Fishing with Larry Morine and Al Stichter is sort of like playing on a well-run Little League team.
There are two prime objectives: have fun while competing and, afterward, eat pizza.
Only, in this instance replace pizza with beer and eat with drink.
"If you're going to get upset every time you're beat in a catfishing tournament, you're gonna wanna find a new hobby," Morine said toward the end of our morning fishing the Rock River during the first Flats N Cats tournament. "It's time to go back, take our beating and drink some beer."
It was hardly a beating, per se. The boys took sixth out of 20 teams with 14.3 pounds of fish on a day that there was more bite to the Busch Lights than there was on the Rock.
Larry and Al can't help but chuckle and marvel at the "young love" my wife and I share.
I've just told them about how, after a horrific night's sleep punctuated by a barking dog in the neighborhood and wimpers from my 8 1/2-months pregnant wife, Kayla offered to make me a green monster smoothie before I split.
"I'm lucky if the wife opens one eye and says, 'See ya,'" Larry jokes.
The smoothie was delicious, and it set the tone for an outstanding morning. Despite getting stuck behind a train on Moline Road, I arrived at 5 a.m., right on the button.
Half an hour later, we descend into our vessel and waited for the event's organizer, Adam Tiemann, to turn us loose.
"Boat 1," Tiemann calls at precisely 5:30.
"That's us!" Larry hollers like we've won an award.
I grab the bill of my Brewers cap as Al turns her loose and we peel toward a picturesque sunrise.
"It's hard to find a prettier piece of the Rock River," Larry marvels.
As we slalom around downed trees, the guys point out the biggest ones. I'm amazed at how they can tell, but Larry explains that he can navigate them in the dark, and has many times while "running for ducks."
The guys discuss whether to start out "high" or go straight for the "hunting hole." They agree high was the way to go.
"How's this look," Al says.
"I'm liking it, buddy," Larry says.
Big little catch
Moments after the anchor takes hold, I hear a rooster crow as the guys' sixth and final line goes into the water.
There's something utopian about what's unfolding. See, city boys like me don't hear stuff like this, set against such perfect mornings on the water, very often. Like never, to be more precise.
Larry sets me up with a pole, even putting the shrimp on the hook and casting it for me. I have a steel trap of a memory, yet later will put on an absolute exhibition of casting futility. But I'll recover and can now hit a bull's-eye with a shrimp from 50 yards away (You knew there would be some big fish stories in this thing, didn't you?).
The lines have been in the water no more than 5 minutes when Al lands a 3-pound, 2-ounce catfish. It's a good harbinger for (SPOILER ALERT) what's going to be a very frustrating day, from a fishing-specific standpoint.
I ask Al if we should be disappointed if his catch makes the cut in our five-fish limit.
"We want at least a 5-pound average," he says. The event's winners, Jim McCallister and Brad Misfeldt, will win with 23 pounds, 2 ounces. Larry knows his stuff. "And that won't be enough if there's a flathead bite."
After Al lands another fish about the same size, it happens. My pole bows to the water and I yank it to the right, setting the hook. Mind you, I have no frame of reference of how big the fish is. But seeing as how I won the fight in about 30 seconds, I have a feeling he's small.
Sho nuff. Maybe if my catfish went up for fourths at a mongolian grill, he'd tip the scale at 2 pounds. But, dadgummit, I'm proud as all heck, and Larry is indignant, albeit with tongue in cheek.
"That's when you know the going's rough. Guy hasn't been in a boat 20 years, and he gets a fish before me."
Honestly, I find the little guy strangely cute - the fish, not Larry. Perhaps it's because the gurgling noise he's making reminds me of Boston terriers.
Larry borrows my phone to snap some pictures of me and my trophy, and I turn him loose. (I wasn't allowed to contribute to the team, since none of us was either under 16 or over 65.)
"Niceto meet you, guy," I say.
"He'll be a happy guy," Larry chimes in.
Lord knows I am.
Getting to know them
Turns out, Adam put me in a boat with a stinking Cardinals fan. But I look past Larry's faults, and we hit it off famously.
We talk a little baseball, then discuss the spotlight on Cutler and how Mark Trestman might as well be a different species than Lovie Smith.
Then we talk family. Al's three boys are all happily married - "We had one bad one. Had to get rid of her when she messed with Princess Di," Al says, referring to his wife - and all work for their dad's construction and excavation company.
Al's got four granddaughters and a grandson on the way.
Larry's got a son - Joe, who, along with Tiemann, is running the event - and a daughter, who will be married in October.
With our twin girls imminent, Larry has some advice for when they reach dating age.
"You just gotta buy yourself a gun, and when he comes by, happen to be cleaning it," he says.
Al paid a great deal for his sons' weddings, but yet he throws out the number $1,500 while talking to Larry about the upcoming wedding.
"Fifteen-hundred," Larry scoffs.
"I forgot a zero, didn't I?" Al says with impeccable comedic timing.
The rest of the outing is one big tease. It reminds me of college, and the fish are the prettiest girls in the bar.
We set up shop nearby the cabin Larry spent a ton of time at while growing up on his family's 550-acre farm.
There are nibbles, but that's about it.
"Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap," Larry boils over. "I'm going crazy. They just won't take it. It's a beautiful day. Just gotta get the fish to bite."
Shortly thereafter, Larry finally cashes in on another 3-pounder. He's off the schneid, and that's all that matters.
"I just needed to get the skunk off me," he says. "It was stinking over here."
Al expertly steers us through a somewhat treacherous channel, and we experience the biggest tease of the day - literally and figuratively.
Our lines are in the water no more than 2 minutes when Larry lands a guppy. About 2 minutes after releasing him, he nails the biggest catch of our day, a 5-pound, 15-ounce mini-beast.
"We needed that," Al says. "He could help us."
"All we need to do is slam two more like him," Larry says.
It's not gonna happen. That was with about an hour left to fish, and I can count on my hand our nibbles the rest of the way.
Then McCallister sprinkles a little salt in the wound when we encounter him before we all head back, letting us know they've landed "15 or 20 fish."
At the weigh-in, he laments having to sort through so many fish to pick his five. Al and Larry would've loved to have that problem.
But the event is a 100-percent payout, and Al and Larry hauled just enough to take sixth place, the last payout of 50 smackers, also known as their registration fee.
Tiermann calls them up for acknowledgement.
"What did we do?" Larry says. "Are we in trouble?"
They're not. In fact, they get a gold star for being so accomodating. Who knows? Maybe we'll do some hunting in the fall. After all, I shouldn't be too busy, right?