The Cooper-Woster story: hanging five, hunting big bass and finding that place in the cattails where Mepps spinners go to die

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
John Cooper with, sigh, another 5-pound-plus largemouth

First, a few things you might not know about John Cooper: He used to have a surf board, and a chopper, and a woody wagon.

He was a California kid, after all, who enjoyed cruising on two wheels and four, and slip-sliding away on the waves crashing the shores of his home state.

From there, he went on to Vietnam service that included commanding a river boat into some pretty unfriendly waters, returning to work military intelligence for a while and then settling into a long career in law enforcement for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That's what brought him to the Dakotas. And that's how I met Cooper in the late 1970s, when he was senior resident agent in Pierre covering a couple three states and I was a still-fairly-young reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, primarily covering the outdoors.

Which meant, of course, that Cooper and I were destined to end up sooner or later in a bass boat out in Stanley County, or over at Rosehill near Wessington or down on the Rosebud Reservation. Good times, those, as Cooper introduced me to the art of slow fishing a Texas-rigged plastic worm, flipping a tube jig into dense woody (but not the station-wagon kind) cover and walking the dog on the surface with a Zara Spook. Yeah, I know. I was confused by some of that, too. Still am.

And I, in returning the favor, instructed Coop in the fine Lyman County art of throwing a Mepps spinner so far up into the cattails you couldn't find it with a metal detector and a GPS satellite. Fishing partners must share their respective skills, after all. It's how friendships are formed and preserved.

It was complicated, that friendship. Sure, we did plenty of fishing, for walleyes, salmon, bass and northern pike. And eventually here on this blog, I will show you a picture of my 25-pound (estimate) pike that Coop landed, then lost for me, up on Lake Oahe back in 1986. It was an entertaining spectacle about which I still have, well, somewhat mixed emotions.

And we occasionally went hunting together, in a series of adventures that included the morning one of us blasted a rooster pheasant an hour or so before legal shooting hours. Which one of us? That, too, will wait for another story.

While we were doing all that, however, Coop and I were in a professional relationship: He was the news source, and I the newshound.

That intensified in 1995 when Bill Janklow, back for the third of his four terms as governor, hired Cooper to serve in his cabinet as state Game, Fish & Parks Department secretary. There Coop excelled, although not without controversy, for 12 years, then retired to do some natural resource contract work and move over to a spot on the appointed — by then-Gov. Mike Rounds — GF&P Commission. That eight-person panel sets hunting and fishing seasons, maintains and amends various regulations and generally determines the philosophical direction of the GF&P Department and its assortment of fish, wildlife and parks professionals.

Let's just say that wasn't always a great situation for us to maintain a friendship. And there were times in my coverage of the many controversial issues Coop handled when his lovely, long-suffering wife, Vera, needed to muster a great deal of Christian charity to speak to me, much less be pleasant. Yet, she did, somehow. Bless her heart.

And Coop never let the tough stories I wrote affect our other relationship, the one that now -- with me semi-retired, and he almost fully retired, except for all that volunteer work he's called upon to handle, “now that you’re retired and have all this free time" -- focuses almost exclusively on the good stuff, like bass fishing.

Which we've both been doing lately, although at different levels -- his level, always, being a bit higher than mine.

Hence the picture of the lunker that Coop recently emailed, along with this brief note: "This is a 5-9 largemouth. Released."

He could have skipped that last word if he'd  wanted to. He releases all his bass, unless one is so badly injured by the hook that it's unlikely to live. And then I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a full-scale, Code Bass! Code Bass! rescusitation effort by Cooper that might include use of a defibrillator and mouth to mouth. He hates to kill bass almost as much as he loves to eat walleye, which is another story for later, possibly with lemon and a touch of butter.

So, obviously, the 5-9 largemouth was released, along with another big pre-spawn female just three ounces shy of 5 pounds. I mention this 5-pound marker because I have yet to catch a 5-pound largemouth bass. And Lord knows I've tried, coming close a number of times.

Coop has topped 5-pounds a number of times. Countless times. More times than I can count, without weeping at least. And back in his California-Arizona bass-hunting days he topped 10 pounds, the mere mention of which causes me to hyperventilate just a bit, as my thumb and index finger reflex into a jerky retrieve motion.

So as you can imagine, given my unrealized quest and my reporter's instincts, I sought more details about the latest bass: "Where'd you catch them?" I wrote hopefully in an email reply.

Coop was kind enough to resist the standard "in the mouth" response. But his generally loquacious demeanor turned oddly taciturn when I pushed for specifics.

"I will not give you a location on these - worked too hard to find them and get access!!" Coop wrote, with an exclamation point for each bass.

Then he fell back on a common response from central South Dakota bass anglers when they want to avoid revealing the location of their honey hole: "They can truthfully be described as being from a Stanley County Stock Dam.”

Which helps, of course, because there are only about 73,000 of those.

And then this: "Caught last week in 48 degree water - slow bite but awesome pre- spawners."

I love it when he talks like that. But what I love even more is when he shows up at a hopeful little boat ramp -- or a makeshift launch point -- on a piece of relatively isolated bass water with a little fishing boat and big packed lunch, for both of us.

At this stage in our lives, I think we need to resume that part of our mutually instructive friendship on the water. There's still a lot, after all, that I have to teach him about throwing a Mepps deep into the cattails.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.