Monday, July 25, 2016

Exit Laughing: How To Catch Snook!

Writer, humorist and fishing enthusiast Ed Zern (1910 - 1994) began writing a column for Field & Stream in 1958, a gig that would last for the next 35 years. It almost always appeared on the magazine's last page and was read by millions over the years. In the March 1985 issue Zern recalled a letter he received years before from fellow writer and sometimes-correspondent John D MacDonald. The title of this particular column was "How To Catch Snook!" and I've transcribed it in its entirety below. It reveals a favorite JDM passtime he enjoyed in the afternoons after a day of writing.

On my way down to San Antonio last December to attend the annual meeting of the Winchester Irregulars, I picked up the in flight magazine of American Airlines and on page 21 read an interesting but presumptuous piece by Isaac Asimov on deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the incredible molecule whose structure controls the physical characteristics of all living things. In the opening paragraph I found this statement: "Since every living thing is at least slightly different from every other living thing, and in some cases very different (you may be slightly different in appearance from your father but you are very different in appearance from an oak tree), this must come about because the DNA molecule is different in structure in different living things."

Hoo boy! This Asimov, without ever having laid eyes on me, says I look very different from an oak tree! Well the fact is, buster, I look amazingly like an oak tree, On several occasions I have been attacked by woodsmen with double-bitted axes. Twice, I have been inadvertently sprayed for tent caterpillars. I have had several severe attacks of oak gall. Young lovers keep trying to carve their initials into me. The mere glimpse of a lumberyard depresses me for hours. Birds often to to build nests on me, and Boy Scouts frequently look at my lower portion to see where the moss grows, and find north.. Termites terrify me. When I suffer from hives, it's because bees have mistaken me for a bee tree. So much for science writers.

Annoyed, I switched to reading a fairly recent Travis McGee novel by my favorite murder-mystery writer, John D. MacDonald, and was reminded by a McGee reference to sailfishing that John lived in Sarasota during the 1950’s and was a devout snook fisherman when not at his typewriter. He wrote to me one time, during that decade to tell me that his wife routinely asked, "What did you catch?" when he came back from the inlet, and that he was almost always obliged to say, "One snook," or "Two snook," or "Five snook," and kept hoping that some other make of fish would ingest his lure, as he felt sure his wife was getting awfully bored hearing the same old reply day after day.

Then recently, he wrote, he was fishing a feathered leadhead jig with a light spinning rod and when the monofilament snarled on the reel the jig sank and caught fast on the bottom. He said he pulled cautiously on the 6-pound line and finally managed to beach a barnacle-covered piece of pottery which appeared to be a chamber pot. A few minutes after he had unhooked the crockery and resumed fishing, he made a long, high cast and a low-flying pelican flew into the monofilament, which wrapped around its wing and brought it plunging into the water. It took him 10 minutes to play the bird onto the beach and get it calmed down sufficiently to untangle the line and release it. While he was so engaged, a pod of commercial fishermen came by and one of them said to John, "Watch this." He took the pelican's beak in his hand and walked it up and down the beach for about 2 minutes, holding the beak pointed skyward. When another of the group said, "He's about done," the bird was turned loose. Instead of flying away, John wrote, the pelican put the point of his beak into the sand and stood staring at the ground for about 5 minutes. When one of the fishermen walked over and booted it gently in the fuselage, it looked up with a hey-where-am-I look of amazement, then flew off.

While this was going on an elderly onlooker came over and asked John what he was fishing for. When John said snook, the oldtimer said, "You'll never get no big snook on that little-bitty outfit. There's some real big snook in here, but you'd never hold 'em on line that light." John tried to explain that with a spinning reel (at that time still fairly newfangled) it would be awfully difficult for even a 30-pound snook to break off if properly handled, and when the geezer scoffed, John bet him a quarter he couldn't break the 6-pound line. "Take that jig," John said, “and make like you're a big snook. You've got 5 minutes to break off, any way except running out all the line." The oldtimer agreed, and for five minutes ran up and down the beach yanking and hauling on the line while John played him carefully. When the time was up the guy paid him the two bits and John went back to his apartment. When he walked in the door his wife said, "What did you catch?", and John was happy to be able to answer, "An old man, a pelican, and. a chamber pot." He said it was one of the best days he ever had, and that he was tempted to enter all three catches in the local fishing-rodeo under the unusual-species category, but had neglected to weigh and measure them.

On arriving at Stan Studer's ranch on the South Fork of the Frio I enthusiastically fell in with evil companions including not only the Studers pere et fils but wildlife painter Guy Coheleach, rancher Herb Toombs, publisher and pistoleer Steve Ferber, sporting-art collector George Coe, big-game hunter Jim Midcap, defrocked tennis pro Jimmy Moses, Gamecoin founder Harry Tennison, and sundry other Irregulars, and not long thereafter somehow found myself tramping with several accomplices across a stubble field stiff with bobwhite quail, just behind a nifty brace of well-trained Brittanys and just ahead of a safari truck carrying an eight-piece mariachi band which struck up "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (I think it was) each time the dogs went on point, which was frequently. I missed one going-away bobwhite, but ascribed it to the E string of the bass fiddle being slightly flat.

The annual meeting was dull. As chairman of the Genealogical Committee, I proposed doing an analysis of Steve Ferber's ancestry, to be titled "Ferber's Forebears" (or, if pursued in sufficient depth, "Ferber's Fur-Bearing Forebears"), but a motion by pecan magnate Bob Leonard to disband the Committee was seconded and passed before I could rise to a point of order.

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