Originally published in The Fisherman Magazine, NE Edition: Issue #7, February 17, 2011
By John P. Lee
I once had a run-in with a tackle store owner. In the end, it did me some good, got my little head moving in the right direction. No doubt, I’d pushed too far with my questions—what lure, where and when. The owner tried his best to answer them—a lot of them—but finally he reached his tipping point. He started taking lures off the sales rack, started tossing them into a pile on the sales floor. I watched a Jitterbug go skipping under the rod display. A Mepps spinner slid past my foot. As he threw, he said, in a stern voice, “Take ‘em! The lures are yours! You can have ‘em.”
Then we just looked at each other. I had no intention of buying more than one lure. My mom had only given me two dollars—what a Hula Popper cost in 1984. Joe Mollica stood behind the reel case. He owned the tackle store, Top of the Dock, in Narragansett, Rhode Island. I stood near the window, the window that looked out over Monahan’s Pier, the Garden, the Sea Wall—prime scup and cunner grounds. Joe calmed down. He saw me and my brother every day. We’d buy scup rigs pickerel and bass lures; we’d buy the little yellow flies that hammered snapper blues; we bought bluefish leaders and poppers. My brother bought a Penn 704 and then caught a 38-pound bass on a red-headed Bomber up inside the Narrow River. Joe made sure that fish made the weekly Fisherman reports. Joe was good to us, good enough—patient enough—that he now had the right to set us straight.
“As I keep telling you,” He said, “It’s not how much you have. It’s how you use what you got. Learn to fish with less. Half this stuff is garbage.”
In a way, Joe taught me how to fish. And by getting mad at me on this day, he taught me a critical lesson. He drilled into me that all the lures in the world don’t amount to better catches. Maybe I understood this then, but I doubt it.
I was only 14, still biking to the fishing grounds, still fishing in the pond right across the street from the Narragansett Town Beach. For whatever reason—maybe the salt air, the spray—caused the pickerel and bass to grow large in there. I must’ve asked Joe a hundred times what he thought the biggest bass in place weighed. My brother and I fished this pond on surfboards. While our friends were on the beach learning to surf we paddled around the pond, feet dangling in turtle territory, casting plugs to largemouths.
What happened that day with Joe was caused by a disease I had for reading fish books. Now the trouble with reading—for me—was the art of forgetting what I’d just read. Let’s say I had been reading a detailed how-to passage—a piece on pre-spawn largemouths or shy, mid-summer smallies. I’d read it, get as excited as a marlin behind a spreader bar, fired up to hit the pond behind the beach. So I’d hop on my bike and go see Joe, go see if he had the lure or rig just described. Then, on my way, I’d pass the Atlantic and start dreaming about scup. The scup would cause me to forget what I’d just read about largemouths. When I got to Joe’s, what did I do? I peppered him with the questions, in the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness way young boys tend to ask for things. By the end of the interrogation, Joe was probably ready to close the shop, catch a cat nap in the back.
There was one book I read quite a lot: Bassmasters Techniques that Catch Bass. The book was written in 1977. In it were some of the greats: Jimmy Houston, Ricky Green, Tom Mann and Al Linder. I must’ve forgotten the first paragraph to the book, chapter one. Here it is, verbatim: “A lot of what you read regarding how to catch bass can be extremely helpful. Some of it, on the other hand, is essentially worthless. But good or bad, all the written and spoken advice has made bass fishing a complex and, in many cases, a bewildering sport. Bass fishing has gotten too darn complicated. And I think it’s past time anglers return to the basics and stick with them.”
Those last few lines apply to all of sport fishing, from bluefin tuna off the Cape to largemouths in the Charles River. Here we are 33 years later. What has the internet done? What have the mega tackle stores done? The Bassmaster Classic celebrity shows?
Standing, back then, on the floor of Top of the Dock, the striped bass moratorium just begun, I’d stare at Joe’s fish mounts. He had great mounts. A pike, a skin-mount bluefish, a weakfish, a seven-pound largemouth and a huge striped bass, the latter so big it took up an entire wall. These mounts fuelled still more questions: What does a fish that big feel like? What was that one caught on? Where? What tide?
When I got striped bass on my mind, I bought a reel from Joe. I went with a Penn. Joe sold a lot of Penns. On the side of the reel box were the famous words, “Make it Simple, Make it Work.”
What an American motto. Gone now. I think guys like Joe live by these words. If you put the Penn motto alongside the Bassmaster wisdom, what do you get? You get an understanding that we live in a different time. We all forget. We all over-buy and over-analyze our fishing. It takes a guy like Joe Mollica to give us a good talking-to, bring us down to earth, tell us “It’s just fishing.” I thank him for that.