A group of four friends started a tradition in 1973.
Gerald Newman, Bob Manuel, Ron Rude and Tom Paul began camping at Bennett Spring State Park a day or two before the March 1 buzzer sounded and kicked off a new season of trout fishing in Bennett.
Manuel admitted how much fun the annual fishing trip was to the foursome.
“It was a pretty big deal for us. We always made it. Gerald would probably not hardly sleep for a couple of nights before we left he’d get so excited about it,” Manuel said.
The tradition had some friendly competition involved according to Jeremy Newman, Gerald’s son.
“Back in 1980, the four of them had started this plaque. Basically, every year, whoever got the largest lunker out of the four of them would get to put his name on the plaque and keep it until the next opening,” Newman said.
Manuel said with the exception of four or five years a different person took home the plaque each of the 40 years at Bennett Spring.
The fun did not end for Manuel until Gerald Newman died in 2013 at age 65 after 40 years of fishing fun and camp camaraderie.
“We just kind of lost interest in it then because it just wasn’t the same, so our boys just kind of took up the tradition,” Manuel said.
Jeremy Newman and Manuel’s two sons, Matt and Mark, decided to keep the tradition alive after his dad’s death.
“We wanted to keep the tradition up in memory of my and dad and my friends’ dad even though they’re alive they really enjoy seeing we’re doing it. As matter of fact, a few of them, I think, almost cried when they found out what we were doing,” Newman said.
The second generation’s participation began in their teens.
“Growing up, we always felt like we wanted to get out there and do the opening thing with our dads, but that was more of a dad time. When we were able to drive, we went down and tried it out a couple of years before we went off to college,” Newman said.
Of course, Opening Day weather is often a challenge.
“We stayed in tents and just froze to death, but it was still a great time. We camped away from our dads to give them their time because we knew how important it was,” Newman said.
The lunker trophy tradition also continued … sort of.
“My mom had actually bought us a plaque at one point for my friends and I to use, and we haven’t done anything with it yet because we always have one guy, Mark Manuel, that catches the biggest lunker. We’re not going the spend any time to put anything on it for him,” Newman chuckled.
Manuel remembered one incident in particular from his friends’ time in the park.
When it was still possible to camp by the stream above the whistle bridge, he said the conservation agents swarmed their camp, convinced that they were in possession of too many trout.
However, since they did a lot of catch and release in search of a plaque-winning lunker, their coolers had no contraband trout.
“It was funny that they swarmed in us like bees, but there was nothing there to swarm. We had some good times down there,” Manuel said.
Newman credits Jeremy McMenemy, who is not a son of the original group, with being dedicated to trout fishing and helping to organize the get together.
Newman said he hopes McMenemy’s son Lucas joins his sons in a third generation of the Opening Day tradition.
In the meantime, he and his friends keep a 40+ year tradition going. And Newman hopes to beat his dad’s record lunker catch.
“I don’t think it’s possible. I think the biggest he caught was 8.9 pounds,” Newman said.
Manuel is pleased the tradition did not die with his generation.
“That just made our day when we found out they wanted to carry on the tradition. They’re a good bunch of boys, I’ll tell you that,” Manuel said.
A second tradition started in 2012. Newman and his two youngest sons, Ethan, 10, Landen, 9, began making a second trip in October.
Consequently, if their enthusiasm for fishing continues, the Opening Day tradition may see a third generation.
Although Gerald Newman died in 2013, he is remembered by more than his family.
“I’ll run into people down at Bennett over opening that knew my dad. One guy from Clinton, every time he sees us, he just breaks down crying,” Newman said.
As with most traditions, this one is about making and reinforcing memories. And Opening Day at Bennett Spring State Park is a part of these families’ traditions.
“A good chunk of our memories were down there at Bennett,” Newman said.