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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fall Fishing

Fall Fishing
It’s been a busy two months and I’ve not been able to fish as much as I normally would.  The last time I was fishing regularly was over the summer.  The air and water temperatures were both in the mid to upper 90’s then and it was not an easy time to be on the water.
Fishing in the summer down South is a difficult affair.  It’s not fun being outside in the south when its 98 degrees and the humidity threatens to kill you before the heat does.  The mornings and evenings are great because the water gets really calm and you have these beautiful sunsets and all the pleasure boaters and jet skis are absent.  You can usually catch some fish very early and very late…but in general summer time fishing is terrible.  The bass go deep and concentrate in small areas and they are difficult to find and even when you do it’s tough to get them to bite.  And the whole time you’re trying to find them and coax them into biting you have to deal with scorching heat, drenching humidity, and boat traffic that will rock you off your feet if you’re not paying attention. 
I honestly don’t know why I do it.  I don’t catch many fish…some days I feel that a blind guy could launch a boat and catch more fish than I could in the summer time.  No matter how much I study it and how hard I try…it rarely works.  I’ve resigned myself to considering these trips as just time away…regardless of whether I actually catch anything.
Now it’s different
But now it’s fall.  Now it’s supposed to be really good fishing as the bass fatten up for winter.  In contrast to summer there is almost no boat traffic now.  I might see four boats in four hours during the fall, and some days I don’t see anyone at all…I have an entire lake all to myself.  In the summer time you see, hear, and feel hundreds of boats a day…you are never out of sight (or out of the wake) of other boats. 
During fall the fish are supposed be moving back further into the creeks to chase the baitfish that keep them fed.  Creeks and coves are supposed to be packed with roaming hoards of murderous bass on the prowl and looking for a fight.  This is something to get excited about…a lake with no boats that is packed with fish that are actively feeding.  
The real bonus about fall fishing is the view.  The high forested hills that surround Pickwick Lake are now changing colors.   Gone are the greens and darker greens of summer that were cast in a gray haze of humidity.  Now the cooler weather has ushered in a new set of colors for these hills.  As you look out from the boat you are surrounded by the brilliant colors of fall.  Maples and Poplars are turning deep ruby red, Oaks are shifting from green to bright yellow, and all of the other brilliant and crisp colors of fall are scattered in between.  It is a beautiful array of colors that you really have to see to believe.  It would be worth the trip just to look at the trees. 
Now that the temps have dropped I’m no longer sweating through my shirt just on my walk from the truck to the dock.  Now there is coolness in the air even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  If you’re in the shade you’re going to need a jacket…in the sun it’s just on the cool side of comfortable.  It’s just about perfect.
Fishing partners
I was fishing on this most recent trip with a very good friend.  Well…he is either a very good friend or a die-hard fisherman…or both.  I say this because there is a common thread among some of the worst fishing trips I’ve ever had…it’s him…he has been on most of them (by contrast I have been on ALL of them so there is a greater correlation to show that I’m the cause more than he is but that causes some logic problems and it’s a story for another day).  He’s not the cause of the bad trips…but his timing has been such that on most of the bad trips I’ve had he happened to be there.  He was there for the absolute worst day ever…it was a scorching summer trip where the temps hit over 100 degrees and we spent 14 hours on the water with no breaks, getting beat by wakes and burned by the sun, and we caught exactly two fish…two very small fish.  We caught those fish at 6 AM and went the next 13 hours without catching a single thing.  THAT is dedication.  The fact that he ever stepped foot in my boat again tells me he is a friend.  I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had burned the boat in self-defense when we got back to the ramp…just to ensure he’d never be in that position again.
Today I hoped his luck would change…that maybe today would be one of the good ones.  We had great weather, no crowd, and if the fish acted right then we should be able to catch a few.
We war-gamed on the way to the lake getting our plan together.  The first item was to remember to find the pace the fish wanted.  I have a tendency to beat a piece of water to death with a fast moving search bait, and working one area far too long.  We needed to stay flexible and stay mobile.  If we don’t find fish on a spot then we need to move.  We know they’re here and that they should be feeding so we just need to find them.  Once we do we need to be methodical and work the area well.  That was the plan.
Starting out
We hit a few secondary points right off the bat trying to find some active fish.  We got no action, but one of these places I’ve begun calling “the hog pen” due to its propensity to deliver huge fish.  We got no action the first time we hit it but we made a mental note to be back at the hog pen at sunset…that was a high priority. 
After that we moved up to a series of coves and would work each of them until we saw some sign that things were happening.  As we worked our way into the first cove we hugged its left side and fought the wind as it tried it’s best to wreck the boat onto the bank we were fishing.  That’s another problem with fishing…Mother Nature loves a good ship wreck…and she tries to make them happen all the time.  In addition to fishing you have to try to control your boat…these are sometimes mutually exclusive tasks.  Today was turning into one of those days.
As we slowly troll our way into this cove there is one thing that jumps out at you...this place is a thing of beauty.  Huge hills covered in falls brightest foliage descend steeply right down to the banks of the lake in this cove.  Looking up from the water your eyes are treated to a beautiful leaf strewn forest floor covered with old burnt-orange and brown leaves.  Squirrels crisscross the hillside and run along fallen logs as you silently fish its banks.  With the sun beginning to set, half the cove is in shade and the other half is awash in the soft golden rays of late afternoon.  Looking into the back of the cove we can see the activity we’ve been waiting for.  Baitfish are leaping from the water as they run for their lives.   Bass are sometimes hammering on top water and other times just rolling up on the surface as they chase baitfish up to the roof of their world and then slurping them down when they run out of room.  Spurts of water are flying up in the air and splattering back down across the surface again as the violence rages and then subsides all up and down the length of the cove.  This is fall fishing.
The cove
This particular section of bank is a mix of sand and gravel with larger fist sized chunks of rocks scattered around…its perfect smallmouth bass country.  Despite the winds best efforts to frustrate us we still have a remarkable amount of patience remaining.  I’m throwing a heavy blue-black jig with a crawfish trailer.  With each cast I throw it up to the bank and then ease it back into deeper water through the gravel and chunk rock.  If a bass swims by and sees this it’s going to get violent.  Sure enough, halfway down the bank at a place where the wind begins to lose its angle on us I get a hit. 
It was a soft “pick up” more than a violent strike but I knew from the first turn of the reel that we’d need the net.  This bass had seen my crawfish calmly meandering along the lake floor minding his own crustacean-business and decided to assault him.  The nerve of this fish!  It was a crime he would pay for…he was about to find out that there is no free lunch in this world.  A few feet from the point of contact he came up top and busted out of the water.   I was trying to reel him in but my drag was set way too light and my reel handle was just spinning when I tried to apply pressure.  Now I’d have to sweep back with my rod then try to reel in the slack as I dipped the tip back toward the fish.  This left me very vulnerable to him shaking the hook out of his mouth the next time he jumped.  I really wanted to land this first fish of the day.  My buddy grabbed the net and was waiting for the first chance to scoop him up.  As I led this beast toward the waiting net my friend exclaimed “it’s a smallmouth!  And a nice one at that!” 
Sure enough it was a decent smallmouth.  After some laughing and high fives and a picture we broke out the scale to weigh him…it was an even three pounds…a very nice smallmouth.  My friend told me right then that he had never seen one in person.  He had mentioned in the past that he’d never caught one but I was happily surprised to hear that he had finally seen on in person.  He was now one step closer to his goal of landing one.
That first fish got us fired up.   Now we knew there were fish in the area and we had an idea of what they wanted to eat so we got right back to work.  A few minutes later on the same side of the cove I got hit again with that “soft pickup” kind of hit.  It’s the kind of hit where you’re not sure if it’s a rock or a stick so you don’t set the hook…you kind of pull on the line like you’re questioning it…if it pulls back it’s a fish.  The downside to this type of bite is that you often times don’t get a good hook set to start the fight.  Then when the fish does his first leap he usually shakes the hook out.  That is exactly what happened here…halfway back he spit the hook.  No big deal…it wasn’t huge but it was a largemouth and our second of the day.  We pressed on.
Five minutes later I hear the familiar ruckus from the other end of the boat that tells me something is on the hook.  It’s usually some hurried mumbling or some cursing under-the-breath kind of noises that indicate a fish has just been caught.  It’s like you want to say something but your brain is so overwhelmed by the fact that you have a fish on that you really can’t do much more than uttering incomplete sentences like “doh…shoot…hog…ah…net…oh yeah..good ‘un”.  That type of incoherent blabber tells me that my partner is on one and that he thinks it’s a good one and that we are going to need the net.  The next clue I get is his body language.  He is leaning back as far as you can lean and still stay upright and his rod is bent clean over and he’s grinning like a kid on his first roller coaster…it’s a mix of exhilaration and shock and fear…and he’s reeling as fast as he can.  I grab the net, scoop it up…and it’s a smallie.  His first smallmouth ever…from the same boat that brought him so much pain and misery back in July…now he catches his first smallmouth on a gorgeous fall afternoon.  It was a solid specimen of a smallmouth too…a red-eyed, bronze-backed fighter with the heart of a lion…and my friend was holding him with a grin that must have been bigger than the fish itself.  SNAP.  Another picture, another released fish, and we got back to work. 
BOOM…five minutes later he has another one on…this time a largemouth.  A few minutes later I hook up again.  This is turning into a nice afternoon.  It couldn’t stay great forever though.  Shortly thereafter I got hung on a log.   I trolled over to get close to the log and when I went to pull the trolling motor up so I wouldn’t run it aground…the rope handle snapped and sent me one way and the trolling motor back into the water…where it promptly ran aground.  Ugh.  Now my line is stuck, the trolling motor is stuck, the wind is blowing the back of the boat around, and my line gets wrapped around the trolling motor head.  I don’t recall the exact language that began to flow at that point but I’m pretty sure it would make a preacher faint. 
By the time I get this mess fixed and get us moving in the right direction at trolling speed I see the back of my boat…more specifically my expensive outboard motor…swinging around toward the rocks.  All I could see in my mind was my prop and lower unit getting wrecked and ripped from the boat.  I don’t know what I said but my friend leapt into action and made sure the motor didn’t get destroyed.
Whew…what a screwed up five minutes that was.  We went from catching fish like crazy to almost ruining BOTH motors in the blink of an eye.   Well we were out of there…the plan was to move up to the next cove and look for more fish.  My buddy turns to me and says “what did you do with my phone?”  I replied that I had given it back to him after we took those awesome pictures of the smallmouth.  He then began what I call the “old man Macarena” which is the deal where you look at the ground and touch every pocket on your body as you check for your wallet and keys and phone and God-knows-what-else and it looks like you’re doing a dance of some sort. 
He says “dude…I think my phone fell out when I went to keep us off the rocks.”  It was very matter of fact…he wasn’t freaking out or anything…but we had to run back to the scene of the crime and see if we could find it.  Perspective is important here.  This is his business phone…all of his contacts and passwords are on this device…losing it is not a small deal.  From my perspective though…all of our fish pictures were on that thing!  The only evidence we have of this being a great day is on that dang camera!  I don’t care if we have to hire Jacques Cousteau…we need to find that phone. 
Ultimately we had no luck finding the phone.   The fish turned off in that cove too…we caught no more of them after the “two motors and a phone” incident.  Around sunset I reminded him that we needed to be at the hog pen around sundown to fish the gravel bar.  He agreed and we motored a few miles down the lake taking in the sights and smells of fall.  These trips bring me some of life’s simplest pleasures.  It is beyond relaxing to be motoring across the glass like surface of the lake at sundown with a good chill in the air and the sweet and warm aroma of a campfire filling your senses.  To me it can’t be beat.  It’s one of this planets most enjoyable moments.   And this is what we had on the run back to the hog pen.
The Hog Pen
Once we got there I pointed out the gravel bar that juts out into the lake.  The ridge of the bar sits in two feet of water and it drops off to twelve or more in short order.  The trick here is the cast to the deeper water and run the bait up into the gravel.  I’m casting a top water bait that has served me well over the past few trips but I’m getting no action on it tonight.  
I’m on the front deck of the boat pondering some of life’s most important mysteries…like “why don’t the bass want a Pop R this week when it worked so well just a few days ago?” when I hear some urgent muttering from the back of the boat.  An outsider might have thought it sounded like an epileptic having a seizure…but a fisherman knows that this is the sound of a large fish being caught. 
“Oh…shoot…dang…ah…whoa…ha ha aha…dude…net… a good ‘un” and on it went.  I grabbed the net and waited as the battle unfolded in front of me.  The fisherman on the stern of the boat battled with bending rod against the lakes apex predator…a powerful largemouth bass.  This is a fish that is used to getting its way.  It kills and eats whatever it wants.  Well tonight it went to kill something on top and the roles got reversed. 
Now the fish was fighting for its life.  And fight it did…all the way back to the boat.  As I scooped it up in the net you could see the fight leave it.  It was like slow motion to me as the fish glided in and I looked up to see the biggest smile on my friends face as he took in the size of the beast.  The hog pen had delivered again.  A four pound largemouth was the end of the day prize. 
We took a picture of that fish with our remaining phone and slowly got back to fishing.  The sun was well below the horizon, we were surrounded by Egrets wading in the glassy shallows and fishing for their supper, and I think we were both just enjoying the solitude as day slipped away to night. 
A short time later we drifted into the marina through a low hanging haze of campfire smoke drifting across the lake.  We made quick work of loading the boat and headed for the drive-through burger joint to fuel up for the ride home.  Despite the lost phone I was happy that we’d finally put together a good trip.  I’d seen my friend have the worst fishing day of his life on my boat and now I’d seen him catch his first smallmouth.  This is what Fall fishing is all about…and I can’t wait to get back after them again next week.    

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

SEC Football Weekend

SEC football weekend
This weekend I spent the weekend at the farm of a good friend of mine.  The farm has basically been our deer camp for the last few years and over that time he has been steadily adding features to this property.  What used to be a 280 acre plot with an unheated barn has grown in a wonderful weekend get-a-way destination.  In my friends words this place is perfect “because it’s one step short of a place where the women want to stay for a whole weekend.”
This is a man’s getaway destination.  You can hunt, fish, hike, shoot guns, blow stuff up, ride four wheelers, heck…you can shoot four wheelers if you want…there really are no limits.  It was at this location nestled into the hills southwest of Oxford MS that I had so much fun this past weekend.
This was a big weekend.  Alabama was playing Ole Miss in Oxford, MS.  This weekend’s activities would start at the farm and then move onto the Ole Miss campus for tailgating in The Grove.  For those of you who don’t know anything about SEC football let me tell you…this is unlike anything else you’ve seen.  The term “tailgating” is a bit of a misnomer.  “Tailgating” evokes images of a group of people in hunting clothes gathered around the back of a pickup truck eating moon pies and drinking RC Colas...and I like all of that stuff…but “Tailgating” in The Grove doesn’t involve pickup trucks, or any other vehicles for that matter, and it doesn’t usually involve much in the way of camo clothing. 
Vehicles were banned from The Grove years ago.  Tailgating in The Grove now-a-days is a high-end, tent oriented affair.  It’s not unusual to see generator powered flat panel LCD TV’s being fed signals by portable satellite TV dishes.  Huge spreads of food and drink grace enormous tables under the welcoming roof of a big open sided tent (no alcohol of course…wink wink).  Many times these meals are catered by local restaurants, or even better they are stocked with the best recipes of those in attendance.  I don’t care where you go in this country…if you get a group of women together who are all trying to bring their best dish possible…you are going to eat like a king.  My friend’s tents are no exception.  We had a tent one year that converted into a parquet dance floor with a DJ after the game….disco ball and everything. 
The dress code for tailgating in The Grove tends toward the formal side of things.  The girls definitely dress to impress and the guys try not to look like slobs.  If you took a random sample from the crowd and invited them to a high end cocktail party very few of them would have to go home to change.  Women will frequently be wearing  dresses and high heels and most of the guys are wearing khakis and a collared shirt.  It’s not a shorts and flip-flops affair for most.
So that’s a brief look at tailgating in The Grove.  This is where the day would end…and it’s always a great time…but I’m more interested in where the day would begin. 
Meanwhile back at the ranch…
As you might imagine, the center of activity at the farm is the barn.  This is not your ordinary barn though.  It is a big sheet metal building with a concrete floor that was originally designed to hold tractors and farm implements, but has seen significant additions that transform it from a simple barn to a country paradise getaway.  It’s like superman’s hideout…it’s that cool.   There is a stack of wide wood shelves along the right hand side with perhaps 4 levels of shelves, each 3 feet deep…these rise perhaps 12 feet from the floor and provide a tremendous amount of storage space for all of the “stuff” that accumulates on a farm.  A sampling of the shelves inventory from last week would include a few dozen duck decoys, a few thousand rounds of ammunition, charcoal, lighter fluid, paper targets, Tannerite explosives, paper towels…you name it and it can probably be found on one of those shelves.
There is a single waist-high shelf running the length of the opposite side of the barn that serves as a handy work space.  In the back left hand corner up high hangs a 50 inch LCD TV that is hooked up to the Dish Network.  Also on the left side of the barn is an often overlooked creature comfort when people build a barn…a bathroom.  And this one comes complete with hot and cold running water and its own ceramic/gas heater…and I can’t explain to you how nice this is on those cold winter nights.  There used to be an old iron stove on the back wall that has since been replaced by a multi-panel ceramic/gas burning heater which does a much better job of warming things up quickly when needed.  Everything in the middle is wide open space. 
As you stand out front and look at the front of the barn you’ll notice there is an overhang on both sides.  The overhang on the left is wide enough to keep the smaller tractor out of the weather, and to park the fleet of ATV’s.  This consists of three or four “four wheelers” and two Bad Boy Buggies (essentially camouflaged electric golf carts.) 
On the right side of the barn the metal roof slopes out another 40 feet or more.  This is where my friends’ genius really shines through.  Just to the right of the barn there is a concrete courtyard framed by two 30 foot RV’s.  Everything here is protected by the metal roof that kicks off to the right side of the barn.  Now you have a weather protected, concrete floored courtyard with a big screen TV, picnic tables, fluorescent lighting, RV’s, ceiling fans, portable heaters, and a 25 foot long stainless steel sink and countertop.  Just out in front of the courtyard sits a huge smoker and a small gas grill.  If this isn’t starting to look like heaven then you might want to quit reading right now and go back to your “Occupy Wall Street” rally or go plug in your Toyota Prius. 
From this setup you could easily sleep 8 people in the RV’s with room for another 20 in the barn if they put out cots or sleeping bags. 
Hopefully by now you are imagining a very casual and fun atmosphere that serves as the hub of the weekends’ entertainment.  I couldn’t tell you how many people I saw here over the weekend.  The day started early when I took my two children for a quick scouting trip in the woods on the back side of the farm.  We walked silently, talked and made jokes in hushed voices so we wouldn’t spook any game, and we took in the beauty of the morning.  It was cool, clear, and sunny, and the kids chased lizards and tracked animals, and relived memories from prior trips to the woods.   I had my kids all to myself for a few hours…it was great. 
After a while I began to hear gunshots from the barn area.  For those who aren’t accustomed to guns or gunfire it might have been alarming.  I imagine there are a number of people who’ve lived in cities their whole lives who might have begun to freak out at the sound of gunfire…but to the rest of us...that is the sound of FUN. 
We quickly made our way back to the barn and there was a small group of people on the firing range.  After grabbing our hearing protection we made our way down to the range.  My friend had simply backed his truck up and let it serve as a table of sorts.  He has a system of lockers and trays in the bed of his truck that are well suited to this task. 
When you walk around to the back of the truck you are greeted by a wonderful sight.  I counted no less than 20 guns on display.  There were multiple AR15’s, tactical shotguns, semi-auto pistols of all sizes and shapes, and a multitude of revolvers from Ruger and Smith & Wesson.  There were stacks of ammo in appropriate calibers nearly everywhere.  We had nowhere to be for hours and we had literally thousands of rounds of ammunition to play with.
Want to shoot a .44 Magnum?  No problem…load it up and punch some holes in the paper.  How about a .357?  Yep…got one.  10 millimeter semi-auto?  No problem…even have a 10mm in a revolver.  12 gauge?  Got it covered….four times.  .223?  Yep…lots of AR platforms to play with. 
The real beauty of this setup is that we have nothing but safety conscious people on our range.  I’ve educated a lot of new shooters here and this weekend was no exception.  Anyone who wants to learn how to shoot will learn the right way to do it here.  The rule at our range is safety first at all times…and I’m always impressed by everyone’s dedication to this.  With a safe range, and tons of ammo we had a blast.  I watched as my 11 year old got to shoot everything he desired.  He shot the .357 S&W revolver, the 10mm, my .45 Sig, the Remington 11-87 Police 12 gauge tactical shotgun, the AR15 (kids love this gun) and he shot it all competently.
I would love to see the face of a west coast liberal that comes to this farm in Mississippi when they see a 9 or 10 year old kid pick up a big revolver.  They would probably faint.  What’s more true is it would probably completely escape their attention that the child knew how to safely and properly manipulate, load, make ready, fire, and make safe the very same gun.  I’m certain they wouldn’t notice that the kid displayed proper muzzle discipline as he moved around the range…even without someone hovering over him.  Now that I think about it, this might serve as the basis for a great reality TV show where we mix liberals and rednecks together for weekend adventures.  Ted Nugent could host…hmmmmm…this could be a money maker.
For those that didn’t care to shoot, there are three stocked and managed ponds on the other side of the farm that are stacked with fat bass.  These lakes are built to be bass factories…and they are starting to earn a reputation.  The lakes are only two years old but the last time I fished them I caught 5 largemouths in about 10 minutes time.  I’ve never caught a limit of bass in 10 minutes anywhere.  And these were healthy 1.5 to 2.0 lb. fish…very respectable for how long this lake project has been underway.  It won’t be long before these waters will begin producing fish in the 3 to 5 lb. range…and then you’d better be ready for a fight.  Now imagine fishing THIS good just outside your barn.  It doesn’t get much better.
Lunch
After a few hours of hanging out and talking and shooting guns someone came down to inform us that chow was ready.  That was very welcome news.
We piled into electric buggies and onto ATV’s for the short trip past the lake and up the hill to the barn and we were rewarded with a beautiful sight.  There was smoke pouring off of the grill, people lounging around watching another SEC football game on the flat screen TV, kids running here and there, people coming and going on 4-wheelers, and food.  Oh the food.  The long stainless steel counter top was packed end-to-end with big foil pans full of burgers, ribs, steaks, beans, chips, you name it and it was here.  There was almost too much food…but like money, ammo, women, and beer…there can never really be too much food. 
This is camaraderie at its finest.  Everyone was mingling and talking and eating and joking.   During this time, Ole Miss and Alabama fans stood side by side shooting guns…and not at each other.  For a few short hours Alabama fans and Ole Miss fans forgot that they disliked each other.  This was made easier by the fact that at lunch each group sat at their own tables and limited the conversation to talking about the food and not the football…but it was good…really, really good.
The great outdoors, guns, food, football, this is a classic SEC football weekend.  I couldn’t imagine it being any better.  Well…I can…if I imagine a game where Alabama’s running back Trent Richardson didn’t rush for 5,000 yards against us, or maybe if I imagine he became a conscientious objector and sat on the bus the whole game, or perhaps if I imagine something more realistic like we had someone who could tackle him…then I guess I could imagine it being better.   But the reality is that none of that is going to happen and that I’ve got to be content with what I have.  In this case I’m happy to “settle” for a day in the country making noise with my friends, eating well, and enjoying the pre-game festivities.  As one visitor put it this weekend after looking around at all of the cool stuff that was used to create this hideaway: “it took YEARS of bad football to make this place happen.” 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Walmart bikes

I spent yesterday afternoon doing bike chores...cleaning chains, adjusting cables, etc.   After spending some serious quality time with my Gary Fisher HiFi Deluxe I went on to check a reported issue on my wife’s bike.

Last year my wife wanted a bike.  On the way to the bike shop I told her I’d get her the perfect bike if she just told me how she would use it.  If she were going to hit the trails with me I’d need to know that to make an appropriate decision.  She said the trails weren’t going to happen...she just needed something to ride to school with the kids...a trip of roughly 1/2 a mile.  My mind began picturing a bike that would be ridden maybe 10 miles a year and sit in the corner of the garage the rest of the time...so I turned the truck toward Walmart.

After I got done working on my bike I get her Walmart brand Magnum bike out of the corner and start working on it.  After a few adjustments to its primitive and crudely manufactured hardware it was time for a test ride.

I know it’s not fair to compare a nice bike along the lines of a Fisher full suspension HiFi with a Walmart bike...but when I got on that thing I struggled to even recognize the feel of the activity as "bike riding".  It was a wobbly, off balance, crooked, shameful affair.  It was like all of the parts were put together to ensure that you were never 100% certain that you were going in a straight line.  The bottom bracket wobbled, the bars felt awkward and flexy, the "fork" was making its own negative contribution to the affair...i swear it felt like my feet were moving away from the bike the entire time.

If it were possible to feel like a string puppet riding a bike this would be it.  I was shocked at how horrid it was. 

Ultimately I got her bike back in action and asked her to perform a test ride to make sure she was good with it.  The bike has returned to the corner where it will sit, un-ridden, for a few more weeks.  So while her bike really stinks I think I made the right decision for its intended use...and if I ever start to tire of my full suspension HiFi, I can always go mount up on the Magnum to get a reality check.