Boiling down joy to its essence is a rather simple exercise, or at least it seems that way while standing at Patterson Park's Boat Pond on a not-ready-for-prime-time spring morning.
The recipe goes something like this: small child, worm, bobber, rod and reel, trout.
The prelude is filled with anticipation as an adult slides a worm onto a hook, snaps on a multi-colored bobber and pulls the line tight through the guides. Big eyes follow each step, little knees jiggle, tiny fingers reach to grasp the rod. From there, it's a short walk to the edge of Boat Pond, where a brief casting lesson (attention not required) is followed by a knitted brow, a mighty fling and a satisfying plop.
Then comes the part few master — the wait.
It was tough going Saturday at the kids fishing rodeo sponsored by the Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department. The air had more bite than the pond's finned residents, despite a healthy fish population augmented by 200 trout stocked by the Department of Natural Resources before the event.
But that hardly mattered. The ducks provided entertainment and a cormorant, crafty fisherman in its own right, flapped and preened on a rock in the middle of the pond, hinting at a bounty just below the surface.
But a wait is a wait, and then some when you're young with places to go and people to see.
Dressed in Ravens purple, Natalia Thomas, 4, kept her focus on her bobber as her dad, Tim, provided a pep talk. Each time the bobber dipped ever so slightly, Natalia reeled in her line only to discover a garden's worth of watery vegetation wrapped sushi-style around her worm. Still, she wouldn't give up.
"Natalia's been talking about this for two days," said sister Daniella, 16. "It's her first trip."
Little spasms of rain did nothing to dampen enthusiasm of the participants, although the same could not be said of some adults who sat in folding chairs and on park benches, cocooned in parkas and scarves against the cold.
Emily O'Donnell, who turns 8 on Wednesday, broke the ice about 40 minutes into the rodeo with a 12-ounce rainbow trout, her first, caught on a rod and reel she got as a birthday present. A flier handed out at school convinced her that she wanted to give fishing a try.
"It was sort of tough. I was pulling and was wondering what was happening," said Emily, whose head-to-toe pink outfit made the colors of the glistening trout appear drab. "I've never caught anything before."
Rodeo director Bob Wall presented her with a medal noting her Patterson Park accomplishment.
Moments after Ed Kramer, a family friend, re-baited her hook, there was a commotion around the bend as a 5-year-old girl, Amara Murphy, landed a 14-ounce rainbow.
"It was really big," she reported. "It was wiggling and jiggling and trying to get away."
Amara, big brother Carson and mom Jennine Auerbach had arrived too late to help with the spring trash pick-up and decided to stick around and fish instead. Carson, 9, won a rodeo award five years ago for being the youngest angler to land a fish.
"I guess it runs in the family," Auerbach said, beaming.
The third of the top three finishers was yet another 5-year-old, Donte Harris, who reeled in a 13-ounce trout and then landed a 12-ounce trout as time expired.
A man of few words, Donte smiled shyly and answered questions with a nod.
Three city kids, each in grade school, each catching a fish for the first time, each going home with a medal, a trophy and memories. That's the essence of joy.
The rodeo season will continue Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, at Leakin Park with City Catch, sponsored by the city and Maryland Trout Unlimited.
On Friday, Trout Unlimited volunteers will stock Dead Run with 800 rainbow trout. The next morning, 90 kids will be paired with guides and given tackle and bait. At lunch time, Wall and his crew will provide a hot dog lunch.
Before they head for home, the young anglers will get a booklet that illustrates simple techniques for catching fish, introduces sportsmanlike conduct and helps explain the benefits of protecting water quality. Even better, they will be allowed to take the spin fishing outfit home.
"It's our legacy program," said TU's Tom Gamper. "We've been doing this for years but now we've tapped into the Children in Nature movement."
Set in a valley, Dead Run is a gorgeous stretch of water that doesn't hint at all that city asphalt is just moments away.
"It's literally a world away from where some of these kids live," Gamper said. "The smiles on their faces are rewards enough. They'll leave with memories and, hopefully, two rainbow trout."