Eight boys biked up Montgomery Road. Five were aged thirteen, and three aged twelve. RC was at the fore with Tim Jellicas, a fellow jock, and Tim Molloy, one of his Greaser buddies. They appeared to be racing each other, pedaling furiously for a block and then sitting astride their Huffy bikes, tricked out with banana seats, sissy bars and chopper handlebars, while the rest of us caught up.
Tom DiPuccio, Steve Slattery and myself, who considered ourselves the “real fishermen,” comprised the second group of riders. Our bikes were garden-variety Schwinn ten-speeds, not by choice, but because we lacked both the mechanical expertise and the disposable income to build and accessorize bikes from the frames up.
Bringing up the rear and threatening to drop out of sight altogether were Gary Jackson, my former best friend, and Ronny Kirk. I cannot recall the bikes pedaled by Gary or Ronny, but I can assume they were “one speeds,” which would explain why they were hard pressed to keep up with us. I can picture Gary, red-faced, sweat dripping off his face and down his arms, huffing mightily on the long ascent up Montgomery Road toward Pleasant Ridge. Gary had always been on the heavy side, but in the two months since I had last seen him, he must had put on at least 20 pounds. This was because our school football coach had urged Gary to “beef up” over the summer to secure his status as a starting lineman on the eighth-grade varsity football team. (It’s testimony to how far we had drifted apart as friends that I didn’t even realize he was on the football team until I had a chance to talk with him after we arrived at the river.)
As for Ronny, my relationship to him dated back to the fifth grade, when we were teammates on the Norwood Lions, the Pony League baseball team Ronny’s father coached. Pony League was good to me — I developed prowess as a first baseman, as well as a power hitter (before harder-throwing Little League pitchers put me soundly in my place). Plus, my dad was the assistant coach — bring on the father-son bonding moments! But, Although I hadn’t hung out much with Ronny (who had acquired the nickname “Croaker” by virtue of screaming, “You coulda croaked me!” at some bully on the aftermath of a beat-down) since our Pony League days, he always struck me as a fairly “normal” guy. I hadn’t known it at the time, but The Beach would be the arena where I would first bear witness to a boy whose behavior would prove a precursor to eventual devastating mental illness, at which point I would be forced to confront the heartlessly cruel, almost casual, way in which some members of our fishing party responded to that behavior.
Meanwhile, there I was, peddling through Pleasant Ridge, feeling about as good as I had ever felt. I was in the company of seven other boys who had sought me out because I alone could offer them access to the storied Beach. I had even put aside the weird episode of the previous night in which RC had relentlessly kicked my feet. He couldn’t have been “queer,” (to use the parlance prevalent at the time) because he was rumored to “like” the buxom Sharon Hart. Plus, he certainly had to have been asleep, no doubt in the throes of a nightmare in which he was forced to fend off intruders grabbing at his own feet.
At about the one-hour point of our journey — after peddling uphill to Pleasant Ridge, downhill to Kennedy Heights, back uphill to Silverton, and then a little more uphill to Kenwood — we hit Remington Rd.
Then and now, that simple act of turning off one road to another marks about as abrupt a transition from city to country as I’ve ever seen. Originating in Cincinnati’s Uptown District, Montgomery Road runs through Norwood, out to suburban Kenwood and beyond, dragging the city right along with it. You make the turn at the intersection of Remington and Montgomery and the exurban sprawl — mega car dealerships, motels, fast food joints — is suddenly at your back . Instead, you are descending down a winding, two-lane highway at a speed in which a constant, light pressure on the brakes of your bike seems prudent. You’ll see a few houses, set far back from the road and widely spaced apart, but these stately houses soon give way to what have recently become known as “hobby farms,” Most featured horses, along with small lots of grazing pasture enclosed by white, wooden, two-rail fences, but I once observed a peacock bobbing and strutting with his tail fanned out in full display in a yard adjacent an immaculately detailed miniature red barn
Further down the still-descending road you encounter real farms, with stands of corn and grazing dairy cows, alternating with wood lots and pasture gone wild. A couple of miles further down and just after you pass Lake Isabella, a”pay” lake that’s still going strong, you notice that the road is no longer descending. You are in the Little Miami River Valley. The heat and humidity down here, now that you’re peddling instead of gliding downhill, brings on eye-stinging sweat, until you turn of on the dirt road with the “No Trespassing” sign, and, once again, you are descending, feeling a refreshing, cool breeze, and hearing the deep, steady murmuring of moving water.
Upon arrival at The Beach, we parked our bikes and, given that this was the pre-Velcro era, we untied our rods from our backpacks. (Those without backpacks had pedaled to The Beach with one hand on the handlebar and one hand on a fishing rod). As the boy in possession of the outing’s most precious commodity — the four-dozen nightcrawlers purchased by me the day before from Norwood-based Lefty’s Bait Shop with pooled money — it then became my job to dole out the bait under the following provisions:
a) Each angler is responsible for affixing the nightcrawler to his own damn’ hook.
b) To botch any more than two or three hook-up attempts is to risk being mercilessly castigated, as well as being called a “pussy.”
c) The same goes for the liberation of poorly-hooked night crawlers, either through the execution of “Bozo casts,” or through the inability to prevent “Fucker-stole-my-bait!” incidents.
After what seemed like hours of trying to settle disputes over the comparable size, or lack thereof, of each angler’s nightcrawler, I was finally able to present my own offering — one plump, securely hooked crawler on a size-6 Snell hook weighted with a 5/8-ounce sinker. Most of the anglers in our crew were laboriously tying sticks, torn balloon pieces or other “strike indicators” onto their lines and then propping their rods on the bank in keeping with the deeply ingrained “throw-it-out-and-wait-for-something-to-happen” tradition of river fishing. Conversely, I was taking the proactive approach — hands on rod, vigilantly alert for any tapping or movement of the line, occasionally giving the reel a quarter-turn to ensure the bait wasn’t “snagged-up.”
After a couple of minutes, I reeled in my line. The nightcrawler still looked lively, so I tossed it back out, this time a little closer to the far bank. I felt an immediate tug on the line. My impulse was to yank back and set the hook, but my experience with nightcrawlers has been that fish often will react somewhat warily to a food item that seems to scream out, “Look at how succulent and protein-rich I am! I’m a helpless, enticing wriggler! I’m just too good to be true!”
What I did instead was to fall back on a formula arrived at by trial and error that almost always works: Let the fish run with the crawler until it stops; when it runs again, count to three and then slam the hook home.
I did just that and immediately felt resistance. Oh shit, a snag, I thought. Whatever I was pulling on wasn’t moving. Then, a moment later, a hefty smallmouth bass sailed over the water porpoise style. “Whoa!” I shouted. ” I got a big one!”
My fellow anglers dropped their rods and crowded around me, because this type of event — the actual hooking of a big game fish — rarely happened in our crowd. Now the onus was on me to draw upon the vast reservoir of knowledge accumulated through countless battles with trophy fish. Of course I lost it! The bass literally spit out my hook in what I could only conclude was a gesture of contempt.