illustration of two men and a boy ice fishing
Art by Lisa K. Weber

The Big One

On an ice-fishing trip, Joe reels in a connection with his dad    

By Tommy Greenwald
From the February 2020 Issue
Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: Q
DRA Level: 40

Main Idea

As you read, think about what Joe really wants in this story and whether he gets it.

Why do I love fishing so much?

Most people think it’s boring.

You don’t really do much. You just wait.

You stare at the sky and the water and wait.

Almost always, you don’t catch anything.

But then . . . every once in a while . . . you catch something.

And maybe once in your life . . . if you’re lucky . . . you catch The Big One. 

This is a story about the day I caught The Big One. 

It’s not like I come from a fishing family or anything. But one day last year, my dad’s friend Steve took us fishing on his boat. After 10 minutes, I caught a huge bluefish!

“Beginner’s luck,” grumbled my brother, Jack. 

He was right, but I didn’t care. From that moment on, I loved fishing.

Nobody else caught anything the whole day.

“This is so boring,” said Jack.

“I want to like fishing, but I just can’t pull it off,” my dad said.

“It’s getting late,” said my mom.

It was official. Nobody in the family liked fishing except for me.

After that trip with Steve, I begged my dad to take me fishing, but he kept making excuses.

“Sorry. I have to do my taxes,” he said.

“I have to fix my car,” he said another day.

“I have to take a nap,” he said another day, even though it was 10 in the morning.

Then my mom told me about a fishing club at the YMCA.

 “You’ll get to be with other people who love fishing as much as you do,” she said.

“It sounds awesome!” I said. And it was awesome. We went to oceans, lakes, rivers, brooks, streams . . . you name it, we fished it.

After each fishing trip, my parents would ask me all about it and try to be interested.

“Billy’s line got tangled!” I would exclaim. “And Nicole’s bait box spilled and there were worms all over the place!”

“Wow,” said my mom.

“Gee,” said my dad.

They just didn’t get it. 

No one really gets it, except for other fishermen. (And fisherwomen.)

Then during the midwinter meeting of our group, I got the best news of my entire fishing life.

“We’re going ice fishing,” Mr. Pinkton announced. Mr. Pinkton was the leader of our fishing club.

 “We’re going to be waking up at 5 a.m., driving two hours upstate, and fishing on a frozen lake for seven hours in 15-degree weather.”

We all broke out in cheers.

Ice fishing! On a frozen lake! I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded fantastic!

“For this trip, each child must be accompanied by a parent or guardian,” Mr. Pinkton added.


It wasn’t until the next night at dinner that I got the nerve to bring it up.

“Dad, what are you doing on Saturday?”

“Why, what’s up?” he asked.

“Well, I have this ice-fishing trip, and a parent has to come.”

My parents looked at each other.

“Well, let me think about this,” my dad said. “I could either go freeze on a lake for hours or sit in our nice warm house reading a good book.”

I slumped in my chair.

“Ice fishing it is,” he said.

My heart soared. “Really?”

“Yup. On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

He smiled. “That I never have to do it again.”

At exactly 5:13 Saturday morning, I felt a tug on my arm.

“Mmmmghrenmph,” I said.

“Jojo, wake up,” Dad said.                

My dad turned on the light, which was brighter than the sun. I got up.

We packed the car full of coats, boots, snow pants, sweaters, gloves,
hats, and, of course, cookies.

When I got out of the car two hours later, I got smacked in the face with the coldest wind I’d ever felt in my life.

The lake was down a long hill, surrounded by pine trees that stretched all the way up to the sky. It was a pretty amazing place. But I was too busy trying to feel my toes to really notice.

Mr. Pinkton was already out on the lake with all the other kids and their parents, carving holes in the ice to drop our fishing lines through.

“Hi, guys,” he called. “Down here!”

My best friend in the fishing group, Charlie Lopez, was already sitting in a chair over an ice hole, fishing.

“Catch anything?” I called.

“Just about to,” he said. All fishermen are hopeful people.

Dad made his way straight for the little tent that Mr. Pinkton had set up for people who wanted to get warm and have hot chocolate.

“I’ll be in here,” my dad said. I looked at him.

“Just for a second,” he added.

“Your hole is ready!” Mr. Pinkton called to me. I checked it out. It was a beauty, perfectly round. The water rippled below six inches of solid ice.

I tried to put a worm on my hook, but my hands were frozen stiff.
Mr. Pinkton ended up doing it for me.

“Where’s your dad?” he asked.

“Drinking hot chocolate.”

Mr. Pinkton laughed. “Smart man,” he said, but I was embarrassed. Why wasn’t my dad out here with all the other parents? Couldn’t he like fishing just this once? 

But then I heard a familiar voice say, “Let’s get this party started!”

I turned around and there was my dad, slipping all over the ice, his hat falling off his head, trying to hold two cups of cocoa with his huge mittens.

He looked down into the deep hole. “Somewhere in that dark, mysterious lake, there’s a frozen fish stick with my name on it,” he said.

For hours, we fished. Which really means we waited.

But that’s what’s awesome about fishing. You’re not really waiting. You’re doing other stuff, like talking. 

And my dad and I had tons to talk about. We talked about baseball, movies, music, food, school, girls, animals, and a bunch of other stuff. We told some jokes. We got more hot chocolate.

But we didn’t catch anything.

When the sun started to go down, we ran out of things to talk about. “I think my nose just fell off,” my dad said, and even though he was trying to be funny, I knew that he was miserable.

Suddenly, I was mad at myself. I decided that this fishing trip had been a lousy idea. I felt bad that I’d dragged my dad all the way to this frozen lake just to sit there and not catch anything.

I felt dumb for liking fishing. 

Then, about 10 minutes before we were supposed to pack up, there was a tug on our line.

“Dad! I got a bite!” I exclaimed.

My dad jumped to his feet, then immediately slipped on the ice and fell on his butt, spilling hot chocolate all over himself.

I started pulling. Whatever was on my line pulled back hard. It felt strong and huge!

“Reel it in gently,” Dad advised, even though he had no idea what he was talking about.

Mr. Pinkton came running over. “Joe’s got something!” he yelled to the rest of the group. “Go easy on that thing,” he said to me.

Finally, after one last tug, I was able to pull my line out of the hole. Everyone gathered around to see what I caught.

I reeled it in, full of excitement. At first, it was hard to tell what kind of fish it was. Then it became clearer. It wasn’t a fish at all.

It wasn’t even a live animal of any kind.

It was something large, fuzzy, and very waterlogged.

“It’s a stuffed elephant!” Charlie yelled. 

“What’s a stuffed elephant doing in the lake?” Eddy Chan wondered.

“Let’s cook it on the grill!” screamed Danny Burke. “It’ll be delicious!”

Everyone laughed as I untangled the big, pink, furry mess from my line and my rod. My ears were burning with embarrassment.        

“It’s not funny,” I said, fighting back tears.

I was about to throw the elephant back down the hole, but my dad stopped me. He brushed all the dirt and grime and ice off the elephant.

“We’re taking him home,” my dad said.

In the car, we talked about the freezing cold, and us finally getting a bite, and dad falling on his butt and spilling the hot chocolate, and me catching the stuffed elephant.

We laughed the whole way.

“That was a blast,” my dad said as we pulled into the driveway.

“It was?”    

“It was,” he said. “Thanks for taking me.”

Two months later, in the spring, it was time for my fishing club’s first regular trip of the season. I was packing up my gear when my dad knocked on my door.

“Is it OK if I come fishing with you?”

I looked at him. “Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure,” he said.

And he came fishing with me. He also came the time after that. And the time after that.

Altogether, we caught one fish, a little striper that we threw back. But it didn’t matter. We talked and laughed and ate and had a great time. That’s what fishing is, and it turned out my dad loved it almost as much as I did.

I guess you could say he was hooked.

And that’s how I caught The Big One. 

This story was originally published in the February 2020 issue.

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Activities (8)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
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Answer Key (1)
Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Ice-fishing contests are held across the United States every winter, but the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza is by far the largest. This annual event attracts more than 10,000 visitors each year. Show your students all about it in this video.

At the beginning of the story, Joe has trouble connecting with his parents and struggles to ask one of them to go ice fishing with him. These articles from KidsHealth offer tips to help kids feel more comfortable talking about their feelings.

More About the Story


vocabulary, interpreting text, tone, inference, figurative language, character, plot, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning/Purpose

The story’s title has a double meaning: In fishing, “The Big One” usually refers to a rare and special catch. In this story, it means that the main character has gotten his father hooked on fishing and captured the prize of time with his father.


The story is chronological. It’s told in the first-person voice. 


The story includes some challenging academic vocabulary, such as slumped and waterlogged, as well as figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

Some familiarity with fishing will be helpful but is not necessary.   

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features/Set a Purpose for Reading (3 minutes)  

  • As a class, look at the illustration on page 10 and read the title and subtitle. Ask students what activity they think the boy is doing and what the weather is like. Draw their attention to the “Knowledge Builder” note at the top of page 12 to help them understand what ice fishing is.
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box. Invite students to predict what they think Joe really wants in the story, based on what they’ve previewed so far.

Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include official, bait, slumped, reel, and waterlogged.

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio as they follow along.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Read the story again as a class, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Answers follow.
  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Interpreting Text (p. 11) The Big One is an impressive fish that you feel good about because such a catch doesn’t happen often. The author makes this seem dramatic by slowing down the action. He uses dots (ellipses) to draw out the sentences and says that catching The Big One happens “once in your life . . . if you’re lucky . . .”.
  • Tone (p. 11) Jack grumbles as he says “Beginner’s luck” because he’s bored with fishing and probably jealous that his brother caught a fish and he didn’t.
  • Main Idea (p. 11) Joe is different from the rest of his family because he finds fishing exciting and the rest of his family thinks it’s boring. For Joe, there’s something magical about it that only people who fish understand.
  • Inference (p. 12) Joe thinks “Uh-oh” because he knows that neither of his parents will want to accompany him on the ice-fishing trip. They don’t like fishing, and it will be freezing cold.
  • Figurative Language (p. 12) “Brighter than the sun” shows that the light was glaring, especially since Joe had just woken up. “Smacked in the face” shows how hard the wind was. “Stretched all the way up to the sky” tells you that the trees were very tall.
  • Main Idea (p. 13) Joe really wants his dad to have a good time fishing. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s the only kid whose parent isn’t participating or happy with the activity. He wants his dad to understand what makes fishing fun.
  • Character (p. 13) Joe loves fishing because it gives you time to talk and connect with people. You can infer that Joe probably likes that it’s a calm, slow activity that lets him appreciate what, or who, is around him.
  • Character (p. 13) Joe’s feelings suddenly change because he realizes how cold his dad is. He’s probably worried that since they didn’t catch anything, his dad’s idea that fishing is boring has been confirmed.
  • Plot (p. 14) Excitement builds up as Joe is reeling in whatever is hooked on his line. The reader, along with Joe, his dad, and everyone else on the fishing trip, anxiously wonders what big fish it is. The excitement falls when everyone realizes that Joe has pulled out a soggy stuffed elephant.
  • Write Your Own Question (p. 14) Answers will vary. Students might ask: How has Joe’s dad’s opinion of fishing changed? or Why is Joe surprised that his dad had a good time?
  • Main Idea (p. 14) Joe means that getting his dad to like fishing is, for him, “catching The Big One.” His dad was like a hard-to-catch fish, but now Joe no longer feels odd in his family for being the only one who likes fishing.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • In the story, Joe says “All fishermen are hopeful people.” Do you think Joe is a hopeful person? (character) Answers will vary. On fishing trips, Joe is constantly hopeful that he will catch something, even though it doesn’t happen very often. He keeps hoping that his family will want to go fishing again after their first trip. But he does not seem hopeful that one of his parents will accompany him on the ice-fishing trip.
  • Why do you think Joe wanted his family to understand his love of fishing? Do you think it’s important for family members to enjoy the same activities? Explain your answer. (main idea) Joe probably wanted his family to understand his love of fishing because it would show that they understand him—a person who likes to talk and connect. Answers to the second question will vary.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Main Idea

  • Distribute our main idea Skill Builder and have students complete it in small groups. They will then be prepared to respond to the writing prompt

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Have a group discussion about what makes Joe happy at the end of the story. Make a list of students’ ideas. Then invite students to use the list to help them write a note from Joe to his dad, expressing his appreciation for coming on his fishing trips.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to work in groups to decide what kind of book club they would put this story in; for example, family stories or kids’ passions. Then they can do research to find other books for that club and choose one to read together!

For ELL Students

This story has several idiomatic expressions that might be difficult for ELLs. Review the meanings of these lines: They just didn’t get it; I got the nerve to bring it up; made his way straight for the little tent; that was a blast.

For Social-Emotional Learning

In this story, Joe struggles when he has to ask one of his parents to go ice fishing with him. Use this as an opportunity for students to practice reaching out to someone—a friend, a family member, a new kid—to do something together. In pairs, have them practice extending oral invitations.