I remember the smell of the exhaust from the old 25 horsepower tiller drive Evenrude once it finally fired. To most, the smell would be considered a super sensory overload of repugnant toxic fumes. To me, it was the smell of a finely tuned engine coughing before it began to purr anticipating adventure. After a few weeks of sitting, it normally took a few good pulls to get it started, but once it started it wouldn’t stop. Literally, on one occasion I remember having to pull the fuel line off to let it run out of gas. At least it would go into neutral. Its downfall was the day it got stuck in reverse. I remember considering how long and far I could fish going only in reverse but I think I made my decision to quit early after taking several waves over the transom.
The boat was an 18 foot aluminum v-hull. It had bench seats and riveted ribs supporting the bathtub like design. I picture it similar to an oversized row boat. I recall, it may have had oarlocks at one time. In comparison to the boat I drive today it was a prehistoric relic, but somehow it always found its way home after a long day of fishing. Ol’ Faithful always worried me; water would squirt up from the bottom of the boat from missing rivets when the waves hit hard. I remember keeping fish alive in the bottom of the boat with the excessive water (the boat was always sinking). At times I would have to leave a good fishing spot in order to pull the plug and let the boat drain on plain, an old school bilge.
I tried to sell the boat and motor around the time that the engine got stuck in reverse and the hull became a giant live well. One day I received a call about it and told the guy to come take a look. He pulled up in my drive, opened the door and hobbled out. I could tell that he had lived life. Long greasy hair, bad knees and alligator skin were his strongest features, but as I shook his hand I was reminded of something else. I was reminded of the rough dry splintered skin of my grandfather’s hand: the hand of a man who worked hard and lived a pure life with no regret. We talked for a bit and I learned he had six kids. If his hand was any indication of craftsmanship, I could tell that he could fix the boat. With my Grandfather in mind, rather than selling the boat I told him he could have it, for free. I can still see his smile and envision his six children riding on those bench seats of Ol’ Faithful as she was hopefully resurrected.
The loss of Ol’ Faithful was undoubtedly toilsome in my mind, but a sublime moment as I gave her away to an admirable and righteous character. The fishing rods and reels of my past haunt me just the same as Ol’ Faithfull and I will not give them away until a deserving hand and heart wins me over. As I write this, I am glancing at the shelf that holds my Grandfather’s old reels. The Penn 409 bait casters sit collecting dust, but the memories and lessons learned lie just beneath. If I cleaned and oiled them, the cast would be just as smooth as the last time he used them. The fishing line is best described as rope compared to the modern braided lines I use but they somehow resemble each other. Humans have found a way to make goods smaller and stronger over the years and this seems to include fishing line. The old line (or rope) is still on the reel and I bet that some fish blood or scales are imbedded deep within the spool from the last time my grandfather fished. This makes time seem transparent.
A fishing rod can be analogous to a sword. It is a fisherman’s pride, his weapon, his friend. This inanimate object can even have names. My Grandfather’s did not but I know he valued them dearly. I have one that he made for me. He carefully wrapped the eyes with his own simplistic design, added a reel seat and grip to handle the largest fish. I remember catching large black drum and redfish that wouldn’t even bend the rod. That was the way he built things; to last. I now find this rod only useful for knocking pecans out of trees but the message lies within. When rods were built in prehistoric times they were built to catch anything. Maybe you recall The Old Man and The Sea by Hemmingway. I’m sure that “Old Man” was using a rod similar to the one my Grandfather built me. I evolved as a fisherman over time, and I think that Grandpa was disappointed when I showed him my new medium-light action rod that actually bent when I reeled in a fish. He didn’t seem convinced that it was enough to reel in a marlin and he was right, of course. I remember feeling a sense of betrayal to my roots and to him, but I now understand that the change was necessary to keep up with the times. Maybe someday I will actually try to catch a marlin on his old rod. I bet it would work.
Ironically, I find my methods of fishing to be similar to those of the past; if not the same. I have realized that humans have changed and their technology has too, but the fish remain the same. Therefore, the tried and true methods of catching fish that I used as a child still work. Sometimes we are blinded by the technology evolution and forget the simplistic methods of our past. Over the years I have reverted much of my technique to those of old school. Yes, at times complexity and innovation can increase our odds of success but more times than not they also increase our rate of failure. I remember a tough day of fishing not long ago. I had spent seven laboring hours trying to put my clients on fish in miserable conditions with little success (yes it happens to guides from time to time). Upon returning to the dock I was embarrassed by an old man without a boat. He was cleaning a limit of trout that he caught within walking distance from the boat ramp. I had covered 20 miles of coastline with every trick in my book and this old man made me look foolish upon my return. This is not the first time an old man taught me a lesson.
I cherish the lessons of old men. They can import wisdom, knowledge, practicality, reason and enlightenment. Most importantly, these lessons are learned over time. I remember my Grandfathers militaristic approach to teaching. Reminiscent of a drill sergeant, there was yelling and marching, etiquette and proper form in most activities, including fishing. As a child I was at times traumatized by his teaching methods but upon completing the task at hand I always remember a kind generous reward simply expressed by “good job” “way to go”, “that’s it.” These simple words somehow made me forget the stringent iron-fisted demands. I came to expect the discipline, understanding that it was the way he was taught. I never expected a reward but hearing his simple words of praise reassured me that I had done something right. His methods of teaching etched my mind, heart and body into who I am today, and I now appreciate the strict instruction.
I reflect and laugh at the memory of one of these occasions. We were fishing for redfish and drum, and we were catching them right and left. Our method was simple, of course; dead shrimp on the bottom. Grandpa noticed me struggling to de-head a shrimp and bait the hook. “When they are biting like this you can’t mess around.” “By the time you bait that hook the sun will be down.” I think I remember a tear falling from my eye as I desperately struggled to bait the hook. He looked at me and said, “An old man once told me to bite the head off the shrimp and spit on it for good luck. Maybe that will help you.” I stopped for a brief moment and contemplated his barbaric coaching. In rash effort to redeem my self-esteem with elder eyes upon me, I bit the head of the shrimp off, curled it on the hook and cast with all my might. With shrimp brains dripping from my chin, I was back in the game and caught the biggest redfish of the day. I remember his laugh and a few silver teeth reflecting in the late afternoon sun. To this day I am unsure if he was proud or simply amused that I followed his ridiculous instruction. Regardless, I felt like a man and I think that he saw that.
So an old man, taught another old man, who taught a soon to be old man a lesson. Is that Irony? If I had not bitten the head off of that shrimp would I have become a man? Probably so, as I recall him telling me to eat the heart of the fish we cleaned that evening for good luck. I had already proven myself as a man, therefore I declined. To this day when I leave the dock in the morning on a charter I like to smell the rancid engine exhaust. It doesn’t smell quite the same as that of Ol’ Faithfull but its close enough for comfort. My boat no longer springs leaks but other things break that remind me of past complications. My live well is contained in one compartment and there is no longer the need to drain the boat the old school way. My reels are space-aged, state of the art, finely tuned pieces of machinery in comparison to the dusty relics on my shelf. The line is thin but traces of days past are found in the form of scales and blood imbedded deep within the spool. The rods still have no names but they are my pride, my weapons, my friends and they actually bend when a fish is caught. I still occasionally cross paths with the old man who showed me up in terms of catch, but I smile and remember his lesson as he tells me where, when, and how. I teach my clients in a “new school way” with some regards to the old school. I don’t yell at them or make them march, but on occasion I tell the unruly arrogant jerk client to bite the head off of their shrimp and spit on it for good luck when they are not catching. So far they do not fall for my trick, but they have also yet to become men in my eyes.
My life is a reflection of my past, with modification. I am fortunate to have my father as my current sensei. He was trained by one of the greats in a manner similar to mine but different in perspective; he is son of “Old Man”, not grandson. I wonder what deep secrets he is harboring, waiting for the right time to show his wisdom. His teachings are a colorful combination of new and old with regard to our time. His teaching style is not that of a military man but one of a modern renaissance man. On most occasions my father, “the architect”, still manages to out fish his son “the fishing guide.” Indeed, I have much to learn from him and will continue my apprenticeship. With regards to our past, our present and our future do you remember when? Take a step back and remember your past for there is much to learn. Smell the exhaust of your engine, bite the head off of a shrimp and then spit on it. You might be pleasantly surprised with the outcome. Regardless, I will be smiling and laughing.
Johan's Fishing Guide Service