I am a fisherman. Fishing is a part of my soul, but I can remember a time when it wasn’t. I was the black sheep of my family in almost every respect I can think of. One of the many, many ways I was different was my attraction to the outdoors. Some people want to go to the zoo to see animals, others want to find out where the animals live and go see them there. I am in the latter group. I always had to go further, see more, learn more, and experience more. However, there was a time when I knew nothing about the outdoors. I can clearly remember the era when I wanted to fish but didn’t know how.
Nobody in my family fished or hunted. I had absolutely zero exposure to it in my home. Occasionally my social orbit would take me past someone who did and I got a quick glimpse into the world, and I loved what I saw.
Early in my high school years I found a small pond near my house. On the bus ride home from school we’d pass over a nondescript body of water called Dogue Creek. I’d occasionally catch glimpses of people through the trees fishing back there. From the road there was a small, beat down trail you could use to access it but I didn’t know anyone who fished.
I have no clue where I got the gear, but I started fishing a small pond near the house. I think I was probably using corn and bread because in the very few instances where I had fished up to that point, that’s all I’d ever used as bait. I made several trips to the lake. Each time I caught nothing, and watched people around me occasionally land one. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, maybe everything. I had to find a way to do better.
At the local drug store, I found a fishing magazine on the rack one day. I had never seen a fishing magazine in my life, but I took a chance, and bought it. They had articles on catching sunfish. I read everything I could, then copied what they said to do, and boom…I was catching fish. My research had led to knowledge, and knowledge to success. I was holding in my hand the first fish I had ever intentionally targeted and caught, a bluegill. It wasn’t an accidental catch, I had purchased and rigged gear specifically to go after this type of fish and it had worked. A light bulb had come on and illuminated the dark landscape around this topic in my mind. The success felt great. I was now the guy catching fish. I suddenly knew what I was doing. Soon I would hit more switches and more lights would come on.
The trips after that were all to the same lake and using the same pattern in different areas. I enjoyed some level of success on almost every outing and it was a ton of fun. That little pond even introduced me to one of an anglers’ oldest foes: storms. I was a young high school kid with very little fishing experience. I found myself just slaying the bluegill one afternoon and noticed that the sky was turning really dark and the wind was picking up. I was catching fish though so I didn’t have a care in the world. Suddenly I could hear something in the trees behind me. It sounded like it was everywhere in the trees. It wasn’t rain…it was hail! Since I didn’t have a tackle box, leaving in a hurry was easy. I just reeled in and ran. When I got to the road I couldn’t believe how dark the sky was toward my house. It was almost a blackish purple. I ran the half-mile to my house though an increasingly heavy pelting. It wasn’t a heavy damaging hail but it was enough to leave me stinging and red when I got to the house. I didn’t want to get caught in that storm, but it would be the first of many that would leave me excited having survived it.
Soon enough I wanted to explore new waters and see if I could replicate my success on the Dogue Creek “pond”. The “headwaters” of this pond were the natural target. A small creek flowed under a bridge on the north end of the lake and provided most of the water that filled it. The “bridge” was just a very low county road bridge. If my memory is correct, it wasn’t even tall enough to walk under without stooping. Beyond the bridge to the north though everything changed. It was a wide, swampy thicket with a creek meandering through it. This thicket was a big rectangle bordered on all sides by county roads and homes.
To the west was a solid wall of development, homes, townhouses, and commercial business had popped up everywhere over the years. However, their progress was apparently stopped by the swampy nature of this area. It wasn’t worth the time to make this place habitable. On one side of Sacramento Road was modern society with a long row of housing developments leading to a shopping center. If you walked across the street it was like the edge of town. There was a long empty field 100 yards wide, then the swampy thicket popped up.
On the north side was Highway 1, a major thoroughfare for the east coast. To the east and south were side roads used by the locals to access Highway 1 and other travel routes they’d need to get where they wanted to go.
So, this rectangular swamp needed some probing. Surely there were fish in there, right? My friend Roger and I decided to check it out one day. Armed with a single fishing pole and a Walkman stereo we crossed the field and pushed deep enough into the swamp to soak our shoes and find some fishable water. We weren’t deep into it, you could still see the road from our final spot, but you could access some water.
Some 80’s band was playing over the Walkman and I’m sure we were talking about whatever you talk about when you’re in the10th grade and have nothing to do, but the fish weren’t biting. It was so slow that we wondered if fish could even live here.
About that time something turned our attention to the road. I don’t know what made us look. Perhaps we heard the car door slam shut, maybe we heard the tires slowing on the pavement. Whatever it was, it announced a visitor. Someone had stopped directly across the field from us, gotten out, and were walking toward us.
This wasn’t Small Town, USA. This was northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. Crime was a daily fact of life. Besides having your run of the mill big-city-crime, crack cocaine was getting huge and drug wars were fueling crime and murder every day in the news. Two teenagers being found killed in the woods might make the papers, but it wouldn’t stay there very long.
Seeing a stranger stop and approach us in such and isolated area wasn’t necessarily scary, but it was definitely cause for concern. Were we fishing private property? Was he going to tell us to leave? He didn’t seem to have a weapon, but that didn’t mean much because he was way older than us, and bigger, and we were isolated. We had no idea why this guy was coming out to see us.
He called to us as he approached to say hello, and we greeted him back. He asked what we were fishing for and we said something like, “We really don’t know.”
He looked around the thicket, into the creek, and then across it to scan the wetlands. He was gauging the place for something. Perhaps he was looking for a place to dump our bodies. We still didn’t know what the stranger wanted.
He asked if he could give it a shot with the fishing pole. We said sure. He told us he was a professional fisherman, which in my world in the early 1980’s was something I’d never heard of. This was back in the days before the internet. Heck, I only knew one person who had a computer in their house and it was so expensive we weren’t allowed to touch it. We had three TV channels and my family didn’t have “cable”. The big three channels didn’t waste any bandwidth on something like fishing. Fishing shows didn’t exist.
I can’t remember what rod or reel I had, or even what type of hook or what was on it, but I handed the rod to him and he began casting. As he cast he looked around and told us things about the area. “You see how the top of the water is moving near that log? That’s current, you can see it moving like that when it gets near an obstacle in the water.” We’d been there an hour and hadn’t noticed it, or if we did we certainly didn’t know that it was significant. He was casting around and giving us a class on fishing. Bang! The rod bowed. Lo-and-behold this stranger had in less than two minutes, done what we’d been unable to do in an hour. He caught a fish from what we thought was fish-less water. Then he told us why the fish bit where it did. I don’t know how long he stayed but he was just the nicest guy. He was probably in his mid 20’s if my memory is correct. He was wearing jeans and a flannel pattern shirt and was from somewhere down south. He happened to be in the area on business, saw a couple of kids fishing and thought he’d stop to talk about fishing. In the process, he gave us invaluable information that would clue us in on how to catch more fish the very next time we were on the water.
Right about the time that guy was telling us he had to go, he saw something off in the thicket. “Y’all see that?”
“What?” we answered. Our city minds were trained to spot things like 7-11 stores up ahead (nachos, Big Gulps, and video games were there), or cars we liked. We’d never spent a single minute of our lives trying to identify a moving animal in the wild.
“Raccoon” he said as he pointed into the patchwork of saplings and branches.
We peered as hard as we could, trying to resolve a raccoon from the jumble of tan and brown branches. Soon enough there it was. We could see it slipping past in the distance. The stranger began to make a weird sound with his mouth. I’d never heard it before so I had no clue what he was doing.
“I’m gonna call him closer” he said. At first, I was like, “Why would we want that thing closer?” A 10th grade city kid has no idea if a raccoon will attack him or not. Almost as if it were magic, that coon turned and began ambling right toward us. The anticipation was palpable as it slipped into and out of view behind the vegetation. In short order, it was just across the shallow creek from us, front feet up on a small beaver dam and head moving back and forth as it worked out a problem it was trying to solve.
We were stunned. This stranger had stopped his car, approached us, borrowed our rod, caught fish, called in a raccoon and given us a free lesson on fishing the whole time. Then he told us goodbye and left. This guy swept through, leaving a trail of knowledge and better anglers in his wake. I’ll never know his name, but I’d like to thank him. Here’s to all the mentors who have taken time out of their day to help someone just for the sake of helping.