THE SMALL COVE of the old Hermann Park duck pond was a special place. The corner was surrounded by tall pines and oaks. It was somewhat insulated from the nearby Houston Zoo foot traffic. The banks were rimmed with aquatic “coon tail” moss, and the open water was green and deep.
In junior high days of narrow confines and limited goals, this mysterious water beckoned with thrilling promise. It was the wilderness edge of summer vacation. Catching small bluegill sunfish was easier in the shallows near the wooden piers and bulkheads, but Buddy and I were drawn to the cove.
We had yet to catch a bass in there, but we knew it was a prime location. The promise was frustrating and infuriating. Casts with big bobbers and dangling baits drew blanks. Retrieves with my prized Lucky 13 plug and Buddy’s Shyster in-line spinner usually fouled in the shoreline belt of weeds.
One Saturday morning of that long-ago summer, Buddy and I walked with our push-button spincast rigs from the park entrance to “our” back cove. We were talking and joking, tossing pinecones at the obnoxious flocks of white ducks.
We were almost to the cove before I saw the tall, slim dark-haired kid. Buddy and I said nothing, but measured the newcomer. He looked several years older than we were.
He was dressed in drab clothes and stood motionless beside a dark tree trunk on the east bank, on the shadowed side of the water. He was easy to overlook.
The early sun was just topping the pines, and he already had staked out his spot. An aluminum bait bucket with perforated sides was tethered by the bank. Hanging from the curved handle of the bucket was one of those old metal clip-type stringers. The stringer sagged into the water and stirred back and forth.
The newcomer carried a light spinning rod fitted with a small open-faced reel. The reel was a Mitchell 308, the new “ultralight” model, very high-tech alongside our push-button rigs. It probably was spooled with six-pound mono.
As we watched, he reeled-in to re-bait. A small cork about the size of a quarter was positioned about two feet above a small hook with a long shank and a wide gap. A single tiny split shot was pinched midway on the line. The thin-wire hook was gold. We could see it flash as he impaled a shiner minnow.
The rigging was spare and simple, but clean and functional. I glanced with growing embarrassment at my terminal setup. My red-and-white plastic bobber looked as big as a tennis ball. The snap swivel and heavy hook were clunky in the early light.
Buddy was no better; his jazzy, snazzy leader with the red beads and gaudy swivels looked downright ridiculous.
The tall kid flicked the rod with a low, smooth sidearm lob. The cork dropped softly in the green water beyond the weed mat. He engaged the bail on the 308, held the tip high, and slowly took up the slack, drawing the cork closer to the outside edge of the mat. The cork floated right on the corner at the mouth of the cove.
The dark surface was slick, and we could see the faint shiver and dip as the minnow struggled. The little cork was a delicate transmitter. The only time my imposing red-and-white orb had plunged under was when a big, red-eared slider turtle grabbed the chunk of raw bacon.
As Buddy and I watched, the cork slanted down with undeniable authority into the green.
The tall kid leaned forward with the rod, then set the hook with a smart sweep. The limber rod bent as the cork chased away under the surface.
Then a largemouth bass jumped, flailing and twisting. It weighed about two pounds but at that moment looked as regal as any salmon. The bass fell back and dove, miring in the moss.
The newcomer reeled slowly, then slowly, firmly, lifted against the weight. The bass uprooted, skating across the surface mat. Tendrils of coontail draped across the open maw, and the tail curled stiffly. The kid reached with thumb and forefinger to clamp the lower jaw and lifted the prize to remove the hook. Then he bent to the bait bucket and hoisted the tethered stringer.
I never will forget that gleaming sight. Many thousands of fishing memories later, I still hold that bright image.
Seven or eight bass dangled and flapped from the clips. The bounty of green and gold and silver was stunning. To put it in perspective, Buddy and I didn’t have half a dozen bass between us for the whole Hermann Park summer. We looked at each other; at least we were correct about the cove.
The tall kid grabbed the empty bucket and heavy stringer and walked away. Buddy and I never talked to him. Maybe we were intimidated, maybe we were jealous. Probably both.
Big lessons can be learned from small water. I became more aware of stealth and finesse. I learned to utilize cover and to move less and look more. I no longer was content to flail and bumble on the outside; I strived to go inside the realm of the fish.
I became a predator.
That is one of the great lessons of successful angling. It applies on any water, under any circumstances. Some anglers with fine tackle and extensive travel fail to grasp this significance. They remain random traffic on the outside.
I was fortunate to embrace that lesson early, and I never saw my tall teacher again.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]