In the company of anglers, the words secret spot invite a barrage of where, when, and how questions. As a rule, such an utterance will be seen as dubious. Like nightcrawler dirt stuck beneath a fingernail, suspicion among an angler's friends will linger until either an invitation or enough information is pried loose.
While it's fun to tag along to someone else's secret spot, there comes a time when discovering your own fishing hole becomes more satisfying than catching fish from someone else's. I'll never forget stumbling across my first, but I cannot lay sole claim to it. Someone I fished with for many years, but had never talked to, showed it to me.
As a boy growing up in the Twin Cities metro area, I explored fishing waters within biking distance to fill the time between fishing trips with my dad and grandpa. The local bait shop was tucked away in the corner of a service station near the school. On a wall next to the bait tanks, a single panel of water-stained white pegboard held a paltry selection of overpriced tackle. It wasn't much of a bait shop, but to me it still seemed like a mystical place.
I had left the parking lot of that old gas station many times with a 5-gallon pail full of bait slung across my handlebars. Before long, the owner's look of annoyance at having to net out less than a dollar's worth of crappie minnows melted away to one of amused interest.
"You getting any?" he might ask with a smile, wiping grease from his hands before dipping into the tank.
"A few," I might answer.
For the most part, I fished alone, away from public piers and crowds. I'd duck through the vacant lots and county land that were holes in the armor of private property bordering the creek or lake where I liked to fish. If I did have any company, it was always the same old Asian man, who also rode a bicycle.
Having been well instructed not to talk to strangers, I took several seasons to discover the old man didn't speak a word of English. So we did our fishing in silence, each giving the other his respected distance. We didn't seek out each other's company, but it was never a surprise when we both appeared along the bank. Over time we settled on a simple wave to acknowledge our familiarity.
As my forays gradually took me farther from home, I happened to run into the old man one spring at a place I hadn't been to before. Something was different about him that day. Instead of a salutatory wave, he beckoned me to the other side of the creek. Running downstream to a sandbar, I waded across the creek and approached him.
He pulled up his line to show me how far his bobber was set from his hook, then gently pitched his rig into the slow water of a small eddy. In an instant, a 3/4-pound black crappie was making his fiberglass rod dance.
He dropped the fish into a bucket and pointed to the spot, then retreated several steps upstream to watch me fish. I cast into the eddy; and before the sinker could pull the minnow down, the bobber telegraphed an abrupt and deliberate strike. I set the hook and hoisted a keeper up onto the bank.
The universally translated sound of good-natured laughter was the old man's response to my excitement.
If I had caught a crappie before that day, the memory of it has long since slipped away. I remember this one as my first.
I remember carefully threading the gold Aberdeen hook from the crappie's papery mouth. Compared with the small, tight scales of a bluegill, the larger loose armor on the crappie's flanks felt rough on my hand. In the sunlight, I discovered the subtle, iridescent luster that glints like polished black pearls along the dark backs of crappies.
I caught a half-dozen fish and pedaled home proudly, excited to share more than a fishing story. The next day after school, I found the old man at the spot; and we again took turns fishing. But I soon came to learn a good crappie bite is as fleeting as frost in April. When I returned several days later, the fish and the old man were gone.
The following year, as soon as the last of winter's snow disappeared into noisy storm drains, I began looking for the crappies again. The old man was there too; and for a few years, we enjoyed the bite together with silent, knowing grins.
The spring after I turned 16, I abandoned my bicycle for the new freedom afforded by four tires and a steering wheel. My priorities were changing, but the tug of spring and the prospect of crappie fishing drew me back to the creek. The fish were still there, but the old man never showed up.
I stopped by the creek the following spring several times. Not to fish, just to see if the old man had returned. When he did not, the appeal of the secret spot faded. I have not been back.
Nearly 20 years and countless days on the water separate me from the old man and the creek. But on warm spring days, my memory still coasts down a suburban street with a 5-gallon pail slung over my handlebars. I hope those same cues still beckon crappies to swim up the creek, and I wonder if there is anyone there to catch them.