When I mentioned in my previous posting that I would be well into high school before I would enjoy a banner day fish-wise, my mind blanked out on what truly was a defining experience — summer camp. A couple of years after I caught my first bluegill, My best friend,Tom DiPuccio ( he of the Garcia Mitchell 300 spinning reel and featured in my previous post), mentioned that his parents were sending him to a summer camp just over the river (that would be the Ohio River) in Kentucky. When he added that this camp offered fishing, I heard all I needed to hear. After a series of communiques between our respective parents, my friend and I were packed up and shipped off to “Nature-Nut Nirvana,” otherwise known as Camp Marydale.
The drive time from house to camp was probably little more than a half hour, which is why I was surprised to hear my father announce, “This must be your home away from home for the next seven days.” I figured we’d be driving for hours, past hills and then into the mountains, finally reaching some wilderness stronghold. Instead, as dad pulled off Erlanger Highway onto a gently declining two-lane asphalt road, I beheld a vista of rolling pastures intersected by what looked like freshly painted white, post fences.
“We’re in horse country,” dad said as he slowed to allow a man and a woman on horseback to cross the road.
As the road curved around a copse of large, evenly spaced oaks (I knew my trees) a lake came into view. “Now that looks fishy,” dad said. Although smaller than Stonelick Lake, this lake seemed cleaner, more alive, somehow. The shore closest to us featured scattered stands of cattails interspaced with water lilies, some with cup-sized yellow blooms. rising a foot out of the water.
Dad asked if wanted to stop and stretch my legs for a minute. With pleasure! I jumped from the car and waded into the waist-high grass that fringed the shore, startled by the dozens of grasshoppers barreling off in all directions. A few of them, the big, brown ones, actually went airborne, wings loudly clacking. These were locusts, which I would later learn are a moderate agricultural pest in the Midwest, but a scourge of biblical scale in arid regions during times of draught.
I stood admiring the water lilies rolling in the gentle current when a canoe suddenly crossed my line of vision. The paddlers were older teenaged boys. Both had the sun-bleached blonde hair and deep tans that a few years down the road I would associate with The Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl album cover. Both were wearing caps emblazoned with the Camp Marydale pine tree logo. Their aura of cool was mitigated only by the bright orange life jackets they were wearing.
“You look like a fisherman,” one of them said, as his partner in the stern gently back-paddled to keep the canoe stationary. Reflexively, I looked back at my father, who seemingly did not know that the teens had l ready addressed me. “You fine young men look like counselors,” he said, striding through the grass to get closer to them.
“Sorry, we can’t shake your hand,” one said in reply, “but yes, we are indeed counselors, and I take it this young man will be staying with us here at camp.”
“For a week,” dad said, adding, “He’s a first-timer.”
This revelation compelled both canoeists to break out in what I would come to know as “shit-eating grins.”
“Well, sir, you’ve registered your son in the best camp this side of Timbuktu,” the one canoeist exhorted, while his partner addressed me with what would prove to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received.
“Use grasshoppers for bait. Every time you need bait, just reach out and grab one, he said, making me feel like the consummate insider.
Remarkably, he was spot on. Tom D. and I were lakeside the following day, during 2:00 to 4:00 free time. We figured out that the best way to catch a hopper was to slowly bring a hand toward a likely candidate, which typically would be clutching a blade of grass. Then you quickly wrap your hand around the blade, grasshopper and all. At this point, you slide the hand up the blade until it’s just you and the hopper. We would hook them through the collar while they spat “tobacco juice” at us in fits of impotent rage. Then we would flip the bait and bobber just beyond the lily pads to relatively open water, and soon bear witness to how a big bluegill reacts to being hooked.
First, there’s the muscular lunge toward deeper water, followed by furious twists and turns as we slowly tried to reel it toward the bank. These fish would put too much stain on the rod and line to allow us to simply lift them out of the water, so we had to play them long enough to tire them out. Only then could we sort of “hop” them onto the bank.
I remember caching at least a couple dozen nice ‘gills each day during our allotted free time. The supply of bait seemed unlimited until the fourth day when we had to venture increasingly farther from the lake to locate uncaught hoppers. On the fifth day we resorted to using locusts, which were harder to catch and much more ornery when finally caught — spitting juice with a vengeance, and generally finding ways to liberate one or both wings in a generally futile effort to gain freedom with one or the other of us in tow. interestingly, locusts seem to work as well as grasshoppers.
The bluegills we caught were fat and scrappy, glowing with good health. We caught some males in full breeding color – brilliant orange breasts, and iridescent blue coloring that made them appear to shimmer. We were averaging about two dozen each a day, most in the 1/2-to1-lb. weight range, along with one monster the size of a dinner platter that had to weigh at least two pounds. We put them back in the water as per Camp Marydale’s progressive catch-and release policy, which likely explains why the lake was so productive
Tom and I reveled in a week that passed all too quickly, distracting ourselves between fishing outings with horseback riding, archery, swimming, snake hunting and highly credible, “swear-to-God-it-really-happened” accouts relayed by our counsellors of campers being devoured by a hideous monster that lived in the “bottomless” pond around which our cabins were ringed. When dad came back to pick me up at week’s end, he finally found me at the far end of the lake whereI was hiding, hoping everyone would forget I was there.