This past Saturday, I spent the day taking a first-timer fishing. It started like most trips with new anglers, peculiar questions, simple explanations, and eventually tangled fishing rods.
After doing my best to answer things like “Do fish sleep?” or trying to explain the difference between species types, their habits, and appetite – we were fishing.
I’ve been doing this since childhood and I often overlook the simple skills it takes to catch a fish. I can’t specifically remember learning how to cast, open a bail, or reel in a bait. And honestly, I just assumed these were innate understandings that humans possessed. I’m constantly reminded of this oversight when taking new anglers fishing. After countless outings, I’ve realized many people know absolutely nothing about the sport of fishing. Which is not a deal breaker, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Setting The Scene
It was a dreary April morning in southwestern Wisconsin, an area I’ve explored since childhood. I know the streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds, and over the years, through trial and error, I’ve put together a milk run of fishing holes. In my treasure trove of secret spots, all I needed to do was pull out one fish. It didn’t matter the species or size. I just needed to help a new angler catch their first fish. Simple right? Well, this is how it played out:
Saturday 7am: We started our day off with hot coffee and a canoe ride around a local lake. I run a Coleman Scanoe, a 15 flat back canoe which enables me to mount a 55lb Minn Kota trolling motor to the back. After lugging the gear down to the lake, which includes a hefty 12-volt deep cycle battery I gave my hands a quick break before connecting the motor’s wires to the batteries terminals (black wires = negative, red wires = positive).
Crazy As The Loons
We left the dock and began cruising the lake to enjoy the scenery while looking out for loons. Loons are migrating birds that winter near the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico and spend their summers up north. Imagine a winter hat pulled over the top of North America; pretty much anywhere covered by the cap is where a loon might spend the summer.
Each April, as the loons make their migration from south to north, they stop at area lakes to feed on minnows.
As we trolled, I dragged a Jenko crankbait I received in a Mystery Tackle Box behind the boat. It was moderate diving bait rigged on a medium-powered spinning rod spooled with a 10lb test. I let out about 100 feet of line, backed off on the drag, and then nestled the rod between my seat post. We drove around, hugging the shoreline and circumnavigating the upper end of the lake.
Not a single bite, but after an hour in the boat, we saw roughly 10 loons and close to 30 geese. Some goose’s (Female geese. A male would be a gander) were already making nests on secluded spots of the shoreline, some perched upon rocky bluffs, and others nestled tightly between the trunks of trees. Every nesting goose we saw had her head down and a mean look on her face, clearly they all meant business. The rain began to pick up, and we headed back towards the dock. We were 0 for 1.
Trying To Trick Trout
So what’s next? Do I take her to my “guaranteed trout spot” where drifting worms under a simple red and white bobber is pretty much automatic? Well, we tried, but to my surprise, the bobber was only sucked underwater twice from what I assume was either a brown or brook trout. We whiffed on both attempts and ended up getting caught in a rainstorm, yet again.
Slightly defeated, we headed back for lunch and, on the way, stopped at a small-town grocery store that looked like a relic from the 1960s. After ringing up my Coca-Cola and pack of Little Debbie donuts, the cashier wrote down my order by hand on a thin, long piece of paper, similar to a receipt from Walgreens or CVS. The paper contained an itemized list from every purchase made that day. Each number jotted down in orderly fashion with precision and exceptional penmanship.
After lunch, we hiked to the top of a small peak and looked over the nearby river valley. With so much humidity in the air, greenery blossoming, and moss covered rocks, the hike felt more like the Pacific Northwest than it did Southwestern Wisconsin. The trails were empty, and the hike felt like a small victory after losing twice on the fishing front. This small win put us at 1 for 3 for the day which would be .333 if you’re into percentages. And if you’re into baseball, you know that .333 batting average would put us in the hall of fame.
Ok, at this point, it’s getting later in the day. We’ve taken a boat ride, hiked a small peak, and were outsmarted by two presumably small trout. What do we do now? I mean, I work at a fishing company. Am I really about to go home empty-handed on a spring fishing trip to WISCONSIN? Absolutely not. It was time to lean on “old faithful” and take a step back.
After a quick lunch at a local pizza parlor, we put on our rain gear (It was my gear. Always bring extra supplies with a new angler) and then picked up a pack of nightcrawlers. We were headed down to a favorite multi-species spot on a nearby river.
Instead of targeting pike, walleye, or bass with precise tactics and tools. We were going to simply rig three rods with nightcrawlers and fish for whatever bites along the bottom. At this spot you have a chance at roping in catfish, walleye, smallmouth bass, freshwater drum, carp, suckerfish, and sturgeon. While some of these species are more often targeted with brightly colored crankbaits, smelly soft plastics, or jigs twitched with finesse. All of these fish will potentially eat a nightcrawler dangled in front of their face.
After rigging each rod with a ¾ oz sliding weight, swivel, leader line, hook, and nightcrawler, I cast each one out in the opposite direction and then lean them against the nearby park bench. Of course, the rain picked up, but after 30 minutes the fishing did too.
The first bite came hard and fast, springing the rod tip back and forth, like the ‘’boing’’ from a car’s antenna when it’s flicked. My guess is that it was a small fish but we’ll never know for sure. Five minutes after that a second rod doubled over so with such force the rod tip almost kissed the park benches seat. Strike two. We missed again.
”That’s ok” I told her – “We know they’re here and what they want. We’ll get another shot.”
I said those words confidently to keep morale high but in reality they were a desperate cry of hope. Thankfully, somebody heard me and no more than 15 minutes later, it happened again, one of the rods was yanked so hard it looked like a linebacker was playing tug of war on the other end.
I sprinted across the slick grass, grabbed the rod, set the hook, and then handed the rod to my friend. She grabbed a hold and began cranking furiously and without a bit of smoothness or understanding of the “give and take” method of fighting a fish.
It didn’t matter, the 1/0 ought circle hook had a textbook grasp in the corner of the fishes mouth and the strong braided line wasn’t going to snap. The battle was brief, after 25 seconds of tussling, we had a fish on the board! A beautiful, appreciated, magnificent suckerfish.
She was clearly excited, but almost equally concerned about the fish’s well-being. I found that perspective refreshing. We took a few pictures and then released the sucker to swim another day.
Although both satisfied, I knew that she would have preferred to have caught the fish independently, completely on her own. She didn’t want someone setting the hook and then handing her a rod with a fighting fish.
I’ve been there before, and I know how she feels, so we casted out again to try our luck once more. Instead chucking out the third nightcrawler, I switched over to a ¼ oz twister tail grub in the hopes for a bonus walleye or bass.
I sauntered the riverbank while she sat atop of the hill on ‘’rod duty’’, guarding our gear and watching rods tips for any sign of movement. This worked perfectly into our ‘’Do It Yourself’’ goal of her hauling in a fish entirely on her own.
About twenty minutes into me repeatedly casting a jig at the slack water below a bridge piling that I was conceived was holding fish, I heard something.
‘’I think we got a bite!!’’
She was right and the two clear indicators were the inflection in her voice and the tip of my medium powered spinning rod bouncing uncontrollably. It was throttling up and down like a bucking bronco at a Montana Rodeo.
She grabbed hold and immediately felt the surge or a strong fighting suckerfish.
I yelled, “Oh he** yeah! Keep that rod tip up, and walk it down to the river bank”.
Eventually, the three of us – her, the fish, and myself all converged together at a flat part of the bank and the easiest nearby spot to land the fish. She got it close, and I grabbed that sucker behind the head with a firm but gentle grip making sure this moment wasn’t to slip from my fingers. I grabbed my handy pliers, unhooked the fish and then gave the old ”how to hold a fish” tutorial. She was a natural and we posed for pictures, high-fived, and then both laughed about the fishy stench we now carried from handling a couple of slimy suckerfish.
Her excitement reminded me that new anglers don’t usually look at fish the same way most sporting anglers do. There isn’t a species superiority or a look of dismay when you see live bait. The goal is to catch fish within the guidelines set by you and your state. Everything else is just getting caught up in the weeds.
The look from greenhorn anglers smiling from ear to ear when grasping a “trash fish” reminds me of what it’s all about. Yet again a new angler caught their fish and I was lucky enough to witness it. And we both have nightcrawlers to thank for that. Tight lines!
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