Don Manning and
the "Dollar Fish"

It was O-dark-30 when I pulled up in front of Dan Manning' s house in Tampa.  When I knocked on the front door he called for me to come in .  He was in the kitchen finishing his breakfast.   His living room walls were covered with "my family" as he called them.  Several 8pt bucks, at least one Pronghorn and two fairly large bass, along with an assortment of other decorations, including a few pictures. 

Don Manning -- Changing flys and telling liesDon's a retired Tampa firefighter.  He spends a lot of  his time hunting and fishing, both fresh and salt water.  He's a '"cracker" in the good meaning of that word.  He was born and raised in Florida. He talks a kind of old south without the accent.  The noon meal is "dinner" and the evening meal is "supper."  (That's the way I was raised, too.)  But don't let his speech fool you.  He's been in 48 of the 50 states, hunted and fished in quite a few of them and visited South America and Alaska more than once.  Each month, at our outings, we give a prize for the largest fish caught in one of several categories.  as often as not, Don wins.

He and I have been planning a trip for several years now.  He'd say, "give me a call." and I'd say, "I will." but somehow it just never happened.   Well, now that I'm retired, we made it happen.    Originally, we'd planned on Alligator Lake, but he suggested that we visit a lake he fished, north of Tampa. 

The sun was just starting to lite the eastern sky when he backed the boat into the water.  I'd opened and closed the gate to the pasture and snapped the ceremonial picture of the launching of the boat. 

I knew the rules. "Now if you're fishin' in my boat," he said, "we put a dollar on the first fish caught. It can be any kind of fish.  I catch the first fish, you pay me a dollar.  You catch the first fish, I'll pay you the dollar.  It has to be in the boat -- none of this fish you lose or touching the leader. 

"Some fellows want to give me the dollar up front, but I don't do that."  He assured me that we'd both be rigged and ready before we started the bet.  I had a sneaking feeling that  he knew just where to fish, to collect that dollar.  I wondered if he didn't split the profits with the fish...

It wasn't long before we had the "fist fish" out of the way and could relax and just fish.  Don was using a top water fly that had been taught him by Jim Swan, of Swan's fly shop in Dade City.  The fly's a little foam popper that's easy to tie.  Don worked it across the water through the grass line and cast again.  He was worried because he'd promised two bass to the woman who owned the farm where we'd accessed the lake.  "Her husband don't fish -- don't like fish!  I ask him a lot of times if he wanted me to save him some bass and he always said, 'No.'  Then I ask her the last time I was out here and she said she'd like a couple."  He wasn't catching any bass.   In fact, right then, he wasn't catching anything.  He'd missed maybe five or six good fish.  I'd caught a few bream, but no bass.   He and his brother had both caught 57 fish, almost all big bass, out of this lake in the summer. "I've got pictures in the truck.  I'll show you when we get back."  But today the bass had lockjaw.  

Don's not a purest.  After about 45 minutes of fly fishing without a bass, he changed to a spinner bait.  After about 20 minutes with only one hit, he went to his "go to," a plastic worm.  Nothing.  Eventually he went back to the fly rod.

We'd fished maybe one third of the lake and Don was getting desperate.  He needed a bass.  He was starting to worry. 

Then... success!

It's a Bass!!!
Don was between and betwixed. He didn't know whether to keep the fish or not.  It was the first bass, but it really wasn't that big.  "Open the live well," he said, and tossed the bass the length of the boat into the live well.  Then he flooded the well, and we closed the lid on it.   "I feel better," he said. "I haven't ever got skunked on this lake."

We continued around the lake.  When we talked it was about places we'd been and fish we'd caught.  Occasionally we'd talk about someone in the Suncoast Fly Fishers that we'd fished with.  In Don's stories he usually got the dollar.

first bass
He was proud of the fact that he'd arranged the outing to the everglades, and everyone who fished had caught a lot of fish. 

He'd occasionally point out a house that would probably go for $2,000,000.  "The ol' man came out and told me to quit fishin' for 'HIS' fish.  I just ignored him.''  Or, "He came out and told me this was his end of the lake, to go fish the other end of the lake."  It's the Florida version of  what's happening in other parts of the US. This idea of private ownership of water seems to be growing in America.  People believe that because they fork over a lot of money for a big house on a lake they control the water and the fish in the lake.  A friend of mine often points out that he grew up thinking people were either below or above him.  It wasn't until he just started thinking of people as people that he made progress in life.  (I'd like to think that I think of people as people)   I wonder if any of those land owners would have come out and challenged Don, if he'd had a 30ft boat with twin outboards and radar.

Then he got his second fish...
2nd Bass
This one went into the live well, "just in case."    But you can see by the look on his face, he wasn't really happy about the size.  We fished on.   Then there was this...
big bass
It took Don a few minutes to tire this guy out.  He was ready to get in the boat and duke it out with Don.   This fellow would go between 5 and 6lb.   SPLASH!  It went into the well with the other fish.  We worked our way back to our starting point and Don as if I wanted to fish some more, or go home.  "Let's fish down to those weeds," I said. 

my bassThen It was my turn to get into the act.  I'd been catching bream off and on, but not as large as I'd like.  Eventually I got my first bass.  It went 12 inches.  Not big for this lake. 

I was fishing my 7 1/2 ft 5 wt.  I'd been changing flys, from a foam spider to a bead head wollybooger to a LA hopper, to a deer hair diver, then a bead head wollybooger behind a spinner, and finally another deer hair diver.   The deer hair diver did the trick. 

Don had tried an old bamboo rod that had been in his family for several years.  It cast Okay for a 3p 8 1/2ft rod.   It had two tips. I 'd test cast it a few days before.  I'd suggested a WF5.

On about the third cast, don got hung up on some grass.  He gave the rod a little jerk and the tip broke.  Why it was weak is anyone's guess. Maybe from years of sitting next to a hot water heater in Florida.  Maybe it got put away wet.  Who knows.

Don was hoping to catch his first "fish on Bamboo" that day.  It will have to wait.  I kept trying to let him use mine, but he was afraid he might break it.  "That's why I build my own." I told him, "If it breaks I don't seen $1000 fly out the window."

We fished past the weed bed. I was sure there had to be a bass under a dock that we passed so I put an extra cast or two around it.   I got a good hit and struck!  The battle was on.  It felt larger than the bream I'd been catching, more like a bass.  But it wasn't tail walking.  It was staying deep.  Now I've seen bass that didn't jump, but not often.
shell cracker
Eventually I got the fish to the boat and it wasn't a bass.  It was a "Shell cracker," or "Red ear."  A larger member of the bream family.  Don kept trying to argue with me that the fish was at least 11in long, but I knew it didn't go11in because the butt wraps on my rod to to 11in, then a break then 12in.  It didn't make it to the break.  Sure enough it was 10 3/4 inches long, by the ruler on the inside of Don's boat.
the fish

Last bass

We continued a little further around the lake. 

As Don caught his last bass, he turned to me and said, "I'm glad you wanted to fish a little more.  They weren't biting earlier. Now they've started to.  Open up that live well again, boy."

We kept three of the best fish.  Two for the woman and one for Don.

We headed back to the unimproved launching site.  Don and I got the boat back on the trailer and everything secure.  I opened and closed the gate. (I could see what to step around, with the sun up.) We stopped for lunch on the way home. 

I took his broken rod tip and mid section to try to rebuild it.  (couldn't do it.  My suggestion is that he try the other tip.  It may last a lifetime or it might break too.  Better to find out now then when you've got the fish of a lifetime on.

Oh yes.  About the first fish.  Don missed two strikes before I had my first bite. 
The fish
But I got it in the boat!  This is the Dollar fish.

Don says he wants revenge...