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Pete Weighs In

By Pete Robbins

Believe Me

*Editor’s note – All of us probably have an occasional need to vent, although few are likely to be as eloquent as Mr. Robbins. When Pete referred to his ex-boss as the “Little General” I think he showed remarkable restraint. Now that I think about it I’m not too sure that’s what he really called him – probably caught Pete in a lie right there. I don’t know if writing the following made Pete feel any better but reading it did wonders for my attitude. Nothing like hearing of another’s misery to brighten ones day!

July 1, 2008

What’s the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
One’s a scum sucking bottom dweller. The other is a fish.

I come to you as a member of society’s most reviled subclass. I am an attorney who also happens to be a competitive bass angler. Taken separately, membership in either one of these cliques would qualify me as a liar to most members of the population. Together, my joint membership is perceived as stacking lies on top of lies, and unless it’s a matter of two negatives making a positive, I’m screwed. Get in the boat with a draw partner, tell him you’re a lawyer, and he’ll look at you crossways the rest of the day, expecting you to pull some sort of shenanigan in the boat. Go to a legal proceeding and somehow let it slip that you’re a tournament fisherman and even the sharkiest ambulance chaser will give you a wide berth.

So I have pretty good insight into the two subcultures -- and after much thought I think that as a general rule the fishermen come out on top of the attorneys in terms of overall veracity.

It’s not that there aren’t liars in our midst. We all know the guy who “wins practice” every tournament. He catches 25 pounds with one arm tied behind his back in prefish, then is lucky to scrounge up a bare keeper on tournament day.

There are also the ones who claim that work and family have them too busy to fish at all, other than the occasional half Saturday, but every time you’re on the water their truck and trailer are at the ramp when you arrive early and still there when you leave late.

And who can forget the ones who catch good bags of fish on “just a plain old worm” or a “generic white spinnerbait” but you later find out that they were using something quite different.

Yes, I know that there are liars in our midst.

But let me tell you the difference: When I was at the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Fork this April, it was a team event. Four anglers per team, divided into pairs of two for fishing purposes. They had a strategy session in between the morning and afternoon fishing periods and they’d share specific information – waypoints, sketches of structure, every minute detail – with their partners. They were in it together and they’d do whatever they could for the good of the team.

My sense is that the same doesn’t hold true for many lawyers, particularly those in private practice, where billable hours and ego seem to trump teamwork and efficiency. Now before those of you law firm devotees write in and tell me that it’s not the case at your law firm, let me encourage you to stop. You’re wrong (it’s like the poker saying that “if you can’t tell who the pigeon is at the table, you’re the pigeon; except at law firms it’s “if you can’t tell who the a-hole is at the firm, then you’re the a-hole). No need to sugar coat it.

I’ll also add in that I remain a practicing attorney, working for a governmental entity, among a group of attorneys who are not only friendly and team-oriented, but also exceptionally competent and efficient. Given the recent death of George Carlin (oxymorons: “military intelligence,” “jumbo shrimp”), I’ll let you readers make the joke about competent/caring government employees. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Trust me – I wouldn’t lie to you.

Prior to becoming a civil servant, I worked for a medium sized law firm for about six years. I’ll refer to them as the “dark ages” or “lost years” on occasion, because it was also a period of time spent among a group of truly awful people (not all of them, just a select few who made life difficult for the rest of us) that I can’t regain, and a lot of it was wasted on petty firm-driven crap.

Leading the charge was the chairman of the firm, a Napoleon in pinstripes, all 5’4” of him with glasses that would put a coke bottle to shame. Someone’s diminutive stature alone is not a reason to dislike or distrust them, but this firm was populated at its highest echelons by scores of midgets who had received one too many grade school wedgies and were therefore mad at the world. What made this even odder is that during the course of my sentence at the firm, we had no fewer than eight female attorneys and support staff who were in the six foot range. We had the makings of a WNBA team and a stable of jockeys.

But this Little General took the cake. I’m sure he was a competent lawyer with a good book of business, but I could never quite tell what he did except cut costs – and I can’t necessarily fault him for that as he was responsible for the firm’s financial health and continued viability. But he had no people skills whatsoever. To see him duck-walking down the hallway was an invitation to make yourself scarce.

I joined the firm in the fall of 1995 and the winter of 1996 was particularly rough in the Washington area. My Chicago-raised wife likes to say that DC shuts down if it’s 40 degrees and cloudy, and while that may not be far from the truth, we had enough snow that winter that it hampered many attorneys’ ability to get to the office. This was before “crackberrys” and other communications devices which now put most attorneys on a short leash 24/7, so a lot of billable hours were lost. As an aside, at that time I was living within walking distance of work. The day of the first big blizzard, I threw a suit in a bag, trudged through the snow to the office, showered in the locker room, changed into my suit and sat down to work. It was two hours later that I realized that no one else was coming. You’re correct – I wasn’t particularly savvy. I still can’t figure out why I just didn’t work in casual clothing. What big unscheduled meeting did I expect a first year associate to have to attend on the day of the snow storm of the decade? But I digress.

In the fall of 1995, we were given both Columbus Day and Veterans Day off. They’re Federal holidays, and I guess since most of our work was before Federal agencies it made sense at one point. Well, after losing all of that income due to snow, the Little General pushed the panic button and decided to strip them away. Fine. You run the show, you sign our checks, you built the firm – it’s entirely within your right to change schedules, especially when it’s a fairly reasonable change. But at our monthly firm meeting he droned on and on about how our clients didn’t take those days off, they expected us to be available, they needed us around, blah blah blah. On and on and on, constantly coming back to the idea that our clients expected us to be in the office on those days.

That fall, the holidays came and went, and other than the fact that I was in the office (and in a damn suit) for both of them, what did they have in common? The Chairman wasn’t there. He was at his second home in Florida. Again, that would have been fine. You sign the checks, do what you want on those days, but don’t patronize me with the speech about how important it is for us to be in the office – and he did say US, not YOU, when he made the speech.

The next big hubbub came a few years later when the firm decided to invest in some new art for the hallways. I don’t know what they paid the consultant lady, but I’m sure it was a pretty penny. How do you become an art consultant? Do you think she only served law firms?  Can you make good money doing that? Who picks out the pictures above the beds in hotel rooms? Regardless of the answers to those questions, the bottom line is she ripped the sharks off, beat ‘em at their own game. I hope she billed them in tenths of an hour, just like they did to their clients.

The biggest purchase of all was a giant silk kimono placed over the main staircase. I learned from a trusted source that it cost somewhere in the range of $80-90,000. One departing paralegal made up a little museum-style plaque that read “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and affixed it next to the kimono one evening. It was gone the next morning. Once again, buy art, make the place look good, that’s fine with me, but these purchases were coupled with constant reminders about “tough economic times” (wasn’t that the time of the internet boom?) and the fact that bonuses and perks would likely be meager in the future. Even worse, about a month later he was telling us all that business was booming. He changed the facts every time he had a particular message to convey.

We all had to sit through a lecture from the art consultant lady about why she chose the particular pieces and what they symbolized. For some reason, she and I seemed to differ in our interpretations (probably because this crap was putting money in her pocket and potentially taking money out of mine).

The greatest discrepancy was in our views of the painting that dominated one of the conference rooms. It was of an androgynous 7/11 clerk, standing at a cash register which read $0.00, staring forward with a blank expression. No, I’m not making this up.

The art consultant lady said that it “represented the heroism of the American worker.” I though it represented a not-so-subtle threat that if we didn’t make them lots of cash, we’d soon find ourselves in a hairnet or cleaning the slurpee machine.

The nail in the coffin for me, the time when it became clear that I couldn’t last in a place where I didn’t like the work, didn’t like the hours, and had an absolute lack of respect for many of the nominal leaders, was the great birthday party fiasco that happened after they bought the art.

Early one year, there was a run on birthdays among firm employees, maybe 10 or 12 in a single month. Each time, someone brought in a cake and we’d get the email: “Join us in the conference room at 3pm to celebrate X’s birthday with some cake.” Well, after a bunch of these, and a bunch of lost billable hours, the Little General boiled over. Once again, I can’t necessarily say I blame him – it was keeping people away from their desks for long periods of time. But at the same time, it was a morale booster. That was the element that he failed to consider.

So well into this run of baked fun, he sends us all a message (worded awkwardly, of course) that we’re getting too distracted by these impromptu celebrations and that they have to stop. To his credit, the said message also conveyed that he felt it was important to recognize his employees’ birthdays, so in place of the random gatherings the firm would sponsor a once-a-month gathering with cake and other snacks.  

True to his word, that first month we had a party where he got up before all hundred firm employees and praised his own generosity. True to our assigned roles, we suck ups who needed to pay our bills laughed in all the right places.

The large meeting table was covered with food, and he pointed out the three large trays of shrimp arranged around small vats of cocktail sauce. I’m not sure why mollusks, or crustaceans, or whatever they are, seemed like such an important sign of largesse, but even cynical Pete was convinced that they had gone out of their way to make this a bang-up event.

“We’re going to have these parties every month and every month we’ll have shrimp like these,” he said, and we all let out an audible gasp – the same guy who had limited us each to two drink tickets at the firm Christmas party (where there developed a nasty black market trade among the alkies and the teetotalers) was giving us unlimited access to the sea’s bounty.

Once again, we believed the promises. But as the months went by, the bounty got weaker. We went from a 40 foot conference table covered with great food and three (count ‘em, three) platters of shrimp, to maybe a cake and one big plate of shrimp (“You’d better hurry up and get off the phone so you can get your 2.4 shrimp,” my friend told me. I won’t name him because he’s still stuck there.) Eventually, even the monthly nature of the parties went by the wayside. “Well, we’ve had a lot going on recently, so we’ll wait until next month,” the Chairman would say. Eventually every other month became every third month. Early on, he’d read the list of monthly birthdays, but less than a year later the parties were so infrequent that it would have taken too much time (not that he was busy munching on shrimp). The parties went from seasonal to even less than that.

This may all seem petty to you. Who cares about a few shrimp? We were being paid well and it wasn’t unbearable work. But while he might have been a great lawyer and a fantastic bean counter, the General wasn’t a great people person. Had he banned the impromptu birthday celebrations, people might have grumbled, but eventually they would have forgotten about it. But promising us what seemed to be a pretty reasonable perk, then gradually diminishing it, all the while stretching his short arms around to pat himself on the back, was a little too much to bear.

We may not have been powerful at the firm, but no one, down to the lowest man on the totem pole, was stupid. Don’t spit on my back and tell me it’s raining. He wasn’t the only one – his partners were equally self-congratulatory and condescending. With a little bit of friendliness, and the occasional bit of generosity, they could’ve won over everybody’s hearts and minds, but as it was, by insulting us, they bred the kind of employee loyalty that was likely to result in a sign that said “The Emperor’s New Clothes” under a kimono that cost ninety grand.

I’ve been trickscrewed in the fishing world – non-boaters who take their subsequent partners back to spots I’ve shown them, competitors who haven’t told me the whole truth about their practice, etc. – but never have I had a teammate throw me under the bus. Even more tellingly, I’ve had the competition lose precious fishing time to help me out of a mechanical jam. I’ve had people I don’t know terribly well clue me in to a bite I haven’t figured out. And in every case they’ve been loathe to accept thanks, let alone praise….and they certainly didn’t pontificate about their selflessness.

Party of Five

June 25, 2008

Five Online Tackle Retailers I Frequent:
Tackle Warehouse: www.tacklewarehouse.com
Bass Tackle Depot: www.basstackledepot.com
Land Big Fish: www.landbigfish.com
Backwaters Online: www.tackleexperts.com
Northern Bass Supply: www.northernbass.com

Five Lures I Rely Upon Year After Year:
Green Pumpkin 5” Senko
¼ Ounce War Eagle Tandem Indiana Spinnerbait
Popper (Sugoi Splash, Rico, Jackall SK Grande-Pop)
RC 1.5 Crankbait
Team Supreme Imperial Riot buzzbait

My Top Five GYCB Colors:
297 (Green Pumpkin)
913 (Green Pumpkin Chartreuse Tail)
021 (Black/Blue Flake)
213 (Junebug)
208 (Watermelon with Red and Black)

Top Five Technique-Specific Rods I Use:
Kistler LTX 7’11” heavy action for frogging
Dobyns 703CX for small spinnerbaits
Performance Tackle 7’4” cranking rod
Rich Forhan 7’2” Dropshot Rod
G.Loomis CBR 783 cranking rod

Top Five Multi-Purpose Rods I Use:
G.Loomis IMX 844MBR for jigs, carolina rigs, buzzbaits, Texas rigs
G.Loomis IMX 783MBR for weightless Senkos, Baby One Minus,
G.Loomis IMX 782MBR for poppers, trick worms, small crankbaits
Kistler Dock Skipping Special for senkos, slider heads, finesse jigs
American Rodsmiths 6’6” medium heavy worm rod for Texas rigs, large topwaters, lipless cranks

Top Five Lakes/Rivers I’ve Fished:
Lake Falcon
Lake Winnipesaukee
Lake Guntersville
California Delta
Sam Rayburn

Five Lures Everyone Else Catches Fish On But I Rarely Do:
Shakey Head
Shad Rap
Prop bait

Five Hooks I Use the Most:
Gamakatsu 3/0 offset shank round bend
Gamakatsu 1/0 Splitshot/Dropshot Hook
Owner 5/0 Twist Lock Flipping Hook
Sugoi 4/0 worm hook
Gamakatsu 5/0 EWG Offset Hook

My Five Favorite Purchases from Japan:
Daiwa Pixy baitcasting reel (YELLOW!)
OSP HPF flatsided crankbait
Shimano Triple Impact wake bait
Megabass Giant Dog X
Daiwa TD Vibe 107SP

 Five Favorite Tackle Shops in Virginia:
Greentop (Glen Allen)
Bobcat’s Lake Country (Clarksville)
Warbird Outdoors (Woodbridge)
Hooker Bait and Tackle (Williamsburg)
Fishing Pro Tech (Toano)

Five Favorite Tackle Shops Outside Virginia:
Northern Bass Supply (Brentwood, NH)
Falcon Lake Tackle (Zapata, TX)
Waterfront Tackle (Scottsboro, AL)
Fisherman’s Warehouse (Manteca, CA)
Needmore Tackle (Sam Rayburn – not sure if it’s still there, but the name alone puts it on the list)

My First Five Stops Each Day on the Bass Fishing Home Page:
Other Topics
Boats and Motors
Fishing Tactics
Rods and Reels
Boats for Sale

Top Five Most Difficult Times to Get my Boat Unstuck:
Nanticoke River (2007)
Mattaponi River (2003)
Mattaponi River (2001)
James River (2001)
Potomac River (too many times to count)

History Lessons

June 17, 2008

In 1997, I qualified for the co-angler side of the FLW Championship on Lake Ferguson, Mississippi.  FLW hadn’t yet turned it into the multi-million dollar, arena-based spectacle that it’s become today.  The city had a banner or two out, we had a decent buffet dinner on a riverboat and we received a few modest giveaways.  There was minimal press coverage. 
For those of you who don’t remember, David Fritts won the tournament.  He pretty much cranked his way past everyone all year long in ’97.  He was an absolute monster back then and I’m sure he would still be one today if they ever had a tour-level schedule that catered to his strengths.

Even if you remember that Fritts won it, there were certain stories that got lost forever.  With no real media contingent, the little vignettes that color our coverage of tour-level championships today didn’t get written.  To some extent, this is still truer of FLW than BASS, because with co-anglers in the boat the media presence on the water is diminished, but at that point it was virtually nil.

Here are two anecdotes that I can offer up:

I practiced one day with Terry Bolton, one day with another co-angler, then on the final practice day I was turned down by everyone I asked at our hotel, so I went down to the main ramp to troll for a ride.  I got there and Davy Hite said he’d be willing to take me out until noon, but at that point he’d have to pick someone else up.  I decided to wait.  As I talked to Davy, Ken Cook drove over and asked Davy if he had a map of the place.  That was my opportunity….I asked and Ken agreed to take me fishing.

He told me that he had driven all night to get there and slept in a hotel parking lot (fortunately, it was November….I’m sure that Mississippi in July would’ve resulted in Ken looking like a raisin), which seemed odd at the time, but I didn’t push the issue now that I’d found someone willing to let me fish with him.  He asked if I knew how to get into Lake Whittington, which I did, and that seemed to make him happy.

We fished all morning and he mentioned again that he’d driven down overnight.  At that point, my curiosity was piqued. 

“Um, Ken.  This tournament is kind of a big deal.  You’re fishing for $100,000.  It seems odd to me that you drove down last night and don’t even have a map.”

“I was sitting in a deer stand this time yesterday,” he replied.  “They called me and told me that Marty Stone dropped out and invited me to fish.” 

It turns out that Marty’s wife had gone into labor with their son, so he decided to drop out and Ken was the replacement.  Would that happen today, with a million bucks on the line?  Maybe, but if it did it would be a pretty big story, I’m sure.  As it was, it’s likely that no one but me, the Stones and the Cooks had any idea until now.
On Day 1 of the tournament I drew out with Paul Elias, who quietly informed me that I’d have to limit my tackle because we were going to use his jet-powered duck boat.  We were boat number one, and as we took off toward a Lake Ferguson backwater, just about all of the boats that were staying in Ferguson passed us.  As we turned at the mouth of that backwater we watched Fritts’ co-angler net what appeared to be a five pounder.

He zig-zagged us through a patch of standing timber, got to the mouth of the slough, and…..we got stuck.  Paul had gotten clarification on the rules the night before – we could get out of the boat to pull back off of a mud flat, but we couldn’t get out of the boat to advance it.  He stripped down pretty quickly, got out, tried to pull the boat back off and couldn’t budge us.  He gave me the look, making it clear that not only was my weight holding us in place, but that my arms and legs were needed to make the boat move.
It’s 6:45 in the morning, November in Missisissippi, surrounded by who knows what kind of snakes we don’t have here in Virginia, and I’m in my underwear and t-shirt, in the mud, pulling a jon boat off the flat.  Meanwhile, Tommy Biffle, in his full-sized fiberglass boat, apparently knew the key opening and went right on by us.

We managed to get the boat back off the mud, got a little dried out, and shot the hole that Biffle used.  Unfortunately, all that effort was not rewarded – Paul caught two scrawny keepers in there and I blanked.  We left mid-morning, went back out to the main part of Ferguson where 30 mph winds were sweeping down the lake, and spent the rest of the day in his little tin boat, him struggling to control it, me just happy to be out of the mud.

In the grand scheme of things, these stories don’t mean much to the history of the sport.  Nothing much changed as a result of them. But as a fan of the sport and a student of its history, I love this type of stuff, whether I was involved or not.

 Ken Cook and Paul Elias have each fished well over a hundred tournaments since that 1997 Championship.  Besides, in the heat of competition, those guys are so wrapped up in the moment that they can’t appreciate any of the sidebars.  It’s largely the outdoor writers who have these stories in their memory banks.  Some of them never make it to print.

I was reminded of how fragile this all is when Tim Tucker passed away last year.  Perhaps more than anyone else, Tim could say “I was there” as a witness to many of the major events in the sport’s history.  I didn’t always agree with what he wrote or the positions that he advocated, but he’d earned a lot of sweat equity in our favorite sport.  He was there when Jim Bitter’s limit fish bounced back into the James River (and had a role in that happening), he was a cog in Roland Martin’s media machine and he was a trusted confidante and advisor to anglers and writers alike.  Even though I saw him at several Classics, the only contact I had with him was an exchange of emails in which he gave me some very candid advice about outdoor writing and the fishing industry in general.

In the past few years, I have also had the opportunity to spend time with other industry veterans like Steve Price, Craig Lamb and Steve Bowman.  In fact, I owe Lamb and Bowman a few beers in exchange for some story telling about the wild rides they’ve endured at tournaments in the past.  I’d love it for Price to be there, too.

I’ve emailed Louie Stout once or twice, and even though he didn’t know me at all, he went out of his way to give me the same kind of advice that Tucker had offered.

I’ve never met Don Wirth, nor have I crossed paths with Alan Clemons, whose work I have come to admire very much in recent years, but I’d want them both there when I grill Price, Lamb, Stout and Bowman about their experiences on the trail. 

My friend Dave Ochs covered several Bassmaster Classics as a reporter for the Associated Press.  He told me that at the 1991 Classic, on the Upper Chesapeake Bay, one day was canceled due to expected bad weather.  Rather than send the media and anglers back to their hotel rooms, they all gathered in groups of six to ten around tables in a conference room and talked about issues affecting the sport.  One topic in particular I remember Dave telling me about was their discussion of the “unwritten rules” of the sport.
Why don’t we have a “summit” like that every year?  Or does it exist and I just haven’t been invited?

With or without the anglers present (preferably with), I’d like to convene those writers more experienced than me for a session of that nature.  These guys spend so much time behind a camera a keyboard or a tape recorder taking down others’ words that it would be great to hear their uncensored stories about where bass fishing has been and where it is going.

Any interest?