Try as I might, I could never love a largemouth bass the way my father did. He held no other gamefish in such high esteem. As a boy in the Midwest, he spent countless hours catching them in farm ponds and never lost that enthusiasm, even after his job landed him in Manhattan. Every summer of my childhood, he insisted we travel from our Long Island home to a Minnesota lake, a different one each year, for a two-week summer vacation.
We made the first trip when I was 9. Despite my father’s excitement, I had my doubts about it. We’d fished together once at Hempstead Lake State Park near our house in New York, and the only thing I caught was an eel that scared the bejesus out of me. I’d also miss a few Little League games, a sacrifice I hated to make. To soften the blow, my dad bought me a new spincast rod with a Zebco reel and took me along to the sporting goods store where he stocked up on gear.
The clerks were delighted to see him. He was a big spender and never met a lure he didn’t like. His tackle box was a plastic Plano with tiers of compartments, each bursting with his purchases. His favorite lure was the Jitterbug, a topwater specialty Fred Arbogast introduced in the 1930s. It was supposed to “drive bass insane,” particularly at night, but I could never quite picture what an insane bass might look like. The “weedless” Hawaiian Wiggler was another Arbogast creation, fitted with a rubber hula skirt to shield the hook and prevent it from snagging.
Arbogast’s chief competitor was The Heddon Co., whose founder, James Heddon, started as a beekeeper and carved his first lures from wood at his kitchen table in the late 19th century. (Arbogast’s first lures were made of tin.) I thought the world of Heddon’s Crazy Crawler. It splashed and flailed its “wings” in a vain attempt to fly, but I shied away from the evil-looking black Sonic, reputed to attract bass with its subsurface vibrations. We never caught a fish with it.
When July came around, I felt ready, if not exactly eager, for our drive to the Gopher State. I no longer recall the name of the lake my dad chose, but it wasn’t far from St. Paul and was as ugly as any body of water I’d ever seen. It sat in the midst of a scrubby, almost treeless landscape and looked choked with weeds, rushes and lily pads in the shallows — ideal habitat for largemouths, although I didn’t know it yet.
My father had talked up the resort where we’d stay, but it was really just a fishing camp with some rustic cottages. The only amenities were a horseshoe pitch and bingo night. Every cottage had a name to suggest a romantic idyll; ours was called Hiawatha, after Longfellow’s poem. The floors were linoleum, and we secured the bathroom door with a hook. Decals of leaping fish covered the fridge. There was no television and, hence, no Dodgers baseball to watch, only a pinochle deck and three cribbage boards for entertainment.
To make my life more difficult, I discovered that a family reunion was going on. Our St. Paul relatives — aunts and uncles I’d never met — were also renting cottages. They’d brought along their kids, too. My parents expected me to play with them, but we had nothing in common. The cousins had never heard of Willie Mays or seen the Empire State Building. They collected geodes and knew all about intergalactic travel, and they assured me I’d have a personal robot to tie my shoes by 1988.
My father woke me at the crack of dawn the next morning. “Time to go fishing,” he whispered. I rolled over twice before I dressed reluctantly in the dark. Our rental boat was tied up at a dock. He’d already stowed our rods, his tackle box and an Igloo cooler full of soda and Hamm’s beer from the “Land of Sky Blue Waters.” (For years, Hamm’s lighted-motion signs of outdoorsy scenes entranced bar patrons of the Midwest. I once watched an Indian in a canoe for longer than I’d care to reveal.) Although dad preferred lures, the locals had convinced him to buy a bucket of minnows and some crickets just in case.
Our outboard was a balky old Johnson. My dad had to coax and wheedle it until it responded with a sputter and a belch of smoke. The lake took me by surprise. It had a magical quality at that early hour. The air was still cool, and a haze hung over the water. We could hear the spooky cry of loons from the far shore. All else was silent except for the putt-putt of the motor and the slurp of feeding largemouths.
Some anglers troll for bass. They work the edges of weed beds or around stumps or rotted docks — any type of structure, really — but my father let the boat drift with the current. He used an oar to guide us toward some lily pads where, he believed, trophy largemouths could be found. He may well have been right, but the big ones are also the smart ones. Largemouths live for 16 years on average, and they continue to grow as they age, so any lunker has what amounts to a post-graduate degree in angling tactics and isn’t easy to fool.
The truth of this would soon be apparent to me. My father tied a swivel on my line and attached a Jitterbug. I did my best to follow his example and tried to cast to the gaps in the lily pads, but I missed five times out of 10 and had to yank my lure free. That was a messy business and a major distraction to my father. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about me as his fishing partner.
Kids love to fish when the fish are biting, but it didn’t happen for us. Instead, the sun came up, and the mosquitoes started to bite. After a half-hour with no action, I got bored and decided to amuse myself by casting as far as humanly possible, accuracy be damned. That was a lot more fun, but I put a snarl into my line that Harry Houdini would’ve had trouble untangling.
I worried my father would lose his temper. I’d spoiled the fishing, but he was kind and sympathetic. He took apart my Zebco to fix the problem. I felt terrible about letting him down. I wanted to be a good son, the kind who earns straight As and excels as a Boy Scout, but I had too much mischief in me, so I vowed to quit fooling around and try harder. I thought I owed it to him. He was no baseball fan, but he took me to a Dodgers game every summer.
He started the outboard and moved to a new spot. It looked the same to me — weeds and lily pads. “Let’s rig you up for crappies,” he said, replacing the Jitterbug with a jig and a minnow. That cured my boredom in a heartbeat. Right away, I had a fish on. You’d think those crappies hadn’t eaten for the last century. We must’ve lucked into a school because I hooked four more in rapid succession. I’d undergone a primal angling experience, transformed from a fumbling rookie into expert in less time than it takes a robot to tie your shoes.
My dad was relieved and resumed casting. He switched to a Hula Popper, which is supposed to simulate a frog. (For all his Hawaiian motifs, Fred Arbogast lived in Akron, Ohio, not Honolulu.) I was baiting up a minnow when I heard a loud snap and then, “Sonuvagun! Broke me off! That was a nice bass, too.” I turned and watched him reel in the slack line. He added a new swivel and another Hula Popper. He owned at least three of every lure. His tense expression showed how hard he was concentrating. Losing a nice fish tends to focus the wandering brainwaves.
He cast the popper to the outer fringe of the lily pads. He let it sit there for a few seconds and gave it a slight twitch. The lure scarcely moved. He did it once more and handed over his rod. “But I don’t know what to do,” I protested, afraid I’d mess up again. He urged me to be patient and relax, the best angling advice I’d ever get. He reached over and tapped the rod tip, and the popper shivered. Moments later, I saw a largemouth rise from the shallows and suck it in.
The strike was fierce. Feeling the sting of the hook, the bass appeared to be very unhappy. I imagine this one — being well along in years, to judge by its size — experienced both anger and remorse, and put in a showy leap before trying to dive under the lily pads and break free.
My dad helped to steady the rod. “Keep the tip high,” he said, “and hold on tight to the handle of your reel.” The drag must’ve been set just right because the bass, despite its thrashing, made little progress. All of this happened so fast I had no time to think. I acted on instinct and impulse. The sheer power of the fish, as it fought to resist its fate, both terrified and impressed me.
The bass made one more leap, not quite so showy, and began to idle in lazy circles. “Now reel him in slowly,” my dad advised, picking up a landing net. “Don’t horse the fish.” I cranked the handle and waited to see if there’d be any more fight, but the bass was done for and came readily to the boat, only to mount a last thrashing attempt to elude capture. It was too late, though, and my dad scooped up my first largemouth.
He guessed its weight at about 3 pounds, not a trophy by any measure, except in the eyes of a 9-year-old. (The record for a Minnesota largemouth is 8 pounds, 15 ounces, set by an angler at Auburn Lake in 2005.) Although I’d done little more than hold the rod while my father served as my major-domo, he gave me all the credit and bragged about it to the folks back at the cottage. I still have a faded Polaroid of me showing off the bass to my admiring cousins.
I caught some bigger largemouths on our later trips. I was a teenager by then, but it made no difference. I never became the avid bass angler my father probably hoped I would. Only when I moved to San Francisco as a young man did I realize what it means to be obsessed.
I bought a fly rod shortly after arriving and soon discovered the great trout streams of the Sierra Nevada. On the Truckee, at Hat Creek and the McCloud, I pursued native browns and rainbows, choosing my dries and nymphs from a fly box as overstocked as my dad’s old Plano, happily fishing from dawn until dusk. Yet I might never have followed those streams if I hadn’t learned as a boy the thrill of hooking a good fish and how it helps to keep our ties to the natural world intact.
Once when my father visited me in California, I took him fishing for largemouths on Lake Berryessa, north of San Francisco. He was in his early 70s and recently retired, still in fine shape. I rented a boat and filled my cooler with some craft beers I thought he’d like to try, but he would’ve preferred his Hamm’s. He had a problem with the lake, as well. There weren’t any lily pads. Plastic worms in psychedelic colors were in vogue, so I passed him a purple one to rig up. He took one look at it and sighed. “I’d give anything for a Jitterbug,” he said.