It’s 1966 and I'm 13 years old. Gasoline is 32 cents, LBJ is president, there are race riots up north, Vietnam protests are on TV every night, the Beatles proclaim they are more popular than Jesus, Richard Speck murders eight female students in their dorm, Star Trek premieres on television, Ronald Reagan is elected governor of California, John Connally is the governor of Texas, Walt Disney dies and Adam Sandler is born, a Volvo is built that will eventually drive three million miles, and mini-skirts are popular. At 13, I am only dimly aware of some of these events and completely unaware of others. Except for the mini-skirts, those I am keenly aware of and profoundly grateful for that fashion. To say it was a different world back then is to severely understate the case, it wasn't just a different world it was a different reality, almost an alternate universe.
At 13, I was a free agent when I was out of school and not doing homework or chores. Once those three things had been taken care of my time was my own. Other than being told to be home by dark and to not commit any crimes, I was unrestrained. I had a bicycle and young strong legs to pump the pedals. I, and a lot of other boys and girls, would blithely ride away from home barely hearing the admonition to "be back by dark" as we pedaled furiously away, far away some of the time. It was a world where children from the ages of about six on up were free to roam without constraint. There were no cell phones to keep in touch with us; our parents didn't know where we were after we left the yard. Often we were ten or more miles away, sometimes in town and sometimes out in the country. In today's world that would probably be considered parental abuse. Back then it was just normal. Were we safer back then? I doubt it. Parents just weren’t as scared. I suppose it's the mass media that has driven that fear to the fever pitch it's at today.
There wasn't a fishing spot in a fifteen mile radius that I couldn't get to on my bicycle. It wasn't that hard to set the bike over the other side of a barb wire fence, climb through, and pedal off across pasture or forest. Cross country bicycles were unheard of, but we rode cross country routinely. We biked across every kind of terrain, urban and suburban and rural. Bicycles have the ability to go anywhere you can walk, except maybe through swamps. It was a swamp I was headed for that Saturday morning, or rather what we called a slough (rhymes with stew). It wasn't like a big Louisiana swamp, more of a boggy area about four acres in size with a two acre stock tank in the middle of it. A stock tank, or just a tank, is called a pond everywhere but Texas. There were some big fish in that water and some big water moccasins too. I was on my way to a valuable lesson, but I thought I was just going fishing.
I'd fished this slough several times and always had it to myself, so I was surprised to find an old man there ahead of me. He was about fifty years old, dressed in faded khaki pants and shirt, worn boots and a straw sweat-stained cowboy hat. He was drinking something from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag and smoking a pipe. The old man seemed to be comfortable sitting on the ground in one of the few dry spots in the area. He had an old Zebco spin-cast fishing pole that had seen better days a long time ago, and a cork bobber was floating out in front of him. He had a minnow bucket next to him, and a tow-sack lying nearby. I said "Hi" and moved on down the bank a ways and started casting. I had a spinning reel and a small tackle box jammed with H&H spinners, Mepps spinners, Johnson spoons, Arbogast Hula-Poppers, Silver Rapalas, and an assortment of other odd looking lures. These were attached to the end of my line using swivels. Twelve pound test line completed the ensemble. In short, I was a technical fisherman.
I caught a few small crappie and bass, all of which went on a stringer to be taken home and eaten by my family. If there were size limits, I didn't know about them. If I was required to have a license, I didn't know about that either. The only rule was that, if it was big enough to eat, it was big enough to keep. Catch and release was a philosophy I wouldn't hear about for years to come. The old man caught a couple of fish that went into the tow sack. This went on for a couple of hours and eventually I got hungry enough to eat my lunch. The old man didn't have any food with him that I had seen so I walked over and offered to share, and he accepted. I split my lunch and sat down a few feet away to eat.
We ate silently, neither really caring to talk, but when we finished he told me that if I stopped the spinner-bait once in a while and let it sink for a second or two, then give it a fast jerk and start reeling again I'd get more bites. He said "It'll imitate a wounded critter and wounded critters get a fish's attention better than you might think. I tried it, and it worked. Lesson one, but not the big lesson.
Shortly after arriving I had seen a water moccasin on the far side of the tank swimming in my direction. Suddenly there was a washtub size swirl of water and the snake was sucked down under. One big old fish was in there. I cheered him on, "Eat all the snakes you want partner." I fantasized a bit about catching it, thinking it was probably a great big catfish.
I was starting to think about heading home, but I had cast out and was reeling in the spinner, stopping it and jerking it like the old man had said.
I stopped it, started it back up again and saw the water bulge up ten feet away, the bulge heading on an intercept course for my spinner. Adrenaline went through my system at lightning speed. Then he hit it and I set the hook. For a second I thought I had snagged a log, but then it started pulling away. I had hung a big one. Bigger by far than anything I had ever hung before. It pulled so hard my arms ached and I was afraid it would break my line.
The real problem was getting it in though all the brush in the water, there were snarls everywhere, limbs sticking up out of the water about every ten feet, logs lying across the bottom like the old game of pick-up sticks. It was a gnarly place. At one point my best tactic was to wade out into the water and work the fish around the outside of a brush pile, so I did, I waded right in. I got a glimpse of the big bass in the murky water when it came up to the surface for a second before powering away again. This had to be the giant fish that had eaten the snake. I was fighting it, leaning back to use my weight, when I heard the old man holler at me to get back on the bank and be damn quick about it. I looked around and saw no less than three large water moccasins swimming towards me, apparently coming to see what was splashing around, big water moccasins, as big around as my 13 year old leg. I heeded his advice and got back on the bank and was damn quick about it too. At 13, I didn't take much advice to heart, but that time I did.
I fought the monster bass back and forth, up and down, twisted sideways and at times I thought I would need to stand on my head, but I kept, barely, keeping it out of the snags and still had a shot at landing it. My heart was in my throat and beating like crazy. I worked down the bank and got closer to the old man where there was a clear area of water. He pulled his line in to give me room. I just about had it in my mind this fish was landed, it just didn't know it. After fighting it for a solid half hour, after pulling and swerving it away from one brush pile after another, I finally got it into some clear water, nothing between it and me now but water. I got it up close and for the first time realized the full size of it, a huge monster of a bass. But it got a look at me too and tripled its effort to get away, and then the line snapped, sounding like a .22 rifle. Just like that, faster than you can think it, the giant bass was gone. I stood there in shock. Then the dismay hit me and if I hadn't been a 13 year old boy I might have cried. If the old man hadn't been there I might have cried anyway. But 13 year old boys didn't cry in front of anyone in those days, not ever. I slumped down and sat on the bank, hung my head and took deep breaths to fight back the tears. The old man didn't say anything for a long time, allowing me to get myself together I suppose. Then the big lesson came.
He said, "Boy, you probably think the worst thing in the world just happened, that big fish getting off like that. You probably think you'll give up fishing and start collecting stamps or something else boring. What you don't see right now, but will in time, is that you just had one of the best experiences of your life. You fought a valiant fight, and you didn't lose. The line broke, not you. What you have now is the memory of a great fight, a huge great fish that just barely got away. That's a memory that will last your entire life. You don't forget a fish like that, not never. If you had caught it and put it up on your wall you would have lost most of the memory because you would have the stuffed fish to look at. No sir, losing that fish is the best thing that ever happened to you. Ponder on that and you'll someday see how right I am."
I thanked the old man politely and then dejectedly pedaled back home. At the dinner table that evening, while we were eating the fish that I did catch, I told the story of the 'Big One'. I got an inkling of what the old man meant as I expounded, voice rising and falling, arms waving. I must have looked like a wild-eyed crazy person to my family, but they were more or less used to that. I felt a, not too small, surge of pleasure in the telling, and I may have exagggeeerated a bit. Hell, I could make that fish any size I wanted to since I hadn't brought it home. That bass grew over the years, both in that pond, and in my mind, and in the telling.
Eventually I reined the story bass's size back down to just a bit less than the world record, yet the battle grew into a four hour bloody fight with water moccasins climbing up both legs and one wrapped around my neck. Then one day I realized it was already a great enough experience, it had been a truly monstrous bass, and that the story didn't really need any extra help from me, so I began telling it as it actually happened, as I have here. Years later I realized I didn't need to tell the story at all. I was satisfied without having to share it. I could remember it as clear as yesterday; calling it up whenever I wanted to. Besides, everyone was thoroughly tired of hearing it.
I gained a treasure that day that I wouldn't have if I had landed that bass. I still have that treasure, just like the old man said, and it's way better than a wall mount. The old man was right about both of the things he said. He was right that I had been given the gift of a lifetime, and he was right that it would be years before I understood what a great gift I had received that day - I didn't catch the big one, but I damn near did.