The neon-green tagboard sign taped above the bubbling tanks in the highway junction baitshop read Shiners - $5.95/doz. Immediately I thought back to how many dozens I had seined for free in my childhood summers at the lake. Even calculating that back to 1987 dollars, I would have been a very rich elementary school student. But my life was made richer by that pair of old brown one-by-ones with a stretch of netting in between them which my uncle had assembled years before.
The seine would usually be wrapped with one side holding all the netting and the other bare; leaning up against the corner of the old boathouse, covered in spider webs accumulated since the last visit to the lake. Shortly after my arrival at the cabin on any given Friday night, I would jump into my swim trunks, hurriedly fumble with the combination lock on the boathouse door and grab the seining net from its resting spot. I would drop the bare handle on the ground in front of the boathouse door and back away from it in the cool grass until I stepped into the sandy beach, unraveling the netting as I went. By this time, my dad, uncle or cousin would join me and we would prepare for the big event.
One of us would position the minnow bucket at the point where we expected to lift the net, usually by the inflow of the creek just down the beach from our cabin. We were seining spottail shiners, which look like big, hearty baitfish, but in reality are fragile creatures that can't take more than fifteen seconds out of the water. We needed to be ready to transfer the wriggling silver ball of fish we hoped to scoop up without any reduction in their liveliness.
We would walk out into the water parallel to the dock; a task that took a little longer in the cooler waters of May and early June. From there we would start the walk toward the creek - the shallow man up to mid-thigh and the deep man up over his belly button in the water. I would often stomp my foot out in front of my handle to corral the little fish and prevent them from swimming into the weed line. Keeping the stick at a 45 degree angle with the end skirting over the sand kept the net tight to the lake bottom. We would side-step weed clumps and walk around sharp clamshells and dead fish like they were landmines. On sunny days, hordes of whirligig beetles would scatter out in front of us until they realized they could double back and bumble their way over the top of the net which was just an inch under the water.
We would monitor our progress through the surface glare. Sometimes a school of minnows was in the net from the beginning. Frantically realizing that 180 degrees of their escape route had been eliminated, they tried to outrun us. When we did come into contact with our quarry and knew they were in the bowed mesh between us, the deep man would holler out "TURN!" - a signal I especially enjoyed giving.
The shallow man would stand still and follow the angle of the deep man as he made a charge to bring the net parallel to shore. Huffing and puffing, we would speed up as we approached the shoreline. With a "one-two-THREE" we would swing the net up, scooping the unfortunates into the air. More often than not the net would pulse with the motion of the fish that wriggled in the mesh.
We would set the net down in the sand and get to work. Anything silver went into the white and yellow Flow-Troll bucket. We were looking for the big shiners and they weren't hard to find. At nearly five inches and shining like stainless steel, they were an easy mark in the net. As we picked them out, we would toss the other fish - most often perch fingerlings, pumpkinseeds and sticklebacks - behind us into the water. We watched them swim off toward the weedline with that "what happened!?!" air about them.
Sometimes we would encounter strange catches, like muskie fingerlings, a mudpuppy or a baby painted turtle. Once, a large pike wreaked havoc in the net as we approached the shore before it shot between my legs and out to the depths at the last possible moment.
With a bucket full of bait for the weekend, our hands would be flecked with the glitter of silver scales as we picked up the net and walked it back into the water. We would dunk it in and slide it to the side. The surface tension lifted weeds, leaves and bits of debris clear of the mesh. We would then raise the wooden handle to shoulder height and shake the net violently, laughing as we were sprayed with water and bits of sand. One of us would walk toward the other, slowly wrapping the net around the handle. We would talk about the fish we planned to catch with our bucket full of bait as we meandered back down the shore to the cabin, one carrying the net on his shoulder, the other dragging the minnow bucket through the water.
We would change into jeans and sweatshirts, set our bobbers at four feet or tie on a jig and get ready for the evening bite. At some point, one of us would place the net back in the corner of the boathouse where it would wait for its next run through the water. As I put my six dollars on the counter at the highway junction baitshop, it occurred to me that I really need to seine more and feel the cool rush of inflowing creek water between my toes and the richness that comes from a wriggling school of silver fish...in our outdoors.