Eventful day on Lake Hopatcong. I haven't seen Joe Landolfi since November last year because we had no ice, but I can tell we will be fishing at least once a year for many to come. I remember the two outings last year as if they were this fall.
Today we fished a hump out away from the shoreline, and I recognized Marty Roberts immediately, called over to him, and the fun began. He had just begun to nail small hybrids of about two to three pounds. Anchored, he insisted on putting live herring directly down in 29 feet of water. No more, no less. Who could argue? He seemed to have a magic touch. Joe and I agreed it was uncanny; we both felt this. That depth wasn't exactly the breakline between flat bottom and the sharp rise to shore, but the graph alarm rang constantly. And constantly, he got hits.
"Bruce, fishing has a lot to do with attitude," he said. "It needs to be positive." Marty sat back, legs stretched over the port side gunnel. I felt his leveling with me--right there and then--would be one of the best rewards of the day.
Joe and I caught a couple of hybrids, missed a couple of hits, and against Marty's advice, we moved on for what Joe hoped would be six to eight-pound fish.
"You should stay right here," Marty said.
I laughed, and shrewdly pointed at restless Joe. I said, "Marty, I'm obsessive enough to stay right here another five hours. Joe never knows where to begin."
Joe's the veteran. He's been on Hopatcong for decades and for a time was a large presence on the lake; he still knows an astonishing number of people out and about.
Marty phoned later to report four and five-pound hybrids coming over his gunnels, and we did return, this at the end of our five or more hours out, although by the time the 9.9 Suzuki got us there, action had slowed, and it was time to go.
Earlier, we gave a point scant attention by vertical jigging, but we soaked another range of water by drifting herring. The wind allowed us to pass horizontal to shore. Joe was absolutely determined to teach me how to drift herring. As wildly ranging as he is by turns of success and misfortune, his focus of concentration is a talent in many respects, including making sure he gets across by finely detailed explanations. But I'm as stubbornly skeptical as any you may find. I couldn't buy his idea that hybrids on the bottom--and walleye--would swim up from 32-foot depth to a herring passing over 17 feet up. I still don't. It's dark down there. Could lateral lines sense from that distance, given vibrations from surface chop also present sending plenty information down for fish to pick up, washing out a little blip from a herring? I don't know. But fish marked at 15 feet. Were they hybrids?
And as far as I know, walleye at this time of year don't suspend. They are in their element among rocks on bottom. But herring do suspend. That walleye may suspend also, even with the lake turned over, isn't out of the question. It makes sense that herring avoid schooling right down among rocks where walleye typically lie, but of course walleye eat just about nothing but herring in Hopatcong, so they probably do rise. I don't know.
My stubbornness got the better of me as we drifted. I let my weighted rig down to bottom on the sly, and as we continued to drift, got snagged. (A bottom bouncer rig avoids this, but for the time being I used an egg sinker.)
"I have to fail first before I learn anything," I said.
I retied, committed to letting Joe have his way.
No one I know of has failed in life to the extent I have, proportionate to potential achievement I have always known, especially since age 18. The relatively little I have complained has just ripped right back in my own face, so while I may lack positive attitude to severe degree in some respect, it's not petty, but something very deep resulting from a life-long refusal to be indoctrinated to going styles, educational or otherwise. I like to carefully turn the table to what I perceive as the truth, looking deeper. Most of the time the better way has not been immediately apparent and communicable in the present. Such is the hardship of writers who seek something more than fashion.
Not that I think any of us fishermen are girly-guys in Yoga pants.
We both lay back in the bottom of the boat to relax, Joe launching into one of his many fascinating stories from life. He told me half-a-dozen. Just before he began his best, a sunglasses story, I quipped that I was a little tired, and actually I was afraid the week's lack of virtually any sleep, busy at writing projects, was going to make me nuts if I didn't watch out. I drive about 1100 miles a week for my job, and while I don't complain about it--a lot is to be proud of with the writing efforts I produce on top of this--staying sane really is an issue, and while you never, ever give in to any sort of helplessness, never let nerve fail, I do have to say you have to be very careful sometimes, think carefully. Thinking is always what gets me through. Most of the time it's easy. Sometimes it seems impossible. Until it isn't.
Joe dropped sunglasses into Lake Hopatcong. I can't relate the story as well he did, and I know I'm the writer. Joe can't write for beans, but he tells stories better than anyone I know. He might not to you, but that's because you're not in a boat with him for hours after fishing years together. A great Hebrew prophet, who knew he didn't have to be a prophet to say it, mentioned that all true living is in meeting. In other words, if you can't share stories, you're missing out in a dire way. I can't relate Joe's telling as well, because this isn't the form for that, it wouldn't come off as well as he told it to me, even if I wrote what he said verbatim. Print loses all the stage of gesture and expression. To lose expensive sunglasses to a 2680-acre lake, then to catch them the next year while trolling for muskies is redemptive. It signifies how Joe manages to live by so many amazing falls and rises. Life comes back if you troll for it.
On that first, long drift pass as we talked, a hybrid nailed my herring over about 30 feet of water, the bait set 15 feet deep. Joe's stories revived me completely, no longer tired. And I didn't feel I was being pulled precipitously close to the edge any longer.
We had taken one of Laurie Murphy's boats out from Dow's Boat Rentals. I wish more of us would get over to her venue, rent, and buy bait and tackle.
Upon return to Dow's, I said, "The whole country's dead." She had told me how business is down to about 10 percent of what it used to be. It was no occasion to be a chump and speak any words of hope. "The issue, rather than money, is fundamental. People's motivation is lacking," I said.
But the three of us laughed about Joe's sunglasses, still vividly present in Laurie's mind.
My post would end well on that note, but I must explain Joe's hybrid mounts, one of them now going up on the wall of a local bar where Joe knows people. But Joe didn't know Marty. For once, I knew someone on Hopatcong Joe doesn't.
Just before we parted company with Marty, Joe said, "I have two hybrid mounts on Laurie's wall, an eight-pounder and a six or seven."
"Oh, yeah!" Marty said. "Laurie gave me a mounted hybrid from the shop!"
"Oh, no!" I said. "I bet Marty has your striper!" I was laughing all the harder because I know social connections are already there before people meet. And I felt confident that Joe will be on the lake at least once more this fall, while I have only more outing ahead here this year, with my son.
It's confirmed. Marty has Joe's striper. And after more than a decade at the shop, the other will spend time at the bar before it may finally arrive on Joe's own wall. We made that one last stop at Joe's favorite McKenna's Pub. Just after I snapped a photo of him with the striper, he placed the mount high over the customers.
Joe's other mount, of a smaller hybrid.