Along about 23 or 24, a young man gets to thinking he’s seen and done enough to consider himself a man. He’s had some laughs, traveled outside his hometown, and maybe he’s even visited the Girls! Girls! Girls! attraction at the state fair. Or at least he’s scanned the tabloid covers in the Wal-Mart checkout, which is about the same thing.

When it comes to matters of the heart, finance, and buying a used car, this young man is proud, yet stubborn. He chooses to learn through experience, making the same dunderheaded mistakes common to his father and grandfather before him.

But when it comes to fishing — aha! He seeks information from any and all sources, hoping to stumble across that one crumb of wisdom which instantly increases his water hole prowess. Sadly, this indiscriminate search for fishing knowledge often leads to heartache. He buys tackle wholly unsuited to the task, uses questionable presentation strategies, and owns as many as three boats concurrently.

Dear reader, I have to confess that, once upon a time, I was that young man. It was the mid-’70s. For two years, I and five friends had gone fly-in fishing with Knobby Clark out of Sioux Lookout, Ontario. In my short life, I’d become, in my estimation, a good fisherman — but not a great fisherman. Sure, Doc and the boys had taught me all they knew, which took the better part of an hour, but it just wasn’t enough. I had exhausted all resources available to me, from Virgil Ward on TV to my Aunt Lucy, who can’t tell a fishing pole from a pool cue.

One fateful day, on the greasy cork bulletin board above the worm cooler at Willy’s Bait Shack, there was a flyer advertising a seminar in, of all places, Albert Lea, Minnesota. FISHING SECRETS FOR SALE it read. The best part, it was only 15 bucks a head.

“Whattya think, Doc?” I asked.

“Who’s the headliner?”

“Some guy named Al Lindner,” I said.

“Lindner?” Doc said. “Never heard of him.”

“Lots of people we never heard of are better fishermen than us,” I said. “Why don’t we give it a shot?” So Doc, the policeman, and I made plans to attend.

Doc said, “I’ll drive!”

It should be noted here that Doc’s fledgling dental practice was not yet the cash machine it is today. He had a sad history of owning a mindnumbing string of deathtrap clunkers, and we feared that he might roll up in one of them a week later. As it happened, our fears were eventually justified.

The seminar began at 10. On Saturday morning at dawn I closed my back door expecting to see a choking cloud of oilsmoke, but there was Doc at the helm of a very cherry 1971 Chevy El Camino. Unlike his last nightmare on wheels, this one had actual glass where the windows should be, hard plastic instead of red cellophane for taillight lenses, and the hood covered the entire engine compartment — no baling wire in sight.

“Whose car?” I asked.

“Mine,” Doc said.

“You sure?”

I tossed an overnight bag with a change of clothes in the back, and we cruised out to pick up the policeman.

“Whose car?” he asked.

“Mine,” Doc said.

“Are you sure?”

“Hey,” Doc said, a bit perturbed, “can’t a guy once in a while have a nice vehicle to drive?”

The car had a monstrous engine and a stiff, muscle-car suspension. I dialed up some music on the radio, amazed it even worked. We were all smiling. Doc had his elbow out the window, I was at shotgun singing along with the Bee Gees, and the policeman played finger drums on the dash.

Two hours north of Des Moines, doing about 60, we hit the railroad crossing on the outskirts of a small town. When the El Camino chassis finally came down to earth, I looked back and saw dual glasspack mufflers, still connected to the tailpipes, spinning and sparking to a stop in the grader ditch. Doc drove to the shoulder, cut the ignition, and we assessed the damage.

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“Looks like the pipes rusted off at the manifold,” the policeman said.

“Must have been ready to go for a long time,” Doc said.

“We hit so hard the rear view mirrors snapped off,” I said. “Never have seen anything like that.”

The policeman slid out from under the front bumper. “Right shock absorber is blown, and the spring broke, too,” he said.

“How long have you had this piece of junk?” I asked.

“Since yesterday,” Doc admitted.

“What now?” the policeman said.

“We’re more than halfway there,” Doc said. “May as well keep going.”

When we fly to Knobby’s remote outpost cabins in the Canadian Bush, we come prepared with shooter’s earplugs to block out at least some of the racket from the plane’s big engine. But for the suddenly unmuffled roar blasting from under Doc’s hood, we had to improvise. I tore strips off my T-shirt and jammed them into my ears. Doc used stuffing from the passenger seat that had suspiciously sprung a leak. The policeman looked ridiculous with Milky Way wrappers sticking out of his head but, in an emergency, you go with whatever works.

The last 40 miles were a bone-jarring adventure. Every few minutes I had to push my fillings back in place, and my glasses kept vibrating to the end of my nose. The policeman told me later that he was glad he hadn’t brought his .38 Special, because the bullets would have detonated from the rough ride. On the other hand, I mentioned it might have been appropriate to shoot Doc in the foot to show our displeasure.

At the Albert Lea city limits, no rear view or hearing possible, a highway patrolman with lights flashing and siren blaring had to drive alongside and frantically wave to get Doc’s attention to pull over. Speeding, faulty equipment, failure to yield, expired license, improper passing. The guy had to use two tickets to fit all the laws Doc was breaking, but he was nice enough to escort us to the nearest repair shop.

We bummed a ride to the seminar and arrived just in time to hear the speaker begin by saying, “No matter how many years you have fished, no matter how good you think you are, today I’m going to show you how to catch more fish and better fish when nobody else is catching any fish.”

I looked at Doc. He looked a me. The policeman chuckled. Who the hell was this guy? Doesn’t everyone know the fish have to be biting before you can catch them? It’s up to the fish, not you. If you’re lucky, you catch fish. If not, you drink some beer, tell some lies, and go home empty-handed.

Four hours later, we sat there stunned, humbled, and not a little bit awed by what we’d heard. Turned out Lindner was a fisherman’s fisherman. He was not only on the water 180 days a year, but he caught fish on 179 of them. And he showed us how, with a little knowledge of fish behavior, habitat, and presentation, we could do it, too.

The only things I salvaged from my former fishing repertoire were how to tie a decent knot and how to drive a boat. What we learned in that simple seminar literally helped us start out fresh, learn about fishing from the git-go, and become better fishermen.

On the way home Sunday morning, the exhaust and suspension patched well enough to give us a reasonably quiet yet bouncy ride, we were as excited about fishing as the first time we held homemade rods and a can of worms. It was, somehow, all new.

“There’s another Al Lindner seminar in a few weeks in La Crosse,” the policeman said, from the driver’s seat. “It’s called Walleyes 101.”

“Sure would like to go to that one,” Doc said, adjusting the mirror that was duct-taped to the inside of the windshield. “And I’ll even let someone else drive.”

Half of my brain wondered what I could possibly learn at a fishing seminar that could top the one that had changed my life that weekend. The other half of my brain made me say, “Thanks, Doc.”

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