injury, Dad was using the brand-new Fenwick HMGPX70ML-FS rod I had given him that Christmas. He cussed once, then a deafening silence overtook the boat.
We kept fishing. Five minutes later, Dad felt movement on his other pole. Upon reeling in his line, we saw the Fenwick poke thru the water’s surface. Dad had hooked it! I grabbed the dripping wet rod, and felt a fish still tethered to the other end. I proceeded to reel in the very fish that had pulled it overboard in the first place.
When I think back to the first place I learned to wind a reel, hold a rod or cast a line, it is at that mobile-home-turned-cabin with my grandpa and dad, both named Paul.
Shortly after my grandpa died, my wife and I had our third child. A boy named Benjamin Paul. He turns 3 this summer and is as joyful as they come.
There are many comings and goings on the water, and in life. I sometimes regret not staying longer with my grandpa that last day I saw him. Not allowing him to play one more song with his great grandson.
Fishing is like music; it brings you back to certain places, certain times, certain feelings.
I may not always remember the exact melody played or a specific fish caught, but I certainly remember the person sitting next to me.
I hope my kids will, too.
Tony Capecchi is a Minnesota native and outdoor journalist with a specialty in digital storytelling. He has worked full time in the outdoors industry in eCommerce, marketing and business development, and his media work has included In-Fisherman articles, NBC-TV segments and co-hosting “Live Outdoors” on CBS radio. Tony grew up fishing, camping and hiking, pastimes he now shares with his wife and three kids.
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