Text and photos by Eric Fowler
Whether it's fly-fishing for salmon in Alaska or taking some boys to a Lincoln-area farm pond, former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne loves fishing.
Considering he has been a teacher of sorts for most of his life, it made sense that Tom Osborne began a late-summer fishing trip last year giving two boys some instruction.
“Look behind you and you’ll see there are some plugs on those rods, the kind of long things?” the former University of Nebraska football coach told the boys on the drive from Lincoln to a nearby farm pond in his SUV, which had a
“If we can’t catch them that way, then I’ve got a couple of other rods rigged up and we’ll try some plastic worms and see if they’ll bite those. They’ll usually do one or the other, we hope.”
“We’re here already?” said Christian Wilke, Osborne’s 8-year-old grandson, when they arrived at the pond.
Christian and 9-year-old Josiah Brown, – Jo Jo for short – each grabbed a pole and followed Osborne, who carried the rest of the tackle, to the weathered johnboat he leaves on the bank. Moving a bit slower than he did when he roamed the sidelines, Osborne, 71, went back to his SUV to pull on a pair of hip boots and grab his fly rod as the boys explored the shoreline. When he returned and the boys were on board, he gave them another lesson before shoving off. “What you do is cast it out and kind of jerk it in like that, okay?” he said, tossing one of the plugs along a weedline. “It looks like a frog jumping or swimming in the water.”
Grabbing the oars, Osborne rowed to the middle of the half-acre pond. He spent most of the next two hours tying on new lures, taming a backlash and taking weeds and fish off hooks. When needed, he sprinkled in other fishing lessons between small talk throughout the morning, all with the patience one might expect from someone with master’s and doctoral degrees in education psychology, and all in his trademark, monotone voice.
“Reel faster with it, make it look like a minnow,” he told one of the boys. “You don’t always have to throw it in the same place,” he told the other later. “You can throw it in different places. But don’t throw over in the moss.”
“You don’t want to put a big bend in your rod or it breaks,” he said as one of the boys reeled in a pile of moss.”
“Throw it out like that, and let it sink to the bottom,” he said after tying a rubber worm on one of their lines. “Keep your rod tip up, just like that.”
“When it goes under the water it looks like a crawdad,” he said after tying a new crankbait on a different pole. “You don’t have to twitch that one, just reel it in.”
Wincing slightly and without saying a word, at one point he even pulled a hook out of his hand, the result of a young angler not paying attention to his line, as they sometimes do.
And, of course, he handed out praise for good casts and when fish were caught. “That’s a nice one,” he told Jo Jo after he reeled in the first and biggest fish of the day, a largemouth that would have tipped the scales at about five pounds.
“Thank you,” Jo Jo said.
“How’d that feel on the end of the line?” Osborne said after the fish was released.
“It was pretty hard to yank in.”
“That was big,” said Christian.
Osborne grew up in Hastings. When his dad went off to serve in World War II, he moved to St. Paul with his mother and brother to live with his grandparents. An uncle who liked to hunt and fish lived across the street.
“He would take me occasionally and I really looked forward to that,” Osborne said. “Probably most of the fishing we did was for catfish in the Loup River. And there were some ponds around we would do some bluegill and bass fishing in.
“I remember that Johnson Lake had just been formed about that time and it had really good fishing when it was new.”
Osborne caught the fishing bug during that time and has been infected with it ever since. “Maybe early on you’re interested in catching lots of fish,” he said. “But I think the thing that fascinates me more is getting a fish to strike a lure. It isn’t so much landing the fish or even playing the fish. I’m just kind of fascinated by the process of getting something that does not think like a human to strike a lure. And sometimes it’s pretty tricky.”
He’s fished across Nebraska and the United States. From a cabin he once owned at Lake McConaughy, he would fish for white bass, walleye and rainbow trout, which he also pursued in Lake Ogallala and the irrigation canal and North Platte River below it. The fly rod is his tool of choice, and he’s cast to trout in rivers and streams across Nebraska, and to bass and bluegill in waters closer to home, including a sandpit near Central City where he has a new vacation cabin.
Trout and salmon are his favorite quarry. When he has the chance, he trolls for the latter in Lake Oahe in South Dakota. “Most of the fishing I do is fly-fishing, but I do kind of get a kick out of trolling for salmon up there,” he said. “It’s a little tricky to find them and they’re powerful and big fish.” Annual trips to Alaska with family include fly-fishing for king and sockeye salmon, arctic char, grayling and trout. He’s also chased trout in such exotic locations as a pond on his acreage near Lincoln and at Holmes Lake in Lincoln with Christian and Jo Jo.
Wherever he’s fishing is a good place to be. “There usually aren’t a lot of really ugly places to fish, particularly if you’re talking about trout, salmon or other coldwater species, and even the farm ponds,” Osborne said.
But the Hastings native has never been able to fish as much as he would’ve liked. He played football at Hastings College and then professionally for three years. He coached college football for 36 years at Nebraska, the last 25 as head coach, before stepping down following the 1997 season. He then served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he’s back at the university as athletic director. None of those careers has left much time for fishing.
When he was coaching, “Football brought fishing to a dead standstill for about six or seven months. I mean, you didn’t do anything,” Osborne said.“I could remember always wanting to go fishing in the fall. You know, I had always heard that the trout fishing, fly-fishing, was really good in late-September and October, and for almost 40 years I was never able to do that.”
Before returning to the university last October, Osborne was finding more time to fish. “I’ve probably done more fishing this summer than I have in 40 years in any summer,” he said. “It’s been kind of nice to have more flexibility.”
Sixty-hour work weeks will make it tougher to get away. “Hopefully it will slow down a bit in the summer, but you really don’t have an off-season,” he said.
Osborne doesn’t think he’s the only one who doesn’t fish enough. Kids don’t either, he said. He’s concerned about the sedentary lifestyle of Americans, especially children, and the problems that leads to, including obesity. He’s concerned about the amount of time kids spend watching television, surfing the Internet and playing video games, not to mention the violent and even sexual nature of the latter.
When Osborne was growing up, he couldn’t wait to get out of school, even though it typically meant going straight to football, basketball, track or baseball practice instead of a fishing hole. “So you just didn’t go home and sit in front of the Game Boy or a Playstation or in front of the computer or television set,” he said. “As a result, we do have a lot more inactivity now, and it certainly hasn’t, I don’t think, served our young people well.”
Even in sports, of which he’s always been a big supporter, things have changed radically. “There’s an awful lot of pressure on kids to specialize early and parents are now tuned in to college scholarships before a child’s even played anything in high school,” Osborne said. “I think there’s some benefit to playing a wide variety of sports early on because you really don’t know, when you’re 7, 8 or 9 years old, what you’re going to be best at, what you’re going to be most interested in.
“The more competitive situations you’re in, the better suited you are later on to handle stress or competition, whether it’s high school athletics, college athletics or just an adult in the business world.”
More time spent indoors or online means there’s less time for outdoor activities such as fishing. “Hunting and fishing activities are really wholesome as far as a family experience and family bonding,” he said. “It’s a much better way for fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and uncles to interact than sitting in front of the television.”
There are other obstacles that keep youths from picking up a fishing pole. One might be location: Kids who live where there isn’t a nearby place to fish don’t gravitate to fishing like those who live where there’s a pond or lake a bike ride away. And some kids don’t have anyone available to take them fishing.
Osborne works with Jo Jo in the TeamMates Mentoring Program, which matches youths with a volunteer who can provide them with guidance and inspiration. Osborne and his wife, Nancy, started the program in Lincoln in 1991. It now serves the entire state, reaching more than 3,000 students in grades four through 12.
He’d be happy if it were easier for mentors to take kids fishing, but because of liability issues, TeamMates is primarily a school-based program. Only with permission from parents and with another adult present can mentors meet kids at places like a movie theater or fishing pond. It’s an unfortunate fact of life in today’s twisted world, where dangers lurk in places they shouldn’t.
Adults have their own distractions that prevent many from fishing – hectic work schedules, the Internet, cell phones, PDAs … even golf.
Osborne has played the game, especially when he was coaching. But those golf outings were part of the job and cut into off-season free time he would have rather spent with family or fishing. “It’s not that I’m opposed to it,” he said. “I just find that it’s very difficult to both fish and golf.”
While Osborne truly enjoys fishing with friends and family, including a daughter who is an avid fly-angler, fishing is also his escape. Often, the places he fishes offer solitude. “In my previous life, both as a football coach and then in Congress, I was constantly surrounded by people. I found that fishing afforded me an opportunity to get away, do something I enjoyed, something that was totally fascinating and engrossing to me. I think it’s important to have a change of pace, not to be doing the same thing over and over again, all the time, every day.
“I’m sure some people, if they went fishing this morning, would be thinking continually about the next business deal or the next appointment. But when I’m fishing I’m totally focused on what I’m doing and it’s a diversion.”
Finding a balance between his desire to both spend time with family and escape can be difficult, Osborne admitted. “Given the opportunity, I would fish 14 or 15 hours a day and I might do it 6 or 7 days a week, and that’s not healthy either,” he said. “You have to find a balance.”
Osborne has lent his time to many worthy causes, both personally and professionally. He helped create a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program initiative for the Platte and Republican river valleys that can both save water, improving stream flows and reservoir levels, and increase habitat for wildlife, especially pheasants. He’s lobbied on behalf of Lake Ogallala’s trout population in hopes that adequate oxygen levels can be maintained. He even taught a fly-fishing course to youths attending the first Nebraska Outdoors Expo in Kearney last May.
He hopes the latter and similar efforts can help stem a decline in the number of people who hunt and fish. “Obviously, if you don’t have the clientele coming on, it does not bode well for the future,” he said. “Most of our wildlife habitat and lake renovation projects are paid for by Game and Parks, and much of that money comes from hunting and fishing licenses. So even those who count themselves as being environmentalists, who are not particularly keen on hunting and fishing, may find that a lot of the habitat enhancement that benefits wildlife begins to go away if you don’t have adequate numbers of hunters and fishermen.”
Fishing isn’t all about fishing. The nature of the sport leaves plenty of time to talk about life, too.
“Did you play baseball this summer, Jo Jo?” Osborne asked on that cool August morning last summer.
“No,” Jo Jo said.
“Are you still playing football?”
“What do you play, with some kids in the neighborhood?”
“I play on a team.”
“Do you play tackle football or flag football?” asked Christian.
“Tackle,” Jo Jo replied.
“Do you wear helmets and shoulder pads and everything?” Osborne asked.
“That’ll be quite a deal. I’ll have to come and watch you play.”
Thanks to cell phones, fishing isn’t necessarily the escape it once was. It depends on priorities. Osborne took one call on his while he sat in the boat, but chose to let it ring when others came. “We’re too busy,” he said.
He found time to make a few casts with a spinning rod when he wasn’t helping the boys, but didn’t pick up his own fly rod until more than an hour into their outing. He didn’t catch a fish, either. “I was terrible,” he told the boys.
It didn’t matter. He was spending quality time with his grandson and Jo Jo. And he was fishing.