The Woster reunion, a return to Reliance Dam and the folly of tempting fate
As famous last words go, the ones I spoke to my 8-year-old grandson Bodhi early Saturday morning should live on pretty well in Woster family lore.
“We’re not using leaders,” I said. “We won’t need them.”
We won’t need them? Seriously? Why not just slap the gods of fishing fate in the face and say, “OK, hotshots, whaddya got?”
Turned out they had plenty. And it came in the ferocious form of a sizable northern pike, which crashed our little bluegill party on the fishing dock at Reliance Dam.
When Old Toothy shows up, steel leaders tend to be useful. That’s why Bodhi, a Minnesota kid with some experience on lakes where both bluegills and northern pike swim, was inquiring about leaders as I rigged up a rod and reel for him on the dock.
It was a simple outfit, with a small split-shot weight squeezed onto the line a few inches above a small hook and a bobber a couple of feet above the split shot. A small rig for small fish, as I expected the kids to catch.
Bodhi, however, had a question: “What about the leader?”
Ah, the leader, which in certain fishing situations is used between the regular fishing line and the hook.
In fly fishing, leaders are common. Monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders are used at the end of the heavy, highly visible fly line to connect almost invisibly to a tiny fake fly intended to fool trout and other fish.
But Bodhi meant steel leaders, the kind used to keep the razor-sharp teeth of a pike or muskie from cutting your fishing line during a fight.
Oh, don’t worry about steel leaders, or northern pike
I dismissed the idea of a steel leader casually, noting to myself that I hadn’t caught a northern pike in Reliance Dam in, oh, half a century.
Seriously, half a century, and a little more.
I caught the first northern pike of my life in Reliance Dam close to 60 years ago. It only weighed about three pounds. But it was big enough to win the Mitchell Daily Republic weekly fishing contest that summer of, oh, well, whatever summer it was.
Full disclosure: I won because no one else entered a northern pike that week. Winners in the pike division previously had been significantly larger than 3 pounds. But I wasn’t about to let a size comparison with previous winners spoil my fun.
The fishing contest operated largely on the honor system, if I recall correctly. Snap a picture of the fish (a Polaroid would do nicely, for immediacy), fill out a form you clip from the newspaper and mail it in. A week or so later, I had my name in the paper. And a week or so after that, I got my prize: a box with a selection of Mepps spinners.
For those of you who don’t fish, Mepps spinners are typically treble hooks below metal bodies — often bell shaped — sometimes decorated with beads and frequently with fluffy tails. They have a metal blade that spins and flashes when the lure is pulled through the water.
I would learn to love Mepps spinners as I matured as an angler, for the way they looked and flashed and occasionally even caught fish. But before I won that contest, I don’t think I’d even owned one. And suddenly I had a whole assortment of them in a sweet little plastic box. Wow! And the fact that the pike came from Reliance Dam made it even cooler.
A farmer who made room for time on the water with his son
Ah, Reliance Dam. It’s a 46-acre reservoir on the east edge of the town of Reliance about eight miles from our farm. And it’s where I really learned how to fish. Or started to learn how to fish, anyway.
We also did some fishing for bullheads at a couple of our stock dams. And that was fun. There was a dam south of Uncle Frank’s place that we called “the bass dam.” But I don’t remember ever catching a bass there myself. Nor do I recall witnessing anybody else catch one.
Reliance Dam was where dad took me for more serious fishing, when he had a little more time to spend. Sundays after church, maybe, or a stop to put in a couple of lines before sundown on the way back from farm business in Reliance or Kennebec. I’d study my bobber or rod tip for signs of a bite, while Dad stretched his long legs out on the grass, leaned back on those punished farm hands and stared at the sky with a look that said he was pondering things other than cattle prices and grain harvests.
He might sing a bit. Or recite a little poetry. Or answer my questions, as well as he could, about turtles and snakes and herons and owls.
My dad made time for such father-son outings in a schedule that could easily have squeezed them out. And those times have lived with me long after Aug. 19, 1968, when he died of cancer when he was just 56 and I was 16.
Because I was denied so many hours I assumed I’d have with my dad, those together times before his cancer were precious. And Reliance Dam was part of them. A big part.
I caught my first bluegill at Reliance Dam. And my first largemouth bass. And, yes, of course, that first northern pike. That first and only northern pike at Reliance Dam, for me at least. And while I don’t fish the place hard or regularly, I stop most times I pass through Reliance during decent weather and make a few casts.
Bluegills, bullheads, perch, bass, crappies, catfish and … uh-oh
Often I don’t catch anything. But sometimes I catch and release a largemouth bass or two. I think I might have caught a smallmouth bass there once, too, unless I’m imagining it.
If you look at the state Game, Fish & Parks Department’s guide to South Dakota public fishing waters — online or in a print version — you’ll see these fish listed for Reliance Dam: bullhead, bluegill, pike, perch, bass.
I can tell you there are channel catfish in there, too, because I caught a 3-pounder there a few years back, casting a jig. I can tell you there are crappies in there, too, because my grandson Philip caught one during our outing Saturday morning.
Philip is the son of my daughter Meghan and her husband, Thad Roche, of Sioux Falls, They also have a 3-year-old daughter named May. Bodhi is the son of my son Casey and his wife, Wendy, of St. Paul. They also have an 11-year-old daughter named Emerson, who was born on my birthdate.
Mary and I and my kids and grandkids were part of about three dozen attendees at the annual Woster family reunion at Thunderstik Lodge above the Missouri River a few miles south of Chamberlain. We’ve been gathering there each summer since 2005, a year after my mom, Marie McManus Woster, died on July 17, 2004.
Our annual gathering includes boat rides and pull-tube thrills on the Missouri River, thanks to my brother, Terry, his wife, Nancy, their son, Scott, and his wife, LaRayne. If you happen to drive across the I-90 bridge headed east during the afternoons while we’re there, you’ll likely see us on the shoreline to the south.
I sat there and fished there and daydreamed there plenty as a kid. Still do, sometimes.
Gathering for boat rides, touch football, family meals and song
The reunion includes a trip to St. Marty’s Cemetery just north of Reliance, where our parents and other family kin, Woster and McManus, are buried.
It often includes a somewhat melancholy drive past our long-abandoned farm place and more joyous evening meals at Thunderstik that, on one of the three nights we’re there, includes McManus cousins from the area and a former neighbor or two.
Then there are the family sing-alongs on the Thunderstik deck, touch football and horseshoes out on the grass, skeet and trap shooting for those so inclined, beanbag tosses and pool and pingpong and Foosball. And when brother Jim’s son-in-law Pete Quale is there, it also includes some expert kite flying at heights and durations and with craft I sure never witnessed in the kite-flying days of my youth.
I usually take a couple of rods and reels, to make a few casts in the Missouri. Those are acts of ritual more than anything. Hot summer days on the river in Chamberlain are among the worst of the year to be fishing from shore. I don’t expect to catch anything, and usually don’t.
But if you’re going to go, go early. And this year I added an early morning trip to Reliance Dam, for old times sake and to introduce a couple of grandsons to the place their Great-grandpa Woster took their Grandpa Woster so many years ago.
Which brings us back to those steel leaders. I don’t use them. I don’t like them. They mess up the movement of lures. And it’s unusual for me to have a use for them. On the rare occasion when I go fishing specifically for northern pike, I’ll put on a heavy weight fluorocarbon leader if I’m using a fly rod and a steel leader if I’m using spinning or casting gear.
But most of the time, I fish straight monofilament, tied directly to the hook.
Sometimes when I’m fishing for walleyes or smallmouth bass at Angostura Reservoir I’ll hook a northern pike. Sometimes a pretty good one. Sometimes it’ll “bite me off,” as we say, meaning it will cut the line with its teeth. Sometimes, particularly if it’s hooked in the lip and away from those teeth, I’ll manage to haul it up in the shallows and release it, trying not to handle it any more than I have to.
Never any live bait, except for fishing with grandkids
Known for their voracious appetites and hard, deep runs that can strip line off a reel, pike are fun to catch. And they tend to be hardy, so in most conditions if properly handled they can be released with a good chance of survival.
I wasn’t thinking about any of that as I rigged up a spin-cast outfit for Bodhi, complete with a worm. Yes, a worm. Which for me is almost as unusual as a steel leader.
I don’t enjoy fishing with live bait. And I stopped using minnows or worms years ago. With one exception: grandkids.
I’ve taken to using live bait, sometimes at least, when I fish with grandkids. Mick Duffy is responsible for that.
I have four biological grandchildren. Mary has 15. Eleven-year-old Mick Duffy, is the most serious angler of the 15. And some years back, I took him and a few other Duffy grandkids to Pactola Reservoir to fish for rainbow trout.
I brought along spinning outfits and artificial lures, along with a couple of fly rods with woolly buggers, which are very effective flies with bead heads, fuzzy bodies and even fuzzier tails.
They hadn’t been working great, which prompted Mick to ask: “Where’s the bait?”
By “bait,” he meant live bait, worms or minnows or something similarly squirmy. When I told him I didn’t use live bait, he seemed both disappointed and amazed. OK, and maybe a little disgusted.
When the worm hit the water, the bobber disappeared
We didn’t do very well that day, although I caught a nice rainbow on that woolly bugger. But the kids didn’t catch anything. So on future fishing trips, I caved in to grandkid pressure and brought some worms. And we caught some fish. Worms usually work.
I was hoping I could avoid live bait for our Woster trip to Reliance Dam. But after half an hour or so of casting artificial baits without a strike, I went to the gas station in Reliance and bought some worms.
The rig baited with a worm had barely hit the water when the bobber went down. And we were off. Bodhi and Philip caught more than 20 bluegills and had twice as many bites before that northern moved in.
When Bodhi’s bobber went under that time, we assumed it was another bluegill, or maybe a crappie. But the bobber didn’t come up. And the line went slicing through the water from the left side of the dock toward the center. Slicing hard and fast, toward deeper water.
Bodhi leaned back on the rod, which quickly doubled over and began to throb with what was clearly the weight of a much-bigger fish. From there, pandemonium ensued. The old spin-cast reel (a Zebco) had a stiff-and-stubborn drag (the mechanism that releases line under heavy pressure to prevent the line from breaking), and I was trying to adjust it as Bodhi battled the fish.
Soon thereafter he said: “My rod broke.”
Continuing the battle with a broken rod
I looked down and, yes, the rod had begun to splinter just above where it meets the handle. I wrapped my hands around the rod at that point to keep it from breaking entirely as Bodhi continued the fight.
This went on for about several minutes and included a maneuver where I lifted Bodhi’s rod up and over Philip and his rod to keep the pike from tangling the two lines. Then the battle continued.
Eventually Bodhi got the pike up close enough to the surface for Casey and me to see it turn. It was a pike. For sure 5 pounds or 6 pounds. Maybe closer to 10. It’s hard to know.
A couple of times, the pike seemed to be tiring. I took the line and felt to see if I could gauge its strength.Then it would take off again.
It was about then, however, that the pike made another powerful run, the rod bent sharply and flew back as the pressure was released.
The pike was gone. I lifted the line up and saw the end was cleanly cut. So was our excitement.
The last run was the end of the rod, too. It finally separated completely from the handle. But it went out in style.
As I rigged up a different rod and reel for Bodhi to use, Casey and I suggested that it might have been for the best. We didn’t have a landing net or a special glove to help grab and hold the head of the pike (I don’t have one of those, either). And getting that pike up over the railing of the fishing dock would have been difficult to impossible without a net.
Continuing the fight in warm water would have further stressed the pike, reducing its survival chances when released. Bodhi listed to our reasoning soberly and nodded without great enthusiasm. And when we finally finished he said quietly:
“We should have had a leader.”
Those words, too, will live on in Woster family lore.