Stones rained harmlessly down the banking, a few clanging loudly off of the rusted girders of the old green bridge.
The old codger may have been a famous fisherman, but he had a lousy arm.
I couldn’t hear his tirade over the noise of the tires whirring on the steel mesh of the drawbridge span, but I could certainly read his lips. I can’t tell you what he said but it didn’t have anything to do with his asking for my address so he could send me a Christmas card.
My scouting was worth all the trouble because on this occasion, I was able to get a better, although distant, view of his terminal tackle.
The old timer, like many of the crusty bachelor greybeards of the day, considered kids a nuisance and many would never allow us to get within stone-throwing distance of their respective lairs.
At the time, I reasoned that it was about keeping a guarded fishing methodology or location secret, or perhaps responding to how others had treated them.
The fact of the matter was, that cantankerous old goat with the weak throwing arm consistently caught the most and biggest tautog I had ever seen come out of that rocky hole at the west end of the old green drawbridge
On the rare days when I beat him to this spot, I caught a few small puppy tog before he arrived and began his intimidation ritual.
“You had better get moving if you know what’s good for you.”
If I dared to tarry, which I risked on occasion because of the oldster's slow and careful descent down the steep banking, down came the rocks, of which there was no shortage along that stretch of shoreline.
My nemesis used a tall split bamboo rod with guides affixed to both sides. An old Ocean City knuckle buster reel filled with soiled linen line was attached to that meat stick with a pair of recycled hose clamps.
Unlike most fishermen of the day that employed the standard high-low, two-hook rig, this elder used a single black hand snelled hook weighted with just enough lead weight to tend bottom.
On a morning when I ventured out early and took up a covert position on the utility pipes that ran under the bridge I was privy to his methodology. The pipes were at least 25 feet above the old gaffer's perch and although he was constantly glancing over his shoulder to see who might be invading his space, he never once looked up.
After months of foiled attempts, I was finally able to observe the method he used to hook the fabled “White Chinners.” He selected a live green crab, removed the claws, then cracked the hard shell to allow the juices to escape, attracting the fish to his bait. He carefully inserted the big sharp hook through the softer underbelly and out one of the smaller claws he removed, permitting the razor-sharp barb to protrude just outside the shell.
When he was satisfied his bait was hooked correctly, he carefully flipped his offering on the down tide side of a large slab of granite that set up a rip on the outgoing tide.
Fishing a taut line, he never took his thumb or left finger off his line and when a fish bit I was surprised that he did not rear back and strike as we perch fishing novices always did. He lowered the rod tip to allow slack line as the fish took the crab further into its mouth, before he lifted the rod tip smartly, setting the barb into the thick flesh of old leather lips.
On that morning I went to school on that cautious old man and from that day forward, imitating his tactics, my tautog scores improved dramatically.
Back when I began fishing, there were no mentors and very few older gents who were tolerant enough to take a kid under their wing. If your father or a kindly relative was a fisherman you were fortunate. If not, you were on your own.
I have been blessed with a pretty fair memory and cannot recall much in the way of caring and nurturing between old timers and kids, at least not along that sector of shoreline I called my home waters.
My education came about through a series of frustrating trials and errors but those are lessons that serve me well to this very day.
Learning to pay attention and knowing what to look for is as important today as it was fifty years ago.
I began to understand that fishing was much more about gaining experience and attention to detail as well as giving in to my curious nature.
Much more important than knowing that something is working was understanding why it worked. There were no videos or cable television shows to entertain and instruct hopeful fishermen. The closest I came to outdoor instruction and entertainment was scouring the pages of dog-eared periodicals such as Field and Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life that members of the Weetamoe Yacht Club discarded.
Many a night my American history or geography textbooks had a copy of those magazines secreted in their folds.
Taking a distant fishing trip back then was completely out of the question, so the vehicle for my travels were the photos and descriptions of the writers who had been there and accurately shared their experiences. In almost every story, there was information and tips on tactics and strategy, particularly because I was determined to read between the lines.
Those books, read and re-read, allowed me to accumulate a vast store of knowledge and positive techniques.
While you might see two people fishing side by side in what appears to be an identical approach, I am able to observe slight or significant variations. There are always differences, however subtle, and that is why one fisherman is more successful than the next.
By comparison, I was able to detect the slightest nuance in bait presentation, terminal tackle and other techniques that were demonstrated in their individual success ratio.
Luck certainly plays some small part in the overall equation, but the anglers who consistently find and catch fish do so because of their time on the water and accumulated experience.
For the record, I’d rather be good than lucky.
Today I own a collection of over 500 books on fishing, hunting, the outdoors, and natural history, which contain a wealth of information that I have applied over a lifetime of outdoor pursuits, but they won’t do anyone any good unless that theory is put into practice.
If you are really serious about becoming a master angler, you have to develop your skills and never ignore your natural curiosity.
Little did I know what was in store for me when I peered down at the secretive angler.
Is that trickery something I would recommend undertaking today?
With all the material available in the information era, there is no reason to skulk and hide to obtain a glimpse at success.
Looking back, I am not proud of what I did, but at the time there were no viable alternatives.
That old timer has long since put down his rocks and gone on to his just rewards.
However, I should expound on what may have seemed like a general characterization of the fishermen of that day.
It was never my intention to portray all the men of that era as rogues.
In fact, I eventually came to know and associate with some pretty fair and interesting old gents over these many years, but I made it a point never to test their skill and accuracy at tossing rocks.
Charley Soares writes columns on fishing and the outdoors for The Herald News in Fall River, Mass.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Charley Soares Outdoors learning to fish the old way and the new way