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Meet "Mr. H"

8/26/2009

Editor's note: Anglers across the U.S. are buying fishing licenses in record numbers. Following is a story in our new series, Fishing America, representing a slice of American angling pursuits.

Seventeen years ago, Mr. H (John Harris, 76) retired from teaching high school English and Health and Physical Education.

He taught for 34 years, which included my wife, her father, and many of her relatives at a time when corporal punishment was widely used and generally accepted by parents and school boards. About eight years ago, my in-laws (who knew little of fishing) fixed us up, in a manly angler sort of way.

Mr. H is an active member of the Rimersburg Rod and Gun Club. Every year they hold a Youth Fishing Day for kids 12 and under to promote the sport of fishing. This past April, a record attendance was set with 103 kids (up from 59 the year before).

"This meant there were 103 parents and possibly as many grandparents watching their offspring enjoy the excitement of landing a nice 12-inch rainbow," he said. "This year the club splurged and bought 12-inch or better grade rainbows. We paid $4 a pound and bought 250 pounds. Everyone seemed to have a good time, with plenty of sunburns."

For my initial fishing trip with him back in 2001, all I had to do was show up on time. He's been known for leaving anglers who are late. But the winding roads around Rimersburg, Pa., were still new to me, and the green Chevy Astro was already running and the 16-foot jon-boat with 70 hp outboard hooked up and ready to go when I pulled in the driveway that afternoon. We shook hands.

"Got your license?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good." And I hopped in the van.

Soon we were anchored somewhere on the Allegheny River.

"OK, we're in 16 feet of water; the fish are 1 foot off the bottom. Grab a minny and use one pole with a No. 4 hook and split shot a foot up as your 'down pole,' jig with the other. Drop it to the bottom, then crank up two times. That will put your minny at about 14 feet. If they won't come up 12 inches for a minny, to hell with 'em."

That first afternoon on the river, we went through 10 dozen fathead minnows and probably caught 200 fish. Nothing big, but for several entertaining hours one of us was always hooked up with a walleye, sauger, rock bass, smallmouth, crappie, channel catfish, or bluegill. We kept only the big crappie in 5-gallon bucket.

When the minnows were gone, I pulled the anchor and he started the boat for the short ride down river. He dropped me off at the ramp, and then backed into the river to reposition the boat while I backed the trailer into the water until he yelled for me to stop.

Four people were preparing to fish from shore nearby. One young man approached me.

"Is that Mr. Harris?"

"Yup."

"It's him!" he yelled back to the others.

Mr. H gunned the boat expertly on the trailer and gave me the signal to pull up, then started stowing gear for the ride home, when the same young man approached him.

"Hello, Mr. Harris. I was in your class a few years ago."

"Hey there."

"Whatcha fishing for?"

"About 3 or 4 hours if the bait holds out." (One of his favorite replies.)

One of nine born from immigrants from the "old country" (Poland and the Ukraine), this first-generation American learned to fish on the Allegheny River near Franklin from his two older brothers. His father was working as an electrician and just didn't have the time to enjoy fishing as much as he would have liked.

"In those days, every one in our area of town had several steel casting rods with Pfluger bait casting reels spooled with 50-lb Dacron line," he said. "We fished mainly for catfish, carp, and horny chubs.

"Once in a long while we might catch a smallmouth or a walleye. To get our lines out into the river as far as possible, a used sparkplug was our favorite sinker tied to the end of the line."

In 1953, at the age of 19 he got a letter from President Eisenhower, drafting him into the army. During basic training, a cease-fire occurred in Korea.

"They quit because they knew I was coming," he said with a wry smile.

Despite the drastic interruption of fishing time, he served 2 years in the army, mostly at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., near Tucson, where he said it was "hard to find fishing spots in the desert."

After his tour in the army, he married his high school sweetheart, Sonnie, and left Franklin to go to college at Ole Miss, where it was not difficult to find fishing spots. He ruined two kitchen stoves making his own jig-heads. His first son was born while he was going to college and he paid his babysitter with fish, caught from some of the 100 farm ponds he had permission to fish. After graduating in 3 years, he returned to Pennsylvania, where he taught until retirement in 1992.

At one time, Mr. H used to fish about 300 days a year. With licenses in three states (Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York), he targets steelhead, crappie, walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth, bluegill, even smelt.

For gear, he is fond of the Shimano Spirex series spinning reels and the Ugly Stick rods, ranging from 5-foot, 9-inch lengths but his favorite is his Fenwick 10.5-foot "noodle rod" used mainly for steelhead off the shores of Lake Erie. On our trips, he usually wears slippers, just transitory footwear until time to wrestle on waders.

He buys his K-O Wobblers, Little Cleo's, and Krocodiles by the box, but in a small building in his backyard he still makes his own jigs and a special little something dubbed "spinno-minnow."

Among the mounts on the wall in there are a 31.5 inch walleye (10 pounds, 8 ounces), a 31.5-inch steelhead (13-6), a 21-inch smallmouth, and a 21.5-inch rainbow trout. But his favorite trophies are the 22-inch rainbow caught by his grandson, Sage, when he was three an a half and the 17.5-inch golden trout caught by his granddaughter, Skye, also three and a half at the time.

He even has a key to "Ken's Bait Shop," a former student allowing him 24-hour access to bait. Which would you rather have: a big symbolic cardboard key to the city, or yearly access to minnows at 3 a.m.?

Yet, he doesn't eat fish.

"I don't eat anything with fins or feathers," he says. "I stopped eating them when I could afford to eat something else."

If he keeps any fish, they're given away. Steelhead get dropped off at his sister's in Franklin; that bucket of crappies on our initial trip was given to "Jughead" on the return trip. He used to hold a yearly fish fry for 200 in his backyard.

"So why do you fish?" I asked.

"To relax. I used to hunt, but it is so permanent. BANG, BANG! You're done. Put the gun up. But with fishing, if I want to keep it fine, if not, I can let it go and keep on fishing."

Mr. H also has told me that as far as aging goes, "time spent fishing doesn't count against you."

Perhaps that has something to do with it, too.

He may be retired, but he is busy, and not just with fishing.
He has a system for everything: Bakes a mean peanut butter pie; Brews wine, but doesn't drink; Grows a massive garden, from which he gives out great quantities.

Since 1994 he has collected almost 2,000 Hot Wheels still in their original package for his grandson. And during elections, he enjoys switching neighbors' political signs under the cover of darkness.

When we make the 21-hour drive to Pennsylvania two or three times a year, I look forward to visiting with Mr. H. We don't even need to fish. I can usually find him at Lantelme's Auto Service and Sales most mornings before 9 a.m.

At 9, the clock in the gas station plays the Penn State fight song, so the Ole Miss graduate has already marched off to his own tune.

Mr. H doesn't fish as much as he used to. He helped his wife through some health issues a couple of years ago, and the increase in the price of gas kept him home other days... but the steelhead still call him. And the yellow perch. Oh, and if the smelt come in this year...