“The first and most important thing you got to do is spit on the hook. That’s the magic,” says the General. “And if you catch a really big fish, you gotta kiss it!”
His pupils, Justin Pooser, 13, and Shara and Tricia Himmel, 6 and 9, look at him wide-eyed. “Yuck!” exclaims Shara.
On this chilly Tampa morning, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, 59, sits at the end of a wooden dock on misty Mound Lake, a kidney-shaped, spring-fed waterway filled with largemouth bass, some rumored to weigh 15 pounds. Justin, Shara and Tricia are helping the hero of Desert Storm practice his new role as a fishing professor for kids.
Later this month, Schwarzkopf will break ground on the Boggy Creek Gang Camp for chronically ill children, which he has cofounded with actor Paul Newman, on 125 acres of wilderness north of Orlando. At Boggy Creek, which opens next year, even kids undergoing chemotherapy will be able to swim, hike and, best of all, fish; Schwarzkopf has vowed to teach them how.
Shara, who underwent a heart transplant two years ago, and Justin and Tricia, who both suffer from chronic asthma, hold their spin-cast rods at attention. “We’re going to catch lots offish,” says the General. “There was an otter in my front yard this morning. Thai’s an omen.”
Then he gets serious. “We practice catch-and-release,” he says. “We catch ’em, take a picture, then let ’em go. Fish are a renewable resource, and one of the problems we’ve had is people feel obliged to catch the limit, then throw ’em in the garbage can. Anyhow, the fun of fishing is catching ’em, not killing ’em.”
Schwarzkopf got hooked on fishing as a kid in New Jersey while his father, Herbert Norman, also a military man, was away fighting World War II. “I’d go to a lake on the Princeton campus, put a bread ball on a hook and loss it out,” he says. “The catfish were maybe six inches long, and when you caught one, you really thought you were in tall cotton.”
His addiction to the sport grew when he joined the Army and, in his spare time, went in search of the perfect fishing hole. Stationed in Alaska, he once set out for a day’s fishing and learned the meaning of quiet. “You remember that Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Sounds of Silence’?” he asks. “Out there, you could hear the wind passing through a duck’s wings as it flew.”
Now, he and son Christian, 16, travel to Alaska every year to fly-fish for trout and salmon. “We’ll catch as many as 250 trout,” says the General, “but we only keep one, to eat.” On one such trip, the pair took a floatplane to the mouth of the King Salmon River. There, they ran into a female grizzly and two cubs, so they moved downriver to give them room, only to discover another sow bear and her cubs. “Discretion being the better part of valor,” Schwarzkopf says, “we decided this was the bears’ river, got out, climbed on a ledge and started to eat our lunch. Just then, the first sow sat down directly opposite us and started nursing her cubs. At that minute, all was right with the world.”
Suddenly, Justin feels a tug on his line. The General, a giant of a man, leaps up and shouts, “You got one!” The boy reels in his catch, and Schwarzkopf gives him a pat. “First fish of the day—not the biggest by a long shot, but the first. Let’s take a picture.” The camera clicks, and Schwarzkopf tosses the bass back into the pond. “All right, ladies, Justin’s outfishing you,” he teases. “This is the Year of the Woman. We can’t have that.”
Prof. Schwarzkopf believes fishing leaches valuable lessons, among them patience, pursuit and deception. Sometimes fishing strategy can be like military strategy. “Don’t think those fish won’t go under the dock,” he warns Tricia. “They hide there where they think it’s warm and safe.” And: “Just when you’re not expecting it, a fish will bite—and you’ll lose it ’cause you weren’t ready.”
But mostly the General fishes, as he puts it, “to forget about war.” In fact, after returning home from the Persian Gulf war, he headed straight for his fishing gear. “When I fish, I stop thinking about anything else,” he says. “But truth be told, if you want to declare victories, I can tell you the fish have won a lot more than I have. It’s interesting that something with a brain the size of a fish’s can outsmart us humans, who think we are el supremo.”
Shara’s yellow bobber zigzags across the surface of the lake, then disappears. “She’s got a bite!” the General shouts. “All right, stand up, and I’ll show you what to do.” He takes hold of her rod, and the fish gets away. “Ooohh! We lost it. I lost it. Oh, boy, I’m sorry. All that waitin’ around, and I lost your fish.” He puts his arm around Shara’s tiny shoulders. “We’ll get another one.”
Schwarzkopf, who lives with wife Brenda, 52, and Christian in Lutz, Fla., used to fish regularly with his daughters—Cindy, 23, who works in convention management in Las Vegas, and Jessica, 21, a senior at the University of Tampa—when they were younger. Right how he is planning to stay in Florida for at least another year-and-a-half to allow Christian to do something his sisters never did: graduate from the same, high school where he started. After that, Schwarzkopf, a member of several conservation organizations and the national spokesman for Grizzly Bear Recovery, will be looking for another cause to sweep him up. “There is not one thing yet that I say, ‘Okay, this is what I wanna do with the rest of my life,’ ” he says. “It will come along, I’m quite sure. When it does, I’ll know it. And if it doesn’t, I’ll just keep on fishing.”
Three hours have passed, and the group has caught five bass. Tricia is the only one who hasn’t had a bite. “If you’ve fished as long as I have,” Schwarzkopf tells her, “you understand. I can stand in a crystal stream without another human around me and cast all day long, and if I never catch a single fish, I can come home and still feel like I had a wonderful time. It’s the being there that’s important.”
Just then Tricia feels that exhilarating yank on her line. “Oh, you got a nice one!” the General cheers as he helps her reel it in. “That’s the biggest fish of the day! Wanna kiss it?”