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Fishing the Mainstream 

Ish Monroe has edge, style, and PR savvy. ESPN thinks he's exactly what the white world of professional bass fishing needs.

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
"Call me Ish," he says. "I prefer Ish." He's Ishama on the dotted line and Shama with his parents, but to anyone else – to the bass fisherman in the back of his boat, to the kids bowing their heads so he can autograph their hats, to pretty much everybody he's met since that day in high school he introduced himself to a girl and she said, "Bless you" – he'd like to be known simply as Ish. More than a name, says an ex-girlfriend of his, it's a separate identity, his "fishing persona."

Ish is cool. Ish has style. Ish – 29 years old, stocky, handsome, black – thinks he brings something new to the sport of bass fishing, something he calls "flavor," which may have to do with the fact that he wears wakeboard shorts and visors at his tournaments and says things like, "I love the camera – the camera makes me who I am." (Ish also would like you to know that some of his sponsors are Skeeter, Yamaha, and Lamiglas.) And at this moment, Ish Monroe is grabbing a fish by the lower jaw – 6 pounds of fat, ornery bass – and he's yelling:

"Come an' git you some!"

It's an overcast spring day on California's Clear Lake, in a cove known as "The Keys," and Monroe is crouched at the prow of his boat, a can of Red Bull in his veins, an ESPN camera over his shoulder. He is wearing a soaked black ball cap, a green rain jacket with matching pants, and a pair of bug-eye shades with green-tinted lenses. He begins to rise.

"Come an' git you some!"

This is a big moment for Monroe, and he knows it. Here he is, near the top of the tournament standings, on the verge of becoming the first black pro to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic, the sport's Super Bowl, and an ESPN camera is whirring just a few feet away. He has spent most of the tournament flipping along the margins, working so deep in the tules that at one point he could hear his fellow fishermen wonder where the hell he was. One of them swore Monroe was somewhere around here; another called him a fucking asshole. And then along comes this big, yawning fish, and Monroe sees its mouth close around his hook, and then he sees his line begin to swim, and then, ecstatic, he shouts the only thing that comes to mind. (Later, when they replay the clip on the video screens at the Classic, he'll do a double take.)

"Come an' git you some!" Now he is pointing at the camera, at the television viewers, the great majority of whom, unaccustomed to this sort of shit talk on their Saturday-morning fishing shows, are surely dropping their spoons in their grits.

Monroe plucks the hook out of the fish's mouth. "Like I said," he says, settling down for a second, "flippin' a little tighter."

And then (pointing again): "Come an' git you some!"

Then (dropping the fish in a tank): "That's what I'm talkin' about!"

Then (pumping his arms): "Come an' git you some!"

He takes a deep breath and a moment later turns to his bundled-up partner, Virgil, in the back of the boat. "Partner," Monroe says, "can I get a little high-five over there?" Virgil complies and slaps Monroe's palm with a stiff pink hand. Virgil, it's clear, could use some flavor.

In fishing circles, Monroe is described as a "breath of fresh air" and "one of the hottest properties on the Bassmaster circuit" and "more flashy than a double willow blade." Sports Illustrated says he "is changing the face of competitive fishing, a sport heretofore dominated by white Southerners." At the Classic this year, in New Orleans, they asked Deion Sanders – the only man ever to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series and a self-made celebrity known variously as "Neon" and "Prime Time" – whom he'd want to fish with, if he could have his choice. Sanders, in town to promote his new ESPN show, mentioned Bill Clinton, and he mentioned Oprah, but when he said, "You know I've got to cover the brother first," he was talking about Monroe. "He's doing great things for the sport," Sanders told reporters. "He's really opened a lot of eyes." ("I'm like, 'Deion Sanders wants to go fishing with me? Cool!'" Monroe recalls. "I'll take him out. I'll whoop on him a little bit, but I'll take him out.")

Bass fishing has never inspired the masculine poetry of, say, trout fishing. It's not pretty or lyrical or peaceful. It's 200 guys in their lucky underwear spread across 40,000 acres of dirty water, cussing out one side of the mouth and dangling a cigarette out the other, making three casts a minute into weeds and tules and praying the lake will cough up the fattest, ugliest shitkicker bass it's got – what some anglers call a donkey. Which is to say, bass fishing is not Hemingway, and it's not great TV, either. Two years ago, ESPN bought the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and its Bassmaster tournament trail for a reported $30 million to $40 million, and quickly set about steering the sport into NASCAR's wake, hoping to win the same kind of mainstream appeal. Of course, it's a long cast to the mainstream, especially for a sport that has yet to shed its drawl. To get there, bass needs drama, characters – "Come an' git you some," in other words.

Monroe, who grew up in San Francisco and now lives 90 miles southeast of the city, in Patterson, may have come along at the right time. He has fished since he was 2 years old, turning pro at 18, and insists it's all he has ever wanted to do. He once skipped his girlfriend's prom for a tournament ("I won," he says, albeit a little ruefully), and later, when the two of them were living together, he'd tape over her movies with his fishing shows. "Fishing is my deal," Monroe says. "Fishing's the best relationship I've ever had. It's the purest thing I have. It's my everything. ... I mean, fishing is so exciting to me, I wake up every day with butterflies in my stomach. I wake up in the middle of the night, and I'm like, 'Dang, is it time yet? Can I go fishing?'"

Maybe the best place to watch Ish – the persona, at least – is the weigh-in at the end of a round. There are the board shorts and visor; his tournament shirt – the one with logos crawling up the arms and collar – will be clean and pressed. ("Guys are like, 'Dang, how do you keep your shirt so neat and clean?'" he says. "What I do is, I fold it up in a plastic bag and put it away. I won't wear my tournament shirt until weigh-in time, or unless the cameras are on me. 'Cause you go out fishing all day, driving these boats 75 miles per hour, you get grass on you, blood, bugs.") Monroe will banter with the MC, careful to drop the names of his sponsors whenever possible and maintain his good humor in general. At the Classic, he entered to the thump of Rob Base's "It Takes Two" and even managed to smile as he walked onto his sport's biggest stage – without a single fish to weigh. But when he has something – a fat, ornery 6-pounder, say, that came and got herself some – he'll hoist it by the lower jaw and smile broadly for the cameras. Knowing the extent of Monroe's obsession, knowing that his girlfriend once popped in a tape expecting Christian Slater and instead got a screenful of bass, you have to wonder: Is he holding the fish, or is the fish holding him?

As eureka moments go in the world of sports, it's certainly a humble one, with the whiff of apocrypha: On a rainy day in 1967, an insurance salesman named Ray Scott Jr. was holed up in a Jackson, Miss., Ramada Inn, watching a basketball game (or was it a pocket-billiards tournament?). "That's it," he said, snapping his fingers, instantly envisioning a new spectator sport in which people would pay thousands to compete. And thus organized bass fishing was born. It had to be bass, too. "Can you imagine a Crappiemasters Classic?" Scott once told a Washington Post reporter. "I knew the bass was the heart of fishing. He's the king – potbellied, ugly as a backwoods sheriff, indifferent to anything you do, unpredictable. You think you know him today, but come back tomorrow, and he's done read the paper. He's gone." By 1968, Scott had founded BASS.

Less than a decade later, in Michigan, Gregory Simpson handed his baby son a small Zebco reel. Simpson's father had taken Gregory fishing, and now Gregory was doing the same for his son. The two of them would fish around Ann Arbor, sometimes for dinner, and when Ishama (his name, his mother says, is Swahili for "first born") was 2 1/2 years old, he caught his first fish, a bluegill. Simpson hooked it; Ishama reeled it in. "From that day on," says Simpson, now a San Francisco firefighter, "he was kind of sprung." Fishing, Monroe says, "was the only thing me and my dad ever had, emotionally" – a game of catch, of a different sort. And on fishing trips what would they talk about? "Fishing," he says.

Monroe moved to San Francisco with his mother, Wanda Monroe, and his father followed soon after (his parents never married). The two of them continued to fish, and Monroe would spend his summers in Michigan, rod in hand. Meanwhile, bass fishing's appeal was spreading, and a BASS television show, The BASSMASTERS, debuted in 1985. (ESPN would like you to know that The BASSMASTERS, now in its second season on ESPN2, delivers "the most in-depth, thrilling coverage of professional bass fishing.") Monroe had a Fisher-Price tape recorder, and he'd hold it up to the TV during fishing shows, catching the dialogue so he could replay it later. "I used to just sit there for hours and listen," he says.

"This kid," says Wanda Monroe, a respiratory therapist who lives in Vacaville, sighing with feigned exasperation. "When other kids were getting bicycles, footballs, basketballs for Christmas, Ishama was getting fishing poles." She remembers buying him a pair of $100 Nikes, which he wore one day to Lake Merced and promptly lost on the shore. "That kid," she says. He was fishing every week – striper, perch, largemouth bass – and he eventually began to enter local tournaments as a non-boater (meaning he'd fish in the back of a pro's boat). At 17, with some help from his father, Monroe bought his first bass boat, and when the two of them would fish together, it'd be Monroe at the front, running the trolling motor, and Simpson in back.

In 1993, soon after he turned pro, Monroe met Mel Tellez through a mutual acquaintance. There was a small gathering one night, and Monroe, then just out of high school, actually turned off the Super Nintendo to talk to her. At one point, as Tellez remembers it, he told her he was working as a UPS loader, but he said that job was only to pay for his tournaments; what he really wanted to do was fish. "I laughed," she recalls, "and I continued laughing for the next four years."

By the time of Napa High School's prom, they had been dating for four months or so. Tellez, a senior, picked out a dress and made dinner reservations. "I naturally assumed my boyfriend would be taking me," she says. "Then he informed me, probably about a week before prom, that he had a tournament to go to. I was like, 'OK, you're still taking me to prom.' He said, 'No, I have to go to this tournament.' I said, 'You're joking. You're taking me to my prom. You can't do this to me.' He picked the tournament."

Tellez wound up going with an old crush of hers, and Monroe didn't like that at all. The prom incident became an issue – "the prom thing" – and remained one over the course of their on-and-off relationship, which had the misfortune of turning serious at the same time as Monroe's fishing career. "It was a big issue for me – all right, this guy is always going to pick fishing over me," says Tellez, who is now engaged to a cellarmaster at Rombauer Vineyards. "That's why we never worked out." Monroe eventually had to move to Phoenix "to get away from her, because it was affecting my fishing." (He moved to Patterson two years later.)

"If I had to do it over, I would've gone [to the prom]," he admits. "It's one of those things you regret." Of course, he also says: "Most girls take offense to it – they think they can change a man, and a man'll love them more than they love anything else. And that's just not the case [with me]." And: "It was the first tournament I ever won."

Adams Marine sits on a bank of the California Delta in Suisun City, just a block or two from where Main Street cul-de-sacs. The place is a Skeeter boat dealership, and every so often, customers are treated to what is known as a Demo Day, in which staff pros hold forth on bass technique and then take potential boat buyers for a spin on the water. One Saturday in October, maybe 20 people grab plastic chairs inside Adams Marine's large, hangarlike building. Discounted boats are fanned out in front of them, like a card trick. One guy has a T-shirt with a picture of a fishing hook and the large block words "BITE ME!"; another shirt, worn by an older man with a lot of tattoos, reads "Playaz Wear."

Monroe is here today, at the request of the owner, Bob. (Bob would like you to know that Adams Marine is the only Skeeter dealer in Northern California.) For about 15 minutes, Monroe takes questions from the audience, and everyone seems faintly impressed: Besides catching fish, how do you get a job like yours? ("Go to school for marketing," he says.) From a boy, about 6 years old: Have you ever caught a jellyfish? ("Oh, yeah, but I cut the line.") And finally: What happened at the Classic? ("Ummm ....")

Skeeter will pay Monroe's expenses for his work today; he wasn't obligated to attend, but he did because the dealer asked, and maybe when it comes time to renegotiate his sponsorship deal, Skeeter will show its appreciation. Monroe understands, and even seems to embrace, this side of the sport. "I'm an advertiser. That's what my job is," he says (though in this case, he is, more precisely, an advertisement). This year at the Classic, Monroe watched as a group of cheerleaders working for Yamaha handed out small sticker tattoos of the company logo. "I just said, 'You know, I'm going to be on camera – that would be a neat way to get some extra Yamaha [exposure],'" he says. He got a sticker for his left cheek, and as it happened the left cheek got the most airtime that day. (He also kissed one of the cheerleaders, but, he says with a sigh, "That's another story.")

"Yamaha loved it," he says. "It was one of those sponsorship things where I go above and beyond the call of duty. Nobody else did it. I got on the bus that morning with all the fishermen, and all the Yamaha guys saw [the tattoo], and they're going, 'Aww, that's a major kiss-ass right there.' I'm just like, 'What, are you mad you didn't think of it?'"

It's all very Ish, a part of the persona. Ish is a salesman, carrying all sorts of expectations. "Ish," says Monroe, laughing at himself for using the third person, "is always on his P's and Q's." Tellez, one of just a handful of people to call him Shama, is blunt about her distaste for Ish; it's what she calls him when she's trying to piss him off. "He's someone who has routine answers, someone who always wants to say the right thing," she says. "When he's Ish, he's trying to be what everybody wants him to be." But Shama? Shama's clothes don't always match. Shama will say "fuck" and not worry about losing a sponsor. Shama pulls up next to a truck in Reno, sees a few strands of blond hair, and winds up with a long-term girlfriend. (Her name is Rachel, and she calls him Ish.) "Not to say I have a split personality, but Shama's more free," Monroe says. "Shama doesn't care. He just wants to have fun, be with a whole bunch of girls, enjoy life."

For all the talk about its being the sport for the everyman, bass fishing certainly creates an odd kind of athlete, one whose athletic persona is yoked to his corporate persona; he's a salesman even on the weigh-in stage. That's out of necessity: This year, Monroe says, he has won about $60,000 at tournaments; he figures he has pulled in at least that much in endorsement deals. In return, he shows up at expos and Demo Days like this, and he makes sure to mention his sponsors whenever possible. (A rod is never just a rod – it's a Lamiglas rod.) "You don't get paid for catching fish on that product," he says. "You get paid for pitching that product."

Monroe realized early on that this was the nature of the sport – that this, in many ways, was the sport. After high school, he went to Contra Costa College and took marketing and public speaking courses, knowing that's what sponsors would want. And one of his last jobs before fishing served as additional preparation: He sold cars. "Like a fish in water," he says. "I was a natural car salesman." Now he sees himself as part of a new breed of bass fishermen, "people who are businessmen, more than just bass fishermen." He cites the old-guard anglers. "You hear some of them speak," he says, "you couldn't sell nothin' that way. 'Well, Ah cawt 'em on a lizzerd, yeah, on a Carolina rig.' Now you've got guys saying, 'I was out there with my 7-1/2-foot Lamiglas flipping stick and 25-pound Maxima line and 4-inch lizard on a tungsten weight made by a PRADCO.' They do a whole infomercial right there. And that's what's gonna sell." It's something the new breed appreciates: If pro fishing is mostly marketing, isn't marketing – with its own set of lures and lines – just another kind of fishing?

Bass fishing splits in two at the left edge of Texas, East on one side and West on the other, though it sometimes seems as if the old American divide of North and South had merely been set on its ear. The rivalry is essentially cultural: Western guys are just flashy kids who can talk into a microphone but don't care a whit for etiquette; the good ol' boys back East are too lazy to leave their verandas and fish out West. At this year's Classic (officially, BASS would like you to know, it's the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer), which draws anglers from all corners of the country, one fisherman would roll up to the weigh-in stage playing country music; the next would come along bobbing to rap.

The center of the sport is still Montgomery, Ala., where BASS has its headquarters. For Monroe to fish the circuit, he has to spend much of his time out "East" – he put 77,000 miles on his last truck after just a year and a half. In other words, a young black man has to cruise through the South in an out-of-state Suburban with a 20-foot bass boat on its hitch. "I've been pulled over in Texas twice, Georgia once, Alabama once, and Florida once," Monroe says one evening, absent-mindedly watching COPS on television. "Georgia – that was the worst one out of all of them." In that instance, he says, he made eye contact with a cop, and the next thing he knew, a backup had arrived and a dog was sniffing around his truck (registered, because of a sponsorship deal, in Indiana) and boat (Missouri). "And I had a California driver's license," Monroe says. "So you know how that went." They eventually let him go, though Monroe spent the entire time worrying the cops might plant something, which would effectively torpedo his endorsements.

On the tour, Monroe insists, he's never had any problems, outside of some grumbling that he gets perks simply because he's black. BASS, for its part, seems eager to dispel the perception that this is a white man's sport. Indeed, this August's Classic was a boon for both Monroe, who, perks or no, had gotten to his sport's Super Bowl, and for bass fishing, a sport with maybe something of a guilty conscience. This June, in BASS Times, Tim Tucker recalled telling Monroe five years ago "that if he ever qualified for the Classic, he would have the fishing world by the tail." Tucker wrote: "I remarked that he was exactly what this sport needed – a unique combination of youth, talent, personality and energy.

"And Ish Monroe also happens to be an African American."

Monroe certainly got a chance to showcase himself in New Orleans, and going into the first round he expected to do even more. Everything had gone well to that point. At the hotel, the front-desk clerk had liked him so much she upgraded him to a suite. The press seemed to like him, too, and everyone had eaten up his line that "fish don't see color." In practice, he'd had a "phenomenal day," and his media observer had said he just might win this thing. And perhaps because of all the attention, ESPN had decided to stick a cameraman with him for his first round. "Kiss of death," Monroe says. That day, as his father puts it, he got "skunked"; he caught nothing (except hell from his grandfather for cussing on national TV). At the weigh-in, Monroe climbed the stage without a bag of fish, and the crowd gasped. The MC, a boppy guy who calls himself Fish Fishburne, said: "Wait a second. Now, now, now – are you serious?"

"Yeah, Fish," Monroe said into the microphone, flashbulbs popping, "it was one of those days. I mean, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. I missed probably 15 bites today. I'm watching fish come out of the grass bed, look at my lure, and swim away from it. I'm like, 'Something's wrong – I got something on my hands, something on my boat.'" He smiled faintly, dropped two Yamaha references, and vowed to go out there the next day and catch some fish.

Monroe wound up finishing 54th in a field of 61. "It was one of the most disappointing moments," he says now. "One of the best, and one of the most disappointing. ... I definitely got me some airtime during the Classic. Can't ask for much more than that." In fact, the Classic got him a mention and a photo in Sports Illustrated, and probably his qualifying for the event got him a job as a color analyst during ESPN's Great Outdoor Games. In addition, Monroe guesses he's been on more Bassmaster shows this year than any other angler.

"ESPN makes its superstars," he says one recent weekday while practicing out on Clear Lake. Just then his rod doubles up, and he sticks his first fish of the day.

"I've explained to ESPN," he goes on later. "'You know what you need? You need a bad boy of bass fishing.' When I say 'bad boy' I don't mean someone who breaks rules and things like that, but a guy who, if he goes out there and misses a fish, just gets pissed off and – ksssshhhh – snaps a rod over his knee. It's stuff like that that would bring more people into the sport.

"They asked me if I wanted the job. I said, 'No, not really. Everybody likes me.'" (Incidentally, Monroe's cussing at the Classic – he said either "shit" or "fuck" – wasn't bleeped, which may or may not have been a conscious grab by ESPN for "edge.")

I ask Monroe if he thinks ESPN is using him. "They can use me all they want," he says. "It ain't gonna do nothing but make me more popular and put more money in my pocket." As he points out, casting from the prow of his boat, he's using ESPN, too. Come an' git you some.

Clear Lake and its namesake city, Clearlake, lie about 100 miles north of San Francisco; at 43,000 acres, Clear Lake is the largest natural lake within California's borders and possibly the oldest in North America. (The Chamber of Commerce also would like you to know that Clear Lake is considered the "Bass Capital of the West.") The three-day CITGO Bassmaster Western Open presented by Busch Beer rolls into town on a Wednesday evening in October, beginning with registration and a briefing at the Clearlake Senior Center, and for the next few days, the city is overrun with trucks and boats, moving mostly in schools – massing at the senior center or the Best Western, or idling, in the pre-dawn hour before launch, along the roads leading into Redbud Park.

The event is not one of bass fishing's biggest, but on the first day, a Thursday, a handful of fans turn up for the weigh-in outside the Bassmaster trailer, dragging their lawn chairs into the shade. A group of boys run around with autographs covering their yellow ball caps, lures dangling from the sides of the hats, and as the anglers return in waves at the end of the round, the kids head down to the docks to plead for more autographs and more lures. Each day of the tournament, in fact, draws a larger crowd, and by Saturday there is actually bickering among certain spectators about who set down whose cooler where.

Out on the water, Monroe fishes a pair of unspectacular but solid rounds and on Friday sits in 37th place, high enough to qualify for Saturday's finale. (Each angler fishes for a limit of five bass in a round and is ranked based on the weight of his total catch.) "I've become Mr. Consistency," Monroe says that night. "That's the new nickname I've given myself." Mr. Consistency is eating takeout on an old living-room sofa; the house, a low-roofed affair next to a dirt road and a bunch of barking dogs, belongs to his friend Aaron Coleman, a young black pro from Oakland, who uses the place when he's in town for a tournament. This week, he's let several other fishermen sleep here, and on Wednesday night there were five guys staying at the house, four of them black, or nearly the entire contingent of black anglers at the tournament. "Got all the brothers staying in one place, huh?" one white fisherman said to Coleman after the briefing. That night, they prepared for their first rounds by eating barbecue and flipping between old fishing videos and the Weather Channel. (Monroe's girlfriend, Rachel, wanted to come; he told her no.)

In any case, Mr. Consistency is not to be confused with Mr. Big Fish. "I used to be Mr. Big Fish," Monroe continues, "used to shoot for the win, and I'd either do really, really well, or I'd do really, really bad. Now I stay consistent, and I just cash checks." It's a different style of fishing, incorporating an altogether different pattern, and it means that at the end of a tournament there will likely be a paycheck. It's how full-time fishermen remain full-time fishermen. Meanwhile, Coleman and Matt Miley, an amateur staying here, make their merry way through a bottle of cognac; neither of them qualified for the final day.

Fishing with any kind of consistency is itself a major achievement. Anglers know only a few things about bass. Bass like structure (docks, for instance); they like a nice, cool spot in the shadow of a tree; they like an easy meal. "They're like people," Monroe says. "A pizzaman shows up at your doorstep with a pizza, and you ain't gotta pay for it, you're gonna eat it." The idea is to get a bite, determine precisely how you got that bite, then develop a pattern around that bite (which, come to think of it, is also how a car salesman moves Chevys). "The only thing about that is that fish are unpredictable," he says. It's not light work, either. After two days – 16 hours – of fishing, Monroe's right leg aches from leaning on the trolling motor's pedal. The muscle between his right thumb and index finger has locked up. His hands are cut, his fingers hurt, and he just took an Excedrin for his head. "Put it this way," Coleman says. "Those people who say bass fishing isn't a sport? They have no fucking clue."

The sheer difficulty of the sport – of trying to make rent money off the whims of a few ugly fish – seems to give even Monroe doubts about his choice of career. His youngest half-brother is starting to fish, and Monroe says he'd like him to get involved in the sport, but not too involved. "My mom takes him fishing, and I tell her to do it as much as she possibly can, because he'll end up like me," he says. "I'd love for my brother to end up like me, as far as not having the whole drugs thing, not getting into trouble, never going to jail. But as far as fishing for a living? No. I want him to have a real job." He laughs a little. "A real life."

But then Monroe has a good day like this, in the final round at Clearlake, and Mr. Consistency cashes another check. His non-boater for the day is Bob Sweeney, who has lung disease and a bad back. In the afternoon, as the day grows hot and Monroe complains that the theme from Shaft is stuck in his head, he steers his boat into the weedy corner of a marina, where he pitches over the railing of what looks like a small footbridge. Within minutes he sticks a keeper, and in one deft motion flips it up over the post, and into the boat. Then he does it again. Can you dig it? "That was cool," Sweeney says later. "I was sitting back there laughing. Just laughing. I had to get my breathing machine out."

Monroe winds up with five fish weighing 11 pounds, 9 ounces, giving him 22nd place overall and a $1,450 check. At the weigh-in, Fishburne, again the MC, says, "Ish has not been a happy camper this week." But at the moment Monroe doesn't look unhappy, and for the next few minutes he and Fishburne banter about Monroe's girlfriend, and then Monroe steps down from the stage. A black man shakes his hand, and a white guy sitting in a canvas chair says, "See you next spring, Ish." Monroe walks along a roped-off path with his bag of fish, and all around him the fans have taken up nice, cool spots in the shadows of trees, and the kids bounce from dock to dock with lures in their hats, as if they had just been hooked.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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