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The life and times of an old angling companion

April 11, 2009
By Joe Hackett

I forget where to attribute the above quotation; but it is the best phrase I can find to sum up the life and times of an old angling companion. We sat at the opposite ends of guideboat for over 25 seasons and shared many good times. On occasion, we caught some mighty fine fish.

Sincere by nature and humble by profession, my friend Joe was an old school gentleman of the first order. He possessed a politeness that is rare in today's busy society. He remembered people's birthdays, anniversaries and their special occasions. He took the time to send them handwritten notes and could always put a name to a face - which he explained was the best method to put a smile there.

Schooled in hospitality and hotel management; he left the hotel industry to become a professional advance man, a handler and a fixer working with numerous political figures. His storied career took him from Upper St. Regis to Lake Placid, then to Albany and finally to Washington, DC. He worked for Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and eventually George H. W. Bush.

Joe joked that although Time magazine once noted that as President Reagan's scheduler, "the person who schedules access to the most powerful man in the world is the second most powerful man in the world," Reagan still couldn't remember his last name.

Despite such lofty positions, he never forgot his roots and always expressed a special fondness for his alma mater, Paul Smiths College, where he graduated after service in the Korean War. He loved the Adirondacks and had an unending affinity for brook trout.

In a claim he staked early in my career and retained for many years, Joe was my regular guest at ice out - the first guest of the new season. As part of our routine of Spring, we would trade phone calls for weeks in an effort to predict the date of open water; an event which typically occurred during the first week of May.

He would always arrive in town several days in advance, anticipating the opportunity to be the first boat on the pond. In his eyes, fresh brook trout ranked higher on the scale than a bottle of the finest wine.

Whether relating a bit of White House history or whispering the latest local gossip with a sly, mischievous grin, Joe was forever engaging and entertaining. He greeted the new angling season with the enthusiasm of a puppy attacking a new bone. I still wonder which one of us enjoyed those journeys more.

Although he mixed easily with people of all sort, Joe seemed most at ease in the stern seat of a guideboat, angling for brook trout on the clear waters of a small, backwoods pond. And despite the fact that I'd regularly drag him through hell and high water to get to such places, he'd always return looking as dapper as he'd arrived, a crisp crease still evident on his blue jeans and not a spot dotting his starched white shirt.

Many mornings we would be on the ponds before sunrise, shivering in the chill of a spring morning, as fog covered the water and the splash of rising trout sounded in the distance, hidden by the mist. On such days, I could feel the boat vibrate as he shivered and shuddered in the cold while attempting to duck below the boat's gunnels for protection from the usual spitting snow and gusting winds.

Though his nose would drip like a leaky faucet, and he'd have to blow into his hands to restore dexterity to his digits, he would refuse to leave the pond until the first brook trout was in the net.

As cell phones first came into use, Joe was the only guest I permitted to use one on the water. At first, he carried a huge, bagged contraption which provided a poorer connection than two tin cans attached with a string. It took up more room than a fishing creel and I often threatened to use it as an anchor; much to his delight.

I believe he used the phone simply because he knew how much it annoyed me. In a good natured way, his frequent "from the pond" calls were intended as a friendly poke in the ribs that he knew he could get away with.

It was always the same scenario. After hooking the first fish of the morning, he'd lay the rod on his lap. After whipping out the phone, he'd sheepishly explain, "Excuse me, but I've got to check in with the office," where he operated a consulting and lobbying firm.

"You know where I am?" Joe would ask, "I'm in the middle of a tiny pond in the Adirondacks and, oops!, Hang on, I've got one on."

As he reeled the fish in, a steady "play by play" commentary would detail his efforts.

"It's almost here! Hey, yeah, Oh boy! Joe just stabbed at it with the net. He missed again. Hold on, it's making another run. Wait, there it is, boy it's a nice one. It's in the boat!"

"OK." Then, after a short pause he'd ask the incredulous listener in a calm voice, "So, how's your day going? Everything all right at the office?"

It obviously gave him a great pleasure; yet I often wondered what the person on the other end of the line thought of such shenanigans. I imagined they were stuck in a cubicle at some godforsaken office in downtown DC; while the boss was out making whoopee with a brookie and rubbing their nose in it.

Regardless, the routine became our way of welcoming the first brook trout of the day to the net. And despite my repeated objections, I must admit I enjoyed the commotion, the damn cell phone and his friendly teasing. It was entertaining.

Over the course of three decades on the water, I've shared my guideboat with a fairly impressive list of guests. Titans of industry, entertainment icons and financial wizards have provided equal ballast to kings, knights and even a supermodel or two. However, the boat never balanced as well as it did when Joe occupied the rear seat.

He knew me and my family and became the funny old uncle we never had. For Christmas, he always sent gifts for the girls. When my Mother fell ill with Alzheimer's; he would call regularly to inquire about her condition. He was genuinely concerned because he was genuine.

Joe exposed his true character one afternoon, as we were enjoying lunch at The Cottage in Lake Placid. It happened innocently when he introduced me to an old acquaintance he knew from his days in the political arena.

When the gentleman, a highly, successful businessman, entered the small restaurant; he recognized Joe and made a beeline to our table.

After the two exchanged greetings, Joe turned and said, "I'd like you to meet my good friend, Joe Hackett". A moment later he added, "I almost forgot, he also happens to be my guide."

With this simple statement, I realized Joe considered me a friend first and also his guide. I don't know if he even realized it at the time, but in his quiet, sincere way, he let me know how he truly felt. In my line of work, it's the finest compliment anyone could offer.

Following a brief battle with cancer three years past, Joe now fishes in better waters. Yet, every spring as the ice breaks up and I pull on the oars to cross the first open water of the season, I think about that old, familiar poke in the ribs and laugh once again.



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