Innerviews: At 80, lure of fishing still has him hooked
“I’ve fished all my life. I was born in Kansas City, Mo. When I was 3 or 4, I started fishing for smallmouth in the Ozarks with my father. We lived on a lake. I started trolling for northern pike at 10 years of age.
“My dad worked for General Motors. He built tanks during the war. I wanted to be like my father. We raced cars together. I raced cars for six years, midgets and sprints.
“When I was 14, I bought my first rowboat. It’s been a progression of boats since then. I’ve had some Great Lakes boats for fishing salmon. The boat I have now came off the Atlantic and we rebuilt it. It’s a 1989 Starcraft, a bluewater offshore boat.
“I went to work for General Motors, in tooling. When I had 25 years in, I went to Volkswagen for 10 years. Then I started my own company troubleshooting for the Big Three. All that time, I worked so I could have a boat.
“I fish year-round, one to two days a week. If I can’t fish on the river, I will find a lake. Ridenour Lake in Nitro has trout in it.
“My wife fishes with me, but her idea of cold-weather fishing is ice cubes and a glass of tea on the river. I don’t like to go out in thunder, but I will fish in the rain. It’s wet where the fish are at.
“I can’t get around like I used to, so it confines me to what I can do.
“I’ve fished at Cape Hatteras, and got a blue marlin, a white marlin and a sailfish all in one morning. I’ve fished California off the coast. I fished the Gulf of Mexico a lot. I fished the Arctic Circle nine days after ice out for walleye and northerns. I go to Smith Mountain for stripers. Wherever there is good fishing, I will wind up there.
“Fishing takes time and effort. Patience. It’s like deer hunting. A lot of people can’t deer hunt because they can’t sit still long enough. You’ve got to be patient and figure that the next big fish is going to hit. The best we’ve had on the river is 49 fish in one day.
“We get a lot of walleye around the Capitol and where the Elk joins the Kanawha and around the back side of Carbide Island at night.
“There’s a big variety of fish in the river — catfish, striper, hybrid striper, walleye and sauger and smallmouth and largemouth and the Kentucky spotted bass.
“On a good day, we can see down in the water six or eight feet. You remember when you couldn’t see six inches in the river. I eat the sauger, the only fish I really like. I’ve eaten these fish for 30 years, and I haven’t turned green and nothing has fallen off. I release most of them unless they are fatally hooked.
“I have gone down river and caught kids fishing on the bank and given them a nice mess of fish and told them to tell their moms they caught them. I give them minnows and crawlers.
“If you see a kid on a bike with a rod and reel, he won’t be on dope. He won’t have any money for dope. I taught my granddkids to fish at the lake when they were 4 and 5. We had tournaments. The girl won by one fish. She caught a 51 and he caught a 50. They’re hooked. If you take a kid on the river fishing and he catches one, he will be fishing all his life.
“I chartered on Lake Erie with my boat. You know Fred Gruter? The boat he has, Nearly Normal, used to be my boat. It was the Huntress then, and I chartered it on the Great Lakes for salmon and walleye.
“I keep a record on this river, a book at home that tells you the temperature, the type of water. Today, it’s at 53 degrees, and I recorded all that. I have a barometer on the boat that tells me when the fishing is good. It hangs from my chair at home.
“I’m available to fish 24/7. I used to fish all night. In Michigan, I would come home from work and fish 29 nights straight from midnight until 4 in the morning for largemouth bass. But I can’t see to get around now, and my legs won’t let me. It confines me to what I can do.
“I’ve probably got 300 lures on my boat. My favorite lures for here represent what’s in the river. When the crawdads come in, you can’t beat crawdad lures. It’s like fly fishing. When you are fly fishing, and the bugs are coming out of the water, you try to use a lure that looks like that.
“When I go out of town, I will go to the bait store and see what lures are selling, the empty spots on the board, and that tells you what the natives are using. A lot of times when I come in from fishing, I will change the lures when we come to the docks, so they won’t see the lures I’m using.
“I don’t fish the tournaments. It’s gotten too expensive. And that’s like work. I fished muskie tournaments one summer, and I stopped to eat a sandwich and the guy I’m with says, ‘We’re supposed to be fishing.’ I said, ‘I’m enjoying myself.’
“A lot of mornings, I go out before daylight. The first light is always good, especially for salmon. Good salmon fishing is in the evening, right at dusk. I have a 28-pounder on my wall at home that I caught. It took me 45 minutes to land him right after dark.
“We were here below the courthouse, and I hooked a fish on an 8-pound line. It was a 30-pound catch. I put him in a garbage can and took him to show my mother-in-law, and he lived all night in the garbage can. I put him back in the river. I figure if he’s that tough, he needed to be back in the river.
“I’m writing a book. It’s called ‘Thirty Years of Fishin’ on the River.’ It tells you every type of lure I use and how I use them and everything.
“I’ve always said a story about my life would be fiction because nobody would believe it. I caught my first deer when I was 12. I started racing cars when I was 17.
“I started my apprenticeship with General Motors in 1952 right out of high school. Then I went into management and worked tooling for General Motors and was in on the startup of Corvair and the Vega. I worked on specialty cars for GM then went to Volkswagen.
“When I went to work for the Germans, I worked for their crack tool group. When I joined Volkswagen in Pennsylvania, they ask if I would go to Germany for four months of training. I trained with the Germans and came back and ran the American crack team when we launched the Rabbit.
“I came here in quality control at the stamping plant in 1980. I’ve got retirement from General Motors and Volkswagen both, and that has bought me my lures. I’ve got far too many. I could fish for the rest of my life and not buy more lures.
“Most everything I’ve done has been legal. I say most. I went to Montana mule deer hunting four years ago with my son and grandson, and we all got our mule deer. I didn’t go elk hunting, and that’s one thing I would like to do. I can’t hike up in those mountains now. When we got our mule deer, we were at 8,000 feet. The elk were up at 15,000 feet. You have to ride horseback.
“I set aside the hours I go to work at the house and set aside time to be on the river fishing. I will work in the wood shop later today or this evening.
“I ran a wood shop here for 10 years. I make coat racks and birdhouses, about anything anybody wants if they have the money. My dad did woodworking. I started when I was a kid. I’ve always been involved in some degree. I built three houses and two horse barns.
“Jerry [Baker] and I usually fish five or six hours. I don’t like to be out when the boaters are out. If you want to have some fun on Sunday evening, go up to the boat dock and watch guys trying to load their boats. This one guy took four or five attempts, then emptied his cooler and out came all his beer cans.
“You get out there on a Sunday afternoon and you get run over. People run through your lines and almost hit your boat.
“I used to dock at Charleston Marine. A lady came down and said, ‘Oh, you are finally going to use your boat.’ I said, ‘Honey, I use it every Sunday morning from 4 to 7, and then I’m off the water.’”
Reach Sandy Wells at 304-348-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org.