When Floyd Patterson was heavyweight champion, his eccentric manager, Cus D'Amato, often disappeared mysteriously. For weeks on end no one knew where to look. Rumors flew that D'Amato was in Detroit or Spokane or Indianapolis lining up some palooka for Floyd to flatten in two.
Now that Patterson is no longer champion, the truth may be told about those mysterious trips: D'Amato had gone f-i-s-h-i-n-g. Cus has been fishing for the past few years, and he has entered into it with all the zest, verve and passion that he used to bring to boxing. "I am," he whispers in conspiratorial fashion, "a bit of a fanatic."
Cus is putting it mildly. Never has there been such an angler as he. He plots against the bass in much the same way he used to hatch schemes to foil Jim Norris. He talks to the fish. He shouts at the fish. He buys lures by the ton. He dreams about fish. He lives to fish. Fishing is all he cares for. "It's a good thing I didn't fish when I was a kid," he says. "I never would have done anything else."
Cus began fishing in 1960, when he went to upstate New York to get away from the aftermath of the Rosensohn investigation. But in the country, he became bored. A kindly friend suggested that he pass the time fishing. Cus went, and he liked it. He did not catch anything the first day (neither did his friend), but he was just fascinated casting a lure with a spinning rod. "I didn't even know what a lure was!" he exclaims. On the second day out, he caught a smallmouth bass. That did it. "Catching a bass," Cus says, "is like getting bit by a mosquito with malaria. You get a disease."
The friend could not fish the next day, but he arose at sunrise to drive Cus to a nearby creek. "I was all alone," Cus recalls, "and then in a while it began to get dark. I thought I was gonna get caught in a thunderstorm. I began to get the gear together, and then, suddenly, it dawned on me. It was gettin' darker and darker! It wasn't a thunderstorm. It was nighttime! The whole day gone! I lost a whole day in my life without realizin' it. I wondered what happened. I thought I was ill. A day went by, it seemed like an hour!
"When I saw my friend, he laughed and said, 'This is normal. This is what happens to people who like fishin'.' Holy smokes, I said to myself, I better be careful. If I do this every day, one day I'll look in the mirror and see an old man. You don't know how many times I've been in bed and wondered whether this is an illness. A particular type of illness, where you get pleasure, not pain, where you get reinfected each time. Where you want to get reinfected!"
When D'Amato goes fishing now, he wears everything: jacket, creel, hat, the whole bit. "If I look like a nonfisherman," he says, "the fish won't want to be caught. They have pride. So I remove this possible area of resistance. The fish look up, and they say, 'Ah, there's a real fisherman.' " Should the fish balk, Cus pleads with them. "I sort of talk it up," he says. "I invent stories for them. I think all the fish, all the adult fish, are tellin' all the others not to bite. Somebody must be instructin' them! If you go out there with confidence and proceed with enthusiasm, you'll get better results. When I'm there, it seems normal." When Cus lands a fish, he will call out to the bass below, "Hey! He needs some company! C'mon up here with him." Asked why he does this, he explains, "The fish don't care about me. They care about one another. I try to appeal to their emotional side. Hey, people are gonna think I'm crazy altogether."
D'Amato loves tackle almost as much as he loves fishing. At last count, he had 34 rods, 20 reels and countless boxes of lures, in which were entangled 1,500 Mepps spinners. He's just crazy about Mepps spinners. When the world is troubling him and a trip upstate is impossible, he will quietly close his office door, haul forth the loot from a closet and gloat over it. "My vice," he confides.
D'Amato does not dare to walk past a tackle shop with money in his pocket. Yet he cannot keep away. When he walks into a shop, the salesmen shout, "He's here!" Who he is they do not know. All they know is that he reappears periodically to buy out the stock. "They act like I'm a character," Cus says, a trifle irked. He is such an easy mark that the salesmen now try to talk him out of buying things. They have to keep in practice some way. "How much is that?" Cus asked the other day at Herman's, a Manhattan sporting goods store, his hands greedily grabbing and encircling an imported Swedish reel.
"You don't want that," the clerk said, reaching for it hastily.
"Why not?" Cus demanded, affronted.
"Because it's for trolling, and you said you didn't troll."
"How do you know I won't?" Cus asked.
"I don't," the clerk said, "but why don't you wait until you do?" By now, the clerk's fingers had worked their way around the reel, and with a triumphant cry he snatched it away from a defeated D'Amato.
"I guess you're right," Cus said sadly.
D'Amato's fascination with fishing has led him into the larger world of nature. Not long ago, he told a friend, "I've been hearing about a guy I want to learn about. I've heard a lot of quotes, and after I heard his name with the fourth or fifth one, I said to myself that I gotta know this guy better."
"Who's the guy?" the friend asked.
"Thoreau," Cus said.
"Thoreau!" the friend exclaimed.
"You know him?" Cus asked excitedly.
The friend explained that Thoreau had died 100 years ago. Then he went on somewhat to talk about Thoreau's philosophy. D'Amato was entranced. It was, Cus said, too bad that Thoreau was dead. He would have liked to have known him personally. "You probably would have become friends, Cus," the friend said. "Ah," Cus said, "you're just makin' fun of me."
But the chances are that if Thoreau were alive today, he and Cus would be friends indeed. Both would have at least one thing in common—an unusual approach to life. Cus bore this out recently while getting dressed for a fishing trip. As he sat on the edge of his bed, he carefully spread his trousers out on the floor. Then, with a joyous whoop, he quickly pulled both trouser legs toward him and in an instant was on his feet with his pants on. "I've always had a reason for doing that," Cus said. "You know when guys in boxin' come to me and try to put the bull on me, they say, 'Listen, D'Amato, you're no different from me. When you get dressed, you put your pants on one leg at a time.' And you know what I do when they say that? I laugh. I just have to laugh."