My father’s friend, the opera singer Ted Novis, gave me my first fishing pole. It was just after we’d moved to California. In Tucson the only open water you’ll see is either in a swimming pool, or raging down an arroyo during a flash flood. Neither is good for fishing, and so I had never fished before. This is why, when Ted took my father and I out fishing in the San Francisco bay, I didn’t have a pole to use.
Ted picked one at random out of his huge bundle of poles and handed it to me. “Here!” he said. “You have a fishing pole.”
“You mean, for keeps?”
He laughed. “Yes, for keeps!”
He and my father showed me how to set up a hook and sinker, and helped me bait it, and we threw our lines out and sat waiting. Not only had I never been fishing before, but this was also my first time in a boat. It was cold out in the bay, and I wasn’t used to the rocking of the waves – it made me a bit seasick.
Dad and Ted were talking about adult things, which excluded me. I kept peering over the side at the water, wondering how deep it was. Minutes passed, then a startling thing happened to my fishing pole. Something down in the water was yanking hard on the string, and the reel began spinning and making a whining noise.
“You got a bite!” Dad was yelling in his loud, exited way. “You got a bite!”
“Reel it in, boy!” Ted yelled.
I was flustered and excited and didn’t know what to do, and whatever had a hold of the other end was threatening to yank the pole out of my hands. So I said, “Here!” and handed it to my Dad.
Dad laughed and cranked on the reel. “Whoa! You got a monster!” The fish was fighting hard.
“You’re gonna lose it,” Ted was saying. “Play it out a bit.”
“No, I got it.” Dad reeled it in, and Ted netted it. It was a fish about the same size and shape as a large frying pan.
“A halibut!” Ted said. “Look at that!”
Talk about a weird fish. My dad pointed out to me that it had two eyes on one side of its head. Born looking like a normal fish, one of the eyes migrates over time from one side of the head to the other. It was like a freak of nature, and it made me nervous.
Under my Dad’s direction, I baited the hook and let the line out again. It wasn’t ten minutes later I caught another fish. It was a 2 pound catfish, which confused Ted because he was sure there were no catfish in the bay. He’d never seen one in salt water before, and he didn’t like the yellow color of its belly. We threw it back.
I got bites for the rest of the trip, but no more fish. Dad and Ted didn’t catch anything at all. That night, Ted cooked the halibut and I ate some of it, but back then I didn’t have much appreciation for seafood.
Over the next few years I caught a whole array of strange fish using that pole. I caught baby sharks, sting rays, rock cod, and a really odd thing called a needle fish – a yard long but only an inch wide, and boy did it fight. Every time I went fishing, I caught something, even when no one else did. In Sacramento, I caught a 15 pound striped bass (my father was very proud of me for that). Up at one lake I even caught a turtle.
I thought it was normal to catch a fish every time I went fishing. This was truly a lucky pole. There’s no other explanation.
Years later, up at Lake Tahoe, I was I huddled in my sleeping bag on the back deck of my Dad’s boat with my fishing line out. My lucky pole was all the way in the boat, with only about 5 inches of it hanging over the transom. It was within easy reach of my right hand in case there was a bite.
I was just barely awake when it happened. My parents were asleep. I was squinting up at the stars, because they’re bright up at Tahoe.
Something grabbed the line of my lucky pole and yanked it out of the boat. I heard and felt it being dragged up over the transom, and I sat up in time to see it sail off through the air and splash into the water about 20 feet away. My yelling and screaming awoke my parents and my dad came scrambling out onto the stern, dressed in his flannel pajamas. “My pole!” I was crying. “My pole is gone!”
After I explained the details to Dad, he shook his head and said it must have been a giant mackinaw trout. He’d heard tales of these giants, and he was sure that’s what took it. Since then I’ve looked them up: The biggest on record is 37 pounds, but divers have reported seeing 50-pounders. Clearly these are big enough to yank a pole completely out of a boat.
Also, there’s an ongoing story of Lake Tahoe having a monster. This monster is probably the result of some sturgeon that was released in the lake years ago. Sturgeons are known to reach lengths of 10-14 feet in the right environment (longer, actually – the record is 24 feet!), and they DO look like some sort of pre-historic monster.
Searching through the Internet, you’ll find dozens of Lake Tahoe midnight-pole-stealing fish stories. I have no doubt there’s a big nocturnal creature in that lake dragging dozens of fishing poles around through the water … and one of them is mine! My one and only lucky pole.
I’ve since wondered, what makes a lucky pole lucky? The smell on the line? The sound the reel makes when winding – does it attract fish? I wish I knew.
I haven’t had one since.