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Carp fishermen tackle the big fish at Washington County pay lake

Tuesday, September 01, 1998

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like the wily, scaly, bottom-sucking quarry he so tirelessly pursues, he is a singular species, the carp fisherman.

Things get really scaly when West Mifflin's Steve Kovack, left, brings a carp to be weighed by 84 Lakes employee Chris Fuerst. Looking on is fisherman Keith Wilcher. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette) 

You must approach him with the utmost delicacy.

Never ask him what's in his doughball, which is what all carp fishermen use for bait but make from their own carefully concocted, fiercely guarded secret recipes.

Never shake his hand, unless you don't mind getting some of that secret recipe on your fingers.

And never, ever stand close behind a carp fisherman, unless you want to be whapped upside the head by his fishing rod.

"I've seen stitches," James Pershin warns, and it's not clear whether the person got cut for being nosy or for being in the way of how a carp fisherman sets the hook: By yanking up and back on the rod with his whole being.

As if to demonstrate, in one sudden motion, Pershin jerks and lunges back 10 feet. Alas, from the lack of pull on his line, he knows he's missed that nibbling fish.

"Swingin' " is what carp fishermen call this powerful move, and it does look like the swinging, backwards, of a baseball bat.

Instead of swingin' to rip home runs, their aim is to "rip hogs" - that is, reel in lots of big carp.

That's what's lured Pershin and about 40 other carp fishermen to one of the hottest carp-fishing holes in the region - 84 Lakes in Washington County - for its hottest session: 7 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday. In fact, a more typical Friday night - one when the demolition derby isn't headlining the county fair - will draw 75 or more.

Most of the carp fishermen - and almost all of them are guys - will stay for the entire 12 hours. Some will stay for the next 12, too - even for 12 more hours after that.

As more than one can quote their wives, or ex-wives: "You love carp more than you love me."

This kind of fishing is that kind of special.

Pay to play

  As the sun comes up on a recent Saturday morning, his dad, Jody Strennen, is still going strong after nearly 12 hours of "swingin' " on carp. But 8-year-old Cory is plum played out. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

These 84 Lakes actually are three man-made ones right beside Route 136, just east of the hamlet of Eighty Four. As soon as you turn in the gravel drive, at the beer-sign-lit 84 Lounge, you sense this is not "A River Runs Through It," though a creek does when it rains enough.

This is what's known as a "fee lake" or "pay lake," which means that to fish, you pay a fee.

But here, as at a handful of other area pay lakes, if you fish well, you also can get paid.

How is as easy to understand as, say, betting the horses.

Here, the numbers are on the carp, some of which wear on their gill plates tiny stainless-steel tags with numbers on them. The management picks one or more tags to be the "half-kitty" fish, which means this: For every $8 you pay to fish for a session - lasting six to 12 hours - $2 goes into a "kitty" that keeps building, session after session, until someone catches that carp. The lucky fisherman keeps half the kitty, and the rest rides for the next time, so the kitty always is worth a decent amount (it can hit $1,000 in a week).

Carp tagged with other numbers are worth other set amounts - from $25 to $100 - as spelled out on a chalkboard inside the white concrete-block concession stand.

After that, carp fishing starts to get complicated.

As you might be able to figure out from another board, you can pay additional amounts to get in on additional kitties: $5 for the biggest carp caught in a session, $3 for the second-biggest, and $2 for the third; $5 each for the "first quick" and "second quick" - that is, the biggest carp caught in the first and second half of the session. You even can pay $1 for a chance to win for the smallest carp - the category called "baby fish."

To enter everything, an adult carp fisherman shells out $29. (Plus, as one luckless regular bemoans, whatever he spends on bait, food, gas to get there, etc.)

But if he lands the right carp, on a night when lots of others are vying to do the same, he can take home several hundred bucks. For example, if 40 folks put into the $5 kitty, the biggest carp is worth $200, plus whatever's in that quick.

And you never know when you might hook a half-kitty fish. Just ask 13-year-old Bill DeBlasio, who did on June 16 and won $1,184.

It may sound like gambling, but "it's not really," insists owner Dennis Wilcher, who's been fishing and working pay lakes that do the same stuff since he was 4 years old, starting at the now-closed Sandy Lake in Dravosburg. He says he's checked with local authorities and it's not illegal, since the lake doesn't keep any cash the fishermen put up. "We just keep track of it. ... All their money gets bulldozed back to them."

State police spokesman Jack Lewis in Harrisburg checked the Crimes Code and could not give a definitive ruling. For a lottery to be illegal, the winner must be determined by chance, he says, and, "I guess technically it could be argued ... that skill is involved." Anyway, he's not aware of any pay lake court cases or prosecutions, which would have to begin with a complaint that, say, a third party is profiting. This, he says, sounds "similar to a Super Bowl pool."

A lot of money can change hands: $10,000 or more, Wilcher says, on a busy holiday - like the coming Labor Day weekend - when the lake puts up bonus prizes (at Christmas, turkeys and hams). He's explaining the arcane details when he stops and says, "I've got to weigh one now."

A boy has hauled over a flip-flopping carp that seems almost as big as he is. "He almost knocked me off that bridge over there," 8-year-old Cory Strennen says with the trembly excitement that large fish inspire in males of all ages.

"You got a nice one, huh?" Wilcher says, as he transfers the carp to another net and then hangs it on the lake-side scale.

When carp and scale quit twitching, Wilcher pronounces, "Eleven seven" - 11 pounds, 7 ounces, and good enough, this early in the night, for him to write "Cory S." on the board. Though, as Wilcher quietly notes, "It'll be a miracle if that wins. An average night, it's an 18-, 19-pounder ..." You can catch carp here that weigh twice that (and win a handsome "84 Lakes 25-Pounder Club" ball cap like Wilcher wears).

Still, Wilcher knows how thrilled Cory is, and so he takes a Polaroid of him holding his first big catch. Then he says, "OK, you want to roll him back in?" And Cory does, plopping the carp back into the brown-green waters to be caught again - possibly within the hour.

Not that there aren't uncountable others. The main lake teems with carp, which splash and roil on the surface like Loch 84 monsters.

'Like bingo for men'

Since taking over the business about a year ago, Wilcher says, "We personally put 18 tons of carp in there. Plus there was fish in there already." And they rarely get taken out, because their job is to eat, not to be eaten.

In the two smaller lakes, Wilcher also stocks trout, catfish and pan fish that anglers can take home to dinner. But those more into shooting craps than catching crappies cast into the big lake for the big carp and the big money.

"I won $138 this past Sunday," says Pershin, 33, of Greensburg, who works as a co-manager at the Sony TV plant. All he'll reveal about his doughball recipe is, it's one that "my grandfather taught my father who taught me."

Like other regulars, he loves all kinds of fishing, but really gets into the carp fishing action on steamy summer nights when not much else will bite but the mosquitoes.

He also enjoys the company and oft-boisterous camaraderie of the others around the lake. "It's like bingo for men."

There's even a "caller" of sorts: Whoever's manning the concession stand periodically broadcasts the current standings over a public address speaker:

"We have a 4 in the baby fish, a 9-8 in the $2, an 11-7 in the $3, and an 11-8 in the $5. We also have an 11-8 in the first quick."

So announces Tracy Perts, who works here in exchange for free passes. To say the 26-year-old brunette is the rare fisherwoman is an understatement: When one of the guys asks for pliers, she just opens her purse.

Right now, she has lots of time to fish because she doesn't have a job, she says, but, "I'm hoping to get on with the Fish Commission."

The building is appointed a la the classic fishing shack, jammed with rods, hooks and other gear, as well as every kind of bait for fish (minnows, maggots, giant mealworms) as well as bait for fishermen (candy bars, chips, snack cakes, Slim Jims, hot dogs, coffee).

The boxes of Royal cherry gelatin are for the carp. It's just one flavoring for doughballs, which usually are cooked up from wheat germ, Maypo cereal and cornmeal. Other flavorings include peanut butter, molasses, Karo syrup. One guy's tackle box hides tiny pharmacy bottles marked "watermelon" and "vanilla butternut." Most fisherman bring a couple of recipes, knowing that carp can be finicky eaters.

"Tracy in there had to yell at her husband," Wilcher says. "He kept eating her bait."

But most bring their own munchies and drinks, including beer. He says, "We don't care as long as you don't bother anybody, because we have families coming out."

The other rules - like "No fighting will be tolerated" - are posted on handwritten signs all over the concession stand.

Fishermen come in for sustenance, or an electronic poker game, through the long night. Until last call they can pop into the lakeside lounge, which Wilcher also owns. But most are loathe to leave their poles (limit two, one single hook on each) unless they have a carp to "take for a walk" - that is, walk over to weigh.

Colorful characters

Like all subcultures, this one has its regulars and celebrities.

There's Steve "Fish Man" Kovack, 50, of West Mifflin, who drives a truck for a living. To relax, he comes here, sometimes five nights a week, and he doesn't even have to ask a wife. "Both of my wives said, 'You love fishing more than you love me.' "

Suddenly, he swings!

"Aw, man. I was late on it."

"C'mon, Jaws. C'mon, Jaws," chatters his cousin, Bill, who only goes by his board moniker, "Bill V."

Across the spot-lit lake is Bob Nebinski, who's been here since noon, plans to stay all night, then come back for at least 12 more hours Saturday night, too. He does this just about every weekend.

He's described as "the guy to put your money on" by many of these carp fishermen, including, well, himself. His smiling mug appears a couple of times in the 84 Lakes Polaroid wall of fame, including once with the "25-4" he caught Aug. 15.

He fully expects to land a few lunkers on this night, too.

The West Mifflin man has earned his braggin' rights by regularly winning the cash here - a yearly average, he says, of $5,000. But that's nothing compared to what he says he and his dad, Homer, won one year at the nearby, but now closed, Lake Joanne - about $27,000.

Whereas some say 84 Lakes is their second home, "Bob N." describes it as a part-time job.

"God gave me a gift and I guess it was this," he says. "Every night I fish, I come to win."

These days he splits his carp-fishing earnings with his "partner," Joey Dziak. The 20-year-old cabinet maker, from nearby Scenery Hill, is so serious about carp fishing that he hardly speaks.

How exactly do they partner in catching carp? "It takes a lot of explaining," Nebinski says. But basically, two fishermen increase the odds that one will rip a hog. As he puts it, "It's like a baseball player, you're in a slump ..."

Occasionally, even they win nothing. "Donating," they call it.

With carp, especially hogs, it's easy to whiff. As many of these fishermen will tell you, carp are - contrary to popular opinion - one of the smartest of fish. Especially these pay-lake denizens, since they likely have been hooked, and "educated," many times.

As Nebinski puts it, "Them carp ain't dumb."

The fishermen go to elaborate lengths to outwit them. They say these carp can, when they're feeding, sense the presence of fishing line from the slightest resistance - even from the oily scum on the surface. And so they keep at the ready a spray bottle of soapy water to break up the crud and keep their lines clear.

For the same reason, few use sinkers. But then, they don't need to: The meatball-sized doughballs they squeeze around their hook can be hurled easily three-quarters of the way across the lake.

Those plops, and the cavortings of carp, pepper the glassy surface, from which, as the night drags on, a mist begins to rise. Bats flutter through it, nailing speeding insects with their radar traps. All around the mulch-covered shore, the carp fishermen sit - on buckets, in lawn chairs - watching their lines. For long periods, they stay as motionless and silent as the stars. A symphony of crickets, cicadas and tree frogs plays that lovely opus, "Country Summer Night."

Then, Nebinski sends a loud string of expletives across the lake at Wilcher, for cutting the grass on a Friday and leaving clippings floating all over the lake.

That's right: He's carping.

"Some colorful characters here," cracks Bethel Park's Ramona Klein, who's one of the few women here on this night. She's fishing with her husband, Tom. Except for that spell when she crawled off to sleep in the car.

"I don't have the stamina for it that he does," says the 25-year-old children's librarian, shortly before opening another can of super-caffeinated Surge soda.

There are lots of fishing fans like her husband, a 28-year-old Peters paramedic. There are younger guys with their worn cotton ball caps on backwards, and old codgers with polyester hats too big for their heads. There are sons with their dads - like Cory and his 13-year-old brother, Chad.

Their dad, Jody, says, "This is where I met my wife." Yep, the 40-year-old, Scenery Hill punch-cut operator says, Wanda came with another girl and her boyfriend one night 17 years ago, and, "A year later, we were married."

Now he brings the boys mostly "to have a good time," though bringing home a wad of a different kind of dough wouldn't hurt. "My goal every year is to maybe break even and make enough money to buy my West Virginia hunting license."

Cory's goal on this night was to stay awake for the whole 12 hours, but by 3 a.m., he's conked out on a little lawn chair, with a pillow.

Nebinski is out, too: Thanks to a few too many beers, he fell asleep on a picnic table. Now he's fallen on the ground inches from the water - asleep with the fishes.

The payoff

The action does slow way down.

At 4:45 a.m., Pershin's pager goes off, and he calls work on his cell phone. "Hi, Jim. Oh, catching lots of fish ... " While he's talking:


There is a surge of excitement as Nebinski's dad, Homer, hauls in a whopper.

In the yellow fluorescent light beside the concession stand, he can see that not only does it weigh 20 pounds, 4 ounces, making it the night's biggest, but it's also got "license plates" - a tag. And it looks to be tag No. 1000, which is the half-kitty tag, worth more than $850.

"It's over," the retired steelworker says, grinning and trembling.

But when Wilcher steps in to read the tag, he points out that the tiny number is 0001. It's worth $25.

After a few choice words, the elder Nebinski shrugs, says, "It's better'n nothing," and heads back to fish right up to the end. "I've seen too many guys hit at quarter to 7."

As the new day dawns, "Homer N.'s" fish survives a late challenge by Frank Z. (Frank Zacchone), and he hangs on to collect the $5 kitty and the second quick: $350. Already, some other fishermen have packed up and headed home.

But even before 7 a.m. and the PA call, "Night fishing is over," other guys are driving in and scouting for spots along the bank.

The carp-fishing day shift runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Then the night shift will be back.

84 Lakes' phone number is 724 - 228-8527.

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