I can feel the fish's gills breathing in my hands as I try to maintain this weird, gingerly viselike grip on the wiggling beast for the obligatory photo. I've killed big spiders, hung drywall, changed flat tires, but holding a fish is where I draw the line. Eating it, however, is an entirely different story.
We roll noisily over a wooden-plank bridge and pull up to Sunnybrook Conference Center & Trout Club in all its Southern-style colonial glory; the mansion sits as prettily as a belle at the ball with two miles of the sinuous, sparkling Castalia stream for jewels. It's a crisp, sunny spring morning, and the pastoral setting of field and stream is starting to put me at ease when I notice the rest of the clientele: fishermen in full regalia deep in conversations that I'm sure involve fly ties and line widths. I take a couple of deep breaths and remember owner and resident answer-man Doug Lamb's words to me over the phone, "Oh, you'll catch a fish, don't worry!"
I adjust my fisherman's cap and resolutely head up to the house. The expansive porch, flanked by 20-foot-tall columns, gives way to a well-appointed foyer and lounge area. Stately Victorian chairs rub shoulders with all manner of fishing statuary and artwork, resulting in an atmosphere that makes me feel as if I'm at a rich uncle's house where I've summered since my youth. It's comfortable, cozy and upper crust.
Jamie, my fishing buddy, nudges me as we search for Lamb. "They're baking cookies in there," she whispers, pointing to the kitchen. Indeed, several fishermen breaking for lunch have just received a plateful of chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven. They glance warily at us as they munch. It's true that we are two amateur, day-tripping fisherpeople wannabes â€” young females no less â€” and, perhaps, like the mansion we're standing in, a little incongruously placed (who's ever heard of a period colonial on the edge of Sandusky?).
But no matter. I've borrowed all the fishing gear I can get my hands on, recruited a friend who has fished a couple of times and ordered my meal for the evening's dinner: my own trout, the one I haven't caught yet ...
Lamb shows us to our room, one of 10 in the main house. Fresh flowers sit in a vase on the dresser. Lamb hands me a key, but it's just a formality. The door of the room across the hall from us sits open the whole time we're there â€” more like a dormitory hall than a hotel.
Before the fishing commences, he takes us on a golf-cart tour of the 133-acre property. Lamb points out some of the best features of his private club, which is open to nonmembers like us through two-day packages.
For starters, the guy's sitting on one of the biggest trees in Ohio. He claims the white oak is just millimeters away from holding the official title. The massive, gnarled old grandpa of a thing has a trunk that takes six people to ring. After hearing that condo developers were prowling the area with their eyes on the land bordering his property, he decided to buy it before they did. As long as Lamb's in charge, the tree will have room to grow.
As our golf cart cruises past an old farmhouse, Lamb stops to say hello. He moved his parents into the place a couple of years ago â€” they've been busy renovating ever since. Next door is a barn Lamb converted into a rustic hunting lodge, replete with an attic-turned-loft bedroom and animal-skin rugs. It's a members-only retreat that Lamb says even his wife doesn't frequent.
We head out to the car for our fishing gear, but there's one small problem: This is a fly fishing club, and we brought regular fishing poles. Poor Lamb can only shake his head and offer us a crash course in an art that takes years to perfect. So there we stand, in the parking lot, practicing our 10-to-2 hand motions and envisioning a line pausing for a moment in a horizontal position straight out behind us.
Lamb places us in the capable hands of member Dick Acierto, a retired school superintendent who says he gets out here a few times a week to work on his hobby. He's already caught a mess of fish in the little pond where we're stationed. The style here is catch-and-release, although members can keep and pay for as many fish as they want, and I'm looking for my dinner. No problem, he says. "We'll get ya a fish!"
Soon Acierto's running between Jamie and me, adjusting our positions on the bank and shouting encouragement as we flick the poles back and forth in futile attempts to get the flies out into the middle, where Dick swears all the fish are hiding.
Then, gold mine! Jamie hooks one, and it turns out to be a real beauty. Acierto's face lights up as she reels it in, and the rest of the afternoon we hear him bragging to other members about the 21-incher Jamie caught on her first attempt.
My turn can't be far off, right? While I'm perfecting my technique, Jamie catches two more trout. All around me, fishermen are hauling 'em in. Lamb, Acierto and fellow club member Chuck Teagarden (another kindly fisherman who came to our aid) powwow for a minute, then "assist" me in finally catching my very own. The circumstances must remain shrouded in mystery to preserve the remains of my dignity, but suffice to say I hooked and caught my dinner after all.
I may not be quite ready for the upper stream, the "Blue Ribbon Waters," dedicated to serious fishermen only. The rest of the property is stocked weekly, but that half-mile of stream contains only the fish that reside there naturally. I am, however, ready to eat.
My trout is great, and the meal itself is a treat, served fine-dining style with a raspberry sorbet and shortcake for dessert. Jamie and I wander into the lounge, sit by the fire with a beer in hand, and wonder aloud why anyone would want to go anywhere else for a little R&R. A stenciled motto on the walls of the lounge tells the same story: There's no place like Sunnybrook. Click your heels three times, cruise an hour west of downtown Cleveland and there you are, a million miles away from anywhere.
Great Lakes Options
You've probably heard of "Tecumseh!" the outdoor drama in Chillicothe about the legendary Shawnee leader and his struggle to defend his homeland. But you might not realize that Travelocity named it one of Ohio's 10 best "Local Secrets/Big Finds" in 2003. The show runs June 10 through Sept. 3. Tickets range from $8 to $18. For more info, check out www.tecumsehdrama.com or call 1-866-775-0700. The show is now in its 32nd season and is performed nightly, except Sundays.
All About Abe
The state of Illinois owns almost 50,000 pieces of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, ranging from personal letters to his death bed. The question was, what to do with them? A four-block, $150 million answer opened this spring in Springfield, Ill., with the unveiling of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, which includes a library, theaters, a restored train depot and lots of exhibit space. Through September, "Blood on the Moon" commemorates the 140th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. Museum admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.50 for kids ages 5 to 15 and $5.50 for students. Visit www.alplm.org or call (217) 558-8844 for more information.