TRUE STORIES: The enchantment of fishing

J.T. Knoll
A good mess of fish, 1960

When I was a kid of 10 or 11, I’d set off to fish alone the first warm Saturday morning of spring. Some days I’d I cast for bass, perch and bluegill with a red plastic worm or yellow jig, watching the monofilament arc across the morning like the trail of a shooting star.

Others I’d bait a hook with a meaty sod worm dug from the slough behind Mrs. Brackett’s and lob it and a heavy lead sinker like a mortar to the middle of a pond or strip pit, prop my rod on the Y of a branch jammed down into the mud, lie on my back, look up at the sky’s blue palm, and dream a catfish dream.

But not all my angling was solitary. Sometimes two or three of my best friends would get up early, meet me at my back steps as I finished my paper route and go with me on a fishing “expedition.”

We had lots of destinations — Frontenac City Park, Saia’s pond, Blue Sea, Snip’s pond, the State Park and Fred Rosetti’s farm pond where we sometimes camped overnight and watched movies on the massive Drive-In screen near 69 highway in the distance.

Our longest trek to the south was the bike ride from the Rose Bowl corner to old Mt. Carmel Hospital, then west a quarter mile to Angelo Merando’s house where we’d park our bikes and set off behind his house or across the road to fish old familiar holes.

Of course we took along plenty of supplies: baloney sandwiches, Hostess cupcakes, Planter’s peanuts, Juicy Fruit gum, Fritos, pocket knives, a transistor radio, Snickers and Hershey bars, a pellet gun, and at least one old Army canteen — bought at John Gariglietti’s Army Surplus Store — filled with grape or cherry Kool-Aid.

As we pedaled single file on our bikes along Mt. Carmel Road, our gear clattering in the breeze, one of us might get accused of having cooties from sitting too close to a girl in church.

Or we might make the sound effects of the old Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Fords and Chevys we’d seen crashing into one another in the Demolition Derby at the dirt track speedway out on 69 Highway.

The thick, rich smells of spring were everywhere. Drifting to the road from porch trellises heavy with red, red roses. Oozing from mounded crawdad holes in the ditches. Rolling out from beneath a lawnmowers chugging away in young grass.

One morning I decided to go alone to check out the strip pits behind the baseball fields east of town. The first two were nothing special. A few strikes — but no catches. The third pit, though, turned out to be fishing heaven. The first four times I cast my plastic worm, I caught three perch and a bass. I was so excited that my fourth cast went into the branches of a low hanging tree and I lost my worm. No matter. I put on a yellow jig and caught a rock bass, a perch and two bluegill.

I pedaled home with my stringer full of fish, itching to tell my friends about the paradise I’d discovered. Grandpa Matt pulled in in his ‘52 Chevy pickup as I was cleaning my catch by the water hydrant. When I told him where I’d caught them his eyes got wide and he winced. That’s Bert Steve’s place, he said. It’s posted. Better not go back there again.

I didn’t listen. The next Saturday I pedaled my papers early and my friends and I made our way to Bert Steve’s pit just before dawn. Like the week before, nearly every cast resulted in a strike or catch. Soon we were in a fishing frenzy — casting, hooking, reeling and unhooking fish in a gleeful trance.

But our ecstasy was short lived. The shadow of Bert Steve (Stefanoni) appeared on the crest of the pit above us. Waving a .22 rifle and accompanied by a large, menacing dog, he sent us running — apologizing and promising not to come back — into the field where we’d hidden our bikes.

The older I get, the more I look back on those days as sacred. Whether off alone like a contemplative monk fishing deep water for bullheads, or joining my friends to cast the surface for bass and bluegill, I was deep in the timeless mind of God.

As for Bert Steve’s fishing heaven, I don’t know for sure whether any of my friends ever went back. I certainly never did. But I did do quite a bit of daydreaming about returning to that that enchanted strip pit.

Still do.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net