It had been years since I had wet a line. But an afternoon with a rod and reel reminded me of why so many people enjoy the simple pleasures of fishing…and friends.
I’m not gonna’ lie to you. As much as I enjoy the outdoors in the fall and winter – as much as I enjoy chasing after gamebirds, pheasants and ruffed grouse, I’ve never been much of a fisherman.
I think a lot of it is personality. You need patience to fish. Fact is, you need patience for the simple process of fishing; and I don’t have it. Too much sitting around, waiting, and wondering if you’re ever gonna’ catch something.
Too much worrying about whether you have the right bait for the conditions, or the season, or whether you’re fishing at the right depth. Too many variables, I guess, to satisfy my insatiable restlessness.
It’s why I hunt, I explain to people who ask why bird hunting is different than fishing. I can walk while hunting. Keep moving. Carrying a shotgun is like visiting with an old friend. I can’t say the same for a spinning rod.
And if I don’t find birds I always have a camera in my pocket so I can stop and photograph the landscape. That’s hard to do when you’re sitting in a boat; when you’re anchored in the middle of a hundred acre lake. I walk just fine; I’m not that good at swimming.
And, I can truthfully say that while pheasant hunting I’ve never impaled myself on a fish hook while trying to tie a knot, or putting on a squirming minnow or worm. I’ve never needed a first aid kit…or stitches!
And yet…I’ve been after Press Pros outdoors columnist Jim Morris for years to take me fishing. Not so much for the act of fishing, I think. But more, for the sheer pleasure of watching Jim while he’s doing something he’s truly good at…and enjoys. But Jim travels a lot, and confesses that he’s beyond the days of clambering around in a rowboat. There comes a point, he says, when you just enjoy the memories of fishing, and the process when it was easier.
I shared this fact with Dan Hickey not long ago. Hickey is the former game warden in Miami County, an avid outdoorsman, of course, and he frequently stops by my house with a bag of crappie or bluegill fillets because…he fishes. He loves it. And, what a surprise…he’s good at it!
“I’ll be glad to take you sometime,” he said a few weeks ago. “Let me know when you have some time or a free day.”
I began to sweat at the mere thought of his willingness. I started thinking about the process of equipment – boats, tackle, bait, travel, waiting, and wondering…and wasted time if you spend all day and don’t catch anything!
“Don’t worry about that,” he assured. “I have everything you need, and I guarantee you that you’re going to catch fish, and good fish, at that.”
A few days after he told me that he knocked on my door one evening.
“What are you doing on Wednesday?” he asked. “I got a place to take you fishing if you still want to go.”
“I’m good with it,” I said, remembering past trips in the fall and winter to hunt rabbits with Dan. He always delivers when he says…”I know where to go.”
“Be at my house at noon,” he told me. “I’ll be ready to go.”
A couple of days later I pulled up to his place west of Pleasant Hill and crawled out of the car. He had his truck loaded and ready…with tackle, a john boat, and a couple of coolers for bringing home fish. He’s an optimistic fellow.
“Where we headed?” I asked as he wheeled south on route 48 in his Ford pickup.
“Got a place that I only get to fish a couple times a year,” he said. “Private pond with 10 inch bluegills and 12 inch crappies. May catch a few bass this time of year. It’ll be good.”
We drove for 15 minutes, back-tracking and snaking our way toward the Miami-Montgomery County line, and then west. We pulled into a long farm lane and then crept back through a mile-long line of trees and brush, finally emerging on the banks of a beautifully hidden two-acre body of water. The leaves of the hardwoods were just emerging. An occasional dogwood and rebud added accents of color to nature’s palette.
“This is it,” he said. “Wanna’ give me a hand with the boat?”
It took another fifteen minutes to outfit the boat with oars, coolers, bait boxes, and rods. In the process of driving Hickey discovered that one of his Pflueger reels had mysteriously been stripped of line – so we only had one pole to fish with.
“Doesn’t matter,” he claimed. “I’ve caught a lot of fish already this spring. It’ll be fun just to watch you.”
Of course there were cameras involved. There always are where I’m concerned, so special care had to be taken that the boat was wide enough, and stable enough, as not to capsize.
We pushed off from shore at about 12:30. The bright sunlight and warm temperatures had triggered a hearty wind from the southwest, which made it hard to navigate into the tight spaces along the shorelines where Dan wanted to fish.
We immediately hooked a few bluegills, but hardly the size that he anticipated – smalls ones, of the four to six inch variety.
“Throw those back,” he insisted. “We gotta’ find ‘em, but there are some monsters in this pond. They’re just about to spawn. We’ll work along the shores until we find them.”
For an hour it was slow, a fish here and one there. The wind was an obstacle, along with the tree limbs that hung out over the water, making it difficult to cast. After the third time of catching my jig and rubber grub, and having to go in to fish it loose…you guessed it. I began to lose patience.
In the interim we talked about old days, and old friends we’d known when he worked for the Division of Wildlife; and during my years in Troy at the old BK Photo Store.
We talked about good days, some bad days, Dan sharing with me his worst year – 1997 – when he lost both parents in the span of two months. It was also the year of his divorce.
I shared my worst year, 1982, when I was released from umpiring. Or, 2011, when I watched my dad die from Inclusion Body Myositis, a debilitating disease that mimics Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Our luck was slow for those two hours, but time flew as we alternately laughed and grew sober from conversation about lost friends and empty chairs around the table, of time having passed – and still passing – faster than the fishing.
We worked our way all along the banks and back, finally settling toward a brush pile at the narrow end of the pond. Immediately upon casting a jig into the pile it was slammed by something bigger, and aggressive. On four-pound line it was difficult to horse whatever it was out of the limbs, but when I did it was the biggest bluegill I’d ever caught. A big, brightly-colored male, it literally doubled the light spinning rod I was holding. Safely in the boat, the fish went into the cooler while I put the jig back in the same spot. Wham…another bluegill, identical to the one I had just caught…and then another, and another, and so on.
“We need about 50 of those kind,” Hickey chuckled.
“You do,” I said, conservatively, working a Nikon to get the evidence, color and composition, I wanted to share with this column. “Half that many will do.”
“Well,” he said, “…let’s see if we can’t find some big crappies.”
He lifted the anchor and re-positioned the boat on the other side of the brush pile, upwind, and about 20 feet farther out.
“They spook easy,” he cautioned. “It’ll be tough to keep the wind from pushing the boat back over that pile.”
But within seconds of putting a different colored jig in the water my rod was doubled down with a still bigger fish – this time a 14-inch bass.
“Don’t need those,” Hickey said, gently releasing it back into the water. “Throw back in the same spot.”
No sooner I did than another strike, possibly with more force than that with which the bass had struck. Whatever it was was big, too big, and a second later it was unhooked, and the lure was gone. The line had snapped and when it did I nearly went backwards into the pond as the back on my swivel seat gave way.
We re-rigged, and immediately the rod buckled. This time, being more patient, I pulled the biggest black crappie of my life out of the water, easily a foot long. Crappies have very soft mouths, and they’re easy to lose on tackle that light. But within moments of putting it in the cooler I had another of identical size in the boat.
The action suddenly was fast, entertaining, and the cooler began to fill as the shadows began to creep past the shoreline and out onto the water. Looking at my phone I discovered that we were now nearly five hours into fishing. As quickly as it had gotten good, suddenly the fishing got slower, and as we made our way back down the pond toward the truck on the bank…it stopped altogether.
“That’s fishing,” said Hickey, his ever-present smile ear-to-ear. “Had enough?”
“Easily,” I admitted, suddenly discovering a good case of sunburn to go with the 30 or so fish we kept.
We cleaned them of course, or should I say…Dan cleaned them. He’s a wizard with a filleting knife. And before long the sun was fast gone down and it was time to head back home.
“Thank you,” I said, offering my hand. “That was fun, and so much more than the fishing. I remember now why people do it.”
“It’s the anticipation of it,” Dan said. “You never know what’s going to bite next – what you’re going to catch. It’s kinda’ like playing the lottery. You never know when the big one’s gonna’ come. We’ll do it again.”
But I swear…I don’t know when. Driving home I realized that it had probably been thirty years since I had last fished like that. And I remembered that it had been fun even then, even with the same rigamarole of loading the truck, carrying the boat, line wrapped up in the trees, and of course…waiting for the fish to bite.
I realized as I drove that I won’t have another 30 years to wait. But I smiled, too, when I thought of why so many people read and enjoy Jim Morris’s weekly column on Press Pros.
And why so many people like to fish. Thank you Dan Hickey…for allowing me to hit the lottery, if only just once!
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