I met Jeff Teague at my first bass club meeting in early September of 1995, on the night that Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive Major League games played. I was 25 and he was somewhere in his mid-30s and he knew far more about fishing than I did. It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but we’ve run a lot of water through the livewells since then. Ripken has been retired for 17 years. We’re still fishing.
In the ensuing 23 years, Jeff and I have spent a lot of time in a boat together. He was my non-boater in the first tournament where I took my own boat, in March of 1998. I recall that I caught most of my fish in that tournament on a junebug finesse worm, but on the afternoon of the second day a 3 pound 15 ounce largemouth ate my Hawg Caller ½ ounce spinnerbait on the side of a beaver hut and pushed me into second place.
A few years later, we were paired together again on the Potomac in a tournament the week after his wife Faye died. Working against good sense we made a long run down the river to a patch of grass and Jeffie proceeded to have one of those magical mornings we all dream about. I think he had 12 or 13 pounds in the boat in the first hour, all on a little chrome Mann’s One Minus crankbait, and then culled up a few times from there as I built a meager limit.
He’s a combative SOB, and I know that during our various pairings we debated politics and economics and whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. I’m no shrinking violet, either, and I recall that in a later tournament on the Chickahominy River I had the kicker I needed absolutely crush my frog, pull it under, and take off. I set the hook, the rod bowed up, and just when I thought I’d turned the fish my frog came flying back at my face at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. Jeff let out a nervous laugh and I told him in no uncertain terms to “Shut the hell up.” I guess sometimes we all take things a bit too seriously.
Despite all of those memories – and more – Jeff and I had never really socialized together outside of a boat. There had been group dinners at tournament hotels and bass club Christmas parties, but never any slowed-down opportunities to sit and yap. That chance finally came on Sunday. My wife was out of the country and his holiday guests had left, so we were both bachelors. I also had to return something that I had borrowed from him and rather than just take it over to his house something inspired me to ask him to meet for dinner. He agreed, and for the first time in over 23 years of knowing each other we had no interruptions, no time deadlines, just a chance to eat pizza, drink beer, and catch up.
We discussed mutual friends, the Elite Series, BPT and the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. He told me what his two sons – who were ankle biters when I first met him, but are both now older than I was in 1995 – are doing. In some respects, it made me feel old. On the other hand, it made me wonder why we didn’t do this sooner. If you’ve fished for any period of time, you probably have friends like these, people who’ve been with you through thick or thin but with whom you’ve never really slowed down enough to sit and talk.
I’m an introvert by nature, and my ADD-tendencies mean that it’s tough for me to sit at a restaurant for more than an hour, but after two hours Teague and I were still talking. The highlight for me was not the discussion of the pro bass tours, or bucket list trips, but rather his memory of that first tournament where I brought my own boat. When I set the hook on that 3 pound 15 ounce bass that moved me up the leaderboard, Jeff grabbed the net and rushed to the front deck. I can still see the strike clearly in my mind, and while I’ve fished that beaver hut a hundred-plus times since then, I’ve never caught another fish of that caliber there.
“Do you remember me kicking off the compass?” he asked on Sunday.
Indeed, I did. For some reason that remains inexplicable to me today, the prior owner of my first boat had mounted a compass on the trailing edge of the front deck. Few of us had GPS in those days, so plenty of people used compasses to navigate, but the awkward location of the compass made no sense. Indeed, as Jeff rushed to the deck, he dropkicked that sucker like he was punting into a stiff wind. Luckily it hit the side of the boat and bounced back in. Nevertheless, after it happened a few more times over the next couple of months, I scrapped the compass altogether.
Since Jeff’s punting days, he’s lost a wife, gained a daughter-in-law and a grandchild, and fished a couple hundred tournaments, a few of them with his son. We’ve both had multiple jobs, I gained a wife, bought a house, started a second career in writing. Still, we both remember those little vignettes from seemingly inconsequential club tournaments, as if we’d participated in the Super Bowl or the Bassmaster Classic or Wimbledon, or as if we’d broken Lou Gehrig’s record ourselves. If you’re a serious fisherman, I’m sure that you can remember hundreds of individual fish – that’s a gift and a curse we all share – but even for misanthropes like me, the people who were there to share it are just as important.