Wednesday, June 3, 2015

True Temper... (Memories of my first fishing rod)

It was white. 
White with black threading on the guides. The guides were plain steel, none of that fancy ceramic. That wouldn’t even be introduced for a few more years.
It had a cork handle. Yeah…real cork. It was six-feet long and split in the middle. The ferrule would stick once in a while and I’d have to wrestle with it to get it apart.
I didn’t give it a clever name, like “The Assassin” or “The Fish Master” or anything like that. It was just my fishing rod. But man…was it ever glorious.

It was a six-foot True Temper spinning rod. My stepfather got it at the New Castle Farmer’s Market at the little sporting goods shop there. He bought it with the money I’d been given by a very grateful old man whose dog I’d found on my way home from school one day. He was a beautiful old English Springer named Joe and he had actually made it across all four lanes of DuPont Highway without meeting his fate by a semi. 
He was walking around the grass in front of Our Lady of Fatima School when I came upon him.
I stopped and spent five minutes with him –I was always a big dog guy- and he followed me home. We’d scanned the newspaper lost and found section for almost two weeks and never saw an ad. I had grown attached to him and we were ready to keep him when my mother spotted the ad on a Friday night. We called, and it was Joe’s owner. A kindly old man who spent a lot of time with Joe and with whom a lot of memories had been made.
I was heartbroken. I had grown to love Joe, and I loved having dogs. But right was right and the old man arranged to come and get him first thing in the morning.
That Saturday morning I went with my mom to Philadelphia to visit my grandmother. It was, no doubt, just a plan to have me not be there when Joe was leaving. I guess it was a smart move. I don’t know how I would have reacted.
The old man was apparently weeping when he saw Joe again. He was overjoyed. He must have really loved that dog a lot, because he handed my stepfather a one hundred dollar bill as a reward for me for finding his beloved Joe. In 1972 that was a ton of money. When I got home, my stepfather had gone to the Farmer’s Market and bought the fishing rod and reel. I don’t know what how much it cost, but it wasn’t anywhere near a hundred bucks. I had no brand preference. I didn’t know enough about fishing tackle to know the difference. But I didn’t care. To me it was Excalibur.
He brought it home and gave it to me. No lures. No hooks or bobbers or weights or tackle box. Just a six foot fiberglass True Temper spinning rod with a real cork handle and a gleaming red True Temper spinning reel. I was ready. I was Jerry McKinnis from The Fishin’ Hole.  I grabbed a ¾ inch nut from the garage and tied it on the end of the line and went out front to practice casting. One cast with the open bail and I had a nylon-line bird nest. The line fouled so badly that I had to cut it all off with an Exacto knife. Thankfully I had a big spool of 12 pound test line. I refilled the spool and tried again. A spinning reel is difficult to master when you’re eight years old. It took a day or so. But soon I was dropping that steel nut right where I aimed it every time. Sometime that winter I had ridden my bike to the New Castle Library and checked out a book called Better Fishing for Boys by James P. Kennealy. I read it over and over through the winter and imagined myself casting with great aplomb in my secret (and yet undiscovered) fishing spot. My stepfather hated fishing so he left it to me to figure out the mechanics of it. So I did.
That next week, after saying goodbye to Joe, and getting my new fishing combo in return, I went to the Western Auto store up the street and bought some fishing supplies. I got a little plastic tackle box, barely bigger than a lunch box, really. I bought two packs of #6 Eagle Claw hooks. The boys on my street all told me never to use anything but Eagle Claw. “You’ll lose the fish right away if you use anything else!’ they’d warned me. (I guess it stuck, because I have never used anything else…right up to this day.) They came six in a pack. I bought the ones that were “snelled,” which I thought was a funny word and as I was unwilling to admit my ignorance by asking, I deduced that the “snell” was the six inch leader that came already attached to the hooks. Instead of tying your line to the eye of the hook, you tied to the loop in the snell. It was easier, that much is for certain.
So I bought some hooks, some plastic bobbers, a hook remover, one of those nylon fish stringers to hold my catch while I caught some more, and some egg-looking bait in a jar. They looked like little garbanzo beans and they supposedly made the fish just about jump into your hands. I bought some sinkers and a fish scaler...because I was determined to catch dinner.
I still needed some lures. I knew that much. But the Western Auto didn’t stock very much. All they had was the classic Daredevil Spoon. It was red and white and would flash like a wounded minnow as it moved through the water. I bought two of them.
All in all I might have spent five bucks. Five bucks today wouldn’t buy you one decent broken-backed Rapala minnow. But forty-three years ago it filled my tiny tackle box nicely.
The following weekend, I was going on my first fishing trip ever. It wasn’t with my dad, or my stepfather, or my grandfather, like little boys dream of. It was with Johnny Wilkins and Tommy Riccio and Richard Ferraro. Three guys I would fish with –in various combinations over the years- for all of my childhood. In later years I would fish mostly with my best friend Mark, but we didn’t meet until I was 14. These three guys were kids I grew up with on my street. We all loved to fish and so we did it together a lot.
Friday night I dug for worms in our yard. Johnny had not yet showed me the secret to catching big night crawlers, so I settled for garden worms in an old coffee can. The problem with “digging” for your worms is that you wind up with only half a worm much of the time. The shovel is indiscriminate when it pierces the soil. But we dug until we’d filled our can with what we decided was enough bait for the four of us.
That night…when I should have been asleep…I was awake in my room, checking and re-checking my gear. Reading my fishing book. (New Castle County Free Library…I’m sorry that one never came back. How do I make it right?) Dreaming of catching trout or bass the next day. I had my line all rigged. The #6 Eagle Claw hook was tied about eight inches above the sinker and I had pulled it down until I could push the point of the hook deep into the cork handle of the True Temper rod. I wonder if I found that rod somehow today, could I even count the number of pinholes in the cork handle from all the hooks I kept safe until morning by pushing them in?
Saturday morning came after a long, anxious night. I was up, dressed, had my Sugar Pops for breakfast, packed a lunch in my Boy Scout knap sack and went outside. I got my bike from the garage, met Johnny and Tommy and Richard and we were off.
The guys were taking me to Nonesuch Creek. It sounds like something we simply affectionately called it, but it’s actually labeled that on maps of the area. I’m sure it got its name from some boys our age, many years before we ever dropped a line in the murky waters. Somehow it stuck and by the time we were kids it was already how it was known officially.
We pedaled through two neighborhoods, down route 141, and dropped down a narrow trail that ran perpendicular to the highway. Through a small grove of trees and out the other side, we burst into a meadow of thistle and goldenrod and weeds. Tommy knew just where to go and in another five minutes or so we were setting up our gear by a bend in the creek.
I don’t remember if I caught a fish that day or not. I do remember I caught some poison ivy. We were boys. We were fishing and being boys in a time when boys did things like fished and hunted. This meant peeing in the bushes, and in those bushes, lay the evil shiny-leafed vine. The four of us came home covered in it.
I don’t know how many more excursions to Nonesuch creek we made…my friends and I and our spider bikes and my trusty True Temper rod and reel. Probably hundreds. We fished other places too. Anywhere our bikes would carry us, and occasionally places where we could convince one of our parents to take us and drop us off. We fished together for a few years and then Tommy lost interest. He was older and started hanging with older friends. But Johnny and Richard and I fished together for years after. In my freshman year of high school I met my best friend Mark. Mark spent as much time at my house as he did at his own and so he became friends with Johnny and Richard as well and we often fished together. Then life took us all down separate roads and suddenly it’s been half a lifetime since we were standing on a bank, lines in the water, talking about what boys talk about.
I’ve owned a lot of fishing rods and reels in the forty three years since I got that white fiberglass True Temper and the red True Temper spinning reel. I’ve owned some that were much nicer and some that weren’t. I’ve caught a lot of fish and spent a lot of time in rivers and streams and lakes and ponds.
But at 51, I only find myself on EBay looking for one specific --and now a “vintage” - True Temper rod and reel combo. I don’t seek out a nice graphite rod with a lighting fast Shimano reel. I’m not looking for a Scientific Angler fly fishing set. I’d love to own those too.
What I seek…what I long for…is to somehow locate a pristine, white, six-feet long, True Temper fiberglass spinning rod, with a real cork handle and a shiny red spinning reel from the same manufacturer. The action would be “medium” and the cork handle would feel perfect in my grip. 
If I looked closely –now through my reading glasses- I could see the tiny pock-marks from all those hooks kept safely encased in the cork, as I pedaled my bike to another fishing adventure with my buddies.
The one I got when I was eight years old is long gone. But the stories, the adventures, the moments shared with three boys from Monroe Avenue are still as clear and sweet as ever.
I think it’s what I am searching for when I take to the water these days. I love fishing as an adult. Knowing more about the sport, having more resources. But I wish I could feel what we felt back then when we were kids, fishing in a dirty creek that fed an even dirtier Christiana River. That old rod could tell some tales if only it could speak.
It can’t, of course.

…so I do.

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