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Mental Trophies

Mental Trophies

By Mike Tomano

© 2023 Michael Tomano / Fossil Entertainment Group

This week I spent a day fishing with Bob Anderson. Bob and his family are dear friends, and he is a fellow member of the Northern Illinois Anglers Association. An afternoon on the Kankakee River with Bob was long overdue and I took the opportunity to duck out of work early to meet him.


Spending a blazing hot five hours on his boat, we laughed and talked about life, fishing, kids, fishing, hunting, fishing, cooking and fishing. The bite was sporadic, though we yanked a few bass and I had the opportunity to catch a small Northern Pike on an old white Rooster Tail spinner. Bob also had a clam snap on his lure! Awesome!


I watched Bob unsnag my line twice with uncanny technique. The first time I hooked into a log while reeling in a Strike King Rage Tail through the shallows. I pushed the rod forward a bit, let some line out, and gave it a couple of yanks when Bob said, “Give it here.” He loosened line, gently moved the rod and...it was loose.


It was the second snagged lure he rescued that stunned me, and confirmed this gift otherworldly. I attempted to land my top-water plastic frog (fresh out of package) in a clearing between some overhanging twigs and moss. A slight breeze grabbed the braided line and I watched it rapidly loop multiple times around a branch.

“Well, there goes seven bucks,” I said. “Son of a -

“Give it here,” Bob said in his calm, cool voice. Once again he let some line out, gently moved the line, and my frog plopped back in the water.

I learned a lot from those few hours fishing with Bob Anderson and I plan to learn a lot every time I’m with him. He’s that kind of guy.


Being a scorchin’ midday put the odds against us, but we did okay. We landed a few bass and took the challenge on by switching lures frequently. As Bob said, “You gotta find out what they want and give it to ‘em.”


I’ve fished a lot this summer (though not nearly enough) and recently spent some time with my childhood friends at our yearly cabin adventure. Mike, Jerry and Rick all landed Northern Pike and it dawned on me I was skunked in that category.


As we made our way back to Bob's dock, I switched to one of my old reliable Rooster Tail spinners. My Ol’ Man used to field test them back in the day and I’ve got dozens. Bob suggested white, so white it was, and it broke my Pike Shut-Out!

Bob’s knowledge of waterways, fish habits, fishing techniques, wildlife behavior and his practical skill application have earned him a new title. I nickname people who impact my life, Bob Anderson will here on out be known as “The River Wizard” or simply, “Wiz.”


It was a day of mental trophies.


Obsessed with The Great Outdoors since childhood, my memory bank is full of great moments with great people. I’ve been able to hunt and fish with folks who exemplify American values, friendship, loyalty and backwoods sage wisdom. I’ve been lucky enough to fill tags and fill coolers throughout my life, though the real trophies lie in the details of each outdoor adventure.


During my grade school years, my family would take a two-week summer vacation in Tennessee, spending time with my mother’s kin.


It was in Rutherford, Tennessee that my Uncle Ferris let me shoot a real gun for the first time at the age of 10. It was a .16-gauge Remington 870 pump shotgun and it was my Excalibur. I already owned a Crosman 1377 pellet pistol and, of course, the ubiquitous Daisy Red Ryder bb rifle, and had learned gun safety and responsibility from my father. The shotgun kicked a bit more, ya might say...but I loved it. It was a rite of passage.


It was that same trip that Pastor Jerry swung by Uncle Ferris and Aunt LaVerne’s farm for supper. We had a wonderful catfish dinner, with hush puppies, fresh corn, and the amazing sun tea that complimented every meal. Pastor Jerry had three dogs in the back of his truck and asked if I wanted to “run ‘em” with him. That night, in the woodland thickets that accompanied my relatives’ farm, I experienced coonhounds treeing a raccoon. I was in awe of the sights I caught in my headlamp’s glow. Bullfrogs leaping from logs. Insects that looked like they belonged in a Godzilla movie. Uncle Ferris held his arm out to stop me as a water moccasin slid through the marsh in front of us. Soon the dogs sang and the midnight woods came to exhilarating life. We treed the coon and watched him for awhile in the treetop, then walked back to the truck. (Pastor Jerry was trainin’ the dogs for season.)


Lots of snakes in Tennessee. I crawled under my cousin Ernie’s trailer to fetch a ball and came face to face with a black racer. I backed out on my belly in cartoon-speed fashion.


My cousin, Stevie, and I were fishing for crappie on Reelfoot Lake when a water snake fell from a tree on to my head. I may have yelled, “Whoa Shit!” before Stevie nonchalantly picked it up from the boat floor and threw it overboard. Stevie smiled at me and laughed, looked at the sun above us and said, “Perty warm out. Yessir, perty warm.” Then we had a chugging contest with ice-cold cans of Mr. Pibb.


Caught a lot of fish in Tennessee. Uncle Virgil, Cousin Stevie, my Dad and me spent days on Reelfoot and Kentucky Lake, bringing home coolers of crappie, bream and bluegill. The family feasts that followed are etched forever in my heart and mind. They were not family meals, but sacred times that illuminate a life.


My house is full of skulls, head mounts and rugs from hunting trips. Folks call such things “trophies.” For me, they are reminders. Magical moments trapped in time. Like the photographs that hang in my home office. My Dad fishing in the late ‘50s. A trip to Uncle Ted’s. The ol’ gang in Wisconsin. My Life. My Passion.

If you give it a chance, and delve into it, Nature will reward you with the best life has to offer. My faith, my family, my career and my friendships have all been enriched by my time in the woods and on the water. And trophies are memories.


In 1997, my first wife and I were honeymooning in Key Largo. We took a day to charter a snorkeling trip on a reef. Our excursion included our boat captain, guide and a group of French tourists.

As soon as I hit the water, I was rapt with the oceanic splendor before my diving mask. Various fish, coral, and stingrays abound. At one point, my wife and I split apart (foreshadowing?) and I drifted away from the boat.

The serenity of it was broken when a French woman swam up to me and grabbed my arm. We surfaced and she screamed, “Shark! Shark!” before swimming her ass off toward the boat.


I treaded water for a moment, attempting to remain calm. The sky was becoming overcast. I submerged and saw a grey figure quickly approaching. “What the...”

In seconds, I was face to masked face with a barracuda. Okay, not a shark, but still a toothy mutha!

He circled me and I spun to keep watch on his movements. Then, in a flash he darted back off into the infinite brine.


One of my favorite adventures is night fishing, giggin’ frogs and bowfishing on the Kankakee River. One night, in the late 90s, my mates and I had shot a few carp, I nailed a gar with my trusty Bear Grizzly recurve, and we had gigged a few nice bullies. Scanning the shore with our lights I came upon a treefall jutting through the water along the opposite shore. “Look at the size of that booger!” I said. “Keep your light on him,” my buddy said as we made our way slowly toward him. This was a Pope & Young bullfrog. The size of my baseball cap.


We glided toward him, the giant spotlight in his eyes. Gig in hand. Closer...Closer...Closer...


Whoosh!


A largemouth Basstadon broke the water and snatched the ol’ croaker before our eyes.


Another mental trophy.

(Side Note: Why are the bag limits for bullfrogs so small in Illinois? This must change. Yes, I’m on it! Side Note 2: If you haven’t tasted gar, you are missing out on some excellent table fare.)


One early Fall afternoon found me sitting on a stump along a fence line on a farm in Wilmington. With corn behind me and a tree line ridge cresting a river bottom, my hope was to get a chance to fill my tag as the deer headed into the corn for their evening feast.


I drifted into the zone. Hunters know it. The Zone. Your mind clears, save for the sights, sounds and aromas that fill the forest. Honed and focused, listening for a snapping twig or shuffling brush.

I sat on the stump, with my back rested against a fence post. Soon, I heard a buzzing sound from the ground next to me. I looked down to see a field mouse chewing away at an arrow in my detached quiver. He was buzzing away, taking all his rodent frustrations out on an aluminum Easton shaft. A red cardinal swooped down and landed next to him. The mouse ceased chompin’. The cardinal and mouse met stares, frozen. I laughed out loud and sent them both scurrying.


Trophy!


I love bowhunting. I do most of my big-game hunting with a Mathews compound bow, but still love to shoot my recurve and longbows. In 2010, I decided to hunt deer stalking them with my recurve. I practiced like mad, deciding I was deadly out to twenty yards.


I was hunting public land and heading back to my truck. I had been sitting a few hours and had more than a mile to walk. No shots, though I had seen a few does in the field and a small buck wandering the hardwoods. (My rule of thumb when hunting public land is: Arrive early, head to the back of the property. Arrive late, stay up front. On this day, I was at the farthest point.)


The last trail to the lot took me past a field of tail grass. I spotted what looked to be antlers in them. Yes!

I took my binoculars and got a better look. He was a big ‘un and he was moving toward me. I envisioned his line of travel in relation to me and I knelt, knocking an arrow. If he continued in that direction, he would pass mere yards in front of me, allowing a short window to draw and release. I was unaware of what ground debris in the field might change his path, but the sound of his approach was getting very close. Very close.


My mind prepared. Ignore antlers. Watch for the left leg to move forward. Identify vitals. Release arrow. The mantra continued as the sound of crunching grass neared to the point I could feel it.

Is he still in front of me? Where –


The buck cleared the edge of the grass and bumped into my shoulder, knocking my balance. His head lifted. Our eyes met. He snorted so close I felt it on my face! I stood, watching him run a short distance, then turn back, stare and share the moment. He snorted again and disappeared into the setting sun.


Once In A Lifetime Trophy.

My daughter recently moved out. It’s a bittersweet time. Denise and I are extremely proud of the intelligent, beautiful, compassionate woman Leah has become as she heads off to finish her degree in Special Education. Time flies, indeed. The last 20 years are a blur, though we share so many memories of her childhood, and continue to make more in her adult life. Family is sacred, and our time spent in The Great Outdoors is always golden.


Leah’s first gun was a pink Daisy Red Ryder. We spent hours shooting at cans in the backyard. We’ve gone on many exhausting hikes, identifying wildflowers, insects and critters. She is an animal lover and has rescued everything from spiders to frogs to cats.


Driving home from one of our hiking adventures, we witnessed a red-tailed hawk circling above our truck. We pulled over to watch as it swooped down to catch a hefty garter snake and quickly ascend.


The snake struggled and writhed in the bird of prey’s talons for a moment, before settling in for the fateful flight.

“Wow,” Leah said.


I said, “That snake gave it his all to escape. Now he’s like, This ain’t gonna end well, but hey, at least I got to fly.”


We laughed, soaking in the amazing display of nature we observed.


We all eventually take that flight. Fill your life with mental trophies.


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