By ANDREW CREMATA
Opening the front door caused a bell to jingle in the back room. A strand of heavy monofilament ran from the doorframe along a series of metal loops attached to the ceiling, disappearing behind the wall of an unblocked entryway. A tiny black and white TV was partially visible through the opening, and its sound filled the store with the din of car chases, cheering crowds, or canned laughter.
Larry would quickly appear through the vacant doorway, maneuvering his wheelchair within the narrow space behind the counter toward the bait well, where live shrimp waited for their turn to fill a customer’s bait bucket. Always cordial yet frugal with words, Larry would ask, “What can I get you today?”
His shop was small, and the name, Larry’s Bait & Tackle, to the point. There was a small selection of rods, reels, nets, lures, and a basic assortment of tackle. Walking from one end of Larry’s store to the other took less than ten steps, and there was plenty of space to spare in the aisles.
There was a Wall of Fame by the front door where anglers pinned photos of their trophy fish on a tattered corkboard. All they needed to do was stop in and let Larry snap their photo with his Polaroid camera. Each photo would feature the date of the catch written in black marker in white space beneath the image.
Everything you could possibly need to catch fish could be found in that tiny store – a few rods and reels, a basic assortment of hooks and weights, and a modest selection of live and frozen bait. If you weren’t sure what you were doing, Larry was more than happy to set you up with a rig, some bait, and some free advice on where the fish were currently biting.
From the time I first held a fishing rod through my early adult years, Larry’s Bait & Tackle was as much a part of my life as eating and sleeping. Every fishing excursion started with a stop at his little white cinderblock store. I got to know Larry through all of those years, engaging in conversation as he scooped the shrimp out of his homemade fiberglass tank with a small net and dropped them into the spring-loaded hatch of my yellow bait bucket. He didn’t fish much after being injured in Vietnam, but he knew more about fishing than anyone else I knew because he was the conduit through which every angler passed en route to their favorite fishing hole.
Those days are gone.
I recently discovered an old, tattered tide chart tucked neatly into the first fishing book I bought as a child. It was stamped with “Larry’s Bait & Tackle” in faded black ink. The chart included Larry’s hours of operation and some basic fishing information, faded and worn like the memories of the store itself.
It was a tactile thing that opened the floodgates of memory toward days spent on piers, bridges, and beaches – learning how to fish via the conduit of shared knowledge and wisdom. While my grandmother and father taught me the traditional (and simple) Cremata family fishing techniques, Larry’s wares revealed a hidden world of more diverse angling methods.
Somewhere in between I found my own way of doing things. Learning to fish isn’t copying someone else’s technique – it’s assessing a situation and determining the method and means that will provide you with success. It’s the continuing drive to learn, experiment, and explore, which is only made possible because someone had the patience to share his knowledge.
Large sporting goods chain stores replaced Larry’s business. Their well-lit warehouse-style buildings boasted automatic sliding glass doors and bulk discount prices. You could buy a baseball bat, a canoe, and an outdoor grill without having to drive around town.
Endless towering aisles boasted every lure ever created, most of which were useless in local waters. Consumers wanted selection, so that’s what they got. When you asked a store clerk for a suggestion, they would quickly point out the features of their most expensive products. If you asked for some advice on where to fish, all they could provide was a blank stare.
That business model thrives today, and you can order just about anything fishing-related from an Internet supplier or your local warehouse department store. Often, the selection is impersonal and makes little sense – like a market analyst or computer program decides which fishing products to stock on the shelves based upon how the numbers crunch. This explains why, on a recent shopping excursion in Whitehorse, one warehouse department store offered plastic jigs but no jig-heads on which to attach them. Fortunately, another store had the jig-heads, albeit no jigs.
After filling your shopping cart you can seek advice on how to use its contents by accessing the World Wide Web, buying a set of instructional DVDs, or possibly finding an app for you phone. By the time you’ve sorted through the endless assembly line of products, and watched countless hours of men in ball caps explaining the merits of one particular manufacturer’s line of scented baits, you may still have a minute or two to actually engage in the sport of fishing.
However, if your goal is to eschew the incessant droning of technology’s white noise in order to engage the natural world, you are already one step closer to finding fish. Far better than any YouTube video or the sales pitch of a smiling store clerk with a nametag is a lakeshore speckled with sprouting spring leaves where a formation of trumpeter swans glides effortlessly overhead. You’ll learn a lot more about angling by quietly casting into clear water where trout are rising to collect hapless insects than you will from all of the Sunday fishing TV shows combined.
Plus, you live in Alaska, which is definitely something worth mentioning.
So as this year’s fishing season fast approaches, allow me to share the collective wisdom of the Cremata family fishing trust and a nice man named Larry who owned a small store some 30 years ago….
A good day of fishing requires only a rod and reel, some kind of bait, and a little bit of tackle.
Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings soon at the News Depot and elsewhere.