Posted by: 1000fish | April 2, 2020

Casting Down Memory Lane

DATELINE: AUGUST 31, 2019 – BIRMINGHAM, MICHIGAN

This one is going to have a very low fish-to-text ratio, so if you’re just here for fish, here it is: I added a Johnny Darter to my species list. Yes, that’s it, so you can skip the next 2700 words – unless you are locked in and bored out of your skull, in which case, even this might seem entertaining. For me, of course, it is always a longer story, with a heavy dose of my childhood memories, which, for purposes of preserving my self-esteem, will not include such unfortunate incidents as my losing the 8th grade spelling bee to Amy Clayton. (“Colossal” only has one “a.” Who knew?)

In recent years, old friend Steve Ramsey and I have started organizing larger and larger gatherings to tour a random midwestern city, eat random midwestern food, and take in local sporting events. The first official one of these, the so-called “Deja Brew Tour 2018,” took place in Milwaukee. The attendees included me, Marta, Ramsey, his good friends Ron and Carol, and no one’s good friend Cousin Chuck, plus Chuck’s long-suffering wife Joanne. We ate a lot of sauerkraut and then watched the Brewers dismantle my beloved Detroit Tigers.

Going clockwise from me, that’s Cousin Chuck (really,) his long-suffering wife Joanne, my long-suffering Marta, Steve Ramsey, Carol, and Ron. Ramsey is not a childhood Tigers fan – he has current home and away jerseys for most MLB teams in his closet, ready for well-dressed game attendance at a moment’s notice.

We also made the pilgrimage to Lambeau Field to watch the Packers play. This is an 81,000 seat stadium in a 105,000 person town, and it is a must-visit for any serious sports fanatic.

The group goes cheesehead. I grew up hating the Packers, because they always find a way to beat the Lions, but you have to respect the tradition and the trophies.

Where else can you get a bloody Mary with summer sausage and a mini-bratwurst?

For the summer 2019 edition, the group would head to Michigan, take in a Tigers game, and also see the Toledo Mud Hens – Corporal Max Klinger’s favorite squad.

Many of you are too young to remember M*A*S*H, one of the greatest shows ever. Look it up. You’ll have plenty of TV time in the next few months.

I lived in Michigan from 1972 to 1979, and I formed my sports loyalties and my love of fishing there. This would truly be a trip down memory lane, one which almost no one except me would possibly care about. If you haven’t stopped reading by now, you must be my niece, or, as we mentioned, really, really bored.

I managed to identify one potential new species – the aforementioned Johnny Darter – that was conveniently close to where we were staying. It apparently lives in the fabled Rouge River, the same place I caught my first fish on my own sometime around summer 1976. The process of discovering this began with John Leisen, he who helped me get my smallmouth redhorse,

Josh Leisen. There isn’t a lot to do in Northern Michigan.

Josh introduced me to Bob Muller, a NANFA member who also works with “Friends of the Rouge,” (https://therouge.org/), a group that promotes cleanup and conservation of this amazing waterway.

Bob Muller with a white sucker.

Bob has become quite an expert on what species live where in the Rouge, and he immediately pointed me to some nearby spots that had large darter concentrations. With the big crew we had in town, I was going to have only a few short windows to fish, but I kept thinking to myself “It’s a darter in shallow clear water. How hard can it be?” Any species hunters reading right now are laughing at me.

I knew the very bridges and riffles that Bob mentioned, and I faintly remember small fish darting out from under the rocks when I splashed through the area as a child. I was confident enough that I didn’t even go fishing on the first day – Marta and the group had already made plans to visit the Henry Ford Museum, and this is not to be missed. This sprawling complex in Dearborn, Michigan houses a world-class collection of vehicles and culture, from steam-driven times to the present day, with the notable exception of the Ford Pinto.

Henry Ford. Not as good as the Disneyland statue.

See?

The vehicle collection at The Ford is a must, ranging from the historical to the absurd.

An original Model T. My grandfather drove one, and is still probably waiting on a warranty claim for the transmission.

We actually got to ride in one.

I always wanted one of these.

This DC-3 was donated to the museum on May 28 1975. I was on a school trip to HFM that day, and witnessed its final landing.

The actual chair that President Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. They also have the JFK car. I was a bit disappointed that there was nothing on Garfield or McKinley.

We then toured the Greenfield Village part of the complex. This outdoor area hosts a large collection of historical buildings moved from all over the world, ranging from colonial workshops to Thomas Edison’s laboratory. (Marta, a Tesla fan, was somewhat skeptical.) Every building has a few docents to explain the unrecognizable artifacts, like wall phones and children paying attention.

Marta makes friends easily.

On the way home, we visited my childhood home, which I am sure is going to be bought by Greenfield village any day now,

Sean Biggs and I use to climb on the roof and throw water balloons at my sister.

The group made the mistake of letting me choose the restaurant, so needless to say, it was Polish food.

The group, in a good mood because the sauerkraut hadn’t kicked in yet.

The Polka Restaurant on West Maple Road. Highly recommended.

I awoke the next morning with high confidence, but a certain regret that I hadn’t eaten more fiber. I made the pilgrimage to the Manor Road bridge, one of the places Sean Biggs and I used to fish. On the way, we passed by the Kensington culvert, the exact spot I had gotten that first fish on my own, more than 40 years ago.

It was just behind the overhang on the right. Marta asked if there was a historical marker in the bushes. She also asked why there wasn’t a statue of me outside the Birmingham Ice Arena. 

It was still stuffed with creek chubs, but despite a thorough look under all the rocks, I spotted no darters.

A Rouge River creek chub. One of my personal favorite fish.

Armed with knowledge from Bob, I headed to the Willits Street bridge near downtown. Sean and I rode our 10-speeds across this zillions of times in the 70s, and I never once imagined that adult me would be here years later trying to catch a three-inch fish.

The riffle in question.

And let’s emphasize “trying,” because as soon as I got in the water, I saw dozens of johnny darters, all of which fled in terror and refused to look at a bait. I had very little time before I needed to join the group and head to Toledo, and I was confronted with an uncooperative micro? Such are the Fish Gods. I presented to every likely-looking crevice and overhang, and while I saw a few darter heads peek out, nothing would bite. This was inconvenient. My time to meet the group came and went, and when I started getting text threats from Marta, I relented and left the creek, utterly defeated.

We spent the evening in Toledo, first at Tony Packo’s for a chili-dog dinner, then taking in a Toledo Mud Hens game. Minor league baseball is a wonderful way to spend a summer evening, and as I looked at the group, I realized how darn old I am. I’ve been with Marta 15 years, counting continuous service. I met Sean Biggs, my Bantam hockey teammate and owner of a head-removing slapshot, in 1975. I’ve been swinging and missing at Dave Hogan’s curveball since 1989. Steve Ramsey has been a great friend since 1990, and he has known Ron and Carol Freeney since their IU days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. That’s 118 combined years of friendship if Marta and I are still friends at press time.

Steve, Marta, Sean, Steve, Ron, and Carol. Dave Hogan took this photo so he isn’t in it. He is too old for selfies.

This one includes Dave Hogan. See if you can figure out which one he is.

The next morning, I showed up at the Rouge with a bit more respect. And a lot more fear. Again, I only had a few hours available, but I tried to approach the rocks with Pat Kerwin-like stealth and  present baits at likely ambush points. It still went badly. I saw a few fish poke their heads out, but couldn’t get one to attack. This went on for two hours, and I was apoplectic. I tried all the identified fish spots several times, then began gently tipping rocks over to at least find some more targets. Of course, there were fish, but they fled in terror, and I firmly believe Johnny darters are faster than sailfish. I followed a few and presented to them repeatedly, which is not a high-odds approach but at least let me get a bait in front of a fish. That went on for another hour or so. I began cursing whoever Johnny was.

As it got time to leave for the Tigers game, where I would go watch more failure, I had one fish spook but then settle in a little deeper run beside a rock. I watched him from a distance for a few minutes, and saw him actively go after a few passing particles of food. This had to be my darter. I eased up to the spot and drifted the micro hook down toward him. Stunningly, he took all the drama out of the situation by sprinting 12 inches up the pool to attack the worm. He hit it twice, got hooked, and then stayed on for those slow-motion seconds that pass between hookset and getting the fish on the bank.

Species 1891. I was beside myself with joy.

A closeup of the beast.

The Tigers game was an unlikely experience. They were playing the first-place Minnesota Twins, who I still hate because of the 1987 ALCS, during which I believe they turned down the Metrodome lights when the Tigers were batting. We showed up prepared to see another Detroit loss, and hoped for small victories, like keeping the opponent under 20 runs. True to form, the Tigers gave up six homers, including one that broke the MLB record for home runs in a season. Completely out of form, however, the Tigers somehow still won the game.

We attended the game with an even bigger group, adding species-hunting buddy Josh Leisen and, of all people, Cousin Chuck. You should know the others by now. That’s Chuck on the far left, in case you don’t recognize him without the orange jumpsuit, and Josh is 4th from left in case you don’t recognize him without the turkey costume.

An historical display at Comerica Stadium. Norm Cash was a Tigers first baseman, a feared slugger, and my childhood hero. I wore his #25 in tee-ball, even though batting order was set on jersey number. I even tried to learn to hit left-handed, until someone pointed out I couldn’t hit right-handed either. 

Yes, there is a Cousin Chuck. It was nice to get a photo where the ankle bracelet didn’t show.

On the way home, I gave an impromptu tour of the odd street names in my old neighborhood.

Always loved this one.

Say it out loud.

With the fish captured, I could enjoy our last day in Michigan with a bit less pressure. The high point was visiting Frankenmuth, a town two hours north that boasts a Wal-Mart sized Christmas store, Bronner’s. No matter that you’re into, there’s an ornament to commemorate it, subject to family-friendly limits.

It’s nice to wear a Red Wings shirt and not have people stare.

Late that evening, we boarded a packed jet, bound for San Francisco.

During the whole flight, we probably washed our hands once or twice, didn’t fret about hand sanitizer or toilet paper, stood and sat close to people, and Marta hugged everyone including the stewardess when she found us an extra bag of pretzels. It was only seven months ago, and it seems like a much simpler, more human time. I hope we can get back to it quickly.

Steve

 

SPECIAL BONUS SECTION – THE IGFA CAUSES MARITAL STRIFE

The IGFA has brought a great deal of good into the world – ethical angling practices, conservation, and a place for the Arosteguis to store some of their trophies. But this past September, I watched a world record quest place a great strain on a marriage, and I was grateful it wasn’t mine. Sam and Kate Clarke are well-known to the 1000Fish community as the heartless Brits who stained our Christmas with Raymond Brigg’s “The Snowman.” They visited us again this summer, which was a win/win because it was too early for them to show us any more awful British Christmas TV and it was warm enough to take them fishing. I had taken them a few years ago, but the December cold had left us with slim pickings. This time, we had a perfect tide and weather to fish Tomales Bay for sharks.

The complication came when I mentioned that there was a potential world record available, on the Pacific Spiny Dogfish. (I have the current record at 12.5 pounds, but there are clearly bigger fish out there.) They both exhibited a strong interest in catching a world record, and an even stronger interest in the other one not catching one. This was going to be an interesting day.

I always warn people that Tomales can be a windswept mess, because it always is when Spellman and I go. But the weather turned out flat and lovely, which it always seems to be for first-timers, and they both looked at me skeptically when I put all the foul weather gear in the boat. The fishing was excellent, although we didn’t see any spiny dogfish for most of the day.

One of the five sevengills we landed that day. Damn they’re adorable. The couple I mean.

Sam with his first “Mud Marlin” – the mighty California Bat Ray.

The day went by quickly, with constant action from sevengill and leopard sharks, and plenty of bat rays. The dogfish were being a bit shy, but I had faith that they would show eventually.

A word to the wise – shark skin, even on a small fish, can give you a nasty scrape. Luckily, it was me.

Like most women I know, Kate is not pointlessly competitive, but she enjoys watching the reactions of people who are. Sam wanted this BAD, so Kate just wanted to see the look on his face if she caught it. I, of course, would have been thrilled if I got the big fish and left everyone else disappointed. I know that isn’t gracious, but if you think I’m gracious about fishing, you must be a new reader. Welcome! Around the time the tide started slowing down, the dogfish showed up. Sam and Kate each got one around 11 pounds, but they needed 12.5 to tie me. I got one right at 12.5, but it’s tasteless to tie your own records, so I let it go. They each got one more, again in that 11+ range, and as the last of the tide ran out, Sam got one more bite. I watched with perverse interest as he fought the fish. It seemed just a bit stronger than his other two, and as I carefully grabbed it, I could tell it was clearly big enough. I said a silent prayer that it wasn’t 13 pounds, and raced to the shore to take an official weight. It was 12.5, so it worked out well for everyone. Except Katy.

Sam and his first world record. Well done – Roger would be proud.

A sobbing Katy has to be carried back to the boat.*

Luckily, they are young and I am sure they will visit again. As of press time, they seem to have moved past this and are speaking again.

*Not really.

 

 

 

 


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