The Man by the River who Lent me his Secret

Every small town with a river running through it has one—the guy, “the man,” the go-to person when a change of lure or live bait is needed. Locals usually know him by his first name, Lou, Jim or Vern, or by the nickname “Crazy Bob” or “Tom the Trout Man.” The last name doesn’t matter much on the river, but honesty and a handshake does.

I first noticed him when I was 12. He was wearing well-worn jeans, a faded madras shirt and black high-top Converse sneakers. He had a Tigers cap on that seemed to crunch down on the brown curls spilling around his forehead and ears. He was old, but then again to a 12-year-old even twentysomethings seemed old.

Two or three times a week during the summer with the “man by the river,” I’d make my way to the banks on my banana seat Schwinn with a Zebco rod and reel, a can of nightcrawlers and a small metal tackle tote filled with sinkers, extra hooks and rusty metal lures confiscated from my dad’s tackle box. The man would always be there it seemed. He’d glance at me, give a shrug, nod his head and then continue casting.

One day after he had landed a few nice trout and I had nothing to show for my efforts, I approached him.

“Um, mister? Don’t mean to bother you, but I was just wondering what you were catching those trout with?”

When he turned to answer I noticed he wasn’t that old. He still wore the same jeans, baseball cap and sneakers, but the grin he gave me betrayed his youthfulness.

“They are a little hungry today, so I’ve been feeding them up a nice breakfast of spawn,” he said. “Seems to work!”

And that was it—no other conversation, no other tips or other words of encouragement.

With that done, I then worked my way up and down the river looking for a honey hole where my recipe of nightcrawlers on a hook might be gulped. I left my makeshift tackle box by my bike and went exploring.

When I returned, the man by the river was gone. There was, however, a small glass container lying by the kickstand. Inside the tiny baby food jar were two fresh spawn sacks inside cooled by a few ice cubes.

I saw the man by the river a few more times that summer, however, I never talked to him again. I was too shy to say thanks for his kindness, believing that if it hadn’t been him who had left the spawn I would’ve been totally embarrassed. He would acknowledge my presence every time I’d pass by near him, but few words were shared.

Things lead to things as they do and my treks to the river became fewer and fewer. School, sports, girls, college, career and marriage often occupied more and more of my fishing time. Over the next few decades, fishing by the river was not as much of a priority as it used to be.

Then over 50 years later, a chance visit to a local bait shop offered me a glimpse of the now 70-year-old man by the river. The hair was still curly, but shorter and whiter. We actually engaged in small talk. Apparently, he had been working in various bait shops in the area for the past 30 years off and on to supplement his income.

“Landscape work only lasts for a few months every year,” he said. “Then, I would get laid off.”

He said since he loves fishing and knows a lot about the local waters that it just seemed to be a good fit for him at bait shops.

“Now that I’m retired, I can help more people who like to fish,” he told me.

“So, a serving of spawn would be the appropriate breakfast for trout today?” I asked.

“Yep, can’t go wrong with spawn all day long, I always say.”

I offered a handshake to the man by the river and looked into his eyes.

“Thank you for helping me.”

His grip was strong and his calloused hands had moved a lot of dirt over the years, not to mention his fingers had released thousands of fish from the hook. Now, they were getting my accolades for his kind words and actions from so many years ago.

It didn’t seem right that I should delve into the past to ask if he might remember that moment in time on the river. The handshake had been enough.

Thanks to every Lou, Jim, Vern, Crazy Bob, Tom the Trout Man and all other “Men by the River” out there. Your unselfish acts toward anglers are appreciated.