Outdoors Column: How about ‘Mentor’s Day?’

Liam Hansen of Wading River fishes with his father Mark on the town's floating dock during the 15th annual Riverhead Snapper Tournament in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)
Liam Hansen of Wading River fishes with his father Mark on the town’s floating dock during the 15th annual Riverhead Snapper Tournament in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

During the run up to Fathers’ Day, outdoor publications fill up with stories and pieces like “Take a Boy Hunting (Fishing)” or republish old chestnuts such as the “The Old Man and the Boy” tales from Field & Stream. Often essays or short stories deal with the coming of age of a young man and border on fantasy: an adolescent winds up either catching the salmon of a lifetime on the Margaree River (Cape Breton) on an heirloom Hardy Bros. bamboo fly rod or shoots his first pheasant and subsequently receives granddad’s priceless Parker DHE 20-gauge side-by-side. 

Yes, advisory pieces are informative, and nostalgic stories tweak the heartstrings, but one has to ask a couple of questions. Are all great outdoors teachers male? Don’t dads invest time introducing their daughters as well as their sons to the wonder of the outdoors?

Some of the most influential teachers are women. When I fished party boats out of the Florida Keys as a teenager, I apprenticed myself to a couple in Marathon during several weeks in the winter and spring. Tom and Claire Schoen operated Sea Legs, a slow-going converted shrimper with a pulpit for harpooning swordfish. With ocean spin tackle in its infancy (but lots of grouper and king mackerel schools around) the learning curve was a steep one, but you had lots of practice!

When Tom was suddenly hospitalized with the stomach ulcer that subsequently killed him, Claire took over the boat as the sole skipper. It was she who taught me that every day spent on the water was a good one, regardless of what you put on the dock at day’s end. (Unfortunately, the ocean seemed limitless back in the 1950s, so catch-and-release was pretty much for folks fishing bonefish and tarpon only.) It was Claire who could smile and tell me to get back in the water immediately with a fresh rig when I busted off some denizen of the deep.

Janet, my wife, is a prime example of women who learned to hunt and fish thanks to fathers who saw no difference between sons and daughters when it came to the outdoors. Thanks to Roy Wendel, he and Janet could make an upland gunner out of an easterner who had never tasted game on the table. (They had me shooting clay targets and following pointing dogs in the field, and drove home the point that you had to bring wild pheasants to hand with a load of 5s or 6s in order to eventually get them to the table.)

Not long after we married, we moved to Europe for a while. By this time Janet had started to fish with a fly rod, seriously, and we both were introduced to an old school Hamburg trout specialist, a gentleman who loved his private streams. Right away he wanted me to join him, but quickly realized that Jan had to be part of “the package.” I was awkward with Bruno Wigam’s browns and had to resort to nymphs and wets early on, but Jan went right over to dry flies and caught more fish from the beginning, delicious European grayling as well as trout.

Talk to many outdoor guides and they’ll tell you it’s almost always easier to work with female pupils because they are much more willing to put aside preconceived notions and learn a new skill. The guys, on the other hand, often revert to bad habits they picked up in previous activities. From grizzled musky hunters to veteran skippers you often hear that they would prefer a “gal” who listens on that rod when the trophy of the season suddenly comes out of nowhere and gets hooked up!

On Long Island we recall quite a few women who went on from the apprenticeship stage to mentoring. For some years we were fortunate enough to fish alongside Lorry Mangan, a lady angler who filled a lot of slots in the IGFA record book with new entries on species like tautog and summer flounder (blackfish and fluke). Here was an angler who knew all the tricks of coaxing a double-digit bottom fish out of the depths with lines testing only four, six or eight pounds. Also, Lorry was one of the founders of a group of women anglers (the Lady Reelers), a club that brought many new anglers into the sport. If I remember correctly, it was one of that club’s early members, Rosie Federco, who went on to skipper the party boat with her name, Rosie, a boat that still runs from the South Shore in the Moriches.

So, while we celebrate mothers and fathers on respective days, we might consider dropping distinctions about exactly who brings their male or female offspring out on the water or out in the fields and woods. Maybe we should have a separate “Mentors’ Day” to set the record straight, even though the name doesn’t have quite the same ring.