When I was younger, I never pictured myself as the sentimental type.
I would look at my dad when he saw an old friend or listen when he talked about how much he loved our old family cabin, and I thought, “That will never be me.”
But life has a way of changing people. The longer you live, the more special the days of your past become.
And so it was with me when I revisited my younger days by returning to the farm ponds I used to fish with the legendary Virgil Ward, the TV show host and lure designer who passed away in 2004.
I was invited back by Virgil’s grandson, Eric Curnutte, a friendly young man who is determined to keep his late grandfather’s legacy alive.
My first impression was that Eric was about the same age as I was when I first fished with Virgil. I was the old guy in the boat now. How time flies.
My second impression was that everything looked pretty much the same as the last time I fished with Virgil on the ponds and lakes he built near Amsterdam, Mo. Virgil was proud of these waters. He took time to design fishing spots that were filled with flooded timber, brush, contour changes and rocky banks.
He filmed many of his “Championship Fishing” television shows here, and the lakes and ponds seldom disappointed.
I was lucky enough to be on several of those shows, and I can still remember the details like they happened yesterday. On one show, we were crappie fishing and I hooked a half-pound fish. I took my time reeling it in, so that the cameraman could catch the action. But no one could anticipate the action that was to ensue.
I watched as a shadow emerged from the depths, then watched as the jaws of one of the biggest bass I have ever seen closed on that crappie at the end of my line. I opened the bail on my reel to let the bass descend, then I counted to 10 and set the hook. Good plan, but it failed.
When I reeled in my line, all that was left was a mangled crappie.
Virgil immediately turned to his cameraman and said, “Did you catch that?” and the man behind the camera nodded enthusiastically.
Virgil couldn’t wait to get the film back to his studio to view it and was excited to get it on the air.
A great friendship developed that day in the 1980s. Over the years, I returned to Virgil’s place many times and I always came back with good stories.
I always looked at Virgil as a true gentleman. He wasn’t flashy like other TV show hosts such as Roland Martin or Jimmy Houston. He was humble, but he was excited to share his love of fishing. He would always let his guests have the first cast at a good spot, and he would always compliment others on the fish they caught.
I miss that. But I felt an emotional tie to Virgil when I returned to the ponds that he loved so much.
We fished out of Virgil’s last bass boat, which he received from his good friend Forrest Wood, who at the time ran Ranger Boats.
It is Eric’s now, and he only brings it out for special occasions.
“This is a ’93 boat that Ranger made for its 25th anniversary,” he said. “It was a limited-edition boat, so it was special.
“Grandpa didn’t put many hours on it, then it sat in storage. I inherited it and got it running again.
“Now it’s a sentimental thing for me. I baby this boat.”
That boat still knows its way to the fish. As Eric and I started casting spinnerbaits to the flooded timber and over the brush-filed bottom, we started catching nice-sized bass.
Then in the afternoon, we switched to another pond that Virgil had built and were joined by Eric’s mom and Virgil’s daughter, Sandy Curnutte.
As the sun heated the water, the bass fishing went from good to great, and the stories about Virgil added to the fun.
Eric, 31, who lives in Clinton, Mo., fished with his grandpa from the time he was old enough to walk and has many great memories about fishing these ponds. He remembers the day Virgil caught an 11-pound bass and put it in a tank for a day so that everyone could come by and see the fish.
The bass was eventually released, adding to the lore of these fishing spots. Today, the Curnutte family owns the land where those ponds are located, and Eric fishes them regularly.
He also spends time seeing that his grandfather’s legacy isn’t forgotten. Last year, he mounted a successful campaign to have Virgil inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. He and others were also proud to see that Virgil was honored as one of the Legends of the Outdoors in August.
“So many young people don’t even recognize the name Virgil Ward,” Eric said. “I want to keep his memory alive.
“He did so much for the sport of fishing, he deserves to be remembered.”
WHO: Virgil Ward, the legendary fisherman who spent much of his life outside of Amsterdam, Mo.
STATUS: Ward died in September 2004 at age 93.
OF NOTE: Ward’s nationally syndicated television show, “Championship Fishing,” started in 1964 and last for 27 years. It was the top-rated fishing show in the nation for many of those years, according to the Nielsen rating service.
A LURE DESIGNER: He was a pioneer in the lure industry, inventing such legendary baits as the Beetle Spin and perfecting the marabou jig. He founded the Bass Buster Lure Co. in the 1950s, and for many years, that company was based in little Amsterdam.
A TOURNAMENT CHAMP: Ward built his reputation by winning the 1962 World Series of Fishing and the 1964 National Championship of Fresh Water Fishing.
A MEDIA STAR: In the 1960s, Ward wrote a syndicated column that was printed in 455 newspapers. He also had a national radio show, and later added his television series.