First Fishes and New Year Wishes

I don’t remember catching my first fish, but I know what the fish was. I can take you to the spot beside a brush pile on a Tennessee farm pond where I hoisted a bluegill out of the water in the opening days of the 1990s. I know the spot because it is immortalized on film. My mom snapped a photo of it on an old Nikon camera—me, a miniature golden-haired person in my dad’s arms as he steadies the silver Zebco 33 in my hand. In the frame, the three of us are smiling. At least, I like to think the bluegill was smiling, too.

As we push through the opening days of the 2020s, both mom and dad have tested positive for COVID-19. Dad is especially hard off at the moment. For most of the past week, he has been under the watchful care of a team of frontline heroes in an ICU. Dad’s story is now the kind of tale you might have read about recently on Facebook. It’s a saga of increasing levels of breathing machines and oxygen supplies that might or might not find a happy ending. It’s the story of a man who thought he was invincible, who for months refused to change his lifestyle before telling me that he caught the virus from a fishing buddy on a fishing trip when the two of them decided to eat breakfast and lunch together before and after the lake.

Two generations of Joe Sills fishing on a farm pond. Photo: Susan Sills

From the moment I was born, dad and I were best friends. We fished together. We played baseball together. We did yard work, loved and buried family pets and did our best to keep mom cool. As I grew older and began traveling the world with my own Nikon camera, a habit I borrowed from her, dad and I became counselors for one another. And as you might imagine for long-haired child of the late 80s and a crew cut kid born during World War II, we had our share of disagreements. We disagreed about politics. We disagreed about American history. We even disagreed about fishing patterns. (In 33 years, he never had much luck convincing me to slow down and use a worm.)

But despite our disagreements, we never fought. Instead, we listened. We tried to learn.

This didn’t usually change our opinions, mind you, but it did give each of us perspective into the other generation.

Dad and I share a name. He is also an outdoor writer, and in the early days of this website dad would chip in stories when I found myself needing another headline for Tackle’s Top 5. How could I turn them down? He only charged me a barbecue sandwich, after all. Some of those stories are very good, as you might expect from a man who owns every issue of Bassmaster Magazine and spent much of the 70s on the pro staff at Strike King.

I’d love to tell you that dad taught me everything he knows about bass fishing; but I’m afraid he’s forgotten more than I have ever learned, and I was never that great of a listener to begin with. Instead, the lessons he tried to instill on fishing trips manifested in other ways. I may not have been patient with a plastic worm; but I remembered his patience when my transport van broke down in rural Vietnam. I hated waking up before dawn to get to the water; but I remembered how glorious those sunrises were when I needed to shoot landscape photos for the Travel Channel. I never did understand why he’d whack a pickerel on the head with The Golden Rule; but I used it as inspiration to be more kind to all animals. (Recently, I convinced him to stop doing that, at least in front of me.)

In this space, we focus so intensely on fishing that the rest of the world often seems to fade away. It’s easy to think that the household names in our industry are all encompassing, but they are not. And while this world knows dad as an angler, he has lived at least three lives.

Fishing was a constant in dad’s life from the time he could lift a fishing rod.

In the first, dad was a trumpet wielding virtuoso who played his way out of poverty and into the Memphis State marching band, where he was among the first to play the school’s new fight song while side-gigging with Stax Records and one or two of the founding fathers of rock n’ roll over at Sun Studios.

His second chapter revolved around directing high school marching bands, culminating with the 1977 Marching Bands of America national championship and a record number of regional championships that stands to this day. Throughout that run, his bands became so popular that football stadiums would often empty after half time, leaving the team to play in front of a smattering of onlookers after the “real” performance ended.

His third chapter started with mom, myself and my brothers. For a while, dad and I toured the band circuits together until he ultimately settled into a role as a writer and marketing manager at the Mid-South Hunting & Fishing News.

Throughout each chapter, fishing remained the constant. In the 60s, dad would wake up early after a gig and head to the lake in a Pontiac Trans-Am or a Ford Mustang that he’d fitted with a trailer hitch. In the 70s and 80s, he would plan his marching band performances on the water at Kentucky Lake. In the 90s and 00s, he would drag me out of bed and into bass tournaments in the fledgling B.A.S.S. Jr. division, where he served as state tournament director for youth.

In a very real sense, dad taught me how to fish. The lessons I learned on his boat—combined with mom’s camera—have fed me through adulthood. I will owe him eternally for that.

But there was one lesson that I wish I could have taught him…

I tried so hard at the onset of this pandemic to give him accurate information from the CDC, to encourage him to avoid social gatherings and to keep himself safe. When we fished together this year, I often wore a mask and I suffered the brunt of countless jokes from dad and his friends. They thought COVID-19 was an urban problem, that it wouldn’t affect their rural community.

Until about two weeks ago, none of them changed their social lifestyles.

That was before dad tested positive, before his fishing buddy did, too. That was before anybody was in the ICU.

Nobody is laughing now.