Dateline: October 14, 2010 – Walldorf, Germany
The company I work for is headquartered in western Germany, in a small town south of Heidelberg. It has quite a large campus, which is attractively landscaped, and part of this landscaping includes two decorative ponds. I think you know where this is going.
Central Heidelberg – no Child Catcher in sight
Over the two years that I have been visiting the headquarters, I had noticed that both ponds contain a number of fish. These looked to be some type of American sunfish, likely bluegill. It was high time that I took a shot at one of the ponds, but this was one of those things I had to balance against the thought of being busted by company security. The movies tell us that German law enforcement of any kind tends to be a bit … inflexible … and while the idea of catching something was gnawing at me, I was also troubled by visions of being beaten with a rubber hose in some one-lightbulb basement.
This trip would have me there for 5 days, and I would have a bunch of co-workers with me. (Hence, a greater chance of co-conspirators in some sort of furtive fishing effort. Not that I would ever force one of my employees to come fishing with me, because I am sure there is a California law against that.) It was one of those “team building” conferences where they bring everyone in a department in from all over world to one location. The usual script for these types of meetings – people sleeping through presentations because they are desperately hung over, a memorable karaoke disaster, and someone showing up to a party wearing an outfit that is both age-inappropriate and ill-fitting. (Crossing the line from “muffin top” into “failed souffle.” And this was a MAN.) An unlikely person’s first beer will be followed by numbers 2-17 and they will be sick in a crowded place with limited escape routes, like an elevator. The catered food will be “culturally neutral,” so everyone can hate it, and, to put it delicately, there will be at least one new couple.
Well, to my great surprise, it didn’t go like that at all. (Except for the food.) As a matter of fact, it was actually constructive, and my boss doesn’t even read this blog. These are teams that work together at all hours to handle messy transactions over great barriers of time, distance, and culture, and to meet them all in person was phenomenal. To be frank, I really didn’t know what a lot of them did or how hard it was – I just presumed that brilliant supporting documentation just sort of appeared when I needed it. At a certain stage, no one works the hours we do because they care about letting the company down, they work this hard because they don’t want to let each other down. It’s always amazing how that person who drives you nuts on the phone actually turns out to be smart and reasonable in person. And that my accent is as difficult for them as theirs is for me. And we all, of course, have a preconceived picture of what people will look like in person, which always leads to a few surprises: apparently people pictured me as younger and with more hair.
The first two nights were filled with team dinners and such – it is always great to visit Heidelberg, a charming university town on the banks of the river Neckar. The fall weather was wonderful – clear and crisp; sunny but not too cold yet. It’s also always great to see the looks on the faces of the French employees when they find out dinner is sauerkraut and bratwurst. Of course, they repay my kindness by bringing me to some truly excellent restaurants in Paris – and sticking me with the check.
The River Neckar at sunset. Not particularly good fishing.
On the third night the group settled in to the hotel bar after dinner. As is normal in gatherings of this nature, it soon breaks up into a series of smaller conversation groups, with furtive disappearances for those sneaking off to be sick in the elevator. I moved between the groups, drifting in and out of random discussions. I pride myself on being able to turn any conversation toward fishing, but I didn’t need much help, as almost all of the staff had been warned of my problem and still, even then, a few of them made the mistake of actually asking. One of the local employees asked me where there was fishing close to Walldorf, and I just had to mention the pond. Incredulous and young, this person did the one thing that has probably gotten me in more trouble than all other things combined – he challenged my ability to actually catch a fish in the pond. It was quite late and I was thinking sort of better of the idea, but the group may have egged me on, so I went upstairs and put together a light float rod. Back downstairs, I raided the breakfast bar for a couple of white rolls. Now I needed to find a couple of witnesses/lookouts. Interestingly, the men all got scarce, perhaps because it was cold outside and there was an open bar, but oddly enough, two of the women in my group, Kate and Danielle, neither of whom have the slightest interest in fishing, volunteered.
And so it was, in the middle of a cold German autumn night, that I headed off to fish a landscaping pond in the company of two vegetarians. (There’s a sentence I never thought I would write.)
Rigging up in the middle of the night. Not my normal fishing attire.
The odds were somewhat against me. The sunfish are sight feeders, and it was dark. I was using a float, which would be hard to see, because, as I mentioned, it was dark. And it was cold enough where there was a risk that the fish had simply given up for the evening. But my pride was at stake.
I found if I set the float just right, I could see the top of it in some glow from the parking garage lights. It was getting nibbled, likely by the very small fish, but no hookups. At one stage, I had lifted a fish fully out of the water before it fell off. I decided to change rigs to a much smaller hook, going from a tiny #12 to a positively microscopic #22. The challenge here was tying the miniscule eyelet with 6 pound line that looked positively beefy, all by the light of an iPhone, with the added urgency of it being cold and my two companions/witnesses beginning to shiver. But I finally got it right – the float went down, the rod went up, and I lifted a sunfish up onto the bank. Both of my co-conspirators looked somewhat more surprised than I would have hoped.
Steve, the fish, and an anonymous vegetarian/witness/lookout named Kate or Danielle, I forget which.*
And then it was my turn to be surprised. After I released the creature back into the water, I was examining the photos of what I presumed was a bluegill, but it didn’t look quite right. So I examined some more, and then went online back in my room. It wasn’t a bluegill at all – it was another type of sunfish called a Pumpkinseed, and I had never caught one before, so how cool is that?? Species 1015.
The next day, emboldened by my previous success, I decided to risk a full-on daylight adventure. This ended up being accomplished in the company of a new employee, Guido – on his very first day at work. We closed up meetings, and I raced back to the hotel to put the gear together and get more white bread from the salad bar. Now, before any of you accuse me of hazing the rookie, let me explain a few things. This guy is actually interested in fishing – you may think he said this just to make nice with his new boss, but in fact, he was actually in the process of obtaining his fishing license. You Americans may think this involves a quick trip to Big 5 Sporting Goods, but in Germany, getting a fishing license takes several months of weekend courses and an extensive examination, which not everyone passes. (The section on the grundel is supposed to be especially difficult.)
Despite American stereotypes of the name, Guido is most definitely German, and would be decidedly out of place on the Jersey shore. (Here, it is pronounced “Ghee-dough” rather than “Gwee-dough,” and I doubt this guy has ever said “Yo baby yo baby” in his life.) After I caught a few sunfish, I handed him the equipment and let him have at it. Not only did he catch a couple of pumpkinseeds himself, he also spotted what appeared to be a couple of very large silver carp in the lake – 5-8 pounds. We cast repeatedly for them without success – they are more skittish than the other fish and bite extremely delicately. But there was always Friday to pursue them again.
Guido and the Pumpkinseed (Also the title of a lesser-known Brothers Grimm fairytale)
There’s a guilty smile if I’ve ever seen one. If company security reads this blog, we’re in deep schnitzel.
And so it was that Guido caught his first fish in 20 years in a most unexpected fashion. He handled the equipment well; I expect there will be many fish in his future. But then it got downright weird. As I looked out into the deeper water of the pond, I could swear I saw a couple of bright red shapes. After a few minutes, they drifted closer, and I’ll be damned – it was a pair of absolutely gigantic decorative goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus.) These are NOT to be confused with Koi, which are actually carp (Cyprinus carpio) with a sexy paint job. Just for fun, I cast over by them. Just for fun, they raced over to the bait as fast as their frilly little fins would carry them. One of them ate the bread and the battle was on. The fight was like Cousin Chuck’s honeymoon – sluggish, uninspired, lasting just a few seconds – and I gently scooped up the largest goldfish I have ever seen – and a new species to boot. I was beginning to like this pond quite a bit. Passers by stared in bewilderment.
Yes, it felt like raiding a pet store
Not exactly built for speed, but a species is a species, and yes, Eileen, I released it.
And on Friday, basking in the afterglow of a successfully completed work week, I braved the curious, confused stares one more time and tried to catch the silver carp. The sunfish were ravenous, and the bread I had borrowed this time was very stale. I actually did get one bite from a silver, but the sunfish moved in so quickly I could not get a consistent clean shot at the bigger critters. And so it was, just past dark, that I closed up this unexpected side-adventure and waited for Jens to come pick me up. In the morning, we were flying out for the exotic waters and mysterious restaurants of Hungary.
*1000fish Privacy Notice – Kate and Danielle’s full names, addresses, phone numbers, and personal details are available for $5 each, both for $8. Offer limited to the first 100 callers.