The Jester in the Fisherman

There are two important rules every fisherman should follow: don’t drink and drive, and don’t drink and fish.

Years ago, I loved fishing on party boats off the Jersey coast for fluke, stripers, and bluefish. Back then, an easy $40 could buy me a cheap date with dozens of large, tasty fish. However, as I matured and learned the finer nuances of party boat angling, I eventually fished for blues not to catch “choppers”, as they’re locally called, but for comic relief.

Night trips for blues typically began with a 30-45 minute trek east into ocean dark. Eventually, the Captain’s radar identified a popular spot, and the crew started “chumming”. That elegant art involves tossing spoonfuls of fish guts, blood, and oil, mainly from menhaden – the bluefish’s favorite dish – overboard to draw a chum line on the ocean’s surface, sometimes several miles long, to entice the Atlantic’s blue devil. Then The Wait began, and let’s face it, The Wait is what put the “party” into party boat fishing.

An hour or two sometimes passed with no fish in sight, and during that time, many anglers, usually the dumbest ones, would drink many beers or other liquid spirits, especially during hot summer nights. Then, WHAM! The first bluefish was hooked, and since bluefish travel in large armies, one fish meant thousands.

It took five seconds to distinguish the Sober from the Non-Sober. Watching these “anglers” was precious: the funniest were the first-timers – from New York and Philadelphia making their first excursion into the Great Outdoors – trying to land 15-pound bruisers after drinking what seemed an ocean of beer. Lines tangled and broke, feet tripped and slipped, rods and tempers snapped, and sometimes, even anglers fell overboard. It wasn’t funny … unless you were sober.

Then again, the sport of fishing itself is an exercise in self-flagellation, which makes it one of the most absurd recreational activities available to man. Which is why I love it.

Who in his right mind spends hours wading through ice-cold waters to net a trout that’s smaller than his arm? Who in his right mind spends hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for fishing gear to watch fish with brains smaller than an infant’s fist reject his most elegant offerings?

Who in his right mind awakens at dawn to drive 60 miles to sit in mud and stand in rain to catch fish he must return to the river? And who in his right mind relishes the opportunity to finger slimy night crawlers, slippery grass shrimp, or stinky-dead minnows onto a razor-sharp hook?

You get the picture. Idiots like me, and thankfully, Patrick McManus, angling’s most eloquent Fool.

Born in 1933 and raised in Idaho by his mother and grandmother – his father died when he was six years old – McManus appreciates these angling absurdities better than most writers. Having written a humor column for 12 years for Field & Stream and then penning the Exit Laughing column for 28 years for Outdoor Life, essentially inheriting the reigns from angling’s other Court Jester, Ed Zern, McManus had a large stage to showcase his silliness.

Although most of his books are about his zany experiences while fishing and hunting, McManus has also written a mystery novel, a cookbook, and books about camping tips and humor writing. Unfortunately, he was released from Outdoor Life in 2008 for “budgetary reasons,” but if his most recent book, Kerplunk!, is any indication, that split won’t detract from his witty wordsmithing.

Take, for example, the story “Kerplunk!”, where the book earned its title. The author shares “the first advice I ever received about fishing”: When he was six years old, he fished with a kid named Biff; the two intrepid anglers were charged with catching supper. The nearby river’s shore was lined with large brush, so they couldn’t see the water.

An unusually large tamarack rod was used to cast over the brush. Biff’s advice, which McManus has carried with him ever since, was simple: “Always listen for the kerplunk,” which is “the sound your sinker makes hitting the water. If you don’t hear the kerplunk, your…line’s not even in the water.”

McManus’s astute prose transforms this fishing episode into a metaphor for life. If you want happiness, seek out simple signs that affirm your contact with the world. As he concludes, “I know a great many people who have never heard a kerplunk, and therefore never even realize they don’t have their line in the water.”

McManus also exposes anglers’ obsession with gadgetry and how pride can exacerbate ignorance. Although they often don’t understand some gadgets, anglers won’t stop using them because it’s part of fishing’s “fun”. In “The Art of Trailering”, McManus shares experiences with his temperamental boat trailer and its mercurial lighting system. He offers this elegantly technical explanation: “My hitch…has a ball-like doohickey bolted onto a steel whatsis…You slide the whatsis into a whatchamacallit under the middle of your rear bumper. Then…you shove a thingamajig through the aligned holes and fasten it with a zimp, simple as that.”

His irony and self-deprecation is not only refreshing; it’s poignantly accurate: just watch fishermen launch their boats off a busy marina on a beautiful weekend morning in the summer. In other words, beware of boys with really big toys!

Another irony among anglers that McManus revels in mocking is their interaction with fishing guides. We charter expensive guides to help us catch fish; we use their boats, equipment, expertise, and enthusiasm to inspire us further into the sport; and for many hours, we place our lives, and our hard-earned cash, in their hands. Often, they’re strangers, and although the best guides often become trusted friends, they sometimes leave us at the dock, scratching our heads after catching nothing, asking, “Did I really just pay $150 for a boat ride in the rain?”

And as McManus explains, fishing guides sometimes say the damnedest things. Here are some of my favorites: “No, I still don’t know what happened to the bait. Now shut up and eat”; “This could be bad. The sun is setting in the east”; or “If everyone will settle down…I will demonstrate the technique for bailing a boat with a coffee can and two thermos cups, okay?”

My favorite story in Kerplunk! is probably “Bed-and-Breakfast”, which best captures the peculiar measures anglers will, and will not, tolerate when chasin’ gills. McManus and his buddy, Al Finley, departed for another fishing excursion and planned to stay at a B&B. Finley, a meticulous banker, spoke highly of the establishment.

However, when they arrived, McManus was appalled because the B&B was too carefully manicured. A grave, calculating proprietor, known as Edgar Allan Poe, ran the quiet joint, and he required guests to obey a laundry list of rules. Subsequently, the fishermen conjured the perfect excuse: an imaginary, rambunctious dog named Winston would be staying with them. Poe had a coronary since the most important rule stated, “NO DOGS ALLOWED”; he paid them $20 to leave. The anglers found a nearby B&B that was the exact opposite: run-down, old, and full of anglers. They stayed on one condition: they’d have to share a bed, but as the story concludes, they didn’t know whom they’d have to share it with!

Humor, adventure, surprise, adaptability, irony, wonder, intelligence, resourcefulness, affability, charm, humility…those traits can all be found in McManus because they can all be found in the best of fishermen. Perhaps his deftness of heart has something to do with living with so many women: besides being raised by his grandmother, mother, and sister, he also has been married for several years and has raised four daughters.

Perhaps it has something to do with his relationship to so many eccentric characters: Bun, his fictionalized wife, is actually Darlene McManus; Rancid Crabtree is the neighborhood hermit-angler who serves as a proxy father-figure to him; and Retch Sweeney is one of his many peculiar childhood friends. Or perhaps his deftness of heart has everything to do with those elusive silver jewels we chase that bring so much ridiculous joy into our lives.

The New York Times wrote, “Everybody should read Patrick McManus.” Now I know why.