"In the end, it's not the fish you remember but the people."
Lefty Kreh, 91-year old international fishing legend, was reminiscing on his fishing life with me this spring. I suggest there's a level of meaning beyond that, which I'll cover later, and I think Lefty would agree.
Fishing buddy Harry Pippin died suddenly on July 18. I have a flood of memories of our 20-plus years of fishing together. It's funny I reflected, how different we were, yet we respected each other, and at the deepest levels our lives ran on remarkably parallel tracks.
Harry was highly intelligent with a range of interests from astronomy to meteorology to folk, bluegrass and choral music to the humor of Red Green to spirituality, and, of course, all things John Wayne. (I never understood that last one.)
I've probably left out a lot of facets of his studies. Often when we were fishing I'd mention something, like the music of Peter Paul & Mary (PPM), and discover he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the topic. And he was full of surprises: That PPM discussion on our last trip together this spring led to him mentioning, in an offhand manner, he was in the 1963 "March on Washington," where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The first time we fished together Harry invited me to a trip on Prettyboy. It was very much a trial interview. Briefly, on that warm, fall day, I realized the bass had moved to the shore in the afternoon and began picking them up of surface lures. Harry joined in, and we had the kind of mutual success that was a pattern over the years – except that almost always Harry was the teacher and I was the student.
After that he invited me to the family farm, where Harry lived his entire life, and I got to meet his family. Harry was devoted to his family, his wife, Gina, and sons Harry Randolph and Joshua and later to his two grandsons. He also spoke often and admiringly of his father, a Wildcat and Hellcat pilot on a escort carrier during World War II, and the only member of his squadron to survive the war.
He also told stories of his father's hardscrabble Appalachian childhood and was proud of his roots.
We fished a lot of places for different species in the years of our friendship — bass, panfish and pickerel at Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Dundee Creek, shad at Deer Creek, stripers on Susquehanna Flats and the Upper Bay Lumps, carp on fly rods during the cicada hatch at Prettyboy.
We were both field editors for the now-defunct Mid-Atlantic Fishermen, went to writers' trips with magazine staff and manned the booth at the Bass Fishing Shows when they were held at Timonium Fairgrounds.
One of my favorite memories of Harry was the spring day he called me at work, excitedly spouting more astronomical and meteorological data than I could absorb. But I got the bottom line: After a prolonged cold spring, temperatures were going to shoot into the 70's the next day, and the moon phase was ideal. Bass would come storming into the shallows, and I needed to get creative on getting off work the next day.
He liked to call the shots when fishing, and this was his finest performance. We took Harry's boat to Loch Raven, and it was even better than promised. Fishermen often talk loosely about 100 fish days, but this probably was one. Every cove we went into was loaded with 2- and 3-pound bass, and they jumped on every kind of lure we threw in their direction.
About a third of the time, we were casting to visible fish. It never stopped all day, no matter where we went.
Finally Harry suggested we go to a cove near Dulaney Valley Road, a place where he'd never caught a fish. It was just as good. We went in that day with the bass still hitting.
Another favorite was the time Harry took Joe Bruce flyfishing for carp. With all the places he's been internationally and fish he's caught, Joe Bruce still reflects on this favorite day. Joe, in the closing days of his Catonsville fly shop in 2004, had been hearing all spring about the action Harry and I had flyfishing for carp at Prettyboy. Once the carp had locked in on the edible insects, they began cruising the shorelines to feast on cicadas dropping from trees and bushes.
Most of these fish were in the 5- to 7-pound range. The appeal was visual: We would spot a carp cruising the bank then, using a 7-weight fly rod and floating line, drop a foam or deer hair bug in the carp's path, watch the take, then experience a violent, shallow-water battle, before boating and releasing the fish.
Harry knew Joe only slightly but knew he didn't have access to the reservoirs and decided this flyfishing expert should get in on the action. That's when Harry's unfamiliarity with Joe bit him. Despite the cold and rainy weather that day, Joe jumped at the chance to try for carp. The bite was on, and Joe never leaves active fish.
Joe describes the day, "I caught so many my forearms were cramping."
Harry mostly remembered a long, cold, wet day but was pleased that Joe enjoyed it.
Many outdoorsmen see patterns in nature and begin to get glimmers of deeper patterns in the universe and our place in it, or to paraphrase Wordsworth, get intimations of the Whole. So I was not surprised to see deeper spiritual connections in Harry's life as well as my own in recent years though we took different paths. In his case, he delved deeper into his established religious tradition. The concluding hymn at Harry's service, "How Great Thou Art," beautifully captured one seeing the natural world and perceiving the hand of the Divine beyond.