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Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Red Tackle Box...

I had a red Sears “Spider” bike.
I had a green canvas Boy Scouts knapsack that I’d bought at Mitchell’s Department Store with my paper-route money, because Mitchell’s was the only place you could buy Boy Scout gear.
I had a trusty old, worn pair of Converse “Chuck Taylors.”
I had that beautiful white True Temper spinning rod with the glistening red reel.
And I had my tackle box.
My first tackle box was a tiny red plastic thing I bought at the Western Auto store. It was maybe fourteen inches long, no trays or compartments, no see-through lid section. It held a carefully purchased and scrupulously arranged collection of Eagle Claw hooks, (always Eagle Claw…or the fish get away) pyramid sinkers, torpedo sinkers, and one of those round containers of split-shot that had the rotating dispenser.
It held my hook de-gouger, a fish scaler, and a big spool of twelve-pound test line. A small Boy Scout knife and some fingernail clippers, and a pair of pliers for pinching the split shot. Some snap swivels and a collection of bobbers rounded out the over stuffed plastic box.
I don’t know how I got all that in there and still managed to keep it organized. I’d go through it during the week and arrange and rearrange things. I guess it’s what young fishermen do during the school year when they can’t fish every day, but they have to do something that feels like fishing.
Friday night was nightcrawler night on Monroe Avenue. Johnny Wilkins showed me how to catch those monsters, that first summer I lived on the block. You go out in the early evening, as the sky was fading from dusk to darkness. You had to do it after a nice rain shower or at least a humid day when the grass would be wet. The water drove the worms out of the ground. You shone your flashlight straight down, but you found the night crawlers on the outer edges…where the light was faint and didn’t spook them back into their holes. One of us held the light, the other grabbed the slimy bait.
Johnny and I were a good team and we’d fill a coffee can in less than an hour. Dirt on the bottom, dirt on the top and we were set for morning.
If it was a Saturday, we’d meet at 8:05 and head out. Why 8:05? Because that’s when The Bugs Bunny- Road Runner Hour ended. We loved to fish…but you didn’t miss ‘ol Bugs.
If it was a weekday in the summer, we’d leave early…around 7. I would down my Sugar Pops, (In the world before dietary political correctness, “Corn Pops” were called what they really were…Sugar Pops ) and head out the door.
Navigating a spider bike with a fishing rod is an acquired skill. I had my knapsack filled with my lunch, (bologna and mustard, on “heels” -the name my grandmother gave to the ends of a loaf of bread- and a can of Coke wrapped in aluminum foil in a vain attempt to keep it cool) my fishing rod, a camping shovel, the Maxwell House coffee can full of night crawlers, and a compass. I have no idea why I took a compass…we knew the way to every one of our secret fishing spots like we knew the way to our bathroom in the middle of the night.
I never put my fishing rod in the knapsack. It would have been easier, but when you’re eight, or nine, or ten, every second spent rigging your rod is a second wasted. So I’d rig the hook and sinker the night before then split the rod at the joint, push the hook into the cork handle, reel in the slack and hold it in my hand along with the grip of my “Monkey Bar” on the Spider bike. My red tackle box would rattle like a jar of marbles in my knapsack whenever I hit a bump.
We’d ride through three different neighborhoods and then down the path through the meadow to “Nonesuch Creek.” Once there, we’d hop off our bikes before we’d even come to a stop, leaving them rolling another ten feet before they all crashed together in a heap…like horses in a livery at the end of a cattle round-up.
Then it was a dash to stake out our spots along the bank.
Put the pole together, grab a slimy nightcrawler from the coffee can, cast out to the perfect spot, and wait. We’d find broken branches on the ground that had a “Y” shape and then push the pointed end down into the ground and rest our rod in the notch of the “Y.”
My trusty red tackle box –tiny and crammed with things I might never use- sat right by my side…waiting.
I had that little red tackle box for four years. During that time it was faded in the sun. It smelled from the pork rinds I forgot were in there over the course of an entire winter. 
    

It had Mann’s Jelly Worms melted to the bottom. It had a deep sea rig coiled in a baggie…the only fishing tackle my grandfather ever gave me.
When I was 14, I saved my paper route money and my grass cutting money and bought a “Plano model 747.” They called it that because it was enormous…like the Jumbo Jet. I think I remember paying $30 for it, which was an astronomical sum in 1975. It had three terraced trays that folded out when you opened it. It had a small, clear compartment built into the lid for your favorite four or five lures that you used most often and didn’t want to root through the big box for. It was heavy and huge. I worked for two summers filling it with Rapala Minnows and Rebel crawfish lures and Mann’s Jelly worms and Mr. Twisters and Rooster Tails and Spinner baits.
I got my driver’s license when I turned sixteen and fishing was easier and the spots were better. But it had become a contest by then. Read the water condition. Read the temperature. Read the lunar tables. Match a lure to the feeding habits.
Johnny and Richard and Mark and I had stopped throwing a line in the water with a ¾ ounce sinker and a #6 Eagle Claw hook and a fat nightcrawler, and sitting on the bank and talking and joking until something bit. Now we were fishing. We read articles in Field and Stream and Bassmaster and tried those tips on our excursions. It was fun, but it wasn’t the same.
Life rolled on, and we grew up. Fishing became angling. Tree forts became houses for our families. Spider Bikes became mini vans. My laptop now holds the keys to my success.
But there was a time when those keys were held in a little red plastic tackle box that I bought at the Western Auto store on DuPont Highway in New Castle, Delaware.
There was a time when everything I needed was not on the internet, or at my desk, but within confines of that little plastic vault. A time when opening it was like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, because it held promise, and potential and secret weapons, and magic.
I sure wish I had it now. I wish I could open it and smell the sweet, plasticky smell of a Mann’s Jelly worm that had sweltered in the sun and became part of the bottom of the box. Or that baggie with the deep sea rig that my grandfather gave me. Those days are done now, but I search for them every time I go out to fish at 51 years old. I want to catch fish…that is a given. But I want to remember. Each trip out is like opening a little red tackle box of memories from a time and place that might be gone physically, but lives on forever, where all great memories live.

In our hearts.

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