Growing up, there was a designated corner of my bedroom where trophies and awards accumulated. Sports trophies (mostly for participation or “most improved”) and band trophies from jazz competitions and awards for good grades all collected together in one little space on top of a rarely-used record player. This award corner was created more out of happenstance than it was a shrine to my early achievements – the trophies needed to go somewhere, and that was where they went. I never felt the need to display these awards prominently or show them off, and when I moved out of my childhood bedroom they did not come with. I’m sure my parents still have them in storage somewhere, but I don’t think I’ll ever have my “Second Best Trombone Solo 2012” trophy out for everyone to see again.
I do have one trophy, though, that I keep on my desk even now, as I write this. It is small, probably the smallest a trophy can be and still be considered such. The figurine on top is clearly plastic, a shade of fake gold that isn’t really meant to fool anyone. The base is plastic as well, and the label plate is set on ever so slightly askew. Dust seems to stick to it more than any other knick-knack I own (which is really saying something), giving it the appearance of having sat in that same place untouched for decades. Under the thick layer of dust, the label reads in bold lowercase letters “carp wranglin’ champs” and above these words the gold fish-figurine (that is actually some sort of trout) jumps out of a splash of crudely rendered water. It is one of my most prized possessions. I thought I’d share the story of how I came to win it.
It was the end of spring 2017. I was home from my first year at school in Rochester and looking to enjoy what would become the last full summer I would spend in New Jersey. My friends and I got up to a lot that summer – we were at the perfect age where we had the resources and time to execute some of the more elaborate plans we cooked up, but not the adult-minded forethought (for better and certainly sometimes for worse) to decide if they were actually good ideas. A particularly good idea we had, depending on your definition of good, was to hold a carp fishing competition on a lake next to a close-to-defunct amusement park.
We were fishing for carp in particular because it was known (a friend worked at the park) that there were some real monsters in that lake. The pier next to the wooden rollercoaster had a few coin-operated fish-food dispensers, and all summer park-goers would throw food to the eager carp by the handful. I have to admit that it was fascinating to see the water churn with thrashing fish when the little pebbles of food hit the water. I’m sure the park made a small fortune in just the quarters people pumped through those machines, and the carp certainly benefitted. They were probably the best-fed fish in New Jersey outside of the Camden Aquarium, and it showed.
The competition date was set, boats were secured, and teams were made. My team, in the larger canoe, was myself and my friends Brandon and Brock. The opposing team was Brock’s brother Mason and their grandfather. What the second boat lacked in manpower it made up for in raw skill and experience – Brock’s grandfather had been fishing on New Jersey lakes longer than all our years on Earth put together. Our extra man felt fair, and the terms were agreed that the boat with the most carp caught by sundown would be declared the winner. The person from the winning boat who pulled in the biggest fish would take home the trophy.
We launched our boats in the overcast afternoon light on the day of the competition, but not before securing bait at the CVS across the street from the lake. Mason and his grandfather bought a few packs of hotdogs, and my boat collectively decided on two cans of corn. Carp will eat just about anything, and a can of corn seemed to be the best bait-to-cost ratio. Bait and tackle loaded, we were off.
Now, here’s the part where I impart maybe the best advice I can give about fishing for carp from a canoe on a small amusement park lake in New Jersey – open your can of corn on land. I was tasked with opening our can of bait while Brandon and Brock rowed our boat to the spot that we had agreed upon earlier would land us the biggest fish. Of course, we had not thought to bring a proper can opener, and so in the middle of the rocking canoe I was using my Leatherman to butcher the top of the can off. Inevitably, a jagged, razor-sharp edge of the corn container caught my pinky, cutting so deep it made my head spin. I quickly set the corn down and held my finger in an attempt to stop the bleeding. We, of course, had not brought a first aid kit, and by now we had almost arrived at our secret spot under the pier. The other boat was already fishing, Mason and his grandfather focused intently on their task. Not wanting to sacrifice any precious daylight to row back for a bandaid, I ripped a handle off the plastic CVS bag and tied it tightly around my finger, sealing off the wound from the murky lake water and any possible fish slime. Now at our prize-winning spot, and with my hands covered in my own dried blood, I put a few kernels of corn on my hook and sent it straight to the bottom. And waited.
The rest of the story isn’t particularly exciting, for a fishing story at least. Brandon and Brock caught a fish each, I caught two, and Mason and his grandfather, surprisingly, got skunked. The fish we caught weren’t the monsters we had been expecting, but carp fight like hell and there was an outburst of excitement and boat-rocking each time we pulled one in. We threw them all back, uninterested in figuring out how to cook a carp and unsure of the safety of the water they swam in. The second fish I caught was slightly larger than all the rest, weighing around 11 lbs. if I remember correctly. The photos Brock and Brandon took sum up the whole time pretty well.
Back on land, I switched the CVS bag for a real bandage. Brock’s grandfather, who might have been slightly miffed we had won, took a look at my wound to make sure I didn’t need stitches. He reckoned I didn’t, and said matter-of-factly that the blood on my hands was probably why I caught the most fish. I don’t know if carp really are Jaws-like attracted to human blood, but in the moment the conclusion seemed fitting. At least I hadn’t sliced my pinky open for nothing. I was presented with my trophy unceremoniously and we all went home, agreeing to come back again in the future for a rematch.
We have yet to all congregate for another carp wranglin’ competition, and so the trophy still sits on my desk. I keep it there, the only trophy I still hold on to, so I remember that day and that summer. That is, after all, what a trophy is for – a physical manifestation of a story. Every giant championship trophy, deer head, and hanging medal contains a tale of some sort (some better than others). The physical item is there on the wall or shelf in part to prove that the story is true (the fish did NOT in fact get away), but it should also be a reminder that the story captured within is worth telling, and retelling. I know that on any given day I probably wouldn’t think about the time I caught two carp in a canoe with a busted pinky, but when I notice the morning sun glinting off that fake-gold fish I can’t help but reflect on how great that time was. The story held within that small trophy is of a quality not often matched, to me at least. I never won a little-league game with a shredded CVS bag bandaging my finger, I never placed in a jazz band competition playing against a certified master, and no one wants to hear a story about how good your grades were in high school. And so, while those much more ornate (and expensive) trophies and awards sit in a box in a dark room somewhere, the cheap plastic fish stays on my desk, dusted occasionally and appreciated often.