Latitude: The Best Fishing Lesson I’ve Ever Received

Merriam-Webster defines latitude as “freedom of action or choice”.

It took me more than two decades to realize it, but I thank God I was purposely given latitude as a young man learning how to fish. It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given and until the last few weeks, it never even crossed my mind. Now, as a grown man on my own, I have quickly learned to appreciate being given the latitude to both succeed and screw up.

Allow me to explain.

Growing up, my dad and I never had a fancy bass boat. Heck, we never had a bass boat at all. We had two pairs of old tennis shoes, a few Zebco 33 combos and a rudimentary tackle box full of all kinds of random tackle that would hopefully combine to create some semblance of a bass-fishing rig. We didn’t need much but again, we weren’t bass slayers by any stretch of the imagination. We’d be the two fellas you’d see sitting on the bank of a public lake, watching cheap foam bobbers, eating beef jerky, sharing a Coke and listening to a ball game on a radio during the spring and summer months; I spent many a day riding shotgun holding a minnow bucket between my legs.

The sun would beat down on our faces and I can remember my dad’s right tennis shoe bouncing up and down while he sat down and waited on a bite. He never has been a patient man and that ol’ leg bouncing around further proved it. But by gosh, he took me fishing and never once complained.

That’s all we needed for a good afternoon and at the time, I had no idea professional bass fishing existed. I didn’t even know a fishing industry existed; it was just pure and simplistic enjoyment. I don’t think I had seen a bass boat at that point in my life. It was just like Mayberry back then.

Eventually, dad got permission to fish at a farmer’s cow pond just down the road from our house. J.P. Wallis, God rest his soul, was on his tractor bailing hay one day down near the fence so my dad pulled over and struck up a conversation. Dad told him he’d love to have a place to take his boy fishing and promised to leave it in better shape than we found it. Although he normally didn’t agree to things like that, Mr. Wallis allowed us to come fish.

It was the first time I had ever been able to fish a pond and have it all to myself. I laid in the bottom bunk of my bunkbeds that Friday night and my body shook and tremored with excitement thinking of all the possibilities the next morning might hold for us. Surely, one of us was going to catch a 10-pounder and get our picture in the paper. Heck, maybe we’d catch a big ol’ catfish and have a big fish fry for my momma. The excitement was palpable and endless; it was everything fishing should be. It was everything a little boy could dream of.

That next morning, dad didn’t have to wake me up. I had a Snoopy fishing rod in my bedroom and I had clipped an old dog leash to the rod tip and lassoed some of my stuffed animals with the other end. Before sunrise, I was in my top bunk, jerking those stuffed animals over the wooden railing with that Snoopy rod, pretending I was fighting the biggest, baddest bass you’ve ever seen. I had to get my warm-up reps in for the big day ahead.

I think everyone remembers a few specific sounds from their childhood that bring back the most vivid memories imaginable; they wake your mind up from the monotony of everyday life and provide a rush of endorphins few other worldly things can provide. With that being said, I can remember the gurgling of the coffee maker that morning. I can remember the sound of my dad kissing my momma as we were walking out the door. I can hear the sound of and even feel the sensation of the door creaking on Dad’s 1952 Chevrolet pickup truck. We threw those Zebcos in the bed of that old pickup and made the quick jog down the road to Mr. Wallis’ pond.

Dad cranked his window down and opened the front window vent, so I did, too as I smiled at him. As he shifted gears on that three-on-the-tree with his right hand and worked the stiff clutch with his left foot, I noticed his left elbow hanging out the window. So I did the same with my right elbow. The wind was cool, the pastures were still covered in dew and it was going to be the best day of my life.

As we turned right into the gravel driveway, I’ll never forget the babbling of the gravel beneath those old, white-wall tires. Mr. Wallis was in the hay barn in his Liberty overalls and just stuck his hand up with a big smile and waved to us. As we crested the hill in front of his small farmhouse, I hopped out to unchain the rusted cattle gate for dad. The metal was still cool on my hands, the rust was gritty to the touch and the “clank” sound represented endless opportunities of the day ahead.

We caught some fish that day but most importantly, we spent time together. Dad and I have never been ones to openly talk about stuff like that but by gosh, I doubt either of us will ever forget it. Sometimes you can say a whole bunch without even opening your mouth.

I give you that background story to set the proverbial table for the rest of this story. Dad and I fished that pond a lot together after that day. He was always a more recreational fisherman but for whatever reason, I was wired to take it a bit more serious and try to become really good at it. Years later, in my early teenage years, Dad caught onto that. I think he knew I had almost surpassed him. I don’t say that with any ugliness in my heart whatsoever. He had a high-stress job and he just wanted to be outside and enjoy the time. I got to where I wanted to catch the crap out of every fish in that pond. We were just different in that respect.

Remember the word “latitude”? Scroll back up to the top and check out the definition again.

Here’s where it comes into play.

There was one day when I was about 13 years old, a cool early fall morning, when I feel like I earned some sort of rite of passage. Dad had some errands to run in town that day but I was hell-bent on going fishing. To my total surprise, he helped me load my stuff into the truck and he offered to take me to the pond and drop me off by myself. I had a soft-sided lunch box with a sandwich, some chips and a few waters, two fishing rods, a pocket knife and his tackle box.

Well, I also can’t forget my momma’s giant, old-school Nokia cell phone so I could call him in case of an emergency. But he dropped me off that morning, wished me good luck, smiled, patted me on the back and said, “See ya after a while, Bubba.”

As that truck climbed over the manure-covered hill and inched out of sight, I felt weird. I heard the gate shut and eventually the sound of his engine faded into nothing. I was super excited. But I was scared, too. I had a donkey named Jack hollering at me through the fence, about 100 cows staring at me, coyotes carrying on through the adjacent hardwood bottoms and bluegill busting around the bank eating dragonflies. It was cool, but man… I had never really been fishing without Dad. It was up to me now. I was the man of the pasture. Anything that happened for those few hours, I was in charge of. I had to suck it up and figure it out.

I’ve never talked to dad about that day, to the best of my knowledge. But I can guarantee you he didn’t go to town and run errands. He stayed nearby.

He wanted to test me. He wanted to give me the latitude to both succeed and screw up. I couldn’t further my skills if I ran to him every time I had a line tangle, a tough-to-unhook fish or a crankbait that wouldn’t run straight. I had to figure it out myself.

And by gosh, I credit that very day as the day that started my current career. If dad would have never given me the freedom to screw up and try things myself that day, I don’t think I’d be where I currently am.

Once I fended off the cows, got the donkey shut up (maybe it was a mule, I don’t know the dang difference) and got settled in, I started catching fish immediately. I was pretty slow rigging my Texas rig and it was admittedly a pretty clumsy affair, but my gosh I was proud of myself; you couldn’t tell me anything for a few hours. It was just me, a pack of old Culprit worms in my back pocket, a pocket knife and a Hot Mustard-colored Shad Rap.

I kept seeing something swirl around the bank of this 1-acre cow pond and I couldn’t figure out what in the world it was. So I started digging through dad’s tackle box and I found an old frog with half-rusted hooks. I can’t remember what brand it was and if I guessed, I’d be lying. But it was probably a pretty cheap one because we never got too lavish with our fishing gear and we were dang proud of it, too.

I rigged that silly frog on 10-pound monofilament and a Zebco 33 and chucked it right past where the swirls were happening. I twitched that sucker three times… not twice and not four times; I remember each singular twitch. Right when I started that fourth twitch, an absolute giant—surely the world-record bass—exploded on it. I set the hook like a man who had been raised by wolves and wouldn’t you know, that cheap 10-pound monofilament snapped like a dry twig.

That bass wasn’t a world record. When I finally calmed down and got my wits about me, I realized it was about 3 pounds. But who cared? That was my fish that I fooled into biting by myself. I couldn’t lean on dad this time. I figured out at least a small piece of the puzzle and tricked a wild animal into thinking my fake frog was real. That was the coolest thing in the world to me.

I sat on the bank for a few minutes afterwards, grinning like that ugly ol’ mule (or donkey, the verdict is still out) eating briars. I was almost in tears I was so happy and proud of myself. I had a PB&J in my left hand and was picking the hole in my jeans with my right hand. I was shaking that right foot just like my dad always did. I just couldn’t wait to tell him.

I looked at momma’s old phone in my lunch box and I said, “No, I can’t call ‘em just yet. They’re gonna think something’s wrong. I gotta be independent.”

Well, that process lasted about 5 minutes. After I choked down that sandwiched, hollered at a little bull calf to get out of the water and slammed a bottle of store-brand water, I had to call dad. He answered and sure enough, I heard gravel popping over the hill about five minutes later. I knew he didn’t go far.

I had never seen him so involved in a fishing story and I’ll never forget his smile, the shirt he was wearing, the jeans he was wearing or the sun-faded Atlanta Braves hat he was wearing. It was, and probably will always be, one of the proudest moments of my life. I asked him if he’d take me to the corner store so I could get another frog and of course, he obliged. I left my stuff on that pond bank and he let me get three frogs. I got two greens and a black. And I never got another bite on any of ‘em.

After that quick shopping spree, he took me to McDonald’s on the way back to the pond; this skinny, jacked-up young man wanted him a double cheeseburger with a Coke. We sat together in that restaurant and just talked fishing. We never did that much. We still don’t do that much. But whether he knows it or not, I think about it all the time. Those 30 minutes meant the world to me. I was almost sad when it came time for him to drop me back off at the pond. But again, he was purposely giving me the latitude to learn some things for myself. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him either, but I like to think we both knew it was necessary.

In a world today where kids have cell phones with internet, social media and apps that allow their parents to track their every move, I would encourage everyone to give your kids a little latitude when it comes to teaching them how to fish. I understand times are very different these days but that small bit of empowerment can mean the world to a young man or young lady. It can catapult them into a dream career.

If you’re an adult and you’re newer to fishing, the latitude concept still holds true in my opinion. Don’t always go with your buddy who’s a really good angler. Some days it’s good to go by yourself and struggle through it. You can’t lean on anyone if you have an issue; it’s just you and the fish. When there’s no automatic fallback plan, you’d be amazed what you can figure out by yourself and when you do figure it out, you’ll feel unbelievably fulfilled.

A Zebco 33, a cheap frog, an old cell phone and a lunch date with dad changed the trajectory of my life.

It took my dad one day of giving me some intentional latitude to turn me into a man. Now that I’m grown, I’ll never hear a buddy’s truck pull up our gravel driveway without thinking of my dad’s 1952 Chevy heading down to the pond that day to hear about the one that got away. It’s often the smallest memories that bring back the strongest emotions.

Thank God for the gift of latitude. It’s the best fishing lesson I’ve ever received.

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