After spending 10 years as a law enforcement official and living a life devoted to values and integrity I have a confession to make.
I’ve broken the law on many occasions.
I’ve done it of my own free will and felt little remorse. We live in a society based on rules and I have disregarded one of the rules that keep our culture from crumbling down around us. What rule did I break? It wasn’t a violent crime and it had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. I haven’t assaulted anyone and the only thing I’ve stolen is the key to my wife’s heart. She kept it under the welcome mat by the back door so, you know, not too tough. Nope, I have partaken in a victimless crime.
I am a trespasser.
No, it’s cool. That’s actually Portuguese for “Come Right In”…..
I don’t want to trespass. I understand it’s wrong. I know that the property I sneak into belongs to someone else and that I have no right to wantonly slip past their fences or signs and enter their domain. I know it shames my saintly mother to know I am a scofflaw. I know all of these things and yet I am powerless to stop myself. I would never dream of entering someone’s home or even coming near their dwellings. You see, the thing that makes me risk incarceration, the shame of my family and maybe even my everlasting soul is the same thing that lies at the root of most of my shortcomings:
Anybody who has known me for more than 15 minutes knows I love fishing with a passion that burns like a million suns. I love fishing so much that I will forget to eat when I have a rod and reel in my hand. The fact that I am currently “fighting heavyweight” tells you I don’t get nearly enough fishing in. And the problem with fishing is that most of the time, the best fishing is on the private lakes, streams and ponds that are owned by somebody that’s not me. Don’t get me wrong, I try to do the right thing and ask for permission but many of these landowners don’t want every Tom, Dick and Bryan pulling fish from their water. It’s like we live in the Middle Ages and the king of the castle won’t let the serfs and peasants enjoy the kingdom’s natural resources. O.K., it’s actually nothing like that but it’s still pretty frustrating. The worst part is that I’ve been battling this demon since I was a kid.
The first time I crossed over to the dark side I was about 10 years old. My best friend lived next to an apple orchard owned by a woman named Mrs. Spencer. Nestled snugly in the middle of the orchard was a pristine, lily pad covered, farm pond. And everybody knows that farm ponds have phenomenal fishing. A polite visit to her house to ask for permission to fish on her pond ended with us being run off and her getting the title of “Old Lady Spencer”. I can still remember the conversation:
“I can’t believe she won’t let us fish on her pond” my friend moped between pouting lips.
“I know.” I said, seething with resentment. “You know what she is?”
“No, what is she?” My friend asked.
“She’s just a….” I looked over each shoulder a couple of times. “She’s just a….just a….a…bitch” I whispered the last word so I was sure my mom wouldn’t hear it from our house, three miles away.
“Hee-hee” My friend giggled. 10-year old Bryan didn’t play by society’s rules.
Naughty list? Couldn’t care less…
With the door literally slammed in our face we had but two choices. Number one: grab our fishing rods and head to the local mill pond to catch undersized bluegills with what seemed like thousands of people from the city. Or number two: take that first step toward lawlessness and fish the pond anyway. Looking back I’m a little ashamed of how short my internal debate on the matter was. In about a third of a second I decided I was going to pull some bass out of that water regardless of the rules society and old lady Spencer threw in my way. I asked my friend why we didn’t just sneak in and fish the pond.
“Are you kidding me?!” he asked incredulously. “My mom would have a conniption fit if old lady Spencer called the cops and they arrested us. She would give me The Belt!”
The Belt was a threat that hung like a hangman’s noose over every kid that grew up in the 70’s. Delivered across the buttocks at a high rate of speed, The Belt was both a fine deterrent to crime and the reason so many fathers got suspenders for Christmas. My friend didn’t have a dad at home but his mom must have borrowed a belt and gotten excellent instruction in its use from some helpful father. That woman could swing a belt like a champ. In the 70’s, child protective services was only around to make sure parents didn’t use the buckle. Because she was the single mother of two very mischievous boys my friend’s mom could draw that belt like Wyatt Earp and handle it like a lady Indiana Jones.
“I’d get The Belt. And then I’d get grounded without T.V. or Atari, and then she’d take my fishin’ pole.” My friend exclaimed.
“That’s true…but nobody has ever been allowed to fish that pond and I bet ya there’s 10 pound bass swimmin’ around in there.” I countered with a smile.
10 minutes later we were in ankle deep water, hunched over in the cattails around the lake. We took turns standing up, quickly casting and retrieving our lures and then squatting back down. Every third cast produced a lunker bass and all worries of The Belt or the police were a blurry memory. My trespassing career had started.
For the next eight years my friend and I played a game of cat and mouse with old lady Spencer. Her efforts to fence us out only succeeded in honing the fence-climbing skills I would use for the rest of my life. She employed an Army of migrant apple-pickers to keep “those two brats” from fishing her precious pond. This gave me a very conservative outlook on immigration until I discovered that the migrants would look the other way for the bribe of a nice fresh pike for their frying pan. Wise beyond our years, we practiced catch and release when bribes weren’t in order and over the years I caught a lot of huge bass and pike from the small gem of a pond. In the end, an Army recruiter succeeded in protecting old lady Spencer’s pond where she had failed for so long.
For many years military deployments, marriage and the birth of children kept me from dancing with the devil on the shores of forbidden waters. My first duty station was Alaska and there’s no need to trespass when everything for a hundred miles is open to the public. It wasn’t until I got married and transferred to Virginia that my inclination for trespassing again reared its ugly head.
As a young, broke husband and father I couldn’t afford a boat. I had to rely on shore fishing to catch any fish at all and most hardcore fisherman can tell you that shore fishing is preferable only to NO fishing. The area around Richmond offered little opportunity to fish from shore and my itch to catch nice fish was reaching DEFCON 5. To make matters worse, every time I drove into town from our government quarters for groceries or shopping I was forced to pass the prettiest little gravel pits I had ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, I also had to pass the access road with the chain and dreaded “No Trespassing” sign. One morning, as my wife and I drove to the Winn Dixie for groceries, I chanced to look out on the gravel pits and saw a giant bass jump from the water after a dragon fly or grasshopper. It shook its massive head and fell back in the water like a Sea World act and I vowed that I would fish those pits before the week was over.
Northern friends: These places actually exist!
Two days later I parked a mile or so away from the access road and started my approach. The Army had taught me stealth and I was fit enough at the time to easily hop the single chain strung across the two-track road. A single chain! It was almost like the landowner put it up thinking, “I better only leave a small, drooping chain so Bryan can get in if he needs to.” A short hike and a scramble up the dirt berm and I was staring at an untouched gravel pit. A few trees had fallen at the shore and lay half submerged in the water. One end of the pit had a healthy mat of lily pads and I could hear frogs burping away like my brothers when mom made tacos. The sun was peeking through the pine tress that surrounded the gravel pit and a lone hawk circled in the air. It was a scene that would make Ansel Adams get tight britches. The beauty of the moment forced me to one knee as I gazed on its fishalicious majesty.
“It’s glorious…” I gasped as a single tear ran down my cheek.
A few minutes later my reverie was broken by a huge, mean largemouth exploding from the water to catch some bug, or bird, or low flying aircraft. I started working my way around the gravel pit, casting into its murky depths and catching unbelievable bass. After an hour or so my arms actually ached from reeling in huge bucket mouths. I was in scaly heaven and the focus on my fishing had never been sharper…which is why I almost let go with an AFR (Accidental Fecal Release) when I heard the loud voice behind me.
“What choo doin’ there, boy?” the voice said in a thick southern drawl.
‘Please don’t let this be a Deliverance situation’ I thought as I slowly turned around. We all like to think we’d be Burt Reynolds but somebody has to be Ned Beatty. I didn’t want to be Ned Beatty. Nobody wants to be Ned Beatty. ***Author’s note: Wikipedia Deliverance if you have no idea what I’m talking about. DO NOT Google Video search Deliverance/Ned Beatty. Just, uh, don’t. ***
It wasn’t a Deliverance situation. I almost wish it was. Instead of a banjo-carrying hillbilly it was a walking stereotype of a county sheriff. He was about 5’ 9” and wore a Sam Browne belt somewhere under the beer gut that hung over his pants. And it was a helluva beer gut. He had his hand resting on his revolver like he was just itching to shoot somebody born north of the ol’ Mason Dixon. He grinned and showed about a third of a set of teeth stained by years of chewing tobacco.
“How are you, officer?” I asked as cheerfully as I could, the whole while cursing my Michigan accent.
“I asked what choo was doin’.” He repeated. His eyes hardened a little when he heard my filthy northern accent.
I guess the Dinwiddie County sheriff’s academy didn’t have many classes on investigation because my fishing rod and tackle box went quite a way in explaining exactly what I was doing.
“What you doin’ with that long stick, boy?“
“Just doing a little fishing, officer.” I replied.
“You know this is all private propity?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. I looked surprised and explained to him that I was not aware the property was not public. He informed me that there was a sign by the road and asked me if I could read. I verified that I could, in fact, read and before he could ask another question I called into play my uncanny ability to think on my feet.
“I was just walking along here on Fort Lee and found this great place to fish.” I ventured. “I didn’t think anybody would mind a soldier fishing on a military installation.”
“Oh son, you a long way from Fort Lee.” He dropped the eyebrow and explained. “Fort Lee is about three mile to thataway.” He told me as he pointed back over my left shoulder. “The fine for trespassin’ around here is a hundred dollars. I ain’t going to take you in because you’re lost, but I don’t ever want to catch you around these gravel pits again.”
“Sir, I can 100% promise you will never catch me here again.” I smiled as I started the three-mile walk back to Fort Lee to get my wife to bring me back for my car. There was no way I was going to follow him out and get back in my car parked so close to the “No Trespassing” sign. An hour later and I was covered in brambles and scratches from a cross-country hike through the thick brush but I was back home and I still had $100 on my credit card. I never saw the sheriff deputy again…but I darn sure saw those gravel pits on a pretty regular basis.
As I grew older and became more successful in life I was finally able to save enough money for a boat and my trespassing days seemed to be over. It’s hard enough to sneak into a farm pond with a rod and small box of tackle. It’s even harder to slip in with a 16-foot fiberglass boat on a trailer. My wife finally breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to come bail me out of jail and spend the grocery money on fines.
And then, a couple of years ago, my friend Stan called and asked if I wanted to float down the Chippewa River in his canoe to catch some smallmouth bass. Saying no seemed rude and all I had to do was clean the basement, paint the garage, mow the lawn, and fix the sink so I met him and we got down to some serious fishing. We had a great day and the float produced some nice bass and a few monster pike but as we rounded a corner I could see a small, clear body of water out in a field a hundred or so yards from the river. The sun twinkling on its surface made it seem as if the little pond was winking at me like a girl in a singles bar.
“What’s that over there, Stan?” I asked, my heart rate starting to pick up a little.
“Oh, that’s just some old gravel pit.” He replied. “It’s private property so I’ve never fished it. It’s posted and everything.”
Stan is a kindred spirit so it didn’t take long to convince him to throw the rules of society out the window and give that pond a cast or two. We quietly paddled the canoe to the grassy bank and hopped out, rods in hand. As we started across the field a thought occurred to me and I jogged back to the canoe and turned it around with the bow facing the river.
“Might come in handy to have that baby facing in the right direction for our trip back.” I explained with a knowing grin.
Stan and I snuck through the grass until we reached the edge of the gravel pit. It was a beauty. Across the pit was an office trailer with a few trucks and heavy equipment parked in front of it. It looked like somebody might be home so we were quiet and careful as we caught bass after bass. They weren’t huge but they were the greenest fish I have ever seen and there were a ton of them. Every once in a while we would stop and listen and watch the trailer to make sure nobody was taking umbrage with our little side trip. For about an hour our luck held.
After one particularly nice fish I heard what sounded like a faraway voice and looked up to see a very large man on the steps of the trailer yelling unintelligibly our way. He continued yelling and gesturing at us as he lumbered down the steps and started trotting in our direction.
“What’s that guy yelling?” Stan asked as he unhooked a small fish and tossed him back.
“Stan,” I said, “He’s saying it’s time to go.”
As Stan and I sprinted across the field with a Carhart-clad heavy equipment operator in hot pursuit, I realized that it had been a long time since I had done some trespassing to go fishing and it was overdue. My knees popped and my breath was hard to catch but I felt like a kid again. As we jumped into the canoe and started paddling I looked back to see Mr. Carhart jogging toward us, yelling at us to never come back. It may have been because I couldn’t breathe and was close to a heart attack but I swear I saw a fat southern cop and old lady Spencer right behind him.
That was a couple of years ago and now I’m in a different place in my life. I am retiring and I have a grand daughter. It’s time to put away the childish ways of my early 40’s. After all, I’m becoming an adult. Bass season is almost upon us and I’ll have my boat in the water a week after the ice melts.
But if I start to take myself too seriously or I get bored I can always pull up Google Earth and find some hidden farm ponds in this nice, big county. Nobody would throw a man my age in jail for “getting lost” on some guy’s property.