A fishing rod is my favorite hand-held mobile device. It's how I connect with friends. It links me to favorite sites. It recharges me without needing recharging. In fact, its powers often peak when outlets are miles away.
I am, of course, out of sync with society, a sorry soul who prefers a glorified stick to the sleek new devices that do everything, know everything, and go anywhere. And though I rely mightily on Siri's Athena-like wisdom and Google's ever-so-handy driving directions, I prefer rod to phone for one simple reason: A phone can't catch a fish. And as silly as that sounds, trying to catch a fish is how I met my longtime, best friends. It's how I still meet friends. It's also a glue that bonds family together.
I first felt the pull of a fishing pole during the 1950s at my grandparents' cabin. They stowed a half-dozen cane poles on bare ground beneath a rickety screen porch that jutted toward the lake. Upon arriving at the cabin, my job was to prime the well, pump the handle, and lug a pail of water inside for drinking and cooking. Once done, I was free to fetch a pole, bait a hook, and stand on the stubby wooden dock. It was heaven.
My favorite cane pole was twice my height. I had to hold it with two hands, one far in front of the other. Its length and my spaghetti-sized arms meant even a small sunfish put up a good fight. A decent bass was a real rasslin' match.
That dock is where I caught the fishing fever. It spread quickly, hastened by parents who bought me a new fiberglass rod from the local sporting goods store almost every year. My first rod came with a Zebco 202 spincast reel. The next rod sported a reliable Johnson. Later I fastened a classy Shakespeare WonderCast reel to one of my dad's surplus rods. My final upgrade was a Mitchell 300 paired with an Ugly Stik. Dad and I were at last equally outfitted. As we said in the 1960s, "Far out."
I hooked my first fishing buddy in junior high, though Tom lived miles away from me. We discovered our common interest, and before long we were biking to the river, our rods thrust forward like jousters' lances. A favorite foray was to hurl baited chicken livers into a deep pool, then nestle our rods onto forked sticks stuck in the sand. This hands-free fishing was perfect for leaning against a tree and yakking about sports, girls, cars, girls, hunting, girls, school, and girls again while waiting for a rod tip to twitch, a sure sign a catfish was mucking about. Today Tom lives in California, but we remain close.
Mark and I also became friends in junior high. His clan owned a fishing shack on a remote stretch of muskellunge water deep in a forest in northern Wisconsin. Mark and I would go there often, silently oaring a flat-bottom boat around the river's bends and straights. We liked to stick to the center so we could simultaneously launch long, arcing casts to opposite shores with our tackle—Suicks, Cisco Kid Toppers, and bucktails.
Mark, Tom, and I were soon fishing together, making treks north to Ontario in my father's four-door Plymouth Fury III. I'm not sure what possessed a man of uncommon common sense to entrust his family sedan and boat to three bone-headed boys, but entrust he did. He must have believed that we'd come back wiser, which actually happened.
We learned, for instance, that if you mistakenly reverse the fuel hose that connects the tank to the outboard engine, you will have just enough gas to get yourself into quite a pickle. We learned that if you don't brown burger before dousing it with Hunt's Manwich sloppy joe sauce, your barbecue won't taste like Mom's. And we learned that if you are driving down a washboardy logging road by a lake and an angler fishing from a boat points to your boat trailer and waves arms wildly, you might have thrown a tire and are plowing the road with a crumpled rim.
We also learned how to catch walleye and northern pike galore. Today Mark and I still fish together.
More Good Catches. In college, Chuck and I became friends due to our passion for trout fishing on Wisconsin's Nam-ekagon River. While he waded upstream from a county bridge, I'd work downstream. We had amazing evenings together while being apart.
I called Chuck last fall to book a room in the Wisconsin motel he owns. "You still get the friends and family rate," he said. Then he rambled on about an upcoming fishing trip that he'd be taking to Lake of the Woods. It was like old times.
I lived in Winona for most of the 1980s. Through the Win-Cres Chapter of Trout Unlimited, I got to know a dentist, a janitor, a forester, and others who loved to stalk the streams of southeastern Minnesota. One was a warmhearted gent named Hub who, if life was fair, would have been everyone's grandfather. Hub and his buddy Bruce were incredibly welcoming. They shared hand-tied flies, fishing tips, fishing spots, and, after swearing us to secrecy, even their morel and honey mushroom grounds. I bumped into Bruce a couple of years ago in St. Paul. Though we hadn't seen each other in 20 years, we gabbed as though not a day had passed.
Simply knowing how to use a rod has helped me snag unexpected friendships. While serving as a community liaison officer on a large wildfire in Oregon in the 1990s, I met Frank, a legendary local conservationist and fly-fishing companion of Ernest Hemingway. Frank and I hit it off. In fact, we hit it off so well that he insisted I experience summer steelhead fishing on the North Umpqua River before returning to Minnesota.
Graciously, Frank outfitted me with civilian clothes, waders, fly rod, and expert advice. Together, we drove to a rocky shore, then hiked upstream until at last arriving at a spot where steelhead were known to hold. Frank pointed to a distant pool.
"Cast there," he said.
Or at least I couldn't nine times out of 10. The pool was a good 50 feet away, a distance beyond my ability to delicately drop a fly. I occasionally made casts that Frank deemed worthy of fooling a fish, but most fell short of their destination. If my cast did land in the pool, it struck with the ker-ploosh of a 12-pound anchor.
Still, I learned much about Frank and his role in Oregon's citizen-led conservation movement to protect steelhead streams from soil erosion caused by forest clear-cutting. I also learned I was fishing right where "Ernie" had fished. It was heady stuff.
Not long ago, I typed Frank's name into Google and found him immediately. There he was, age 90, a humble man making long, artistic casts in an Oregon public television profile on his life. In a voice reminiscent of Aldo Leopold or Sigurd Olson, he spoke eloquently about "this graduate school of steelhead fishing rivers." It was good to see him and recall how he'd befriended me.
Current Companions. In my family, fishing rods have always been at hand. I can easily see daughter Alexis pulling panfish from Lake Winona, son Drew battling the biggest dogfish I've ever seen, and son Mike wrestling a stubborn sturgeon on the Rainy River.
I met my wife, Linda, through fishing. I fondly recall our first streamside walk—she kneeling here and there to ease rocks from their holds as she searched for caddisflies and other aquatic insects. Who wouldn't fall for a woman like that?
This spring I will open the fishing season with Greg, Gary, Jack, Rad, Mike, and a handful of other "good sticks" who are even better at frying fish, building campfires, and spinning yarns long into the night. From afar these men look and sound like extras from a Grumpy Old Men movie set, for they bear the barnacles of age—gray whiskers, hearing aids, and more. Yet, up close, no camouflage can conceal their youthful patina, a shine that comes from being well versed in the ancient art of fishing.
As we fish from three different boats, our mobile phones will connect us. Yet our rods are what truly bind us.
Recently a high-school classmate, one I hardly knew 45 years ago, asked if I would become his 548th Facebook "friend." As I mulled over this request, I reflected on how those closest to me did not surface by clicking "confirm request" on an Internet trawl. Instead, we became friends while clicking the tops of our spinning reels. Those are the connections that have mattered most to me, and they always will.