From one old man to another: familiar fish talk and hopes for a big one
We talked fishin’ talk, the old man and I.
I say “old man” with respect and a reasonably comfortable sense of my own standing as an old man, too.
The other old man in this story seemed a few years older than I am. But a little older, or a little younger, means less and less as the years pile up.
That’s especially true out on the water, which is where the old man was when he called out to me from the fishing pier on Angostura Reservoir as I walked slowly and as quietly as I could on a low-water boat ramp 20 or 30 yards away.
I’d been watching the old man fish as I walked the shoreline nearby, carrying a light-action spinning outfit and casting a 3-inch PowerBait Ripple Shad artificial bait in hopes that a smallmouth bass or walleye would bite.
For you non anglers, or anglers who are fairly casual about the phony bait business, a PowerBait Ripple Shad is a plastic minnow-type body imbued with a scent that fish allegedly find appealing. Impale the fake minnow on a lead-head jig (a hook with a molded ball of lead for a head) and it resembles a live minnow moving through the water.
Especially since it has a tail designed to flutter as the bait is retrieved.
It’s good, but not as good as live bait, such as worms or minnows. I just don’t like fishing live bait. Haven’t for many years. So I settle for second best. And cast away.
I wasn’t catching anything but I was enjoying the casting, the scenery and the serene atmosphere of Angostura State Recreation Area, a busy place in summer that has been depopulated to a pleasing degree by autumn.
The other old man and I were the only ones fishing from shore anywhere on the lake, as far as I could see. And he had live bait. He also had a comfortable spot on the fishing pier, one of those smartly designed structures that have become commonplace and well used on public waters over the last 30 years or so.
A pretty nice place for the old man to fish
Some fishing piers are stationary. This one is movable, a wooden floater that can adjusted to “follow” the water as it drops. That’s especially valuable this year on Angostura — a multi-use reservoir that has irrigation as a key use — as water levels have fallen. And fallen. And fallen.
The old man was using his place on the fishing pier well. He was fishing one line on the bottom, baited with what appeared — when I watched him make a cast — to be worms. But he also appeared to have a minnow bucket, so it might have been a minnow.
You can fish with two rod-and-reel outfits under South Dakota regulations. And the old man was using his other rod and reel to drop the line straight down over the side of the pier. With that tactic, he was trying to inspire a bite from one of the bluegills or bass or crappies that were almost certainly enjoying life in the shaded water beneath his feet.
From time to time the old man would put both lines out, sit on one of the benches and light up his pipe. And depending on where I was fishing, I’d catch a whiff of that burning tobacco from 20 or 30 or 40 yards away.
I don’t like the smell of cigarette smoke. I don’t much care for cigar smoke, either. But the fragrance of most pipe tobacco appeals to me. Not enough that I want to smoke a pipe myself. But it’s a sweeter, gentler smell. It’s pleasing and even soothing.
Especially if I’m a ways away from the pipe and the smoker.
Pipe smoking looks like a relaxing process, too. And there’s a ritual to it. A preparation. A process. I like ritual and process, more and more as I get older.
So I was admiring the old man’s relaxed demeanor against a backdrop of the nearly calm lake and the warm, rich colors reflecting from the opposite shoreline as the sun settled down into the pine hills behind us.
It took the old man a while to realize I was there. I’d guess he has the same hearing issues that I have, or maybe more so.
Also, I move with some degree of natural stealth. My wife would tell you that. It’s nothing intentional. I just like to avoid making a racket. That might come from all the years — more than 60, now, depending on how you figure them — that I’ve spent trying to move about in the outdoors without disturbing the calm.
That tendency means I sometimes surprise my wife around the house, and give her a start.
“Stop sneaking up on me!” she’ll howl. “Make some noise!”
I don’t sneak up on her intentionally. Honestly, I don’t. That’s just the way I move around. Most of the time.
Nothing fancy or flamboyant in greetings on the water — or on country roads
When the old man finally noticed me, I raised my left hand — the one not holding the spinning outfit — from my side up to about my shoulder. It was an unembellished greeting, like the one you might see on a gravel road anywhere West River as you meet a pickup coming from the opposite direction. Nothing fancy or flamboyant. A hand briefly raised from the steering wheel is about all you expect, or need.
My dad had his own way of acknowledging others at such meetings. He never took his left hand from the steering wheel but simply moved his index finger up from the wheel to about a 1 o’clock position, then slid it left to about 11 o’clock.
That was it. One index finger, from 1 back to 11, then back down on the wheel. Good enough.
But rural etiquette requires some acknowledgment of those you meet, whether you know them or not. To do otherwise would be unfriendly.
Back on the fishing pier, the old man returned my subdued salutation with an almost imperceptible elevation of his chin. Not much, barely discernible from 30 or 40 yards, but plenty good enough for one old man to greet another out on the water, especially when fishing rods are involved.
I walked past the fishing pier on the gravelly shoreline over to the low-water ramp state parks officials have set up at the west marina, which is one of three marinas on Angostura. You’d never see the concrete low-water ramp most of the time because it’s far under water. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it. But drought and irrigation needs have lowered the water levels on the lake far enough to make the main ramp on the west marina unusable.
Using the low-water ramp is a bit of a trick. Boaters have to back down alongside the high-and-dry regular ramp, then follow a slalom route marked by orange traffic cones down to the low-water ramp.
I was happy I only had to walk to the ramp, rather than backing an unwieldy trailer and boat through that obstacle course.
Once on the dock at the ramp, I moved slowly along one side, around the end, and back on the other side, carefully holding my rod over the edge of the dock and letting the Ripple Shad drop to the bottom. Then I’d “jig” it up and down just off the bottom as I slowly moved along one side of the dock, around the end, and back on the other side.
Despite low water, tough fishing, the old man catches a few
Sometimes you can tease a fish, usually a young, aggressive smallmouth or largemouth bass, to dart out from under the ramp to hit that jig. Sometimes not. Mostly not.
But I like trying. And the old man seemed to like watching me try.
Finally he said: “Been catchin’ anything?” offering a familiar line that is as much a greeting as it is a question.
“Naw,” I said. “Been casting for a couple hours. I tried for a while over at Pirate’s Cove. But it’s so low even that rocky point is out of the water. Some places I fish over there are a hundred yards out of the water. Crazy. Then I went around the breakwater over at the main marina and along the shoreline across the bay there. Nothing.”
But I added: “It looked like you got a catfish, though.”
The old man said: “Yeah, and a smallmouth bass and a couple of bluegills. Well, the one bluegill, it was pretty small.”
I’d seen him catch the little catfish, unhook it and drop it into a plastic bucket filled with water. I guessed the smallmouth was in there, too, and probably and the larger of the two bluegills.
I like such mixed bags, figuring that the old man had a utilitarian approach to his fishing and probably a broad, appreciative palate when it came time to eat what he caught. Waste not, want not. Old men tend to be like that.
“Well, you’re ahead of me anyway,” I said, and went back to dipping the jig while his vision returned to the tips of his two rods.
After a few minutes, I left the dock on the ramp and wandered off to the south through an upland prairie studded with yucca clusters and prickly pear cactus. I took care to watch the trail ahead just in case the warm October day had coaxed a rattlesnake to slither up topside and lie in the sun along the trail.
It was a snake-free stroll, however, and I worked my way down to the shoreline a quarter mile south of the fishing pier and the old man.
There I continued to enjoy the cast-retrieve, cast-retrieve rhythm for a while. But only for a while. Midway through a retrieve I decided, sort of abruptly, that after more than two hours without a strike, the fishing was starting to feel a bit like work. There was a time when I would have ignored that feeling and fished on, using every last minute of light to get in every cast I could.
My philosophy back then was: “As long as I’m down here at the lake, I’m going to get in all the fishing I can. The big one might hit right before sundown.”
When it starts to feel like work, it’s time to quit
That’s not how I figure things anymore. When it starts to feel like work, I stop. Rather than cast until sundown, I wandered back to the pickup, figuring to drive over to a nearby scenic lookout and catch a view of the lake as the sun set.
When I got back to my pickup, the old man was still at it. So I walked down onto the fishing pier to say goodbye.
“Catch anything else?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s pretty slow.”
“Yeah, sure is,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll head home. Hope you catch a big one before dark.”
The old man smiled a little at that and said. “Yeah, I hope so, too. I better get my jacket out of the pickup. It’s starting to get chilly.”
Old men tend to get a little chilly, you know.
“Sure is,” I said. Then I walked up to the pickup and drove over to the lookout. There I surveyed the lake and pine hills off to the west, staying just long enough to catch the last glint of sunlight and to consider how lucky I am to live where such beauty is so close to home.
I drove back to Rapid City at a relaxed pace, listening to public radio, watching the colors above the front range of the Black Hills change from orange to pink to purple and hoping the old man back on the pier caught that big one before dark.