Fresno State’s new athletic director sure can reel ’em in.
Donors? Well, yeah. Just not in this instance. Right now, it’s all about the fish tugging on the end of Jim Bartko’s line. Could be a monster.
For most of a foggy-turned-sunshiny day, Bartko, myself and Roger George, The Bee’s fishing columnist and a professional guide, have been pulling striped bass out of San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. Beautiful silver-streaked fish measuring between 19 and 23 inches.
But something about this one feels different. It feels bigger. George can tell by the way the rod flexes and bows in its holster when the line snaps free of the downrigger cable. He can tell from how the fish tries to evade capture by swimming to the side of the boat as Bartko reels it closer.
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On previous hookups, Barko and I have brought the fish in close enough for George to reach over the stern, grab it through its gaping lower jaw and remove the lure with pliers. This time, though, George uses a net. Just to make sure it doesn’t get away.
Soon, we’re marveling at a 31-inch striper that weighs 13 or 14 pounds. (There is a measuring tape aboard but no scale.) Nowhere near the unofficial lake record of 70 pounds, but a fish anyone would be thrilled to catch.
And trust me, we are.
Like each of the 25 stripers we bring in, this one gets released back into the lake — after it unwittingly poses for a few pictures. So the fish isn’t out of water too long, George has me hold it beneath the surface between sessions. (It’s the only time my hands get slimy all day.) He also practices special techniques to help the stripers, plucked from the depths of the lake, cope with the sudden changes in pressure.
“That was the kind of fish I was hoping we’d see,” says George, who catches 20- and 30-pounders with some frequency.
Bartko, meanwhile, asks to me to text a photo of him holding up the big fish so he can send it to his 12-year-old daughter, Danielle.
Fresno State’s AD is an avid fisherman (“I would say avid but not awesome,” he makes sure to point out) for reasons that, like many people, are rooted in family.
Growing up in Stockton, Jim and his father traveled all over the place to go trout fishing, from low-elevation reservoirs near their home to pristine mountain lakes in the eastern Sierra. When they visited Jim’s grandfather in Minnesota, they fished for northern pike and walleye.
Now that he has kids of his own, the 49-year-old Bartko has passed down the tradition. He talks fondly about taking Danielle and 18-year-old son A.J. to the Umpqua River in Oregon, where every cast produces a smallmouth bass.
There hasn’t been much time for family or fishing since early January, when Bartko took over at Fresno State after spending 24 of the past 26 years at Oregon, the last seven as senior associate athletic director.
With his wife, Eileen, and their two kids still in Eugene through the end of the school year, Bartko has been immersed in the new job. This week, he will hold his first official news conference as AD to unveil a strategic plan that addresses a range of subjects, from Bulldog Stadium improvements to the promised return of wrestling.
Bartko might be out of the office, but he’s constantly checking his cell phone for emails and texts. So much so that I lend him my portable charger after his battery drains down to 4%.
Thankfully, nothing’s come up that requires urgent attention. So he’s free to relax and enjoy a few hours on the open water.
“That’s the great thing about fishing,” Bartko says. “It kind of slows the day down a little bit.”
This is Bartko’s first time (and only my second) on San Luis, the sprawling reservoir at the foot of Pacheco Pass that gets its water via giant pumps connected to the Delta. George, of course, is out here all the time.
Turns out the two have more in common than fishing. George is a former Bulldog and elite-level decathlete who was an alternate on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. He and Bartko have close mutual friends from Nike and the world of track and field.
Using sonar and his knowledge of the lake’s topography, it doesn’t take long for George to find the fish. The little blips on the screen that look to Jim and me like, well, little blips, contain for Roger a wealth of information. He can tell, by their size and color, between a striper and shad. By their shape, he can tell whether the fish is sitting suspended or swimming around, potentially in search of food.
Of course, finding the fish is only half the battle. You have to know what lures they’ll strike and in which light conditions. How fast to troll. How to interpret fluctuating water levels and changing winds. And about a half-dozen other variables that require years, if not decades, to master.
So while it’s nice to brag about catching a couple of dozen stripers a day when other boats on the lake scuffled, let’s give credit where it’s due.
“We did not do a whole lot,” Bartko says with a chuckle. “Roger fished, and we reeled.”
No argument here. If only landing six-figure donations were that easy.