While driving through a little burg named Borth last spring, I chuckled as a boy on a bicycle rode by in the opposite direction.
(Yes, there’s a place called Borth. It’s near the line separating Waushara and Winnebago counties in east-central Wisconsin, just southwest of Lake Poygan.)
Anyway … the bicycling boy clenched a fishing rod to his bike’s right handlebar. Bouncing wildly behind him was a Coleman cooler lashed to the bicycle with a 10-foot rope.
I hadn't heard such a racket since my grade-school buddy Pete Higuchi accidentally fed his new spinning rod into his bicycle spokes 50 years before as we rode for Stony Point on Madison's Lake Mendota.
I still smirk when recalling both scenes. It’s what one does each year when Wisconsin opens its season for gamefish like trout, walleyes, northern pike, and the brothers bass -- largemouth and smallmouth.
Those of us who love fishing often get sentimental about long-ago openers when we set aside garden worms, crappie minnows and other panfish bait, and pooled our dimes and nickels for fathead minnows and 7-inch suckers to target pike and walleyes. After ending the day discouraged, we usually returned to crappies and bluegills, which were more suited to our skills and patience.
Another reason my young friends and I swore off gamefish after one day was more practical: At least one of us had ruined our dad’s walleye rig before 10 a.m. Kids borrowing parents’ fishing tackle without permission and ruining a favorite rig is just another opening-weekend tradition.
I’m sure such customs date to cave dwellers, when lads named Trog borrowed Dad's hickory staff, which Trog Sr. used to brain fish schooled beneath rapids.
Until Trog Jr. borrowed it, the staff was solid, straight and beautifully balanced. But the first time Junior swung down on a fish, the staff cracked atop a submerged boulder. At which point, Junior likely said: “Be cool, Pops. They’re on sale at Rockmart.”
Maybe that’s why I saw myself in that boy bicycling through Borth. I assumed two things with a glance: The spinning rod was his dad's, and his own Zebco spin-casting rig was back home in the garage. Dad had obviously let down his guard by working, watching golf or hunting turkeys.
Little did Dad know that as he watched Brooks Koepka striding down the 14th fairway, Junior was stubbing Dad’s new graphite rod into the roadside gravel, instantly snapping three inches off the rod's thin, sensitive tip.
No matter, Junior thought. Tips break. Sure, they get in the way while casting, but so what? Dad never goes fishing, anyway. And who unties everything just to remove a broken tip from the line? The reel still works, right?
But three weeks later, here’s what happens: Dad starts gathering his gear for a weeklong walleye trip to Canada. He then notices the snapped-off tip dangling atop his favorite Fenwick. He reams out Junior, visits the tackle shop, and gets a new ceramic guide installed atop the stub.
Well, at least that’s how dads fixed their kids’ carelessness 50 years ago. As a result, their fishing rods had all the sensitivity and flexibility of pool cues.
How do I know this? Until I left home for the Navy at 19, my father owned no fishing rod that matched the factory-built length inscribed at the base of its butt. Most of Dad’s rods were 2 to 3 inches short of their manufactured length.
Of course, my dad’s troubles didn't end there. Not until Dad was on the water did he notice another problem: The gears in his favorite spinning reel no longer meshed, having been packed with muddy sand from my recent trip to Picnic Point.
At least when my Dad quit fishing in disgust, he knew the extent of his equipment problems. What about the father of that boy in Borth? When he grabbed for a cold one, he probably noticed ice-melt dribbling from the cooler's bottom. Then he noticed the cooler looked as if it had graded the asphalt and gravel along a roadway’s shoulder. Which is exactly what it did.
“What in Hades happened to my cooler?” Dad asks Junior, who acts as though he’s never in his life, until that moment, heard of a cooler. “And what are these scuffs on the handle? Hey, it looks like someone tied a rope around it. And hey, the clasps don't work. In fact, where in Hades are the freaking clasps?''
Shortly after, Junior's dad lectures him on duty, responsibility, respect for property and other topics irrelevant to youngsters and teens.
Yes, I know all about that bicycling boy of Borth. Just a few decades ago, I knew him even better. And in the next few years, I'll likely be repaid regularly when grandkids make weekend visits each summer.
If I can only be so lucky.