Discovering the inexplicable joys of fishing

The weather is perfect. The lake is empty and calm. The sky, slightly overcast, but still blue and Im in good hands with Captain Jeff Smith, whos been a licensed fishing guide for more than 28 years. Its about 9 a.m. and were cruising along Lake George. My scarf is wrapped tightly around my neck and Im holding onto my hat. To tell you the truth, fishing has always been a mystery to me. The idea of spending the day in the middle of a lake with a can of worms trying to catch some slimy creature sounds more like a punishment than a vacation. Is it true that fishing is mostly a mans sport, I call out, over the engine. Nope, he shouts back. I take out lots of women. I remember one, he says. She was just whining and complaining I dont see any fish, I dont see what anyone sees in this, and as soon as she got a bite and started catching em, her spirits lifted, and when it was time to go in, she wouldnt get off the boat. What a chump, I think to myself. Jeff slows the boat down to trolling speed and sets up two downriggers and four lines on the back of his boat. He moves fast, gracefully. Why dont you let out some of this line, he says, handing me a lead-line fishing pole. How much? Whatever you feel is lucky. Jeffs been a fishing guide since 1980. When he was three, his parents bought the Lake George Camping Marina in Bolton Landing. As a kid hed spend his days with an old-time fishing guide, learning the trade. Then he started making his own lures, and fishing the lake on his own. He was about 20 when he got his first charter boat, a 1940 Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. Now at 46 and several boats later, hes got a 26 Sea Sport fishing boat. Jeff charters his boat on Lake George from the day the ice melts in April to November, and on his time off from chartering, he goes fishing. Recently, he won $25,000 in the Lake Champlain International fishing derby. How big was the fish, I ask. It was a lucky trout nine pounds, .89 ounces, he says, noting the digits match the 98.9 frequency of Burlington radio station WOKO which sponsored the contest. Im about to ask if he ate it or not when Jeffs eyes widen with excitement. A fish, he cries out. Thats a fish! We both run to the downrigger. Hes waiting for me to do something but I dont know what. Reel it in, he shouts. I start reeling as fast as I can. Go slow, he says. And if it starts to bend, give it a pull! I got it, I got it! (I cant believe what Im hearing myself say.) Finally, emerging from the silvery water, I see a fish! Its a little lake trout, Jeff says. The littlest one of the year, I think. Im laughing too hard to speak. Jeff grabs it from the net, and burps it. Burping a fish? They get air in their stomach on the way up, he explains. its about 15 inches, Jeff adds. That means he was born here, which is nice. Jeff throws him back in head first. Splash. And hes off. That was pretty exciting, I have to admit. Despite the poor fish who was probably just trying to get some breakfast and instead wound up being temporarily abducted. Jeff says he generally releases his fish, especially when hes fishing in Lake George. He feels like the fish here are family. He even helps stock the salmon going out in the middle of the lake and dropping them from big garbage cans. If my mom wants one Ill bring it home, he says. But if the people dont want em, I let em go. In a little while, we drive over to Tongue Mountain Point, one of Jeffs favorite spots to fish for bass. The boat gently rocks in the serene water, surrounded by the magnificence of lush green pine, like a blanket over the mountains. Years ago, he says, baiting up a rod, all the Indians used to be here. If you hike around you can still find arrowheads. I watch as Jeff makes a clinch knot. Simple, he says. And itll never come untied. Having a light line with no swivel is one of Jeffs tricks-of-the-trade. Keeps it more natural, he says. So you can feel what youre catching. Look how that wobbles, he says. I nod, having no idea what Im looking at. However, what I can see on the fish finder, is theres a big fish under the boat. Jeff casts his line, which sails gracefully through the air and into the lake. You make it look so easy, I say. Practice, he says modestly. Now its my turn. I follow Jeffs instructions open the bale, hook the line on my finger, and just as Im swinging it behind my shoulder to get a nice lob, I hear a yelp, and behind me, poor Jeff is hunched over, covering his eyes. I cant help but laugh. Oh my god! Did I get you? I ask. Im so sorry! No, he says. I just duck a lot. You get used to it. Water sloshes against the boat. Overhead, a gaggle of geese fly by. Fluffy clouds wisp with the wind. Both our poles are in the water now and were relaxing. Shooting the breeze, as they say. Its nice to have small talk and also be on the verge of accomplishing something. Its like a legitimate reason to relax and not feel like youre wasting time. So, whats the biggest fish you ever caught, I ask. I hooked an 800 pound Black Marlin in Cabo San Lucas fought it for about four and a half hours and then lost it, he says. It came right around the side of the boat, looked at us and then swam away. One lady on my boat caught what could have been a Lake George record, he says. It measured 42 long, estimated at 26 to 30 pounds. A great big lake trout. We let it go. And when it swam away, it looked just like a big old shark. Another time, he says. I was sitting out here waiting for my next charter and there was a cop swimming in the water, looking for a body. I offered to look with my fish finder, and I found it. Whatd it look like on the screen, I ask. Like a giant fish, he says. Our conversation is interrupted by four large fish who have entered the sonar. Whoa, he says. Look at that! I think one of ems biting my line, I say eagerly. Naah, he got away. I think it was a big one, though. They always are when they get away, Jeff says. A minute later, I feel another tug. You got him, Jeff yells. Remember to set the hook! Reel him in a little quicker. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, its a big one! Jeff really lights up when people catch fish. He says its his greatest joy. There you go, he says, reaching in the net. Its a smallmouth bass. The biggest one in awhile 18 inches. The fish is squirming for its life. Looks like hes been caught before, Jeff says, looking at some bloody punctures in its mouth. Put your thumb in there, he says, handing me the fish. Right in his mouth and then pinch. Thatll paralyze him temporarily. Sorry little guy, I say through my smile, as Jeff snaps a Polaroid. Our last stop is to the weed beds, where tall green weeds slowly sway in the clear waters. They like to hide in there, Jeff says softly. We cast our lines and wait. Theres only silence, and the occasional song of the seagull. I feel like a pro. In fact, I have now developed this little dance that mimics the motion of the fish. Its like this innate ability I didnt even know I had, and its working! Over and over again, were catching fish another large mouth bass, a minute later, a rock bass, then a perch! And Im just about to cast my line again when Jeff tells me he has to get back. I must be wearing my disappointment. Sorry, he says. Really, how could I be upset? What was supposed to be only an hour on the lake has turned into three. I hand over the pole and sit down. I think I finally understand why people spend all their time doing this, I say as we head back to the marina. Jeff looks pleased. I knew youd enjoy it, he says. Ten minutes later, the boat is docked. And although I cant honestly say that Jeff had to force me off the vessel, I will say, Im glad I bought the season pass.

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