The Tag-Along

Sometimes the most important part of fishing is simply extending a helping hand.

Older Brother and his buddies are headed to the pond with some night crawlers they spent half the night digging up and putting in an old coffee can filled with mulch pilfered from Mom's garden. You desperately want to be included; they, of course, want no part of you. Then Mom or Dad steps in and commands Older Brother to take you along. You are an instant pariah, subject to all the abuse and petty misery that OB and his team can inflict. On the way home, you think about payback. One of these days....

Joe and I were all set to fish some prime bass water when a last-minute call added an unwanted member to our party. We had been saddled with the 12-year-old son of a really big client of an outfitter Joe knew.

"What can I do?" the outfitter told Joe. "He's really important to me. He always brings his son along, but he's too busy to fish with him."

"What can I do?" Joe said when he called me. "I owe him a favor."

Junior, as it turned out, was a typical 12-year-old. We shook hands in that awkward man-child way, and told him to hop in the back of the truck. The pond was about 20 minutes away. Attempts to get Junior to talk resulted in monotone, monosyllabic answers. So we rode the rest of the way in silence. At the pond Joe and I broke out baitcasting rods rigged with spinnerbaits. Junior stood self-consciously to the side, fiddling with a spinning rod.

"You need any help rigging up?" I asked.

"Nope."

"Okay," Joe said. "You fish here. We'll be over there, on the other side."

Joe and I were into fish right away. After releasing a few, I glanced over at our charge. He was casting awkwardly, and the lure traveled only about 20 feet before abruptly stopping in midair and crashing to the surface.

"How you doing?" I asked.

"Okay."

But he wasn't okay; any idiot could see that. He had been palmed off on two strangers-and he knew it. He was angry, frustrated, intimidated...and he wasn't catching fish. I reeled in, and as I did I saw that Joe had also reeled in. We walked over, and Joe looked at the rod. The line was hopelessly tangled around the spool and reel seat. The kid was embarrassed, but Joe said, "Let's try another rod." Then he handed him a spinnerbait. From the way the kid fumbled, we knew he didn't know how to tie the knot properly.

"Funny thing about bass," Joe said. "They're kinda particular about how you tie these things on."

Nervous smile from Junior, the kind that says, Help!

"Mono sometimes has a mind of its own," Joe said with a laugh as he took the line in hand. "Let me show you how to tame it."

It didn't take long for Junior to get the hang of tying knots. He just needed someone to show him how.

"Okay," Joe said. "Let's see who's interested in this thing."

Junior cast out past some weeds.

"That's it," Joe said. "Now bring the bait just past that weedbed." We saw a swirl appear behind the lure. The kid lurched back and the rod bowed. Second smile of the day-and this one was as real as it was broad.

"Steady now," Joe said. "You got him." He lipped the bass, and lifted it so Junior could get a good look. "Not bad, pardner," he said. Juniior was beaming now. "Wait till I show my dad."

"You can do that," Joe said. "Or we can let him go. That way he'll be bigger next time you catch him." Junior looked at Joe, then at me. "Put him back," he said at last. Joe smiled and let the fish go. "All right. Let's see about his big brother. Cast over there."

A little while later Junior looked over his shoulder and said, "Hey, you guys gonna fish?"

"Don't worry about us. We're doing just fine right here."