HOOKED ON PHOENIX

You can see something a million times before an epiphanous truth hits you, and this is what slammed into my consciousness as I switched on the TV the other day: Andy and Opie. You know what, and whom, I'm talking about. The theme, more familiar than "The Star-Spangled Banner," and the image, more American than any Rockwell painting: A man and a boy, holding hands and whistling as they stroll through the forest with fishing rods over their shoulders and not a care in the world. Playing hooky from responsibility, trading in the tensions and problems of real life for a can of worms and a summer afternoon of laziness.

For some reason, the vision suddenly looked great to me.
Not that I wanted to traipse through the wilderness holding hands with a young boy; I meant the fishing part. But Phoenix is no Mayberry, and my vision of a lush, pine-scented ol' fishin' hole turned out to be this substitute: a small body of water called Pond 1 at the Ramada 12 picnic site in Papago Park, near where they kept Nazi war prisoners during World War II. And my version of Opie was no freckled, tousle-haired tyke; he was a full-grown man named Mike. We did not hold hands. But we were looking for an idyllic afternoon of urban fishing, which I didn't think should be too hard to find.

Especially since Arizona Game and Fish has made the Urban Fishing Program such a priority.

There are 13 lakes and ponds in the Valley and Tucson, and the UFP spends $560 every year for each surface acre of H2O to ensure that inner-city waters are brimming with trout, bass, bluegill, sunfish, crappie and carp. And, of course, the staple catch of any called-in-sick-to-go-fishing day: catfish. Every two weeks, the program dumps in more than 11,000 pounds of the prehistoric bottom feeders. I phoned Game and Fish rep Rory Aikens to find out more, but he had gone fishing. I'm not kidding.

(Aikens called back the next day with this mouth-watering tale: Recently, a 10-year-old kid named A.J. Flores caught the biggest fish ever in the history of the Urban Fishing Program, a 49-pound flathead catfish from Chaparral Lake in Scottsdale. Forty-nine pounds. Ten years old.)

Nowadays, though, there are rules to everything, even city catfish. You don't just go fishing anymore; you need a $12 blessing from the State of Arizona, in the form of an official Game and Fish Commission resident fishing license. You can purchase one of these things at any number of outlets--Wal-Mart, Smitty's, Oshman's--but what do those names have to do with the Great Outdoors?

I went straight to Shooter's World.
And it really is a world; a warehouselike building filled with every conceivable accouterment for getting the most out of slaughtering God's creatures. There were guys with armloads of guns; towering stuffed polar bears (actually, just one); and tanned, white-bearded, perfectly named Rip Collins.

Rip had been pointed out as "the guy who knows everything about catching fish," and his demeanor filled me with confidence. Taciturn, cool, he could probably walk on twigs without making a sound. I asked him about bait. He scoffed.

"What you need is lures," he said wisely.
I nodded. Wisely. He led me over to racks of them and pulled out a couple, both made by Z-Ray out of Tucson. A yellow rooster tail and a thin strip of twisted metal painted with a kind of army-green camouflage motif. This was the frog lure.

"This is the frog lure," Rip said. "It should work for you."
At the check-out counter, I bought two licenses from a woman named Corrie. Corrie picked up the frog.

"Is this supposed to be a frog?" she asked.
"It's supposed to look like a frog," I said. She wasn't biting.
"Well, maybe it's supposed to smell like a frog."
"I wouldn't know what a frog smells like."
"Haven't you ever caught a frog and smelled your hands afterward?"
"That's a toad," I said. "Toads leave a smell."

"I knew a girl they called Toad," Corrie offered hopefully, then turned away before I could touch that one.

Ol' Rip may have been the guru of lures, Corrie may have known her frogs and toads--but I wanted the homespun insurance of bait. I rounded up Mike and headed to the urban fisherman's one-stop bait shop, 7-Eleven. The store near the park, on Van Buren, where we got plenty of advice from a guy with his name in gold letters on a chain around his neck--"Ramal." (Actually, it was Lamar. He told me so: "It's backwards, man. I was at this girl's house, and I had to put it on fast . . .")

Lamar knew all about bait fishing in Papago Park. "Those fish'll bite off candy," he assured me. "Anything you put in the water works. And corn is good, too."

The man was obviously a pro, so we grabbed a can of corn. And, to be on the safe side, a box of oatmeal, packets of cherry and strawberry Kool-Aid, and a jar of Heinz vegetable-and-chicken baby food. Also a 12-pack of Miller High Life ("a good fishin' brew," according to Mike); at the very least, we could say we caught a buzz. We were ready to enter the calm world of inner-city angling.

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