Fishing Mentors

Fishing Mentors
Shannon Tompkin’s dad years ago, after a morning of catfishing. He knew where the big ones bite.

Recent news about the detrimental effects of constant smartphone use by teenagers brought my own teen experiences to mind. Free of that technology, my buddies and I back then had only one goal when away from school, and that was fishing, hunting and camping.

Many of us were influenced by older fishing mentors, who got us hooked on fishing for life. They helped guide us in the right direction, “kept us out of the pool halls” as the old saying goes, while giving valuable advice that saved much trial and error. Pool halls are scarce and the equivalence today would be getting kids into the great outdoors and away from TikTok, Facebook, smart phones and the Internet in general, which has caused much unhappiness with the younger crowd. I’ve always wanted to run a rare summer camp for kids that teaches fishing and boating, with no electrical outlets, but the public today is risk-averse and prone to lawsuits.

I still have fishing buddies going back more than 50 years, and recently checked to see who inspired them at a youthful age. By coincidence, all five of us older guys today still fish from johnboats, except one guy who prefers a 13.5 foot kayak. 

My own mentor was a great uncle named Wib who fished every Sunday when his grocery store was closed. He’d been a Navy Seabee in WWII in the Pacific. Back in the mid-1960s his boat, like most others, was small, but we even camped in it, anchored out beyond the mosquitoes where I could set out a big line for tarpon or sharks at night. In his boat I caught my first trout, redfish, snook, mangrove snapper, flounder, ladyfish and tarpon. It was a long week, waiting for each Sunday and another adventure with him.

Later in Port Arthur, ninth through 11th grades, I lived every weekend on Pleasure Island, where I had the run of the place while they slowly built the tall bridge there today. On weekends I lived in the marina and helped bail out sailboats, also fished and hunted the entire island. Kept a white Gibson jonboat there that in the picture, doesn’t look 12 feet long. Roamed half of Sabine Lake with it. An old Korean War Marine named Mike Kriener, nicknamed Seaweed, kept his Scottie Craft boat at the marina and we fished offshore starting in 1969. His offshore techniques were primitive by today’s standards but we caught fish and those were my first trips offshore in a small boat, without jumping aboard our local partyboat Bluewater, docked at Sabine Pass. It’s captain was Army veteran Leo Fairchild, nicknamed Champ, who was something of a mentor as well. He could find snapper rocks without Loran, much less GPS.

Those older guys got me hooked on fishing, all right. And it made me wonder about other people I know, so I checked around.

Shannon Tompkins in Houston couldn’t help but fish after his upbringing. “We were in hunting and fishing heaven, living on Avery Island, Louisiana. My paternal grandfather, Robert. E. Lee Harrell, born 1893, a WWI veteran, loved fishing above almost all things. He and my dad were fishing partners. Took me as a child to farm ponds, creeks, rivers and Caddo Lake, fishing with cane pole and worms. I learned much from them, mostly patience, fish behavior, how to read the water, and just enjoying being there. I vividly remember the first time he let me take out a boat, a cypress skiff with a 5.5 horse Johnson outboard. I was maybe 12. Even then, I realized it was one of the biggest, life-changing experiences of my life.”

It wasn’t only men who did the influencing. “Mom inherited her dad’s love of fishing. She took us fishing all the time when we were young. At 94, she still loves it. Until she had to quit driving, she’d drive back roads in Chambers and Liberty counties until she saw a pond. She’d park the car, crawl under the wire fence and poach them! I told her that was dangerous and she could get into trouble for trespassing, but she said, ‘nobody is going to bother or file trespassing charges on a 70 to 80 year old woman fishing by herself. They’d be ashamed of themselves!’”

Like many other youngsters, Bud Reynolds in Port Neches got his start fishing in freshwater. “My grandfather A.L. Reynolds on Toledo Bend inspired me. He really knew how to catch white perch. One day he pulled a couple of huge fish right out from under our family jonboat. The biggest white perch I’ve ever seen to this day, more than 50 years later.”

In his early high school years, Bud gained lots more experience by fishing offshore with Port Arthur’s leading angler Dr. Ray Couch, who had the town’s most enviable boat, a 23-foot Formula. They’d launch out of Cameron, Louisiana and hardly see another boat offshore, out just beyond Oil City, which had about 90 offshore rigs in three clusters. During summer when the Gulf finally slicked out, they’d leave home at 3 a.m. and return at last light. The boat carried an olive barrel and they’d fill it with fish. On one trip 20 kingfish, all in the 30- to 40-pound range, caught with frozen, 10-inch speckled trout. Big ling were common in those days, and seen almost every trip.

“Those Louisiana kings were fatter and stockier than those I’ve caught off Texas. We’d get three hours sleep back home, and then head offshore again. It was exhausting. Dr. Couch probably sold his fish, but I was too tired to ask,” said Reynolds.

Some mentors have left a lasting influence on certain methods of fishing.

Mike Spencer of Port Neches had several older guys offer good advice that stuck with him. “Charles Stutzenbaker ran Murphree Wildlife Refuge nearby and was always stressing safety, because we all had 14-foot johnboats. An elderly beach fisherman and friend at Crystal River taught me that saltwater fishing is all about persistence and perseverance. The fish are not everywhere. But they are out there eating somewhere. Keep looking, trying and searching. Saltwater fishing is 60% hunting and 40% fishing. With saltwater fishing, it's seldom the same thing at the same spot when you come back tomorrow. Conditions are always changing; it’s not like lake fishing.“

“And then in my early 30's I asked an older, local dentist how he caught so many big fish while offshore. He said to chum, said he wouldn't go offshore without it. It changes everything. Buy it or catch your own. He said he didn't always have chum but most of the time he did. This one tip changed my saltwater fishing for the better, like nothing else. Chumming pushed us into the world of great saltwater fishing.”

Al Clements is an expert angler, who at 77 years old, explores coastal waters today with a tricked-out kayak that even carries sidescan sonar. (He’s actually my fishing club president.) He grew up on Caddo Lake and stealth was drilled into him at an early age by his grandparents, who were masters at pulling out big white perch. He wasn’t even allowed in their boat until 12 years old, when he could sit still. “That lake was a wild place in those days. I fished it all day long.”

“You didn’t make a sound in their boat,” says Al. Even today, he won’t even use his kayak paddle near the fish. He uses a 3-horse electric motor to cover miles to the honeyhole, then poles the last hundred yards. He won’t approach and cast from upwind towards the fish, because his kayak disturbs the ripples or waves and also causes a break in tidal current. He says fish notice these things and they sense a predator is close by. And they’re right. Al catches a phenomenal number of redfish and trout in shallow water, using artificials.

If done well, fishing can be contagious. Some catch it overnight while others take longer. It requires patience taking younger people fishing, coaching them and keeping their attention, while leaving their smart phones at home. It’s certainly different than just riding along with beer buddies. However, showing kids the wonders of fishing can make a huge impression on young minds, something that could last a lifetime. Just remember to start off easy on them, with plenty of bait and calm water.
Premium content for TSF Insiders.

To continue reading, Login or become a Subscriber!