The sun had yet to rise and the 15-year-old angler was already at the water's edge. Standing on a large flat rock beneath a railroad trestle, he cast the surface plug far as he could downstream. The plug landed near the top of the pool. Then, instead of allowing the plug to remain motionless until all the ripples disappeared, the young fisherman began to reel in his line as soon as the lure hit the water. And rather than retrieve it slowly, alternately popping and twitching the plug, he reeled steadily, creating a tiny wake.
Within moments the young man noticed another wake, this one smaller, v-shaped and moving rapidly toward his incoming lure. While the wake may have been small, the fish about to intercept his surface plug was not. The water erupted and the young angler at once had his hands full, realizing he was into a mighty good fish. The fish on the end of his line was a jumbo smallmouth and it wasted no time tearing up the surface of that pool, jumping, somersaulting, bulldogging and ending the early morning calm. And just like that it was gone.
As the bewildered young angler stood with his mouth agape, a voice emanated from within a sleeping bag on the bank.
"Youdidn'tplayitlongenough." The voice belonged to Joe Mazzarella Sr. who could sometimes turn a sentence into a single word. That scenario took place 45 years ago this month on the banks of Oatka Creek where it flows near the Le Roy-Pavilion border. The young angler was yours truly. The action began the previous evening. What began as a simple overnight on the banks of the Oatka, turned into an introduction to smallmouths, aka the feisty bronzeback.
After setting up our camp, Joe Jr. and I helped his father with the crab scoop, seining soft shells from a thick weed bed. After nightfall crayfish began to emerge from their daytime lairs beneath rocks. By lantern light we could easily see them in the clear water, dozens of them on the creek bottom. Soon afterward the bullheads began to bite. Not long after that, a school of jumbo smallmouths invaded the pool.
Thus began my introduction into the world of the smallmouth bass, pound-for-pound one of the gamest fish that swims. Once the action slowed we crawled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep under the stars. My education continued just after dawn the next morning, when the aforementioned big smallmouth put on quite an aerial display before spitting the plug back in my direction. A few minutes later Mr. Mazzarella started a fire and I was able to temporarily forget losing the fish when the aroma of bacon and eggs filled the air.
I've lost numerous fish in my time, but none comes to mind like that Oatka smallmouth all those years ago. And too, whenever I think of that fighting smallmouth, wondering just how big it might have been, I can't help but think of Joe Mazzarella Sr.
A few years afterward, while working on the construction of the GCC Batavia campus, I saw "Joe Mazz" quite often. Whenever our paths crossed, he'd ask, "beenfishin?" or "doinanyhuntin?"
It was in the winter of '71 when Joe Sr. was heading to Silver Lake for a day of ice fishing. Weather conditions weren't good, but that wasn't about to stop him. En route to the lake, he happened upon an accident and, being the person he was, Joe Mazz stopped to help. A snow squall had enveloped the area and in near-whiteout conditions the driver of a truck failed to see Joe Sr. assisting at the scene.
That smallmouth was quite a fish and Joe Mazzarella Sr. was quite a guy.