HOOKED ON PHOENIX

Pond 1, one of three in Papago Park, was built in 1927 and is 16 feet deep. It's stocked with catfish, bass, trout, bluegill and crappie. It is framed by scrub brush and a few palm trees that, when the breeze blows, trail lengths of aging fishing line. The legacy of losers. And if nature should call you to step into those bushes for any reason, cottontail rabbits and tiny, gerbilesque pocket gophers will scatter as if there's a rodent-strafing mission under way.

From our point on the bank, we could see Hunt's Tomb sitting to the west like the tip of the pyramid on a dollar bill, incongruous among the prehistoric, reddish blobs of the Papago Buttes. Lovely scenery, but not as lovely as the sight I wanted to see: a gasping lunker flapping on the business end of my Shakespeare.

I hooked up the frog, reared back and let loose with a mighty cast that landed the treble-hooked bad boy a whopping eight feet into the drink. Mike opted for a slightly more Twainish baiting method, deftly mixing oatmeal and water into a pulpy wad the size of a golf ball and anointing it with cherry Kool-Aid.

I was slowly reeling in, using wrist control and sheer concentration to imitate precisely the actions of a frog being dragged through the water on a piece of string. There was a nibble. I tensed, set the hook with a lightning gesture, and the primordial struggle of man against beast began. When the sweat had dried and the dust had settled, I'd bagged a healthy bluegill that weighed in at just over five ounces.

Being a Nineties sportsman, I practiced catch-and-release. I watched the thing disappear into its brown, watery, Papago home. Perhaps, when we are both a bit older, we will meet again to fight another day, eh, my friend?

The wind subsided, the air was still. The sun sank ever lower as the clouds turned pink; planes glided by silently overhead; only the sound of muted duck quacks from the nearby stream colored the tranquil mood. All was right.

And then Charles arrived.
A guy who appeared to be 14 or so, he skidded in on his bike in a spray of pebbles. Charles looked like he'd been playing in dirt all day and had a short green fishing rod with the handle missing. He was a regular, he told us, and instantly cast a lure the size of a sardine and began jerking and teasing it like Bernstein conducting the 1812 Overture. When Bernstein was alive.

Charles had plenty of fish stories, and, among other boggling facts, we learned that "a catfish ate a human once."

Apparently we'd picked a well-known hot spot, because three more anglers soon trudged in through the bushes. One of them--a wiry young man with a tank tee shirt, a red handkerchief tied around his head and a tattoo of what looked like a skull with "Mother" printed above it on his arm--staked out his territory right away. This guy, who I later discovered was named Kenny, shot Charles a stare that could most easily be described as pure evil.

"You cross my line, I'll cut your fucking pole," Kenny said.
Charles stopped reeling and just stood there with the look of someone who has just realized he is chewing Ex-Lax instead of Chicklets.

Kenny continued cryptically: "You know who I am. I just got my hair cut. I'll cut your fucking pole, man. Shit."

In the friendly spirit that bonds all fishermen other than Charles, we struck up a conversation with Kenny. He had a lot to say on a variety of topics, which was good; nothing was biting.

He told us about the time he jumped in the water with a cellular telephone to save his pole. "It was a sea pole, man, you don't give those up. I don't care about no cell phone. I'll get someone to steal me another one!"

He explained a more mechanized method of fishing: "You cover an M80 in glue [Elmer's, I discovered], then dip it in BBs. Let it dry, then throw the thing in the water. When it blows up, watch them fish come up!"

His girlfriend chimed in. "You're a killer, Kenny!"
"Yeah, I'm a murderer," he agreed.
"So you murder fish, Kenny?" I asked.

"No, man, I'm a murderer! This motherfucker was foolin' around with my wife, I shot him in the street one day. Seen his head spin around and blood spurting everywhere." Kenny said that he had hauled down a 25-year stretch in a Texas prison for the shooting, but had somehow gotten out after three and a half years. He'd ridden the rails for a while, committing other, uh, brazen acts. I decided not to tell him my last name, and did not ask for his.

"I was on America's Most Wanted!" he boasted.
"You mean you're an actor, too?" I asked.
"No, man! My face! My fingerprints were on there! I hate everybody!"

(A few days later, I called AMW to find out if Kenny was really the celebrity criminal he'd claimed to be. "We had a guy who was wanted by the name of Kenny, but it wasn't out of Texas and it wasn't for murder," AMW Hotline supervisor Sharon Green told me. "Unfortunately, a lot of people think it's cool to have been on our program.")

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