My mind goes back about 30 years to my junior year of high school and the first day of try-outs for the basketball team. Most of us had either played together before or had played on different squads at different schools, so the question wasn’t really if we would make the team but whether or not we would start. Into this mix walked a new guy, sporting too-short shorts, running shoes and brown dress socks. Brown Socks, as he was christened that day, was determined, energetic and showed a true love of the game. But unfortunately for Brown Socks, he was horrible. He never made the team, and in fact only lasted that one practice. Who knows, maybe he continues to play basketball to this day, in church leagues or pick-up games at the local rec center, but chances are he never got really good at the sport.
Why am I reminded of this all these years later? Because I just realized that when it comes to fishing, I am Brown Socks.
I have worked for the Division of Wildlife (DOW) since 1989, and I am embarrassed to say that in all those years until this one I have never purchased a fishing license. There are many reasons for this: I preferred to spend my recreation time playing sports (basketball, volleyball) that I was actually good at; I bought a house, and not just any house, but a 1923, fixer-upper, handyman-special, most-square-feet-for-the-money kind of a house; After the house was mostly squared away, I spent my weekends helping a friend turn his hobby into a small business.
I became an adult with responsibilities. And then my responsibilities got responsibilities. To quote the band The National in their song Bloodbuzz Ohio, “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe.”
Another factor that kept me away from the water was my letting myself be a bit intimidated by my coworkers at the DOW. While they may not be professional anglers, many approach the sport at a college level. Not only do I feel like Brown Socks, but I feel like he would if he had tried out for the CU Buffs. When the office talk turns to 9-weight rods, Woolly Buggers, caddis hatches, knots and the like, my mind drifts. I mentally console myself that I could beat most of them in a game of one-on-one or bench press more and head back to my desk.
As an adult, I am very far removed from the kid who could run down to the closest fishing hole and cast his line in an often futile pursuit of fish. This year I vowed to change that. For the first time that I can remember, I am participating in a sport knowing full well that I am bad at it.
For gear, I raided my parents’ sheds and garage. Heritage is a major factor in fishing for me, and if the gear was good enough for my mom, dad and grandad, it will be good enough for my purposes. In dusty tackle boxes I find lures that are surely over five decades old. Wooden crankbaits stare at me with wide-open eyes, their bright colors are noticeably less-bright with age. These lures are too cool to use and will never see the water again. Rods hang in the rafters above, and I grab them all. But the prize find is a Great Lakes Imperial — a 75-inch casting rod with a unique reel that is factory attached. Fabricated of chrome and sections of clear and brown plastic, the unique bulbous design was patented in 1957. “IMPERIAL 85 Whirlaway…the Cadillac of the Whirlaways” is how old advertising copy describes the design on the Internet. I’m sure it was designed as the rod and reel combo of “tomorrow,” but nothing seals an object in a certain time and place like designing it for the future. I decide to make the mid-century marvel my weapon of choice. A net is dug out and added to the small pile because I am pretty sure that sooner or later I will catch a fish.
One of the great things about basketball is that little gear is required, and since the basketball itself is only has a diameter of 9.39 inches, it takes little space in your trunk. That same principle of less is more is used in my fishing gear selection. I try to keep it all in my car because the best rod is the one with you when you need it.
Buying a license was easy. Just a quick walk across the parking lot to the DOW Northeast Region Service Center where I stand on the DOW side of the front desk and Customer Service Rep Greg Eiser guides me through the button pushing as I sell myself my own license. I pay $36 for a one-year license and the required Habitat Stamp. I’m a bit bummed, years ago I designed the logo for the Habitat Stamp Program, but the logo does not appear on the license. I feel cheated.
I, like pretty much everyone in the current economy who doesn’t work on Wall Street, has considerably less money to devote to recreational pursuits. But the $36 (plus a like amount spent at three shops for new lures) is definitely a bargain in comparison to the $325 I would spend on average for a year’s worth of volleyball leagues and a couple of tournaments. Or the $350-plus I spend on a yearly gym membership. And neither one of those pursuits will give me something I can fry up in a pan for dinner.
With gear and license in hand now I needed water.
The first place I fish is the last place I fished. Thirty years ago or so, I bought a one-day fishing license and fished West Lake at Prospect Park in Wheatridge. I didn’t catch anything that day, but I vowed that the first fish I catch this time around will come out of that lake.
This time I visit it on a Saturday. Weather — warm and partly cloudy. Lure —Daredevil spoon. iPod playlist — Broken Bells. I got acquainted with my rod and reel, the set-up was well balanced and cast smoothly even after decades of non use. There were three other anglers casting into the same basic section with no luck. After awhile I switched spots. New lure — Tasmanian Devil. New iPod playlist — The National.
One useful tool I didn’t have fishing years ago is a smartphone. When I wasn’t sure how to use the Tasmanian Devil, I looked it up online. Nothing like having the Internet and all its information at the water’s edge.
For a few hours I switch locations, lures and indie-rock soundtracks. No luck. Apparently I cursed the whole lake, because no one I chat with has had much success. Two boys whose combined age would fall short of the gap of time between my fishing trips had lost a lure to a big bass and two fly fishermen had caught and released a 7-inch smallmouth. That’s it. At least it isn’t just me.
At the DOW we sell a hat that says “Gone Thinking” and that is a great way to describe the day. I might not have caught any fish, but I had a chance to gather my thoughts, which in these days may be more important. And I didn’t lose a single one of my new lures and that is a record for me.
After Saturday’s fishing trip, I decide I need some pointers. I check out some YouTube videos on using spoons and other lures. In this Internet age, anyone with a camera and an opinion is an expert. But I decide to take what works for them, mix it up in my head and come out with something that works for me.
At work, I walk about 15 feet from my office to seek advice from Jerry Neal, a DOW media specialist, who has tons more fishing experience than I do or ever will (See his article on lake trout on Page 20). Photos of him as a young angler holding past catches hang on his wall. He describes his favorite spoon, which just happened to be like the one I had left on my line from Saturday. He gave me some pointers: Since the water is still cool the fish will be lethargic and don’t want to expend too much energy, so a slow retrieve works best; Keep your rod tip down when the lure is in deeper water, rod tip up when close to shore: Throw some jerks in to make the lure dart. This turned out to be great advice.
This time the gap between visits to West Lake is only two days. I head to a rocky section I had fished on Saturday, Massive Attack on the iPod, when a swimming critter caught my eye. Either a small beaver or decent-sized muskrat was cruising just off shore. I dug out my camera and took some pics, unfortunately the old shots of the Loch Ness Monster are clearer, so I’m still not quite sure what the little guy was. It basically choses my first fishing spot for me since I can cast and still watch for it, hoping it will come within clear view of my slowly deteriorating, middle-aged eyesight.
I cast the lure, apply Jerry’s advice, and catch a feisty little perch on my first try. The fish was so small that removing the treble hook takes longer than all the steps preceding it. I have to work its jaw over getting the hook out and I keep wondering if fish get TMJ. It is the first fish I have caught in about 30 years. And as I release it and it darts off I am released as well. I had been bound and determined that the first place I would catch a fish was the last place I fished when I was 17 or so. With my success I am now free to fish all the other waters Colorado offers.
I have some nibbles the rest of the evening but no more strikes. Like Brown Socks, I need a lot of practice and still have a lot to learn. Spotty rain and the setting sun put an early end to the excursion, but that little fish is only the beginning.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors.