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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Weaver

Tie On a New Hook and Keep Fishing

It was a bitter, frustrating February day for a young fisherman.

My bicycle was in need of a tire, and I was bored with the fishing hole closest to home. Yet it was a Saturday, and I did not want to be home. I needed to be fishin’, even if I didn’t catch anything.

I had a new pole that hadn’t even been tried, as well as a shiny Rapala that I didn’t really know how to use. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been fishing since my birthday – at that point in time, I literally fished more days than not, pedaling my bicycle furiously to Mrs. Warren’s pond or some other spot. For some reason, I was “saving” that particular rod and lure for a special day.

I had never caught a pickerel, or jack as some folks called them. Now, the chain pickerel really has very little good going for it, other than the fact it’s a heckuva fighter on light or medium tackle.

It isn’t particularly large – at least not by catfish standards, which is how I measured everything – but it has about three fishes worth of bones for the price of one. Yet I was determined to catch a jack, and a big one. I think I saw an overly poetic article describing muskellunge or Northern Pike in an outdoors magazine, and became obsessed with catching a “freshwater barracuda.”

Jefferson Weaver

Courtesy of the men at the barber shop, I found out about the new fishing place, which was veritably teeming with jacks, crappie and bass, even in the dead of winter. The discussion led to a fiery debate between several of the patrons over whether one needed to use a “Yankee spoon,” a ball of worms or a nice fresh minnow for bait. I was so locked on I would have put all three on a fingertip if it would catch me a jack. Nobody fished at the new place in wintertime, in part because the owner charged the ridiculous sum of $3 a person.

I don’t know if Papa really had things to do a dozen or more miles away in another town, or if my unending talk of a new fishing hole wore down his resistance, or if Miss Lois wanted us both gone. Regardless of motivation, I was happy as the proverbial clam when Papa suggested over breakfast that he drive me over to try out this new place, a supposed mecca of fish that would wait in line to be caught and brought home.

We swung through the whimsically named Dennis’ Fish Box, a combination bait shop and fish market where I spent a large amount of my youth and as much money as I could scavenge. The owner was kind of a frightening hero to me, since he always seemed gruff, his arms were ropy with muscle, and he had one thick pinky nail grown out into an “eye gouger.” I saw him wrap 15-pound test line around that nail once and snip it easy as with a razor-sharp knife.

He asked what I “was after” that frigid day, and I told him, possibly adding a couple extra “sirs” along the way. He suggested worms or “minnies,” and I took a dozen of the doomed little fish and a container of worms.

We were off to do battle.

A solitary, leaning mailbox stood sentry over an open, rusted gate that bore a similarly rusted advertising sign festooned with the obligatory bullet holes. The gate obviously hadn’t been used for years, and I wondered if the “honest box” had even been checked, but I dutifully put my three dollars in the slot.

The millpond spread wide behind the dam. Weedbeds extended out anywhere from a foot or two to twenty or thirty feet. The books, magazines and my mentors told me this was perfect pickerel territory. I expected any moment to see a new state record clearing the water’s surface, speckled sides flashing in the morning light, snatching one of the cedar waxwings flying low over the pond.

Bundled in an old Army coat, a sweater or two and a warm toboggan cap, fueled by my mother’s pancakes, I manfully hauled my tackle box, minnow bucket and new fishing rod from the Oldsmobile. Usually Papa fished with me on adventures like this, but he was unashamed about being a fair-weather fisherman. He was content to read a couple newspapers in the front seat, coffee steaming a ring against the windshield.

Not his youngest son, though: I was after a pickerel. Numb fingers, rosy cheeks and all, I hadn’t come all this way to sit in the car.

So I fished. And I fished hard.

My poor minnows never stood a chance, since I wasn’t hooking them quite right. I must admit I hoped some of them survived their injuries and went on to make a new life in that pond, even if they had to swim cockeyed.

I made “worm balls” that deserved awards, set them the exact distance below the bobber, and carefully danced the rig along the edge of the weeds. No toothy monster roiled out to accept my offer of a duel.

I spent the better part of two hours stalking up and down the bank, meticulously casting my minnows and worms, and only caught an obviously uneducated crappie that hadn’t read the articles about catching pickerel.

A gentleman about my father’s age, maybe a few years older, came through the broken gate and waved. I had both hands full, so I tossed my head back in what I hoped was a grownup but polite greeting. He unlocked the “Honest Box”, nodded and came toward me.

He greeted me, thanked me for paying the fee (apparently scofflaws were the norm in that area) and asked if I was catching anything. I was embarrassed to admit I had only caught one tiny crappie, and I really wanted to catch a pickerel.

“Not bass? There’s good bass in here. They’re bedding over yonder.” I shook my head. Nothing but a pickerel would do.

He chuckled, and looked in my tackle box. It was cold enough that both of use exhaled steam with every breath.

“If it was me,” he said, carefully and respectfully, as befits one professional angler to another, “I’d try that big silver plug.” He was referring to my still-in-the-box Rapala. “Run it right along the edge of those weeds. There’s jacks in here. Just got to give them what they want. Good luck, young feller.”

I looked at the lure I had been saving, with its needle-sharp treble hooks and a clear lip that helped it wiggle in the water, and made a decision. My sheepsfoot Barlow came out, the worm ball came off, along with the bobber, and the Rapala went on.

I began carefully tossing the lure just as the old man, and the articles, said — out beyond the channel’s end, in the deep water. Let it sink a little, tighten the line, and begin reeling. Jerk the rod from side to side, giving the flashing lure the appearance of an easy meal.

The water in the channel was green, but clear with the chill of winter. You could see individual weeds. I jigged the lure close along the edge on one side, and was dragging it to the opposite side when the jack stuck his head out from the weeds and attacked.

I had dealt with enough fish by then that setting the hook was instinct. The drag on my little reel began clicking, then whirring as I adjusted it, giving the fish a little bit of room to run. It felt like it weighed at least 500 pounds, and I was using ten-pound test.

I actually saw the veritable leviathan (which may have weighed two pounds on a good day) as it thrashed out of the weeds, into the channel, then made a hard left into the weed bank it had just left. My rod was impossibly bent, but I was determined to horse that fish back out into clear water.

There was a jerk, and the rod snapped up.

I had lost the jack, as well as my brand-new lure.

I was too young to be philosophical about lost rigs. I didn’t pitch a fit or cry, but I could have done both. I just closed up my box, grabbed my rod, wiped my running noise and headed back to the car. The owner of the pond waved as he saw us pull out.

I explained to Papa how I had lost that big old fish, and he commiserated as any good father would. I kept trying to break down what I might have done wrong, and I was especially upset that I’d lost that storebought lure the first time I took it out of the box. I didn’t want my folks to think I was wasteful or not old enough to take care of nice things. Papa tried to reassure me.

A few miles down the road, he asked if I would like to stop and see a friend of is who had a hardware and sporting goods store. He thought it might cheer me up. I agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

I immediately went to the fishing section, and began longingly checking out virtually everything, including the lure just like the one I had just lost. I was sure I would never be allowed to have something so nice again. What made matters worse was the stuffed jack on the wall behind the cash register.

In the car, Papa handed me a small brown paper bag. There inside, encased in stiff plastic and cardboard, was the cousin of the lure I’d just lost. If I recall correctly, it cost the princely sum of three bucks.

“You’re going to lose hooks and stuff sometimes,” Papa said, “but you don’t quit fishing just because you had a bad day. Sometimes you do your best, and bad things still happen. You get over it and start again.”

I caught a jack later that spring, on a minnow set for a crappie. The fight was every bit of what I expected, and the fish was every bit as bony as I’d been warned, but I still ate it. I still enjoy catching those fearsome looking creatures, although we often seem to have more blackfish than jacks in my neck of the woods.

I eventually lost that second Rapala, but not until it had harvested a respectable bass or two, as well as some big crappie and even another jack. That day was about much more than fishing, or visiting a store, or hamburgers and cokes at a country diner.

My papa showed me that day, as he did so many other times, that even if you do everything right, things will still sometimes go wrong.

All you can do is tie on another hook, and keep on fishing.

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