Mike and his father Frank on Lake Toho in the early 1980s. Photo Mike Orzell.

Most of us old enough to have been fishing for any length of time, have someone special who mentored and encouraged our initial foray into bass fishing. I also think it is a safe bet that for a lot of us that person was often our father. For me, bass fishing initiated and nurtured what became a lifelong passion for both my Dad and I, and brought us as close together as a father and son could be. In Fishing with Dad-A Father’s Day Remembrance, I will share our story and hope it kindles fond memories of similar experiences you may have shared with your father or other fishing mentor. If so, we would love to see you post your comments and memories here on the Bass Fishing Archives.

Early 1970s

My grandmother was the first one who saw that I had a burgeoning interest in fishing and took me to buy some of my first lures. She even drove me to what I thought was a magic bass pond, full of standing timber, only to see my first cast with a prized, new Zorro Aggravator spinnerbait hang in a tree limb right above my casting position. We spent the rest of the day looking for a car wash to clean the mud off my grandpa’s car before he got home!

My dad, Frank, had always been an avid outdoorsman, with a special affinity for deer hunting. As he began to see my growing interest in fishing, I think he saw an opportunity to take the reins from my grandmother and encourage me to continue pursuing fishing. He found out at work about some pay fishing ponds outside of our home in St. Louis, near a small town called Steelville. These ponds had developed a reputation for big bass, and it was here that I caught my very first bass on an artificial lure, a Heddon Baby Zara Spook. It was also here in September of 1973 that my Dad was in the johnboat to net my first real lunker, a 6 1/2-pounder that hit a yellow coachdog colored Arbogaster.

Mike's first big fish, September 1973. Photo Mike Orzell.

The success of our farm pond exploits kindled a desire in both of us to get our own “bass boat”.  It ended up being a 12-foot Sears johnboat with a 7.5 hp. Eska outboard. We added indoor/outdoor carpet, two white swivel bucket seats and an anchor. Our trolling motor was a wooden oar. The crowning touch for me was adding the large yellow Jelly Worm decals on the side of the boat. Just like a pro, or so I thought!

We began stretching out beyond the farm pond scene and decided to hit some of the larger impoundments around the St. Louis area. Being a bit overzealous, we took our boat to Carlyle Lake in Illinois. Convincing my Dad the best bass fishing was to be had north of the railroad bridge in an area full of standing timber, we almost swamped our tiny little boat several times in this lake’s notoriously rough waves. This may have actually been a blessing in disguise, as it made my Dad realize that our little homemade “bass boat” was ill suited for large impoundment use.

1974-Our First Ranger Bass Boat

Besides opening up safer on the water experiences, especially for my dad who could not swim, a bigger, fiberglass bass boat was the next logical step in our progression to becoming better bass fisherman. There was a local dealership, Bud’s Place, that sold what we considered to be the top-of-the-line bass boat, Ranger, and I couldn’t wait to see one in our garage. The boats in the showroom were beautiful, and I can still recall the smell of fresh fiberglass and new “astroturf” carpet, leading to the burning desire to fish from one. 

Our boat ended up being a TR3 model with a chocolate brown hull, a cherrywood metalflake deck, a foot-controlled Motor Guide trolling motor, and a 50 hp. Mercury outboard. Even though rated for 85 hp., my mother put her foot down and said we didn’t need to pay anymore for “extra” horsepower, so a 50 hp. it was. This was to become a running joke with my Dad and I for many years. On one of our first trips to Table Rock Lake a puzzled fisherman in the boat stall next to ours, looked over at our new boat, and asked, “How come you got a 50?” This was in the days when many anglers were overpowering their boats and running 115’s and even 150’s on 85 hp. rated boats. Underpowering your boat was something new and apparently quite odd to some!

Dad and I discuss fishing strategy prior to a trip in our chocolate Ranger in 1974. Photo Mike Orzell.

Expanding Our Horizons

Now that we had a larger boat, we began traveling to lakes further from home, occasionally making accommodations for overnight stays. Being still too young to drive, my dad was responsible for getting us to, and back from our destinations safely. Since many of the lakes were several hours from our home, early morning departures were common. What was also common, unfortunately, was watching my Dad fall asleep at the wheel.

I remember slapping, poking, prodding, and talking to him to keep him alert.  NoDoz pills and coffee were always at hand. As a young boy, I could not understand how someone could possibly fall asleep driving. Once I got older and driving myself, I found out just how easy it was. For all the grief I gave you during those times Dad, I’m sorry! Listening to music on 8 track tapes was another frequent diversion to sleepiness and to this day, every time I hear the Doobie Brothers-The Captain and Me or Frampton Comes Alive, it brings back fond memories of those days on the road with my Dad.

As our bass fishing became more serious and frequent, and further destinations beckoned, a decision was made to upgrade our tow vehicle to something that we could potentially “camp” in. In the late 70s and early 80s, those of you old enough to recall will remember the “van” craze.  My Dad bought a plain bronze colored GMC van with two bucket seats, and we proceeded to insulate the interior walls, add dark wood paneling and finish it off with multicolor shag carpeting.

The 1st GMC van that would become our home on extended bass fishing trips and our new Hydra-Sports boat. Photo Mike Orzell.

We purchased two heavily cushioned tri-fold seats that when folded down gave us a nice base for our sleeping bags. We also built a custom wood shelf for the very back of the van that housed our clothes and gear. With this rig, we were now ready to go anywhere and stay for extended trips. Additionally, I was now driving and able to pitch in on the long hauls. Humorously, this vehicle also created some uneasy dads when I drove up in this stylin’ van to pick up their daughters for a night out!

Long Hauls and a New Boat

Not long after the van was purchased, we opted to trade in the trusty brown Ranger for a brand-new Hydra-Sports bass boat. The boat was sleek and sporty, with a new “vee” hull design that would provide a much smoother ride in choppy water than the tri-hull design of the Ranger. It also had a much flashier finish with an orange metal flake hull, silver metal flake decking and a matching silver metal flake lightning stripe down the side. We also now owned a boat outfitted with the fully allowed outboard limit-a 115 hp. Mercury! The boat had the new Mercury Thruster trolling motor and console and bow mounted Humminbird Super Sixty flashers.

Our Hydra-Sports boat all waxed up and ready for action. Photo Mike Orzell.

With the new van and boat, we traveled to great bass fishing destinations throughout the Midwest. We hit lakes like Table Rock, Bull Shoals, Lake of the Ozarks and Stockton in Missouri. We went to Beaver, Millwood, and Greers Ferry in Arkansas. Closer to home, we crossed the Mississippi river and fished Carlyle, Rend, Shelbyville and Kinkaid in Illinois. We also ventured to the true bass fishing mecca, Toledo Bend, in Texas. We caught loads of bass, spent hours sharing a boat in all kinds of weather, and enjoyed the kind of fellowship only a father and son could share, out on the water, chasing bass.

Dad with a good stringer of bass after a rainy evening outing on Table Rock Lake, MO in 1974. Photo Mike Orzell.
My dad with a nice haul of Toledo Bend bass in 1979. Photo Mike Orzell.

Adventures and Misadventures on the Road

Throughout all these travels, we had our share of fun and a few mishaps along the way. One of the dumbest ideas we had (sorry Dad, but I think it was yours) was to try and switch drivers midstream on the highway. That’s right, leave the cruise on, while pulling a boat and have the driver slide out and the passenger (me) slide in behind the wheel without slowing down or stopping! Stupid idea!! This maneuver was ostensibly to “save time”. Luckily, we only tried it once and never again.

One time while plying the timber filled waters of Millwood Lake in Arkansas, I had the brilliant idea to let the wind blow our boat up against a piece of standing timber to stop our drift. The timber didn’t give but our deck sure did. Our hull may have been Kevlar, but the deck was fiberglass and cracked like a fresh egg. When my Dad saw it, he looked at me and uttered the infamous words I would hear more than once, “Whatever you do, don’t tell your mother!” Thankfully, we had a cover for our boat, and it stayed on until we could get it fixed and my mother was never the wiser.

One scarier incident occurred when my dad and I were taking a break at a Waffle House on a long trip home and two rather shady looking characters walked in and asked if anyone owned a bronze van with a boat behind it.  When we said it was ours, they muttered, “We just hit it.” Walking outside, we could see that the boat was cocked off to one side of the trailer, the van was fine. Apparently, when backing out these two characters hit the outboard hard enough to shift the boat position on the trailer. The only reason they stopped was that the van alarm went off. Ultimately, we were able to find a nearby lake with a launching ramp, launch the boat and get it back on the trailer properly.

Florida and Big Bass Beckon-1980s

My Dad was always enamored and focused on big bass; really big bass, the ten-plus pounders that were not to be found in the Midwest.  So, off we went to Florida for multiple trips in pursuit of a lunker.

Dad tries to tempt a lunker at Rodman Reservoir, FL in 1987. Photo Mike Orzell.

We typically traveled over the holiday break after Christmas when I was still in college. Destinations included Lake Toho, Kissimmee, Okeechobee and the St. Johns River.

A huge string of Lake Okeechobee, FL bass caught in 1986. Photo Mike Orzell.

It was two days travel from St. Louis, and we often “camped” out in one of our conversion vans at a roadside rest stop. Once at our destination, it was fish all day and then head to town for dinner. We frequented fine establishments like Wendy’s, Church’s Chicken and Pizza Hut. Any leftovers became lunch the next day. Once dinner was over, we would head to a supermarket parking lot, open up the van; clean, organize and make our beds for the evening. Then it was back to the fish camp where we slept overnight, ready to get back at it in the morning.

I remember cold January nights in Florida, where we slept with our clothes for the next day nestled inside our sleeping bags to make sure they stayed warm. We often woke up with ice on the inside of our windshield from our breath condensing and then freezing. Bathroom facilities were on the rough side, and the high sulfur smell of local water made showers uninviting and infrequent. But we were together and pursuing our passion.

Florida trip in 1986 and the van that was our ”home away from home”. Dig the short shorts! Photo Mike Orzell.

Unfortunately, my Dad never realized his dream of a ten pounder. I was lucky enough, however, to put an 11lb. 12oz. bass in the boat one fateful day on Lake Toho in 1983. Even better, it was just the two of us in the boat, no guide, finding and catching this giant on our own. We were both ecstatic.

My personal best largemouth, 11 lbs.12 oz., Lake Toho, FL January 1983. Photo Mike Orzell.

1990s and Beyond

We bought our third and final bass boat in the mid 80’s, a Ranger 350V with a 150 hp. Black Max.

My dad, Frank, with our last bass boat, a Ranger 350V. Photo Mike Orzell.

We continued to travel both locally and afar until 1990 when employment took me away from my Missouri roots to Colorado, where I still live.

My parents retired and moved to a property in mid-Missouri that had a 22-acre lake. I spent much of the 1990s and 2000s traveling back to spend time with them both, and did a lot of fishing with my Dad, catching numerous big bass from his private “honey hole”. We did our fishing from a little two-man plastic boat with an electric motor, coming full circle back to our original small lake roots and low-tech approach. These are actually some of the most cherished moments I have of spending time with my Dad. We both loved every minute of it.

Back to the basics and small lake bassin’ circa 1990s. Photo Mike Orzell.

Some Tackle Thoughts

One element I have not touched on yet is the incredible amount and diversity of tackle we both enjoyed using and stockpiling over a 40 year timeframe. In the early 1970’s when the Big O craze hit, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the Cotton Cordell version.

Cordell Big O’s, the lure that started a crankbait revolution and one of our early favorites. Photo Mike Orzell.

We had to drive 45 minutes to Paul’s Bait and Tackle in South St. Louis who had the first and only stock in our area at the time. We wore those baits out over the next few years.

I remember when innovative crankbaits like the Rebel Super R and Wee, Mini and Maxi series hit the shelves. I recall purchasing our first Bagley Deep Divin’ Bs on a trip to Table Rock Lake. There was a small fishing department in the Consumers supermarket in Branson, Mo. and I can still see these beautiful lures hanging on the pegboard calling my name. They looked like true fishing magic

My Dad and I fished through the era of the curly tail worm introduction by Mister Twister, the innovative Rebel Ringworms and Knight Tube Worms, and the short but productive run of one of our favorites, the Ditto Gator Tail worm. Bobby Garland’s Fat Gitzits hit the market by storm and created the whole tube phenomenon. Later the Sluggo and then the Senko, sent us in search of new and innovative plastic bait creations. Stanley Jigs arrived on the tackle scene with their tapered Vibra-Shaft spinnerbait design and innovative jigs, which also found their way into our tackleboxes.

We purchased our first red Garcia Ambassadeur 5000 reels and learned to baitcast together. Later, the futuristic Lew Childre Speed Stick rods and Speed Spool reels found a home in our arsenal. The development of Flipping became a craze along with the retractable Fenwick rods that we ultimately put to good use fishing live shiners in Florida.

Best of all, are the memories of countless trips together to Bass Pro Shops, local mom and pop tackle stores, and waiting for that familiar brown truck to pull up in front of our house with our latest tackle orders. Felt just like Christmas!

Best Man

When I finally decided to tie the knot in 1995, there was no doubt who would be my best man. My best friend and long-time fishing buddy; my dad, Frank, was the obvious and only choice. I know he felt honored but was a little uneasy about having to make the “speech”. He came through it without a hitch, even managing to keep it fishing themed

My dad’s best man speech. Photo Mike Orzell.
Thanks, Dad. You always let me have the front of the boat! Photo Mike Orzell.

Conclusion

Sadly, my Dad is gone now. Father Time and Parkinson’s finally caught up with him. He died in 2020 at the age of 86. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and the great times we shared. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him. But to keep things in perspective, I always go back to the quote attributed to Theodor Geisel, “Dr. Seuss”- “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened.” With love and heartfelt gratitude, Dad, thanks for making it happen.