A select number of outdoorsmen – fishermen in particular – share the special ability to manufacture elegant solutions to any problem that arises by using whatever items they have on hand. They are real life MacGyvers, like the eponymous main character of the popular network television series from the late 1980s.
MacGyver was a brilliantly resourceful secret agent who had the ability to solve all manner of threats to self and country by devising incredibly scientific counter solutions made from typical—and quite conveniently available—household items. These solutions have come to be known as MacGyverisms.
Say, for example, in a pinch you were to fix the engine on your 23-foot Seacraft using a D-cell battery, a toothpick, a rubber band, a patch of foil, and a wad of chewing gum. Then all your gleeful beer-drinking buddies would salute your exceptional MacGyverism by loudly proclaiming, “Hey MacGyver, it’s your turn to buy the next round!”
Among outdoorsmen, examples of MacGyveristic tendencies abound. For example, back in my younger days, when frugality was a matter of necessity rather than choice, I started to become deeply interested in ice fishing. By bits and pieces, I accumulated some of the necessary items, a few precious dollars at a time. As gear began to accumulate, I found that I needed a way to move all that stuff around with me on the ice. Having a young daughter at the time who was transitioning from the cute, cuddly baby stage into the whirling state of destruction that is the toddler age, our lovable offspring’s tiny little washtub was now no longer needed for its intended purpose. Being the resourceful, never-spend-any-money-if-you-can-help-it type, I drilled a hole in the front of the tub, added a pulling rope, and voila! I had an instant ice-fishing storage and transportation device. I like to think that the unspoken admiration for my creative brand of frugality outnumbered the more loudly apparent guffaws out on the ice. Still, that little plastic washtub served me admirably for many years.
While on the subject of young children, countless parents know the horror of watching their delightful little child open up a gift from an otherwise well-meaning friend or family member, only to discover the multicolored minefield contained within. The idea behind these “Create Your Own (fill in the blank)” kits, according to the naïve gift giver, is that the wonderful young object of your affection, who has the attention span of a hummingbird, will exercise his or her creative inclinations by creating “something” out of a large mishmash of tiny assorted plastic nothings. Although the new DIY gift so often delights the young child upon the initial thrill of discovery, forever thereafter it will sit unceremoniously on a shelf as the child returns to their new iPhone, Xbox, or rapidly growing Facebook profile.
As an active spouse/father/angler (not necessarily in that order), it had never occurred to me the potential value of what might be hidden inside. Then one day I stopped by the local tackle shop to look for a few beads to serve as sliding-sinker stops on my saltwater bait rigs. And in direct assault upon my frugal nature, I discovered that one small bag of 6 plastic beads was selling for $3.79, plus tax! Almost four bucks for a few tiny beads? Immediately upon returning home I ransacked my teenage daughter’s room to try and salvage any forgotten make-your-own thingy kits. Today I continue to use these little plastic beads, charms, blades, and other assorted pieces for making my own bait-fishing rigs, soft-plastic bait inserts, lure and hook dressings, bobber and sinker stops, and more.
Ask any fisherman or other outdoor pleasure seeker and you’ll hear about as many imaginative and downright ingenious innovations as there are squirrels in a nuthouse. “I’ve used bottle caps as cooler drain-cap replacements,” noted fisheries biologist and avid fisherman Paul Caruso. “Pool noodles have served as rod protectors and lure guards, Tupperware food containers for holding everything, kitchen drawer liners under the cooler on the boat as no-skid mats, rubber bands for breakaway-sinker holders and for holding balloon floats on, a slotted kitchen spoon for an ice-fishing-hole scoop, and nylon stockings for bait net replacements. Red nail polish is great for placing a stripe on gold Kastmasters for early season trout fishing, and I’ve used tons of household items for fly tying, including the fur and hair off our Labrador retriever!”
Some creative outdoor inspirations are improvised on the spot, either under pressure or in a pinch, while others are more of a home-and-workbench variety, conceived and fashioned to try and resolve a particular problem or to just increase personal convenience.
Captain Ryan Collins is a charter captain who runs the Miss Loretta out of Sandwich, Massachusetts. As a saltwater fishing guide, Collins always has to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that arises out on the water.
“Sometimes while trolling tubes or fishing eels, we have stumbled across a school of mackerel unexpectedly,” Collins explained via email. “In the time it takes to remove Sabiki rigs from their packaging and tie them to our traditional fishing rods, the school of mackerel has disappeared and we have missed a golden bait-catching opportunity.” Although Sabiki rigs are super-effective and widely used for catching small, schooling fish species, they tend to tangle easily. With multiple small hooks dangling every which way the rigs can snag on all manner of things, including clothing, dock line, finger tips, ear lobes, and more. As a result, seldom do these delicate rigs last long after the first use. “The easy answer to this problem is to purchase a Sabiki rod,” Collins acknowledged. “Unfortunately, Sabiki rods often cost upwards of $100.” As a member in good standing in the Innovative Frugal Angler’s Club, Collins came up with a clever way not only to deal with the hassles associated with the multi-hook bait-catching rigs, but to also help him quickly jump into action whenever the opportunity arises.
“It’s a five-foot-long section of half-inch PVC pipe,” he explained. “We used electrical tape to attach a reel to the bottom of the PVC, ran the main line through the PVC, and then tied on a Sabiki rig. When you are done jigging, simply reel the entire Sabiki rig into the PVC. No tangles, no mess and ready to use whenever.” Of course the same concept can also be used as a handy, ever-ready squid jigging rod or for any number of other similar applications.
Creative uses for common, everyday items are not just limited to the home and workshop. Veteran anglers and experienced seamen alike know that three basic items that are indispensable out on the water include a good knife, a roll of duct tape, and a small collection of plastic zip ties.
“While fishing recreationally,” recalled Bruce Boehm, a part-time commercial fisherman from Cape Cod, “the stripers were hitting diamond jigs; of which I only had one.” Anglers of all pursuits can easily identify with Boehm’s situation. When the fish are so keyed in on one specific size and shape of natural forage, they can become finicky and will only offer at a very specific size and shape of any bait or lure that is presented. To offer anything else would be in vain. This of course adds much frustration to the unfortunate angler who lacks the perfect match to the hatch. In this case, Boehm did have the magic lure in his possession, albeit just one. But unfortunately it happened to be lacking the most important fish catching component of them all: a hook. “When I went to grab a split ring to attach the hook,” he explained, “I found I was out of them. So in a quick fix, I grabbed a zip-tie, which I always carry on board, attached a hook, and proceeded to catch stripers. I still use the jig as is today!”
In contrast to the common perception of MacGyverisms, it’s worth noting that sometimes the best fixes are the simplest ones. For example, when the steering malfunctioned on his 23-foot Seacraft, Captain Don Campbell of Labrador Fishing Charters found himself stranded on Stellwagen Bank about 8 miles out to sea. As the direness of the situation began to sink in, Campbell knew his options were few. However, with a little creative thinking he was able to come up with idea to help get his boat back to port for repairs. Campbell began by grabbing a simple 5-gallon bucket. He then tied it to a length of rope, secured it to a cleat, and powered up the boat. Once they were in motion, whenever they came to a point where they needed to turn or steer the vessel, he would slow down and the crew would toss the bucket overboard, alternating it from the right side to the left side of the boat as needed. The bucket provided just enough drag on each rear quarter of the vessel to point the bow in the right direction. This simple (but somewhat labor intensive) method helped Campbell navigate the boat back to safety. “It worked,” said Campbell. “It saved me around 800 bucks for a tow!”
Widely available on just about any seagoing vessel, who would have guessed that the potentially creative applications for a simple 5-gallon bucket were so diverse? To that point, while transiting Boston Harbor just before dawn in his 16-foot Old Town Skiff, a former US Navy SEAL, who was home on leave at the time, suddenly “discovered” a partially submerged object with the lower unit of his 18 HP outboard. “I was now the new owner of an engine prop with no blades on it.” Stranded in the middle of the harbor with no way to propel himself, the Navy veteran was furious at himself for being so careless. Luckily he was operating in water that was shallow enough for him to jump over the side. He was able to drag the boat to shore, and once there he came up with an idea. He grabbed an old 5-gallon plastic bucket and looked it over carefully. Considering the natural curve of the bucket, he thought it just might work. He traced two figure-8 patterns on the side of the bucket with a pencil, approximating the size of the original prop blades. Then came the toughest part: cutting the patterns out of the side of the bucket using only his military issue Ka-Bar knife. After considerable time and effort, the tedious process was finally complete. He offset the pieces one on top of the other and punched a hole in the middle of both. “I removed the broken prop hub from the shaft and replaced the hub with the two blades I had fabricated,” he recalled. “Then I put on the broken hub and tightened the hell out of it.” Once secured, he was ready to give it a test run. “The hardest part was I could not exceed more than three knots.” Slowly he puttered his way back across the harbor. He was eventually able to make it back to the boat launch, where he loaded the vessel back on the trailer for repairs. “I guess the moral of the story is, it doesn’t matter what size boat you have – you should always carry a spare prop. And I do now.”
In its purest form, the ability to MacGyver is an instinctual trait that cannot be taught or learned. It is a talent born within, an internal gift for improvisation that is fostered by frugality. For many outdoorsmen, MacGyvering is about more than just saving a few bucks. There’s the reward of personal satisfaction imparted on them by the process of troubleshooting and formulating creative solutions and improvements to nagging little problems as they arise. I’d like to think there’s a little MacGyver in all of us.