Catch a Fish

Some time back in the ‘80s, I decided I needed a new fishing reel. I spent a couple days of summer vacation fishing with my older cousin, and he’d introduced me to his Shimano Bantam bait-casting reel. It was shiny and black, with small silkscreened text identifying the various capabilities of the machine; claims regarding the number of ball bearings it contained and which parts were graphite or aluminum. It was mounted to a fancy graphite rod with a sophisticated looking rubber grip. It had guides made by Fuji, and this was reportedly a big deal.

Foremost in the array of technologies incorporated into this fish-slaying device was a system of sophisticated magnets that created a field in which the aluminum spool would not spin faster than the line played off it while casting. The effect was that backlashes during casting were reduced or eliminated. I didn’t know what backlashes were , and neither of us had any idea how they could be prevented with magnets, but it felt like we were entering a new era in fishing.

I did the majority of my fishing during this era with my father. Although we were living at the zenith of televised largemouth bass fishing, my old man was ambivalent toward that species. Lakes bored him, and what few there in southern West Virginia weren’t nearby anyway. The only boat we had was an old aluminum jon boat that had been spray-painted white and was missing a motor.

My ambivalence was toward the boat. I’d barely escaped peeing my pants during a few skin-of-the-teeth trotline runs on the upper New River. Even my father, who has little patience for caution, was leery of the combination of underpowered boat and overpowered river.

Besides, it was a pain in the ass to load into the back of the truck, and you couldn’t possibly fish out of it in the New River. It was only good for running a trotline if you happened to be on an overnight catfishing excursion. It therefore spent most of its tenure at our house leaning against the fence in the side yard.

Eschewing the largemouth, the old man had three principal quarries. First, the noble trout. In southern West Virginia, this means the pasty gold ones that were shot into Spruce Laurel Fork from high-speed jets on the rear of hatchery stock trucks. Not the romantic Robert Redford browns and cutties breaking the surface of a misty morning spring creek to gulp your hand-tied Caddis.

Channel and mud cats grew to mythical size in the richly oxygenated waters of the Bluestone dam spillway, and these monsters were irresistible to my father. Fishing for mud cats happens mostly at night and involves a lot of sitting around in the dark listening to scary stories. Ghosts were nothing compared to the tales of the mutant crocodile-sized mud cat that had escaped after sucking the scales and eyeballs off a yellow carp that had already had the great misfortune to be caught by the trotline. My father was in pursuit of one of these beasts on the evening I came into the world and had to be summoned home for the occasion. Within a couple of years I gleefully joined him for some of the happiest weekends of my life.

The real reason dad fished, however, was the smallmouth bass. To fans of the bronzeback, it is to the largemouth bass what a catfish is to a carp. It is of a higher caste, a thoroughbred race horse compared to the dopey, draft-sized largemouth, which isn’t even a real bass anyway. The smallmouth, on the other hand, is compact and powerful, fighting like a demon and as wily as the trout from years of feeding in the rapids. A real quality fish that even uppity fly-casters would slip into their Orvis cane creels.

At age 12, I thought my old man was completely full of shit. Although you might occasionally see Roland Martin fish for some crappie or muskies, he certainly would not sully himself with some crappy smallmouth bass. The idea of dragging his beautiful sparkly Ranger Bass boat and trailer down the ramshackle, boulder-strewn “road” running past the various fishing holes along the New River in Prince, WV was unthinkable. Smallmouth bass were a chump’s fish, for amateurs without high-speed boats or shirts with badges on them.

My father taught me to fish in the classical manner, in which I was invited along for the trip but expected to look after my own affairs, heed the old man’s fishing instructions, not fall into the river, and especially not to cry or otherwise act like a spoiled baby in a distasteful way that would interrupt the fishing. Not the phony romantic father-and-son hair-tousling television fishing scene.

“Bonding” had not yet been invented; we went goddamn fishing. We ate slabs of cured meats from cans on Wonder Bread and stayed up all night with hardhats and mining lanterns manning the big catfish rods. By day we fished with night crawlers and red wigglers and crawfish and the terrifying hellgrammite. By night, it was shredded wheat, balled up like matzo, and putrid chicken livers that had sat in the sun. We climbed through briar patches down rock cliffs to get at holes, waded in swift water wearing sneakers, and boiled coffee in Styrofoam cups over the campfire. My old man caught fish by the thousands.

I tried not to cry, but being somewhat hopeless as an athlete, much of my own time at the river was devoted perfecting skills like getting my line untangled from trees, from beneath rocks and from the invisible underwater obstacles that line every inch of the floor of the New River. I struggled desperately to tie on swivels and hooks and to remember when to put on a splitshot and how many to put on. I got bloodied in briar patches. I squealed like a little girl at the inevitable but innocuous bites of the hellgrammites and the occasional but genuinely agonizing pectoral fin stab (redeyes are the worst).

Despite all that, there was little I’d rather do than go fishing with my dad, even though he fished like a savage and didn’t wear conventional fishing apparel like Bill Dance.

My old man was (and is) a proponent the clunky old Zebco closed-face spin-casting reels, invented shortly after Eli Whitney devised the cotton gin. Fiberglass was stone-age technology even in the ‘80s, and the old man seemed blissfully unaware that technology had passed him by. He didn’t even own a graphite fishing rod.

I got the default Zebco 33 combination set from Heck’s department store;who knew what brand of guides were installed on that fiberglass rod? The notion of out-fishing my father with these antiques was absurd; I may as well have been fishing with a cane pole and a shoestring. s

But as I gazed upon my cousin’s Shimano Bantam Mag bait-casting reel, I knew I’d finally found the answer to my fishing problems.

Completely sold on this new technology, I pored over my cousin’s tackle box and he told me the names of the arsenal of plugs and lures. They were exquisitely crafted things with deadly clusters of treble hook, rattling, sparkling things with dangerous sounding names: the Rattlin Rap, the Bomber. After vacation I set upon my threadbare edition of the Cabela’s spring catalog, constructing a plan to show my father the power of modern technology.

A major problem became evident almost immediately. The Shimano Bantam retailed for about 60 bucks, an unthinkable sum of money for a 12-year-old boy in the ‘80s. Near to it in the catalog was the Ambassadeur LITE bait-casting reel, a sleek graphite affair. Conspicuously absent was any mention of ball bearings; I assumed maybe this was an oversight. At $35, the Ambassadeur was an attainable goal.

After some six agonizing weeks of saving and a number of abortive outings to K-Mart during which I gazed almost erotically at the Ambassadeur in the fishing display case, I finally got my reel. There was still the matter of the rod and the plugs I would need to begin out-fishing my father, but the heart of the system was in place. I reveled in the aroma of the 3-In-1 oil and the crisp break of the thumb cast lever. I cleaned and re-lubricated the reel after hour-long reeling sessions, memorizing the order of the screws and pins until I could reassemble it blindfolded.

My father, with whom I had shared no details of my plan, noticed and was intrigued by my purchase. Where was I figuring on using such a rig? he asked. He’d know soon enough, I thought to myself. Next he asked if I knew how to use a bait-casting reel, and I explained that the miraculous magnetic anti-backlash control built into this marvelous machine meant no backlashes ever. He suggested that I try one of his smallest catfishing reels (a beautiful Pfleuger that a buddy of his had thrown into the river in a fit of rage some years earlier when introduced to bait-casting rigs) in the backyard. Why, I thought, would I abandon modern technology in order to learn to cast this fishing artifact that didn’t even have any magnets in it? I passed on his offer.

After a few days the old man took pity on me and bought me a rod and some line, but there was a fiasco. The rod was bright red, a color that no self-respecting bass fisherman would use, and it was only half graphite. Despite these shortcomings, it did mean that I could set my plan into action, so I grudgingly handed over the reel to my father to be loaded with line, as I had no idea how to do this on my own.

A late-summer fishing trip down at the river was scheduled in a few weeks, but I was bursting to get on the water. I phoned a friend, explained the situation, and within minutes we’d located a hole on the Little Coal River outside Madison to begin the harvest. Although the odds of catching anything living (other than disease) in the Little Coal River at that time were extremely slim, I felt this added an additional element of challenge, and that my old man would be impressed when the Ambassadeur could deliver up bounty even from this watery wasteland. I clicked the bail release of the reel and admired the neat crisp lines of the Stren monofilament under my thumb. In a powerful, graceful arc, I cast the Ambassadeur.

About four feet of line played out, the spool halted, and the bait plopped into the water at my feet. Amazing! The magnetic anti-backlash control, conservatively set at its highest-numbered position, had performed exactly as advertised! Not the beautiful cast I’d hoped for, but a vindication of science and progress. Besides, the Little Coal River was only about 20 yards wide at this point. I turned the anti-backlash control to 4 and cast again.

The remainder of the fishing trip I cannot recollect clearly. My memories were corrupted by a smear of rage and tears, swearing, pulling, opening and closing of the bail, reeling and pulling again. It was an ugly time there, on the banks of the Little Coal.

Backlash, when the line leaving the rod slows down before the slightly weighted spool does, makes trying to get bubblegum out of your hair while tangled in concertina wire seem preferable. Because the line was only a moment before beautifully and evenly laid upon the spool, the puffy bird’s nest bulging out of the fishing reel is an affront to the eye, and the tangles are so unyielding as to make a 13-and-up level jigsaw puzzle seem trivial. Years later I learned that the correct solution to a backlash is to cut all the line off the reel and respool it, but the idea was unthinkable. Glowing with fury I trudged home to dismantle the reel and undo the backlash.

There is more I could tell you about the life of this reel. I could write another article about caving in, practicing in secret with the old man’s bait-casting reels in the back yard, splicing his lines together in a panic in the shed after hurriedly cutting out a huge wad of backlash. How he discovered the splice years later during a late night catfishing session, when I was safely off on my own.

I can sling a bait-casting reel fine now, but rarely do because they’re a pain in the ass unless you need to cast a mile, or if you’re fishing offshore. When I fish for smallmouth now, I generally go for an open-face spinning reel. They’re a little bit different than Dad’s Omega 44, a little more prone to bird’s-nesting, but a hair smoother. When you are frequently fishing in shallow water, or casting into spots only a couple of yards from where you are standing, you will quickly discover the caveats of using a reel that is designed sling heavy bait a long way with silky smoothness, magnets or no.

Despite learning this lesson at a young age, I’ve never (and likely will never) come anywhere near sheer quantity of fish my father has caught out of that river. Every species, every season, morning, noon, or night, with a trickle or a flood of flow, on living, dead, or dying bait, or bait that was never alive. On occasion he catches nothing, but there are days where he stops counting after a hundred; these are the ones that we talk about on the phone, he’ll tell me the number of gates open at the dam upstream, the flow and the temperature of the water.

Other than a conversation we had a few years back about the strengths and weaknesses of the new very high strength braided lines (he loves them on an ultralight reel, but still likes eight-pound mono on the larger reels), I don’t remember having any conversations with my father about fishing gear. I have never heard him complain about a piece of gear, except maybe 20 years ago when he remarked about the marked decline in the quality of Zebco reels that prompted him to shop around for another underhung spinner like his Omega. Subsequently the company changed hands and the quality improved again.

Like the handful of New River guides I enjoy fishing with, my old man catches a lot of fish because he considers the problem of where the fish are in the river and how to give them what they want, not the details of how to get that thing to the fish. Granted, that part poses problems, but they are trivialities in comparison to the challenges of understanding a body of water that is in constant violent motion and entangled with the atmosphere and the moon and these creatures that are in constant motion within it, sometimes following rules, often not.

Fishing with my father was the most important lesson I ever learned about programming computers.