Off the Record
“You brought a banana on the boat today; I thought bananas were bad luck?” I get this question all the time and it still makes me smile to this day. Young children are always the best critics because they don’t worry about holding anything back. “You know Tommy, I’ve heard that on several occasions. I have people all the time telling me that bananas are bad luck and that we won’t catch as many fish, but I still eat them almost every day on the boat. You want to know a secret about fishing with bananas?” Tommy, who looks thirsty for knowledge in any form, nods his head up and down. “I think if a captain lets a piece of fruit control his destiny, he’s not very good at fishing.”
We take across Eagle Mountain running south at 29 miles per hour and 3,000rpms underneath a pastel sky and on top of army green. The sun is behind a primer gray blanket that will burn off later this morning, and the winds are blowing south, southeast at just the right speed. It’s borderline chilly for July, as we haven’t started sweating yet and it’s already 7am. Mornings like this will spoil a man.
We idle down to look at our first spot, as I explain to Tommy and Mr. Bertorelli that “the first thirty minutes is going to be a little slow, but as the morning develops we will see the fish start to group up and our rate of catching them will increase dramatically. We’re going to bounce around looking for the best schools of fish, and when I see something I like, we’ll let ‘em have it.” There’s a small school in twelve foot of water, but there are by no means a ton of fish here. Tommy is watching the graph with as much attention as I am. “Is this where we are going to fish?” I know he wants me to say yes, but I can’t. “I think we can do better, bud. There’s a lot of places for the fish to be and I don’t see enough here to make me want to stop.”
We move east to check another point. I look around for surface action while keeping an eye on the sonar. I scan a few hundred yards, and although I’m marking bait and a lot of catfish, I’m still not seeing what I need to see. “Is this where we are going to fish today?” Looking up at me, he is hoping with everything he has that I say yes, but again, I can’t stop here. “There are fish here, but we can do better.”
I make a quick run over to a hump that’s deeper than I want to fish but also known for holding some numbers early in the mornings. I see practically nothing on this spot either, and I prepare myself for the inevitable. “Lane, is there where we will fish today?” I smile, because I was the same way as a nine year old. “Tommy, I’ll make you a deal. You see these orange buoys? When I throw them both out, you’ll know for 100% certainty that we are going to fish. I know you’re ready to fish, and so am I, but I want to make sure when we start fishing, you’re catching fish like crazy! Does that sound fun to you?”
It’s about 7:45 now, and the fourth spot is the spot that has been holding fish consistently for the last few weeks now, but it takes a little time to develop, especially when the morning is dark. I ease into the area, watching the depth rise quickly as I scan my way up the hump. When I get to fourteen feet, the fish are right where they’re supposed to be. I throw the marker and catch a glimpse of Tommy’s eyes as I do so. “DOES THIS MEAN WE FOUND THE FISH?!” Laughing and feeling like Santa Claus, I let him know that after doing our fishing, we will now be catching. I run over roughly a hundred yards of fish, and throw another buoy to mark the direction of how the school is running. I like to do this so I can maintain a heading and stay in the strike zone longer. “We just went by several thousand fish and as soon as I turn this boat around, we’re about to have a whole lot of fun.”
I point the bow straight into the wind and give Tommy the go ahead. He counts out his line based on the revolutions of the spool just like I told him, and after hearing the reel engage, I look back to make sure everything is running smoothly. We go over the first school and I holler back at Tommy and Mr. Bertorelli, “start counting to ten and I’ll bet you catch a fish by the time you get to seven.” “One, two, three, four, five, six…fish on!” Sure enough, the kid’s rod is bent and he even used the proper lingo. I take the boat out of gear and watch the show.
The bait-cast rod and reel is bigger than what the young man is used to, but by no means is it hindering his success. “You’re almost there man, lift up that rod and swing it to your left now.” A million dollar smile and a fourteen inch sandbass are both in the boat, making for three very happy fishermen. “Do you think you might want to do that again?” Sometimes I ask dumb questions on purpose. “Yeah!” “Good, because that’s going to happen a lot this morning.”
We run through the fish enough times that my gps track is starting to look like a big red bowtie and my first mate is ready to take a break and help net his dad’s fish for a few minutes. Mr. Betorelli and myself talk about his career and both of our experiences traveling around the world while Tommy nets a few fish and eats Pringles. We’ve put 20-30 fish in the boat by the time 9:00am comes around, and the numbers of fish underneath us are starting to dwindle. We reel in the lines and as I’m starting to pick up my buoys, I have a very excited nine year old who asks if he can “help roll up the orange markers?” “Of course you can.”
We move north about a half mile and find fish in 14-18ft on a small ridge next to deeper water. I’m seeing a lot of sandbass here, so again we throw our markers. “This time when you let out, count it down to thirteen and then engage your reel; we’re in deeper water and we have to get the bait down to them.” I line the boat up and give them the go-ahead. We make three to four successful passes, as both father and son pull double after double. Between taking the fish off and driving the boat, I’ve caught glimpses of small pods of much larger white dots, and I wonder if what it looks like could actually be…
I’m taking fish off as usual but am not returning to the path which has treated us well the last ten minutes. I make a wide turn to set myself up where the baits will skirt right over the larger dots that I’ve been seeing on the side image. “Tommy and Luke, y’all drop ‘em down to fifteen this time.” “Go ahead whenever you’re ready.”
I get us lined up and patiently idle my way towards where the fish should be. Mr. Bertorelli tags a sandbass before we ever get to the target area, not much we can do about that. Tommy’s pole is still free and running clean though. We should be close. We should be right on top of them. I see them 20ft to the right on the side image, turn the boat a couple clicks. Wait. Wait. “Fish on! Whoa. Lane! Lane!”
Nothing in freshwater pulls drag like a hybrid, nothing. I hope the boy can hold onto the rod because this is a good fish. He’s peeling off line like crazy and my drags are set fairly snug. “Keep that rod up Tommy and move your left hand up a bit. Luke you might have to help him while I grab the net. Just stay on ‘em Tommy you’re doing great! A little at a time, just keep the line tight and reel a little at a time.”
I turn the boat towards the fish in an effort to help get him in. “Do you have one of those belts I can use that people use to fight fish with?” I’m laughing at the question, at his awareness to even ask that question, and simply at the fact that he’s having the time of his life. “I sure don’t Tommy, but we’re going to help you get him in, don’t you worry.”
I already knew we have a good fish on by the strength of his runs, but when we finally get to the see the animal, it confirms my feelings. From what I can tell, we’re dealing with a 26-28” fish that looks to be in the 8lb class. A good hybrid for any fishery, and a monster for a nine year old. The fish doesn’t like the boat, and dives hard testing both the tackle and the young man using it. “We’ve almost got ‘em buddy. Just hold on and keep doing what you’re doing.” Though the fish’s last run was a good test of strength, it was ultimately what did him in. Tommy swings his rod towards me, and placing the net under the fish’s head, we bring him aboard.
As you might imagine, chaos ensues. The fish is flailing about and so is the boy. The girth is better than I thought and the length comes in a little over 27”. Mr. Betorelli looks at me, and I at him. “Your son just caught the lake record, I’m almost sure of it.” I look it up on my phone, and sure enough, we’ve got a record fish on our hands. “Here’s the deal, the all-time record for hybrids on this lake is a little over eleven pounds. Although this fish won’t break that, he has the junior angler lake record. A fish of this size will stand on the books for a while.”
The center of attention is resting in the live well as fresh water and bubbles calm him down. “If you would like to register your trophy, you can take it about twenty minutes from here at the state fisheries office and they’ll have a scale and the appropriate paperwork. They’ll send you a plaque with a special certificate and Tommy’s name will be in the record books. It’s totally up to you, as it is your fish.”
I look at Tommy, who is looking at the fish. I know what he’s thinking, and it’s beautiful. He asks what only an innocent nine year old would ask. A question raised out of compassion as opposed to one that comes from pride: “What will happen to the fish if we take it out of the lake and to the office?” Looking me directly in the eyes, and then back at the fish. “If we take it from here to another place, the fish will die.” “I don’t want the fish to die, Lane. Can we throw it back?” “Of course we can, Tommy.”
I take pictures with their phone, and then with mine. The father and son both are looking at their trophy like it’s supposed to be looked at: a gift from God that should be cherished and remembered forever. The greatest moment in guiding is here at this time and place and I have the privilege of getting to share it with two people I didn’t know a few hours ago. “If you two would like to do the honors, let’s get that fish back in the water. I know he’s tired. With a thumb and finger the fish is lifted over the gunnels and slowly lowered in the water. He is moved forward and backward, and upon being moved forward again, he effortlessly swims off, much to the joy of both the boy and me.
Proud of what he has just accomplished, Tommy relives the entire moment in a theatrical display for his dad and I. We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, both wishing we could be as happy as the young man in front of us. I’m glad to be wearing sunglasses as moments like these can get a captain a bit misty around the eyes. They don’t happen as much as they used to, but they still do from time to time. Looking at both his father and I for approval, although he already has it, Tommy confesses: “I’m glad we could let the fish live instead of taking it to the record place.” Both his father and I knowing he’s a better person than either of us; say “I can respect that.” “I can too.”