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.

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.")

Who knows if this hopped-up daddy longlegs of a fellow really spilled blood in the Texas sun? The girlfriend had this to say, anyway:

"Kenny, you're a sociopath."
"Nah--I'll kill anyone!"
Andy and Opie never had it so good.

Mike and I had pretty much given up on actually catching anything, and our poles were lying against tackle boxes, lines slack in the water, when the Game and Fish Commission Urban Fishing man showed up.

Natty in white shorts and official maroon G&FC shirt and hat, his name was Eric, and he "had a few questions" he wanted to ask. We were on solid ground with our licenses. I had no fear.

Eric began with mundane stuff: "How often do you guys fish in urban water?" But he quickly segued into "How much money do you make?" Hey, all I wanted to do was catch a couple measly fish, not apply for a Visa card, but there was Eric, holding out a paper with these options:

A. $0 to $5,000
B. $5,000 to $10,000
C. and so on.

Eric told me I could point to one of the salary ranges, if I didn't want to announce my income out loud. I had no desire to point or speak and told him so.

"Okay," he replied cheerfully, "no skin off my nose. I'll just put down that you refused to answer." Eric tilted his clipboard so I could see that he was indeed marking down "refused to answer." I looked up at his nose, and he was right. There was no skin off it.

Then he got serious.
"I have to put on my legal hat now," he said, yet he made no move to remove his cap at all. Instead, he proclaimed that not only had we been issued the wrong licenses (you need "Urban Fish," and we had "Resident Fish." Damn.), we also had three poles in the water (Mike had baited up our spare) without the required third fishing stamp. But Eric was a good egg about it. He let us slide with a warning and eased over to Kenny and company.

Apparently, they had neglected to bring their licenses along, but Eric dealt with the slightly agitated Kenny like a pro. Joked with him about bringing in whoppers, traded stories, then said he would write them out a $150 fine. Kenny was having none of it. We couldn't really hear what was going on, but I think Eric eventually figured he wasn't going to get milk from a bull. No ticket. Exit Eric.

Night had fallen, the big Phoenix moon was up. We sat there with our lines pulled in, sucking our beers. Undeterred, Kenny began casting with a vengeance, muttering oaths about crossed lines and going to Texas to fish anywhere he "fucking wants."

"They'll have to extradite me to pay no $150," he said, reeling like a man gone wild.

We'd had enough. We bid adieu to our new fishing pals, loaded the cars and weaved through the maze of Papago Park. Away from Kenny and Charles and the pocket gophers, back to our homes and TV sets, back to civilization. I rolled down the window for the night air, and thought about whistling a certain TV theme song. But didn't.

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