When I finally caught Charley in the act, I was up front in Andy’s boat zooming full throttle past a weedy cove at the north end of the reservoir. At first I thought somebody had lost his straw hat overboard. Then I thought the hat was on fire. Then I realized that a head was under that hat, and a cigar was in the head’s mouth, and a bent spinning rod was sticking up out of the water.
I pointed, and over the roar of the outboard Andy mouthed the name “Charley.”
In my town, Charley is a bass fishing legend. But he usually fishes alone, and when you ask him how he’s been doing, he just shrugs and says, “Not bad.”
For years I’d been trying-and failing-to convince Charley to take me bass fishing. After I spotted him up to his armpits in the reservoir, I vowed to get his secret.
I arranged to bump into him outside the hardware store and casually mentioned that I had a tackle box full of old bass lures: Jitterbugs, Hula Poppers, Johnson Spoons, Dardevles, and one ancient Magic Minnow. “I don’t use that junk anymore. My wife’s been after me to take it to the dump.”
“I kinda like that old junk,” said Charley.
And so we made a deal. I delivered the box of lures to Charley’s house the next day. He immediately started rummaging among them, talking to himself, now and then holding one up and touching the hook points, and I had to clear my throat to get his attention. “So, Charley, what’s your secret?”
“No boat,” he mumbled.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “But we made a deal. You promised you’d tell me your secret. How come you always catch more bass than the rest of us?” “That’s my secret. I don’t use a boat.”
When I dangled a Bass-Oreno, a Creek Chub Darter, and a Vamp Spook in front of him, Charley finally agreed to take me fishing with him.
We met at daybreak.
“I like the quiet,” Charley said, “and I think bass do, too. First light and dusk. Those are the quiet times. You can’t be quiet in a boat. The scrape of your foot on the bottom, the bump of a paddle against a gunwale, even the buzz of your electric motor-any sound travels a long way in the water. I’m not sure how much particular sounds actually bother bass, and I guess they tolerate some more than others. But I’m pretty sure that the best sound of all is silence. Wading. That’s the quiet way.”
He carried a long spinning rod-it looked like a 9-footer. No vest, no bag, no creel-just half a dozen chipped and dented old lures stuck onto the crown of his straw hat, a couple of cigars tucked under it, a box of swivels and hooks and a bag of plastic worms in his shirt pocket, and a small pair of needle-nose pliers on a string around his neck.
“I travel light, keep it simple,” he said. “I like the freedom of it. When I feel like going fishing, I just go. No boats or trailers to hitch, no motors to tinker with. No gas cans or anchors or life jackets. No armloads of rods or tackle boxes as big as steamer trunks. How many rods and lures does a man really need at one time?” He tapped his hat. “I got all I need right here. If something happens, well, fishin’ on foot, my car’s never far from wherever I am. I got all kinds of stuff in the trunk if I really need it.”
We tiptoed up to the bank, and Charley stopped well back from the edge. He peered hard into the water before stepping in. Then he began making short casts in a fanlike pattern, starting parallel to the bank and moving outward with each successive cast. He picked his targets-alleys and potholes in the weeds, submerged trees and brush, dropoffs and depressions in the bottom. Many of his targets would not have been visible from a boat. When he began casting toward the middle, he let his lure sink and retrieved it slowly so that it crawled up the sloping bottom.
“I can cover all the bassy water on foot,” he told me. “And I can see it better than from a booat. I do a lot of standing still and looking. I go slow and careful. Hardly ever spook a fish. It’s like still-hunting deer or squirrels. It might take me a couple hours to cover a hundred feet of shoreline. I see lots of bass. Shapes, swirls, wakes, shadows, sometimes just a twitch of the weeds. After a while, you get so you recognize a sign. Go slow, watch where you step, and you can creep up real close to ’em, and you’re so low to the water they can’t see you.”
It was July when I waded the reservoir with Charley, and the water temperature was about 70. After the sun came up, it got hot. It would’ve been brutal out on a boat, but wet-wading up to our waists, we were very comfortable. Charley said that when the water was colder he wore waders. “Never hip boots, though. About the best thing you can say about hip boots is that they hold twice as much water as knee boots.”
In the three hours that I followed Charley wet-wading along the shoreline, he caught more bass than I ever imagined lived in that part of the reservoir. When we sloshed ashore, he said, “I don’t fish this place much. Too much competition. The best part of wade-fishing is that I can fish places you can’t get a boat into. I got a lot of secret spots. Little potholes and creeks and backwaters you don’t even know exist. Ponds where there’s no boat ramp. Places I have to bushwhack into.”
I arched my eyebrows. “Secret spots, huh?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “A deal’s a deal. I showed you what you wanted to know. Get yourself a topo map and find your own secret spots.”
I shrugged. “I’ve got a Dowagiac Minnow that my grandfather used to swear by,” I said. “Fella I ran into at the hardware store offered me a lot of money for it. Guess I’ll let him have it.”
“Well, sonny,” said Charley, “maybe we ought to discuss that.”