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Back Story: Remembering Mister Jack

Back Story: Remembering Mister Jack
Jack Wingate of Wingate's Lunker Lodge on Lake Seminole in Georgia

"A rooster was run over by a boat trailer."

"Somebody got into Grandma Myrtle's moonshine cake, and she IS MAD."

"Those two guys from Atlanta are waiting to go fishing, and their guide ain't showed up."

"He wants to know if there any openings left in boys' camp."

"The pea sheller's broke."

"Forrest Wood is on line two."

"The lights on the end of the dock ain't working."

"The meat man didn't bring us any sausage yesterday and we're out."

"Tom Mann is on line three."

Sunup is breaking at Wingate's Lunker Lodge, and though a cacophony of noise and confusion already threatens to ruin everyone's day, Jack Wingate is just the man to sort it all out.

He's standing inside his square fortress of glass showcases, wearing a plaid cotton shirt with papers, pencils and who-knows-what-all bulging out of the pocket. His khaki pants are held up by a dark belt of bridle leather, finished off with a huge silver buckle shaped like an arrowhead. One of his britches' legs is spilling over the top of a black leather Wellington boot.

Big, burly Mister Jack doesn't seem to mind that the world is falling apart. He's working the handle of the cash register and setting off bells; he's selling bait and settling up breakfast checks; he's calming down his mother, Myrtle, while offering advice to a fisherman on what lures to buy and use; he's whispering something to Miss Joyce, his wife, and fussing at Cathy or Peggy or Jackie ¬- his daughters - while they fuss back; he's clearing the phone lines one at a time and restoring order out of chaos. It's all crazy; it's all wonderful.

That's how I remember Jack Wingate, that's how I'll always see him: black wavy hair and twinkling eyes, syrupy Georgia accent and happy-go-lucky. There are people and places that we store away in our memory, that are so special we won't let time or the world touch them. Mister Jack is one of mine.

The reason I bring this up now is that Jackie told me her dad, who turned 82 on Sept. 1, is doing poorly. The prostate cancer that nobody knew he had until last spring has metastasized. He's frail, she said; it isn't promising and only hope and prayer are left to us.

When I was young, I roamed along the northern Gulf Coast and covered the outdoor beat for The News-Journal in Pensacola, Fla. Off and on during the `70s and `80s, I fished and hunted with Jack. His Lunker Lodge was famous for its exceptional guides, the boys' summer camp that served several generations of fishermen, and the quality of the down-home food served in its restaurant. For me - and no doubt many others - the attraction of the place went much deeper. There was something real and unaffected about the Lunker Lodge and its people. It was as if what we had imagined as the perfect fish camp had come to life, a timeless place where men could live out their own dreams of adventure.

Jack will always be at center stage of so many of mine: numerous bass-fishing trips; the Saturday we went to the Swine Time Festival in Climax and Jack almost won the chitterling-eating contest; the Georgia duck hunt - strictly a one-volley deal at sunup - on a pond near Jack's house; the quail hunts (quite good, in fact) on the islands near the confluence of Spring Creek and the Chattahoochee River; searching arrowheads on the flooded "Indian mound;" the time we threw the newfangled lures called buzzbaits all day and caught bass all day; the stories of great deeds and strange occurrences done in this otherwise sleepy land.

Jack's skill as a Seminole fisherman was unsurpassed, and everybody wanted to fish with him. His Ranger was a working boat, of course, shaped like a giant .30-30 cartridge and built more for stability than speed. It had swivel seats at the bow, amidships and in the stern. The bottom of the boat seemed to be always strewn with various detritus: willow leaves and sticks, chunks of wood from the flooded timber at the mouth of Spring Creek, blackgum seeds, pignuts, bald cypress cones, wisps of wrecked spider webs, ancient paper bags, grimy pieces of plastic worms, Honey Bun wrappers and Vienna sausage cans, hooks, bullet weights, wads of tangled line and so forth. The tackle box was a white plastic pickle bucket whose sides were festooned with hanging plugs: Nip-I-Didees, Tiny Torpedoes, Spots, Zara Spooks, Johnson Imps, Lunker Lures, Boy Howdys, Little Georges. Inside were more lures, hopelessly entangled, though Jack could always manage to extricate the one he wanted to use next.

Jack didn't look, talk or act like the other fishermen I knew in those green days of bass fishing, but he was one of the best. Anyone familiar with the history of tournament bass fishing will know of Jack Wingate's place in it. He could have been one of the greats, but everything he wanted was there at Lake Seminole.

I never made up my mind whether Jack is simply an iconoclast or somebody who blazed his own trail and saw no need to follow the courses of others. Regardless, part of his charm is that he never changed. All his life he's been a monument to the best qualities that his community and the fishing world have attributed to him.

Long ago I moved away from north Florida and lost track of Jack. Occasionally somebody who had visited Lunker Lodge would tell me of how he fared. I talked to Jack after the death of Tom Mann, his close friend, and offered him my condolences. The last time I saw Jack was at the funeral of our mutual friend, Tim Tucker, the famed Florida bass writer who was killed in a traffic accident a few years ago. Jack and I hugged, shared a few recollections of the old days, and went our separate ways. He was beginning to show his age, but, then, so was I.

No matter; the image of him imprinted forever in my mind is of a man in the prime of his life, firmly grounded in the excitement and hubbub of a Southern fish camp well off the beaten path of civilization.

I go back there, once in a while, to Lunker Lodge. It's a warm morning in June and the scent of pines is intermingling with the smell of frying bacon. I'm sitting in one of the rockers outside the store, chatting with passersby or the hired hands while I wait for the summons. As crazy as things get, Jack never forgets his priorities. He sorts out as much Lunker Lodge business as he can, leaves the rest for his girls to settle, and then comes rushing out the screen door.

"Let's go fishing," he says.

And we go.

Editor's note: If you'd like to send a card or note to Mister Jack, write to him: Jack Wingate, 149 Hutchinson Ferry Road, Bainbridge, GA 39819.

Tags: colin-moore  blog 

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