Saturday, August 10th, 2014, was a day I’ll never forget. On this day, my daughter, Lilla Kate Chapman, caught her first fish. It was a perfect 8-pound, 26″ upper slot redfish that tried to steal a pinfish. But this day was much more than just a fishing trip. This trip was the culmination of years and decades of dreams, emotions, and reality, all wrapped into a slender 44-pound, 52″ blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl that stole my heart.
There are very few moments that completely change your life. For some, it could be a personal accomplishment, an athletic achievement, a family event, or some will say it’s the first time they fell in love.
Personally, athletically, and with my family, everything seemed to be a natural progression. I never had an experience where it felt like my whole world had been flipped upside down. I was blessed with health, as was my entire family. Athletically I had a successful career and won some accolades at our high school. To be fair, I probably won because our sports teams were generally less athletic than the cast of “Golden Girls.”
I can rule out the whole falling in love thing while I was in high school because I was terrible with girls. Maybe it’s because I had the body of a long distance runner with a tapeworm. Or, maybe it was because the rust bucket we pulled off the used car lot was smoked in more than a Cheech & Chong movie painted with fifty shades of grey. Christian Grey wouldn’t have scored in this rust bucket.
The transfer to college and the “real world” post-college was smooth, and I was lucky enough to meet a quality young woman. She was sweet, intelligent, beautiful, honest, and very rarely short tempered – if everything were positive, this would story would be categorized as “fiction.” But, marriage didn’t completely change my life. We dated for five years and had a great relationship, so there weren’t any surprises. It was a continued happy, symmetrical, natural progression. All of that changed when we decided to start a family.
Robert Edwin Chapman the Fifth was my destiny. The friends I grew up with – my family, coaches, teachers, everyone – knew I was going to have a son and carry on the Chapman name. RC5 would be a left-handed, fishing, hunting, pitching, Boston and Tampa sports loving, drawing, slow running, terrible golfing, prank playing, life loving goofball.
But life doesn’t always go according to plan.
When we first heard we were expecting – after more than a year of trying – it didn’t seem possible. We needed modern medicine, lots of prayers, and a ton of luck to become pregnant. Ask any parent who’s unsuccessfully tried to get pregnant, it’s an absolute grind. You try and try, you change things, you eat things, you wear things, and you flip your whole calendar and life upside down. You might as well pitch a tent over your house and life because it becomes a full-fledged circus.
I was fishing a tournament in my hometown (Bradenton, Florida) during the summer of 2007 when I received a call from my wife in Lake City. I was knee deep wading on a sandbar at the mouth of the Manatee River and received the news that our life was potentially about to change. She said, “I think I see a line.” I replied, “Are you sure?”, to which she replied, “I think so, but it’s very faint.” This line was the first time we had a line, and we now had a fighting chance at becoming parents.
A few months later we were getting an ultrasound. Maybe it was our wishing and wanting, as there appeared to be something protruding on that little peanut-sized human being. We even put a little arrow on the black and white photo. I celebrated. My destiny was fulfilled.
I went home and googled how to build a pitcher’s mound, and bought all the supplies to make one in our backyard for RC5. I had it all planned out. I was going to paint a mural of Fenway in little Rob’s room; he’d start pitching at 12-years-old (just fastballs and circle change-ups until he was 18). We’d get a photo of four generations of Rob Chapmans together, just like we had with my dad, granddad, and great grandad. I even called Grandpa Bob to let him know the good news!
On our next trip to the doctor, all of these visions came crashing down like a Shaquille O’Neal free-throw attempt. We were now going to have a little girl. Her name would be Lilla Kate (after Andrea’s great grandmother). I don’t know how to describe how I felt because we were immediately told Lilla might have a heart abnormality.
As first time parents, we had no idea what this meant, other than you hope and pray for a healthy baby – that’s it. Boy or girl, it no longer matters. We were completely helpless and scheduled a trip to Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Florida. On that visit, we received the best news of our young marriage. Lilla was given a clean bill of health, and on February 6th, 2008, we welcomed a healthy, blonde haired, 6-pound 8-ounce little girl into this world.
I’ll never forget when the doctor handed her to me for the first time. She had thick blonde hair, was so tiny, looked like a conehead and I just stared in amazement at our daughter. This living, breathing, crying human life was here because of Andrea and me.
THAT is life changing.
We now had a lifetime of responsibility. There is no manual on being first-time parents that truly describes the sacrifice and challenges ahead of you. It’s almost like your head comes off your body. I call it living in the fish bowl because you don’t have any sense of what’s “normal” for months. Being a parent is true love. The Greeks called it agape love. It’s no longer about you; your interests are secondary. It’s complete self-sacrifice.
Fast-forward six years, and add another daughter, Molly. Instead of a Fenway Park mural and a pitcher’s mound, we have a pink flower covered tree mural (complete with butterflies) and a pink playhouse (complete with a kitchen set). I’m now an expert on My Little Ponies, Princess Sofia, Frozen, Big Eyed Animals, Jamberry nail wraps, and making ponytails. Note: there is a “right way” for ponytails – where it’s tight, and there are no loose hairs. You’re welcome, dads with daughters.
Getting back to the fishing trip…ALL of these thoughts and emotions came pouring over me during that five-minute battle with the redfish. This was more than a fishing trip – this was a magical moment for someone who loves fishing as much as I do. To be able to give that experience to my daughter, and see and hear the excitement in her voice, will hopefully lead to a lifetime of similar memories.
The irony of Lilla’s first fishing trip is that we had planned it for almost a year with Jonathan Allen, and his daughter, Adra, who is Lilla’s age and one of her best friends. The other times had been rained out, winded out, too cold, too early, blocked by birthday parties and football games, you name it, we didn’t know when it would happen. I’ll fish anytime, in any weather, but that’s not the way to instill a love of the sport into a youngster (at least in my opinion). I wanted her to enjoy the entire experience so that she would want to do it again. Waking up at 4:30 a.m. in 36-degree weather with 25MPH winds would guarantee one thing – she’d probably never go again.
So, we left later than normal, with roughly a 7:30 wake up call, followed by breakfast of her choice (cinnamon rolls). We packed snacks and drinks of her choice, along with plenty of desserts (bribes). I was going all in. I wanted her to enjoy the experience so that even if we didn’t catch a fish, we’d still have a good time. I was going to stack the deck shamelessly. We’re blessed with Lilla because from the time she could walk and talk she’s been a very happy kid who wakes up every day with a smile on her face. We now know how lucky we truly were because of 5 little letters: M O L L Y. That’s a story for another day.
After meeting at Jonathan’s house and loading the boat, we had Ralph Rowand join us. He went on this trip knowing I’d probably ask him to video, photograph, back the boat down, help with the girls, all while making us a five-course meal and fanning us. If you know Ralph, you know he’d gladly do just that – except for maybe the fanning. In addition to just fishing, we brought bathing suits with us because it was hot. Insert your hot joke here, because this was right in the middle of North Florida’s record heat wave.
On this day, we reached 102 degrees, and as you can imagine that wasn’t ideal (see above paragraph about weather conditions). Within 5 minutes of getting on the boat, Lilla was in the water. It wasn’t for a swim, or chasing a fish, it was a “potty break”, which was already her second emergency in the last 30 minutes. We had just pulled over on a back road outside of Old Town (maybe it was all of those Capri Suns?). This fishing trip was lining up to be more about bathroom breaks than line breaks.
We pulled up to the first (and only) spot, and while we were getting the girls settled in, Ralph caught a jack on the first cast. It was the perfect start, one cast, and one fish. I didn’t care what Lilla caught; we just wanted action and fun.
We didn’t have another bite for two hours, and we were hotter than two mice playing hide and go seek in a wool sock.
The good news was Lilla and Adra were exceptionally creative, and thus self-entertained. Lilla made a custom fishing rod – tearing a piece of grass and tying the bait on to the tip of it, and fished for minnows. Adra followed suit, and soon they were in the water exploring. We intentionally pulled up on a grass bank, so the water would be shallow enough for them to play. They were in and out of the water more than a crab buoy bobbing in the ocean. Up, down, in, out, splash, jump, yell, and repeat.
Water shenanigans are the perfect recipe for a fun day cruising and playing, but not catching fish. I’ve never read about creating the maximum commotion, splashing, and yelling to attract fish, but this was what our day was turning into – and that was fine. They were having a blast.
Throughout this whole process, we continued to chum and bait hooks, but it was completely useless. After lunch we caught some baby mullet and pinfish, then put them in a five-gallon bucket. These fish turned out to be the day saver/extender. They were in fish heaven with brand new “pet fish.” They put mud, shells, and grass in the bucket, and then proceeded to feed them, love them, pet them, and even name the fish.
They were having fun, and the redfish, trout, jacks, or even a lowly catfish didn’t want to have any of it. There was no action, bait, or life in the surrounding water. Jonathan’s dad’s spot (where they had caught some beautiful redfish the week earlier) was a dead zone. So we continued to entertain the girls and watched the clock and the skies counting the minutes until it was time to head home.
Then it happened.
The bobber started to dance, and then it sunk faster than a bowling ball in a pool. I yelled for Lilla, who was focused more on her pet minnow, Stripey, than the redfish that had just engulfed a fresh pinfish. She ran to the back of the boat; I pulled the rod and reel out of the holder, she started reeling, and Ralph started videoing.
On the technical end, we were using a Mustad circle hook, so I had no worries – that fish was hooked and wasn’t going anywhere. Why did this matter? Lilla didn’t know anything other than to reel and to quit when she was tired. Reeling until exhaustion isn’t the greatest technique, especially when reeling against a screaming drag, but this was her first rodeo, so we rolled with it, and the circle hook did its job.
We eventually landed this perfect upper slot redfish. Lilla was excited, and Adra was equally as excited. They celebrated with a hug, and I celebrated with a hug, high five and a feeling of pride and accomplishment for my newly crowned little fisherwoman. And to think, she thought we were just fishing…