Many years ago, I took a job in Riverside County, Southern California as a deputy tax assessor, (I know it is hard to imagine) which I had taken temporarily while waiting for the home closing that I was purchasing. The day the sale went through I quit my deputy tax assessor job and relocated to the beautiful San Bernadino National Forest in the Valley of Enchantment, Crestline, California.
Throughout my high school years, I shared free time between surfing at Huntington Beach and hiking in the San Bernadino National Forest. I had always thought about living there after college. I did not consider being drafted during college and sent to Vietnam, so it took many years later to move to the mountains. I especially loved sharing the mountains with Kelly, my daughter.
I was waiting for my application acceptance for the half-time position of Executive Director of a mental health agency in Crestline. In the meantime, I decided to rough it a bit and fish for Rainbow Trout at Lake Gregory, a small local rustic lake within walking distance of my new home, since I did not hunt wildlife except with a camera. For daily meals, I planned to add a storage of rice to the fish as all my money was tied up in the house.
I borrowed a fishing pole, lures and a stringer from a neighbor, and I ventured out to the lake and found a tranquil location with a beautiful view. This lake was the quintessential mountain retreat. A great location to obtain primary food until the job became available. Seriously, how hard could it be to catch enough fish for sustenance?
The first day I found a scenic location at the lake. I sat on the ground and placed my stringer in the water with anticipation of an abundance of Rainbow Trout. I hooked the ring on the end to a strong twig in the ground as an anchor on the shore to hold all the fish I planned to catch.
There was a slight crisp breeze, and the air smelled fresh. I observed and photographed Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, and White Pelicans. Since I wasn’t working, it felt like a vacation. After several hours and a few different areas without any nibbles, I realized that this day was not going to provide fish to go with the rice and I eventually packed up and walked home.
A couple of weeks of photographing Steller’s Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Northern Flickers, but no nibbles, I realized that I lacked the necessary fishing knowledge and skills. Nonetheless, I continued venturing out to the lake daily still optimistic about catching fish. There was still no word on the job.
One day I noticed a group of residents at the Lake. Of the group, two had one fish each in their buckets. They kindly invited me to join them. I noticed a young man who selected a spot between where I was and several other men and women fishing. While none of us pulled in any fish in the same area, he was constantly catching Rainbow Trout of varying sizes and all large enough to keep.
I was scratching my head wondering what was he doing that the rest of us appeared not to be doing. On several occasions during the week, I observed him catching fish while others were not as successful, myself included.
One day I was trying my luck again hoping for a few Rainbow Trout while I continued to wait to hear about the job. It was great observing and photographing Ospreys, Cormorants, Gulls and Mallard Ducks. After a while, a young man came and sat near me and tied a lure to his line. He cast the line out about the same distance in the lake as I had. And within a minute or so he pulled in a large Rainbow Trout. I looked at him and then at the fish, curious about how he had caught it within minutes while I had already been fishing at the same location for over an hour.
He was a very quiet person and mostly kept himself, and I was surprised he sat near me. If someone acknowledged him, he politely nodded but rarely spoke and appeared to be preoccupied with his fishing.
Each time I saw him, he walked away with a full stringer draped over his shoulder. I noticed that people tended to fish near him, especially the ‘Old-Timers who were most likely retirees. Nevertheless, they did not fare as well as he did.
One afternoon I was rather anxious about catching a meal of fish, and I was preoccupied with staring at the water willing a school of fish to swim by my line. The lake was beautiful as was the day and normally it would have been a great time of relaxation to be out in nature. However, I was hungry, and my stomach was growling.
The young man walked by me toward a more isolated area which was his pattern and then for whatever reason stopped and sat next to me. He nodded and mumbled a greeting. In the numerous times, I had observed him he never spoke to anyone even those who appeared to know him and usually with just a brief greeting.
While he was getting his fishing tackle ready, I took a good look at him. He was about average height, appearing rather disheveled with his typical old tattered Pendleton jacket, faded blue jeans, and raggedy sneakers. He had an unusual haircut that looked as if someone had placed a bowl on his head and cut the hair beneath it.
He looked at the lake or the ground but rarely into the eyes of someone trying to connect with him. I remember watching him catching fish and walking away with an unnatural gait, lumbering with a fishing pole, and full stringer of fish.
Another day he sat next to me and tossed his line in the water and within moments, as usual, caught a large Rainbow Trout. Then he attached the fish to his almost full stringer and placed it in the water. He sat down on the ground and glanced over at me with a crooked smile, and I smiled back and turned toward the water to not intrude on his usual desire for privacy.
Subtlety was not one of his attributes, and he reached into his pocket and pulled something out. Without saying a word, he held out his hand.
I reached out, and he dropped a hand-tied lure in my palm. Not one to turn down Providence from clearly a man gifted in catching fish, I tied the lure to my fishing line.
He paid no attention to me as I tried to copy whatever he did and made a cast straight-ahead into the lake. Although I did get some nibbles, I wasn’t able to hook the fish. In an unassuming way, he demonstrated what to do without saying a thing as he noticed I was imitating his approach. Gradually I had more nibbles and landed several small Rainbow Trout. I became convinced that his hand-tied lure made the difference.
The next day I was fishing and happily catching a few trout while photographing Red-tailed Hawks, and Golden Eagles. When he sat down next to me he looked at my stringer of fish, gave his crooked smile, and nodded. The accolade from a person with such fishing expertise felt good.
Feeling gratitude and more of a connection with him, I told him my name. He remained quiet for a while staring into the water and then mumbled that his name was Maynard.
Over time, he taught me much of what he knew about catching fish whether they were Rainbow Trout, Bass, Catfish, Crappie or Bluegill. Soon I was catching Rainbow Trout in the 7 to 12-inch range and having wonderful meals. When I caught a 12-inch Rainbow Trout I brought it to a local restaurant who prepared and cooked it for me to take home.
By chance, while walking around town I noticed in the small neighborhood store that there were hand-tied lures that looked very familiar. They were sitting in a basket with only two things written on a card. One was the name, Maynard, and the other was the reasonable price. I asked the salesperson to tell me about the lures. She said that they could hardly keep them in stock as they were handmade by the most effective fisherman in the area. He would bring in his lures and sell them to the store. She said he was considered eccentric and reclusive but everyone who fished knew about his lures.
Since I remain a person who does not appreciate or value gossip, I ignored any other negative comments I gradually heard about his personality. I believed that they underestimated him and didn’t know him as well as I did. As far as I was concerned, this was my friend and fishing benefactor that made all the difference in my being able to get through several months with meals while I waited for employment.
I was hired by the mental health agency and eventually turned the half-time position into a full-time position by writing several large grants. Nonetheless, I continued to fish the lake, this time for recreation and mostly for catch and release, and of course to observe and photograph the diverse wildlife at the beautiful lake.
One day I saw Maynard fishing in the middle of quite a few men and women. As usual, he continued to pull out fish while they were using a variety of bait and lures. With the rare exception, their stringers were empty. He glanced at me when I walked by looking for an available spot to fish and gave his crooked smile before concentrating on the water.
While fishing at the lake one day I had an intriguing idea. I wondered what would happen if I arranged for Maynard to teach a fishing class sponsored by the mental health of agency for the community. I thought that some of the men and women who enjoyed fishing at the lake and knew his ability would pay to take the class. I would give him all the registration money which I thought would be of help as he didn’t appear to have any outside income as far as I knew other than selling his sought-after lures.
When I mentioned my idea to a few people, they said it was a crazy idea that would never work. They said that Maynard rarely talked much and that he wouldn’t be able to give any structured class with clarity or sensibility and that it would be embarrassing for him and for anyone who attends the class. I don’t recall anyone who encouraged me to follow through on my idea.
I was very grateful to Maynard and over time had come to know him as a person and I believed that he could teach this fishing class, so I put everything into motion. When I saw him at the lake the next week, I presented my idea and waited for his response. He thought a long time and then finally nodded and quietly said yes in a barely audible sound.
I offered to sit with him and help him come up with a lesson plan and a method of teaching and discuss where we would hold the class. I asked him if he would like this extra support. He shook his head and quietly mumbled no with an afterthought of thanks. I asked him where he would like to teach the class and he said either at the lake or in the parking lot of the mental health agency.
I asked him if he would like this to be a one-time all-day workshop or a series of classes with each level more sophisticated than the previous one. He said he would teach the series of classes with the beginning class in the parking lot of the mental health agency, teaching about how to cast.
Although I continued to receive resistance from some influential people in the community, I advertised the series of fishing classes for Maynard. On the morning of the first day of classes, I met him in the parking lot. He had his hair slicked back, was wearing sports coat and slacks pressed although rather old. Instead of his typical sneakers, he had an old pair of old dress shoes.
Many men and women, some whom I had fished with at the lake, showed up for the class with their fishing poles and paid their fee. I decided to discreetly watch as Maynard began the class. He pulled from his inside jacket pocket a series of 4 x 5 index cards with his careful hand printed class curriculum.
Using his organized index cards, he had everyone get in a straight line while he taught them about casting using their fishing poles. He shared some tricks and tips that he learned with his lifetime of fishing included using a variety of lures and baits.
The first class was a wonderful success and everyone had the most flattering comments. In subsequent classes, he taught how to tie lures, what type of tackle to use, and how to locate schools of fish among other essentials. I believe that many people learned some well-deserved lessons throughout this experience of observing Maynard expertly teaching these classes with patience, clarity, effort, and consideration that he applied.
When the series of classes concluded Maynard went back to spending time at the lake, fishing. Although dressed in his typical casual attire with his disheveled look I noticed how many people, especially those who attended his fishing classes, related to him with greater acceptance and respect. People talked about his well-prepared and thorough classes on fishing.
In addition to my fond memories as Executive Director of the mental health agency, I mostly think of my friend, Maynard, sitting quietly amid the ‘Old Timers’ or vacationers pulling out his quota of fish while they sat astonished with their empty stringers.
From recent photographs and articles, although scenic, it appears that Lake Gregory no longer has the rustic appearance and feeling as it has become rather commercialized. Even more, reasons that I think of the many memories of fishing beside Maynard at the beautiful natural countryside lake. And of course, his wry crooked smile.