Mike Jones - KEEPING UP

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Friday, July 5, 2019
The Sad Truth

Experts Win
Over a lifetime, we acquire friends in any number of ways, some more surprising than others.

The garden variety circumstances usually arise from school or work or other shared misery. Then again, the locales can be exotic or the situations complicated. Nevertheless, in every case there is a certain magic that occurs, a seemingly random collection of ricochets and caroms causing the lives of strangers to intersect. The beauty is in the logic it defies.

It just happens.

The result of it is what we call friends; what some have described as the relatives we choose. The good ones become part of our fabric, inextricably linked to us like the molecules of the air we breathe. As basic as first-grade arithmetic and as complicated as marriage, the connection is instinctive and free of official documentation.

Of these special bonds, there is the rarefied atmosphere to which certain friendships aspire and it’s something only fish and water can create: Fishing buddies.

While such relationships are born of a shared addiction, it is not all that simple. To survive months, years or perhaps even decades, it is not exactly matrimonial in nature, although it does have a few vaguely similar characteristics. It is filled with trash talking, questions, the occasional doubt and a shared awareness of the other person based on countless hours spent in a confined space. For anglers, the measurement is often from bow to stern. A boat.

Mine was the result of pure happenstance.

Nearly four decades ago when I began my outdoor writing career at Western Outdoor News, I had no idea that the person I was replacing would soon become an angling soul mate. It’s a name you might recognize — George Kramer. Over the years, his byline has graced a veritable compendium of outdoor publications.

As much as our relationship arose from our common profession and the simple fact that I had a boat and Kramer did not, there was a far more basic, shared need. You see, outdoor writers frequently fish at times when most others are busy working at real jobs. Yes, we seek out reader photos of happy fishermen with big beautiful fish, but you’re not always there. As a result, we need someone who can handle a fishing rod as deftly as they can wield a camera. In George, I found someone supremely capable with both.

Although we often worked for competing publications, there was no real conflict. When it came time to take pictures, I handed George my camera and he handed over his. It was as symbiotic as you could get. Moreover, the time to take those photographs only occurs twice a day at the so-called “golden hour,” which occurs once at mid-morning and once in the late afternoon. Thank­fully brief, these are the moments when the light is perfectly gorgeous.

At the expense of sounding arrogant, Kramer and I were unmatched at emptying the livewell, setting up photographs and quickly getting back to the actual business at hand — catching more fish. It was the mantra we lived by.

In recognizing that we were — for better or worse — fishermen masquerading as journalists, we forged an unshakeable bond only to be tested once by Kramer’s peculiar dietary requirements. Being the Felix Unger to Kramer’s Oscar Madison, I was constantly amazed at my friend’s odd selection of food items, a cornucopia more suited to a 12-year-old latch key kid free of meaningful adult supervision. It wasn’t until I was midway through a late-night, multi-hour attempt at removing mashed caramel corn from my rear deck carpet did I ever consider a divorce. To George, my draconian “No Caramel Corn” edict (which is still enforced) may have seemed like an over-reaction.

Seasons passed and, as happens to everyone, we got older. Yes, you smirking youngbloods, it will happen to you. Even so, fishing is kind to those with graying hair, at least in terms of attitude and experience. In writing we’ve retained our personal styles in puncturing egos and deflating the occasional follies of angling pomposity, me with my pirate’s broadsword of sarcasm and Kramer with his more delicate but equally effective flash of a rapier. As for our fishing, everything above the neck seems to have improved. If the mind remains open, you keep moving forward despite the inevitable physical ravages occurring below the collarbones.

And, in acknowledging the march of time, I discovered something I didn’t realize about my long-time fishing buddy: a second act. After sticking his toe into the Lake Mead competitive fire back in 1987 when it was a head-to-head, pro-on-pro format (in which he placed a respectable 40th overall), since 2012 Kramer has fished eight consecutive U.S. Opens as a pro.

When I called him up a month ago, his breathing was labored. My initial reaction was that of what anyone might assume of a septuagenarian. But no, he wasn’t tuckered out after a morning of “Murder, She Wrote” re-runs, Kramer was in mid-hike up the mountainside above his home in Lake Elsinore, all in preparation for the next U.S. Open.

Pardon me if I catch my breath, but this revelation was from the very same guy to whom quinoa, kale and kombucha would be as foreign and unlikely as an Azerbaijani crankbait. Kramer has always had religion, I just didn’t know he had found a new one.

“After the off-season, I came to the realization that what I thought getting ready was, wasn’t,” admitted Kramer. “I needed to do more, so I started working harder. I wish I still had the body to put the hammer down and go to the far end whatever the far end means.”

Still, Kramer is no stranger to the physical demands of the U.S. Open, having discovered two years ago what it felt like to drift aimlessly across a vast freshwater ocean, all day and night, before communication glitches were rectified and someone remembered there was a castaway somewhere in the darkness. But he has also recognized the psychological pressure of staying on top of one’s game, strategizing correctly and not falling into a rut.

“You have to fish the water in front of you, which means adapting,” noted Kramer who admits, unabashedly, how much he still loves to test his skills. “It’s a new planet.”

Self-deprecating to a fault, Kramer generally can find a kernel of truth among the humor. Once, his good friend Mike Folkestad told him (I assume with tongue firmly in cheek), “George, you’ve fished with every great angler in bass fishing. You should be winning all these tournaments!”

The Kramer response?

“That’s the difference between being an expert and being an authority. I’m an authority.

Experts win.”

And that’s my friend George. I win.

• • • • •

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