When I was 18 and still in high school, we had a holiday that fell on a Monday and everyone saw it as an excuse to throw a big party on Sunday night.
Half the school gathered at this one girl’s house, starting late that afternoon — and by nightfall, as foolish partying kids often do, they had gotten pretty sloshed.
I arrived late because I spent the day fishing on Lay Lake with my dad.
I was no saint by any stretch, but spending daylight to dark on the lake had put me several drinks behind everyone else. So, when word spread that a guy we knew had been beaten up by some neighborhood thugs, I was still thinking with a clear head.
As everyone else piled into cars to go and drag the thugs from their apartment kicking and screaming, I told my girlfriend we wouldn’t be making that trip.
An hour later, we were notified that one of the thugs had opened fire, wounding several of our folks, including the girl who was hosting the party.
The list of mistakes made that night is too long to cover in this column. What I can tell you with a great deal of certainty, however, is that fishing saved me.
I don’t know if it was from death or from a debilitating injury like the girl who was shot in the face and blinded for life. But it saved me for sure.
During the weeks that followed the incident, I experienced feelings ranging from outrage to guilt to shame. But when I got my feet back on the ground, I decided I needed to do more fishing and less of pretty much everything else.
Now that I’ve reached age 50 — something a lot of people who knew me back then would have likely bet against — I can look back and see more than just one night when fishing enriched and possibly preserved my life.
When everyone else went through the phase where they thought smoking was cool, I abstained. I didn’t have much money, and given the choice of buying cigarettes or fishing tackle, I went with Zara Spooks and Jitterbugs over Marlboros and Pall Malls.
When a few of my friends who were true motorcycle enthusiasts were finally old enough to afford their own street bikes, it prompted some of my other friends — guys who had no business owning bikes — to buy them as well. Sadly, some guys from the latter group are no longer around.
My money that might have been spent on a bike was spent on a boat — and while you can still get hurt in a boat, I felt a lot more comfortable there because I had been raised in one.
There were times when fishing kept me out of trouble simply because I was too tired from being on the water all day or too afraid of being tired on the water the next day to stay out all night.
I’ll probably never completely get over the tragic night I mentioned earlier.
The girl who was shot in the face died young after living years in the captivity of blindness, while the shooter got off on self defense for shooting an unarmed female in the face. He died a few years later when his drug dealer sold him cocaine laced with arsenic. I hung out just last week with a buddy who still has shotgun pellet scars on both legs from that night.
Thinking about that night still takes me to a dark place, but I still like to tell the story sometimes.
I tell it for kids who might be thinking of skipping a fishing trip with dad for the kind of debauchery that’s a lot more common than some parents realize.
I tell it for parents who might be considering leaving their kids at home because they’re too much trouble on the water or don’t provide enough help as a tournament partner.
We say it all the time: “Fishing is about more than just catching fish.” But I wonder if we truly realize just how many levels of life that statement covers.
It’s scary to think how much more dangerous the world is now than it was back when fishing was my saving grace. But it’s also comforting to think how many more opportunities there are for youngsters to spend time on the water.
B.A.S.S. offers tournament programs for juniors, high schoolers and college kids that are incredibly time consuming and, admittedly, expensive.
But trust me when I tell you some alternatives can come at a far greater cost.