I was up in the mountains recently (not uncommon) and had the distinct privilege of fishing with my son and a few friends in a stocked trout pond. There’s nothing better than worms and bobbers in a stocked pond for seeing the excitement of a 5 year old. We had a blast, and caught a ton of rainbows. I took my fillet knife because I knew we had permission to keep a few fish.

This got me thinking about knife handles. When I pulled out my knife, a lot of memories came rushing back. I bought this knife blank and made the handle over 6 years ago. The maple belonged to my maternal grandfather, who passed away not long after I made this. He was a brilliant engineer by trade, and he loved to tinker with anything and everything. Woodworking was among his top hobbies, and he passed down a storage shed full of wood and tools the year before he died. At the time, I was cranking out knives for friends using 440C blanks I bought online. Walnut, maple or purpleheart were my go-to handle materials, and I would make my own dowels by shaving down small stock and hammering them through steel holes.

As you can probably tell, I hand stitched this sheath as well.

My paternal grandfather also passed away in 2015. I have a lot of memories fishing and hunting with him, going back as far as I can remember. When I lost both of these men within a year, my grieving process was to re-visit a lot of the memories I had with them as a kid. That primarily meant woodworking, guns and fishing. Of all of these, as a kid, my favorite was fishing. My grandparents had a nice small pond in front of their house, and it was loaded with largemouth and all sorts of bream and varieties of sunfish. I can remember toting my single plastic lure box around that pond, wearing my favorite bass t-shirt (see below). Through high school, college and early marriage I had fallen out of a lot of these hobbies, but after these deaths they all came rushing back (a little faster than my wife would have preferred, I daresay).

A young Rybo catching much bigger fish than he does now.

I re-bought a rod, reel and lots of soft baits. Re-learned how to tie hooks, hook up Texas rigs and found a small local reservoir lake with decent bank access. I started fishing on the weekends, but with no success. Not “a little success” – no success. It drove me absolutely crazy. I started waking up well before 6am (to the shock and awe of aforementioned wife) and making the 30 minute drive to the lake to fish in the morning before driving back, showering and making it to work by 8:30/9am. Still, the fish eluded me. I was losing my mind. I became obsessed, sought advice from a local park ranger, bought more plastics, more crank bait, listened to podcasts, etc.

Finally, at 7am one morning I cast a soft plastic beside a little dockhouse and slowly pulled it back to shore. Then I felt the hit. Total exhilaration. A few minutes later this largemouth beauty was in hand.

Just like that, the obsessive mission was complete. It’s hard to explain, but there was something incredibly therapeutic about that fish. Something about it that helped me grieve my grandfather. I needed to still know I could catch them like we used to when I was 8 years old, fishing every inch of his pond with dollar crankbaits from Wal-Mart. As soon as I caught that fish, I felt an enormous relief and emotional release.

Of course, I couldn’t just throw it back. Every time I went out during this obsessive phase, I carried a small lunchbox cooler with me. I threw this sucker on a stringer until I was ready to leave, then packed him in the cooler and headed home. This sacrificial bass would be the ceremonial “first fish filleted” with my new knife, and I would pan fry it in an iron skillet just like my grandma used to do with the bream we caught in the pond.

I’m a terrible cook, and my wife had to walk me through every step. The end result was a little sad – uneven fillets, shoddy seasoning, a little burnt. But I’ve never had a more satisfying meal. It brought back all the memories of fishing with my dad and granddad in that little pond. Catching a stringer of sunfish in the pond for my grandmother to pan fry. Guy trips with the cousins to Lake Murray to troll for striper, and the delicious fish fries we used to have when we got back.

We’ll never fish in that pond again. After he died, the property was sold. But right before the sale, a historic flood came through our area – the worst in over 100 years. The property was on high ground, but the pond spilled over into the field. As it slowly receded, my dad and I went out with worms and bobbers – one last hurrah. What we found was a fitting end to 25 years of memories – the biggest, fattest panfish we’d ever caught in that pond – and they were biting on every worm we threw. Even now, they’re easily my favorite fish – though catching them on a grasshopper fly is my preferred method these days.

Nice fish…and nice Bertucci!

Knife handles aren’t incredibly difficult, and I really enjoy making them. However, for someone like myself who’s not super detailed, they often expose a lack of patience. I’ve written about this before, but I’m very utilitarian when it comes to woodworking. I reach a point in every project where I’m just ready to be done so I can use the thing. Unfortunately, usually this point is several steps shy of the completed work, and so I rush through the finishing details and the end result suffers. These knife handles are no exception – in an effort to get it done more quickly, I didn’t properly protect the blades, and as a result I ended up putting deep scratches all over the end.

I’ve made both full and half tang knife handles – full tang is much easier. Well, maybe it’s not actually any easier, but half tang can be nerve wracking. I have split handle stock several times trying to fit the blade to handle, and in my head there’s just a much greater chance of it loosening over time. You do get a nicer, more ergonomic handle on a half tang though. Here’s a Morakniv half tang I did for a charity auction years ago.

Here’s to fishing, woodworking, knives and grandfathers.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4

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1 thought on “On Fishing, Grief and Knife Handles

  1. What a great story, you were blessed to have so many memories with your grands, You where very blessed. I never got the opportunity to do this with my grands, because they had passed away right after I was born. Spending time with your son fishing is always enjoyable. Brings back times when I would go fishing with my dad and had such a great time and fishing with Shawn as he was a little boy growing up such. great memories fishing with him. Thanks for sharing, love your story.

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