"C'est la vie", say the old folks,
it goes to show you never can tell."
You Never Can Tell
Dateline: Pone' Place, Oneida Lake
The worms in my pants pocket were not doing well.
Neither was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The 48 cents in the other pocket was safe.
Even at the age of 14, I knew it wasn't good to mix worms and cash.
But it was my job to bring the worms. And lunch.
The summer of 1966, I was 14 and living four blocks from the Buffalo city line in Kenmore, N.Y.
That year was a bad year for vegetable gardens on Victoria Blvd.
You see, I was the worm guy.
I had this neighbor kid friend, Davey (no last names will be used in this in case any of those mentioned grew up to be able to afford more expensive lawyers than I can afford), and of all my friends he was the only one with a magazine he didn't have to "borrow" from Giambria's Newstand when Carmine was in the back room writing down some numbers.
And if Carmine is still not locked up and somehow has access to the web, don't be hollerin' at me, every magazine I brought back still had the middle fold-out picture intact.
Unlike others I shall not name.
But Davey actually had his magazines delivered to his house, all legit like. He was the "good kid" influence on me. If I was out with him, I could stay out past the street lights going on.
Every Friday I gave him half my allowance for walking over to my house, ringing the bell or "otherwise showing your face," and then we would both walk up to the corner, just out of sight of my mother in the front picture window, and he would go back home, 50 cents richer, and I would go over to Maria's house and wait in her garage until she sort of crawled out the old coal delivery door in the basement.
And we would be in her garage until way past the street lights going on.
Davey was my best friend.
And so it was when he showed me his well-worn copy of the recently delivered, "Outdoor Life," with some big fish jumping out of water on the front cover and told me, "We have to do this," that I did it.
Friday nights, past the street lights, rested upon it.
"We have to do this" was fishing. Davey, after reading about fishing, wanted to fish. All that summer he took my half of my allowance, saved it, and somehow came up with enough money to buy a fishing pole, a reel, and a red and white bobber.
Davey also "borrowed" his older sister's goldfish net— the magazine illustration wasn't quite clear enough to determine the actual net size needed to land the jumping fish — and from out of his father's old toolbox, one not-too-bent-up hook, and a whole bunch of tangled up fishing line.
Took us Monday through Wednesday to untangle it and get it onto the reel, and then it wouldn't stay wound up until another friend, Sammy, the "he's going to get you locked up" influence in my life, came up with the idea of scotch taping the first few revolutions onto "the round thing."
One problem: We had whatever kind of rod and reel six Friday nights worth of half my allowance could buy, one red/white bobber (that I was told would somehow signal us that the jumping magazine cover fish was just about ready to jump) some old fishing line with most of the knots and loops taken out, and one only partially rusted hook.
Davey: "We need bait."
Little db: "For who?"
Little db: "For what."
Davey: "To catch the jumping fish."
Little db: "Isn't that what the goldfish net is for."
Davey: "We need worms."
I just stood there. I had no idea where worms came from or how you could actually GET worms.
Davey: "Mrs Lizandrelli ... she's got worms. We can get some tonight. Meet me here around 10 (the latest hour at night a kid can imagine) and we'll get some worms. Bring pop (a Buffalo term for soda, Davey would never recommend me bringing my father to a sneak-out-of-the-house event).
So that night the two of us snuck over to Mrs. Lizandrelli's backyard tomatoes and grapes garden, poured soda pop onto the dirt and waited for the worms to emerge.
One did, and I grabbed it, most of it anyway.
On Thursday morning, Davey and I climbed on our bicycles, told our parents we were going somewhere safe, and took off to catch Davey's first jumping magazine cover fish.
Walking around, worms can survive quite a while in your pocket, but when you stick one in your pocket, along with lunch, and then peddle a bike several miles to the Niagara River, your chances for catching a jumping magazine cover fish declines significantly.
Especially, if the one half a worm you have is pretty much covered in peanut butter and jelly.
Davey never caught a magazine cover jumping fish that day. The peanut butter and jelly half a worm only lasted a couple of throws before it was gone, and despite spending an hour or so looking for bait in the boat ramp parking lot, Davey and I never went out together again.
Junior High School started, then high school, dances, girls, proms ... life. But you never forget the feel of half a worm and whole sandwich in your pocket, or midnight raids into the neighbor's gardens.
Or jumping magazine cover fish.
Which is why I wasn't going to pass up my second invite to go fishing.
Even if it was to fish against the best anglers on the planet. To be in a tournament and compete to beat the Elites.
And this is the email invite that started it all:
Hope you are all enjoying your time at home. It's hotter than hot in Arkansas and we are looking forward to the trip north to cooler temps.
Kevin and I thought it would be fun to have a couples tournament before Oneida — thinking something like four hours on Onondaga either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, depending on what's good for most. Bring the kids."
The email was from K2, Kerry Short, the wife of Bassmaster Elite Pro, K-Pinkm and it was sent to around 24 Elite anglers.
I replied, "db & bb are in."
Davey would be proud.
"You did WHAT!"
"With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn't laugh we would all go insane"
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
So I entered a couples fishing tournament. And then I told the other half of my couple. My wife, Barb.
bb: "You did WHAT!"
db: "I entered us into a fishing tournament."
bb: "A FISHING tournament ... we don't fish ... we don't KNOW HOW TO FISH. Who's in it."
db: "Just some friends ... you know some Elite guys and their wives."
bb: "ELITES? You've entered us into a fishing tournament, something we have never done, and you have us fishing against THE BEST OF THE BEST AT FISHING."
db: "Uh huh ..."
bb: "You're going alone."
If you've been married for 35 years and you can still surprise your wife like that, that's special right there. To bad it wasn't Barb's birthday.
I didn't go alone though.
bb: "I'm coming ... prevent you from killing yourself."
Barb knows me.
bb: "So ... how do you suppose we are going to learn how to fish between now and then, and fish well enough to compete against the pros?"
db: "No problem, I bought a book."
bb: "I'm going to bed."
I highlighted the good parts of it for when Barb got up. db notes.
A few days later I brought the subject up again, "Where's the garden shovel." Through hard work, and sending in stories on the editor's days off, I've actually made it to the Middle Class, and now own my own worms (R.I.P. Mrs. Lizandrelli , miss your tomato sauce).
bb: "Don't even think of going near my garden."
Forgot I told her the Davey story ... minus the Maria garage thing.
bb: "... and besides, Kerry says we need to use minnows."
I'd been Facebook friended ... K2 and bb are Facebook friends ... they've been talking without me.
I'm standing there wondering if it's possible to find minnows in the backyard. It has been a very rainy summer after all, and Barb, having seen that db in the headlights look MANY times over the years, tosses me the Hula Girl minivan keys and says, "Let's go buy some fake fish."
Within a minute of getting the plastic bucket of fake minnows, I'm acutely aware of a Hall-of-fame stink. Here's a tip, if you are ever in a bait store looking to buy the stuff of fish catching, and no one seems to be waiting on you, go over to the buckets of the stinky fake plastic baits, and open up one of the buckets.
Better yet, bring it over to the air conditioner blowing aisle and let the lid loose.
You'll be up to your neck in "associates" before the stink wafts over there to the fishing shirt aisle where the folks looking to buy $80 shirts with snaps realize that SPF protection is not near as important as Stink Protection. And leave.
A peanut butter and jelly covered half a worm no match for this stuff.
So we wrapped the two buckets up in several layers of bait store plastic bags, two gallon sized ziplock bags with the heavy duty lock slide thing, and for good measure added two coconut smelling rearview mirror hanging Hula Girls.
But the dog never stopped sniffing all the way from home to the Onondaga boat launch ramp.
"Baby I'm a man and maybe I'm a lonely man
who's in the middle of something
that he really doesn't understand."
Maybe I'm Amazed
All around me are Elite Anglers in tournament mode, and they are looking at me like smallmouth look at the stinky minnows I'm holding in a bucket.
It's Shark Week in Syracuse.
I'm the chum in Costas.
Randy Howell looks at me and smiles. I've seen that look before, it normally accompanies the word, "Audit."
Mike McClelland shakes my hand and gives me the same look that Tiger Woods gives a putt-putt course. Even his young son, Noah, looks at me with the "I can take this dude," sneer.
Ken and Tammy Cook, being friends of mine and bb's, avoid eye contact, knowing what is about to happen.Their dog, Ali, just stares at me thinking, "You may stink real good buddy, but even I have caught more fish than you ..."
And the dog would be correct.
In my whole entire life ... all 57 years ... I can count all the fish I have caught on one hand, and I don't even have to open the fingers up. Any of them.
But since I have never fished before, not catching any fish seemed to be a pretty good batting average. When I don't do things, I'm very good at not doing them well.
Doing things are where the wheels come off.
K-Pink knows this. All to well. Which is why I sense he "volunteered" to have db and bb in the pink boat. Friends can toss friends overboard, strangers have liability issues when that happens.
So once again I climb into these rocket ships with livewells and bb and I get a one-on-one lesson from an Elite Pro on how to catch Bass. bb asks questions I never even thought of, K-Pink answers every question while looking at me with the "I know the db elevator is stuck at the mezzanine level," look.
K-Pink hands me a fishing pole that says it was specifically made for the guy who just handed it to me, tells me about the wonders of "Spinning Reels," which for the record, Don't Spin since the rod is pretty much locked onto the pole thing, and then says I will be "Drop-Shotting."
Allegedly what I'm supposed to do is take the fishing pole made for someone else, stick it out over the water, flip some "bale" thing so the reel that is firmly attached will magically start spinning and drop-the-shot, which looks like a lead tear drop which I take as a real bad omen, into the drink and then, THEN, the fishing begins because without the ability to see much past the end of the pole I'm supposed to know when the business end of this hits the bottom of the lake.
Folks, this is like trying to open up a box of chocolate covered raisins in a dark movie theater AFTER the movie starts.
Without my reading glasses I CAN'T SEE MY FEET, yet I'm supposed to know where the bottom of the lake is down there. Right.
We launch, with me given the honors of giving the starting inspirational command which went exactly like this ... "Go."
And the seven Elite boats take off, including one with Elite Pro Brody Broderick and some guy who would only identify himself as "Tidrow." A "Couple of Crazy Guys " apparently also qualifies you for this tournament.
Steve and Julia Kennedy and their daughter Sophia were also part of the launch, 'cept they were technically still on the NYS Thruway, but since they called from the toll booth right before I yelled, "Go," we figured that worked, and let them in.
68 mph later, K-Pink stopped. Bass of course, get around at a much slower speed but need to see the huge wakes to know the tournament above them has begun and it's time to hide.
Fair-warning fishing at its best.
Ten minutes later K2 lands the first bass in the boat.
Four minutes later, K-Pink has a bass in the livewell.
I don't even have sunscreen on yet.
At 1:43 p.m. August 9, 2009, somewhere near the bottom that I can't see of Onondaga Lake, using someone else's pole, with a stationary spinning reel using a tear drop of lead and a fake stinky minnow, I caught my FIRST FISH.
A smallmouth bass.
I announced the event to the world exactly like this ... "HELP!"
And as K-Pink shouted out commands of what to do, of which I pretty much ignored, I could only think of one thing ... the fish on the end of the line.
Fish dude, you couldn't have been any more surprised by your situation than I was.
I just stood there and felt the tugs, watched the pole bend, the line zig zag around, heard the birds above, smelled the water below, hung on as the universe shared what nature was all about.
Out of 8 couples, we finished fifth. bb caught three fish, none of which made the 12-inch length limit to keep, but all of which hooked Barb enough to say, "We should do this more often."
And we might. Anytime we do anything together, it's a good thing, and that may be the best part of this sport.
The Howell's won the tournament and were presented with the yet un-named trophy that Barb made from super gluing together some stuff we bought in the Wal-Mart aquarium department.
The entry fee money was all thrown in a pot and everyone agreed that it will be given to some local charity.
All the bass boated survived and were released back from whence they came, including my bass.
The first fish I ever caught.
As I watched Laker Howell run my fish back to the water, and gently place my bass back in the lake and wave goodbye as it swam away, I could only think of that moment in time on the boat when the universe slowed everything down for me to see nature up close.
And I wondered, just who had caught who.
"A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king,
and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm."
— Shakespeare (Hamlet)
Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and is also a member of the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com