Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Long after the Cowards have Gone Home

Matt Burke and I go back to Ben Franklin Elementary School in Lawrence Township, Mercer County. The second time we've fished together, this morning we departed for Lake Hopatcong under unlikely circumstances, since I had intended to show Mike Maxwell the fall fishing for more than a year now, but he couldn't make it. I felt a driven urge to get out on the lake once more this year, faced with the unlikelihood of finding a friend willing to go during the workweek, wasting no time at contacting Matt and getting a quick reply, all this within about 48 hours before departure from Bedminster at 4:50 a.m. He drove here from West Trenton more than an hour distant.

We unloaded at Dow's Boat Rentals almost an hour before the store would open. I had a moment alone, sitting on a big polyethylene crate, when I assessed my situation in the cold and dark. I felt perfectly comfortable and very naively judged no need to take more layers of clothing from my car. It's embarrassing, but for all of my 54 years outdoors, I still make mistakes like this. Sometimes I think I am carried off by deeper levels of prescience within me, as if a very brisk test of the elements today would be worth the experience, as if something in me knew this.

As always, Joe and Jimmy opened the shop early for me. Forty-five minutes early. Half hour. Around that early. I had meant to apologize for making their dog bark (possibly waking them), but had forgotten, so maybe we waited a half hour, but it didn't seem we waited nearly that long. Joe told us fishing was excellent over the weekend. Walleye, pickerel, largemouth bass, crappies, hybrid stripers. Fools we mortals be, at least my hopes rose, though Matt seemed soberly circumspect. Later I told Matt that excellent fishing doesn't usually persist. What goes up...comes down. And fishing has a way of peaking out very quickly, and then coming down hard. Nature is bipolar like this in every aspect. I knew all about this likelihood of fishing flopped, but when Joe enumerated the recent catches, I didn't think of the way things are. In any event, we headed out, and I guess it felt right to enjoy an illusion to get started.

I wanted to start where Jorge caught his walleye recently, so that's where I pushed the outboard out of gear and turned on the fish finder, finding that it refused to offer any more information than a water temperature of 55. "If I can't get this thing to work, we can't fish here. We'll have to fish that spot in close over there." That spot is a nice drop, but I was really set on this mid-lake shelf with 10-foot depths on the shallow side, 45 deep, and felt alarmed at my relatively new technology reduced to a circuits askew, but suddenly, after I fiddled blindly, it worked. Until then, no clear idea where any of this all-important drop-off was would have helped, and more specifically, I needed to find the right-angle bend I especially like that leads towards the drop by the island I know thoroughly.

There were fish right there under the boat all over the place. I recognized immediately--the bottom was flat, 43 feet deep--that we must be yards from the drop-off's bottom edge. Schools of herring like mid-summer cumulus clouds, and dozens of fish filling out the largest icons on the graph (big hybrid stripers) and on those schools of forage defied my expectations. "Drop that buoy over the side," I said. It would mark these fish for reference as we would drift in the breeze. And as we drifted while I frantically baited hooks, the buoy quickly seemed insignificant, since fish kept marking. I felt as if Lou Martinez might have had it right after all in an article he wrote for New Jersey Federated Sportsmen News, which I read earlier this year, speaking of 80-day hybrid striper catches. I've seen it happen once, though the bass were only two and three pounds--until after we left and got a cell phone call from across the lake. Four- and five-pounders came over Marty Robert's gunwale, until Joe Landolfi and I got back to that school he found, and they had dispersed. Marty might have caught a hundred total, but it was probably half that amount.

Now just getting those hooks baited felt absurdly involved. How waste a minute of this action? It wasn't happening yet. For all I could really tell, the bass were just cruising with the herring and not eating any. You don't catch fish the way you can pop quarters into a soda machine. We drifted live herring and shiners weighted by 3/4-ounce slip sinkers at the depths the fish showed on the graph, and after a minute without takers, I felt my pie in the sky crumble like the liver cat food between my fingers I would soon use as chum to try to get these bass interested.

It was a hardscrabble morning. With my insouciant attitude regarding the usual state of affairs on this lake, which involves taking my time and methodically and thoroughly fishing drop-offs to catch two or three, maybe four, really good-sized fish, I felt as if we should be catching what was right under us, but it just wasn't happening. I managed to get lines tangled, and though I managed to get them retied in sane amounts of time, it almost felt as if we were cheated, but I recognized my own gullibility and slowly worked myself back to things as they normally are out here, submitting to the strenuous act of keeping four baited lines on bottom with bails opened, including frequent checks to make sure live bait was still on the hook, line wasn't tangled around a barrel swivel, or that live bait had become dead bait. Above all else, my enjoyment of this madness came home, if you might want to think of a big cold lake as a home, and I shared what I could of it with Matt. Chaos had struck in the beginning, as if it really would be chaos with five- and seven-pound striped bass coming over the gunwales, and now that I imparted order, life felt good. Such is the godlike episode of a cold day fishing as November falls towards winter. But really, any of these days are filled with human folly throughout, and it's only stories that make them seem otherwise.

Before any greatness would be fulfilled, Matt had to catch that four-and-three-quarter-pound walleye photographed. (Weighed at Dow's later.) This broke the tension, and without that fish, the day wouldn't have felt half as good. And it wasn't easy feeling good. Submitting to strenuous acts of fishing maneuvers was absolutely needed in the face of submitting to temperatures in the 30's with a brisk breeze...as I found my winter coat baggy. I've lost 65 pounds since I fit in this coat! Underneath, only a Woolrich plaid. No base layer underneath. Not even cotton. Matt's mid-body stayed warm, he told me, though his hands and feet got cold. Other way 'round for me. "You were shaking," he said after we got off the water later. And through the last hour or two, my speech was broken, too, but spirited anyway. We caught a catfish, a bunch of yellow perch, and one of those perch I reeled in got attacked by a muskellunge about 40 inches long. It never got the forage between its jaws, but swooped in my full view below the gunwale.

It's a funny thing about some madmen. They're affected by whatever seizes them, but their attitude remains productive. "Never give up," they say. And they succeed, not in spite of their folly, but because they exercise it long after the cowards go home.

1980's Penn reel I used today and with Jorge.


  1. Great read. Brought back memories of trolling my sprung disputed diver over suspended trout for half an hour, wondering why nothing would hit! But in your case you had the bait at the right depth - frustrating!

  2. Fish were marking anywhere from four to 25 feet off bottom, so not only would our four-foot leaders serve many; we tried drifting bait at various depths also. One thing for sure. Bait fishing isn't just tossing it out there. I keep wondering if Jimmy from the shop had a good day. Think he was out. Can't get the nerve up to shoot Laurie from the shop an email specifically about this, since its too weaselly, but for all I've written about Lake Hopatcong, I've always kept it in mind that comparatively speaking, I am no master of that lake. It's a presumption to write on fishing, especially when you know you're not the best, and yet it takes balls; most of all, it takes balls to get the words right, and most fishermen don't sacrifice their lives just to do that....Every word is hard won.

  3. Good write up. Very vivid and descriptive, felt like I was right there with you guys. That's a monster walleye you guys caught, wow! JH

  4. 4 3/4 pounds, 24 1/2 inches. Joe at the shop, "That's a nice one."

    Thanks for the compliment. I get home from a fishing trip like this, which threatened to thwart my honest involvement at first--a device on the blink, my disorientation after I got it up--pack out my car just a little, sit down, and write...a day later the written results feel as if just maybe words are good. Late this summer I was struck by just about all Ezra Pound is quoted as saying during his 11-year stay at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital. "Words no good." What a tragic end to one of the greatest poets.

    I won't go soft on him. He committed treason and we did not execute him. "All poets go crazy sometimes." Hemingway defended him. They do. But if they're poets, they're responsible for this.

    So there's the riddle exposed: "Words no good." I wouldn't want to see him slaughtered, either. It's so tempting to want something from words, that I don't think a writer can resist the spoils. Ezra reversed this. He aided Mussolini for the sake of his poem, he said. I wonder what the truth is.

    It's a riddle comes to print in reply. But Litton's Fishing Lines means more than monofilament or Power Pro braid.


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