LAKEPORT, Calif. — Russ Lane's hands look like a steak you'd send back to the kitchen. Maybe a barn door 10 years overdue for a coat of paint. Like a pair of slippers the dog got ahold of. Like … well, let him describe them:
"My hands look like hamburger," said Lane, a former minor league baseball player turned Elite Series angler. "I've been putting all kinds of creams and antiseptics, everything I can think of every night. I put Super Glue on all my cuts, try to keep them closed up. I'm going to need stitches on a couple of these cuts." He busts out laughing at the carnage at the ends of his arms. "It's unreal, isn't it?
"When I would throw a curveball or a slider playing baseball I would get a little callus on that middle finger right there. And that was it. This is — I mean, this is horrible. This is by far the worst condition my hands have ever been in."
But he's still laughing when he says that it's a good thing to have hands that look like they've been used as brake pads. By Saturday afternoon, when Lane was marveling at his mitts, he had caught perhaps 150 fish in competition and had made the 50-man cut in the Golden State Shootout presented by Evan Williams Bourbon.
It was a problem that many anglers loved to have this week. On perhaps the best bass fishery in the country, catching not only bunches of fish but bunches of big fish, their bodies paid the toll. Handling line pushed dead skin into rough sheets along their fingers. Handling the jagged, pronounced teeth on the 5-pound, 7-pound, 10-pound bass all week scraped their palms raw.
"Looks like I ran a grinder over them," said Gerald Swindle, picking over his deeply tanned, gnarled, 38-year-old hands. "What you don't realize is, by tomorrow I won't be able to bend them. See the infection in that finger? I'll have pus running out my hands, and it really does. Your hands will be so sore you can't grip the rod.
"Best thing I've ever had is, I'll take Neosporin, just squirt globs in there and just rub it around and just lay down in the bed. I sleep like that. You can see that infection," he said, pointing to an embedded fish fin turning purple in one finger. "That hurts. It'll bleed, get infected, stinking. You can't grip nothing. When they're wet, they're not as bad. But as soon as they start drying, you can't hardly bend 'em."
Anglers pick at the frayed skin and bandages on their hands almost as a nervous tic during conversations. On Friday, with his hands almost fuzzy with torn skin, Preston Clark explained that he had caught 75 fish a day while he tugged at the Band-Aids around his thumbs. Still, his handshake was surprisingly soft — most anglers' hands are softer than they look. While they have the deep channels and permanent sunburn of a farmer's hands, anglers' hands stay wet for much of the day, especially when they're handling as many fish as they enjoyed on Clear Lake this week.
Perhaps the man who knows the most about a good hand ripping is Steve Kennedy, who won the Golden State Shootout with 122 pounds, 14 ounces.
"This is where the line gets in the corner, right here," Kennedy said Saturday, pointing to the fold of the top joint of his left index finger. It was raw and craggy, with skin bunched on either side of the crease like snow piles beside a shoveled walk. As he pointed at the crack, his hands quaked with the sugar shock of a day on the water without time to eat.
"This is not bad. I mean, this is torn up. I caught a ton of fish. But at (Lake) Amistad I could not shake anybody's hand. This was red, raw and almost bleeding." He looked at a flake of translucent skin peeling off a strawberry-colored gash on the back of one of his fingers. "And I don't know what that was," he continued. "My hands were wet and I was working in the boat first thing in the morning. This is just normal, man." He examined further. "My fingernails are nasty" he muttered.
Anglers take their hands' abuses as a matter of course. They wrap them with bandages, electrical tape, whatever happens to be, uh, handy. They're glad for the gap between tournaments, to allow them time to recoup.
But they never expect them to heal fully. The only hands without blemish are those that sit idle.
"Once it's raw, it keeps getting rawer," angler Paul Elias said. "There's nothing you can do about it. I'll put lotion on it, and make it rawer tomorrow, I hope."