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Caught in the Net

I just returned from another fishing trip in Michigan. For the last ten years, six of us have been heading north for a week of fishing and general fun in the area of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Twelve years ago we six were the "Thumpers," a dominant force in a Tuesday night recreational volleyball league in a small town in Michigan. We won a few trophies and were the target of other aspiring teams. After a few years, those other teams began to outjump, outdig and outslam us, and we had to struggle to stay in the middle of the pack. When we finally found ourselves ignominiously settled at the bottom, we decided it just didn't make sense to compete at volleyball any longer.

We didn't want to lose those Tuesday nights out, however, so late one night we hatched a new rivalry: a private fishing league.

The rules of that league make "Calvinball" seem like organized sport. We took turns making up the week's special regulations and naming the lake or river and the target fish. Some weeks we sought out big bass; other weeks we lost our accumulated points if we brought even a tiny bass to the boat.

We played "Hi-Lo," where both the smallest and the biggest fish were worth points. Occasionally, we chased rough fish and, if the rulemaker of the week was in a sour mood, we'd have to catch them on artificial lures. Some weeks, the rules stipulated that we had to park our boats and fish from shore or catch our fish from a bridge.

Winter ice fishing was rough and tumble. The first one to reach and establish control over a tip-up got to land the fish, which meant a lot of bumping, sliding and sprawling on the slippery ice whenever a flag sprung. We shed our outer layers and shivered, because we could run faster without a lot of bulky clothes.

We fished every week, no matter the weather, and after every match we met and allocated points, usually after considerable argument. Points were more valuable than gold, because the point leader had "bragging rights;" in other words, a license to be pretty obnoxious. Little wonder the rest of us continually conspired to demote the current point leader.

Our modest fishing league fees all went into a pot that financed huge fish fries, disgusting and disfiguring events that we called "eat-offs." One of them was always scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday. Of course, they followed a morning of fishing.

The Thumpers have slowed down considerably since our volleyball era and the days of the fishing league. It's hard to imagine any of us scrambling for a bad pass or diving for a ball; frankly, most of us now move more like heavy machinery than like athletes. But we're not too much out of shape to engage in plenty of friendly one-upmanship over our fishing exploits. No matter our conditioning-or our condition-we still have a lot of fun.

There are countless other ways to have fun fishing. I constantly talk to people who enjoy running trotlines for catfish, wade fishing for goggle-eye, trolling for walleyes or hybrids, dapping flies for trout or taking the kids to the local pond to catch panfish.

For them even talking about fishing is fun, as is planning a new trip, preparing the boat or tackle, catching bait, eating the fish and remembering the whole experience. Through fishing, they get more absorbed in life, in nature, in family and in friends.

We want you to have fun, too. That's why the Conservation Department is cooperating with the National Fishing Week Celebration by offering you free samples of fishing. On June 6 and 7, anyone can fish without a permit, although anglers still have to comply with bag and size restrictions.

If you aren't already an angler, this is a good opportunity to find out what this fishing stuff is all about. Why not take a chance on it? Just remember to go with a light heart and an open mind. And when you return, don't count the number of fish caught or missed, just tally up the fun you've had.

Tom Cwynar

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