Fishing stories are known to be fodder for egregious exaggeration.
But, James Hayden and Pat Gillenwater’s decades-long fishing streak is no tall tale.
Hayden and Gillenwater, both 48 years old and Jeffersonville residents, recently surpassed 25 years of catching one fish a month.
For 300 consecutive months, the men have each reeled in at least one fish without a single break in their streak.
The two met while attending Parkview Middle School nearly 35 years ago. Their friendship flourished as they remained schoolmates through Jeffersonville High School and then Indiana University Southeast.
As they grew into adulthood, Hayden, who Gillenwater calls Jamie, became almost an adopted son of the Gillenwater family.
“When I was probably 16 and first met his grandparents, they insisted that I called them grandpa and grandma,” Hayden said. “And they have treated me like one of their own ever since.”
As Hayden became a regular fixture in the Gillenwater household, both young men were privy to the wit and wisdom of Gillenwater’s late grandfather, Art Enteman.
It was at Art Enteman’s suggestion more than 25 years ago that the two men set out on a goal to catch one fish a month for an entire year.
After years of persistent prodding from grandpa Enteman, the two men, then 23 years old, with a group of about a dozen IU Southeast fraternity brothers, accepted the 12-month challenge.
By the end of the first year, only four of the original group remained.
“We never even looked ahead,” Gillenwater said of accomplishing their goal after the first year. “We just thought we would try for one year, and after we successfully did it one year we thought, ‘Maybe we will try it another year.’ And, really, it never has stopped.”
A few years into the streak, the foursome dwindled to only Hayden and Gillenwater.
“Pat and I just kept on doing it,” Hayden said. “It was always a good excuse to get out and fish.”
Although Hayden and Gillenwater love to fish, the streak persisted because it became an opportunity for the men foster a deeper friendship.
“It is more about fellowship and just kind of hanging out and catching up on life,” Gillenwater said. “The fishing, believe it or not, has become a bit of a byproduct when we get out because we have gotten pretty tight over the years.”
The men found out when they are on the water and waiting for the fish to bite, there is often little to do but converse and learn more about your fishing partner.
“When it is just two of you, and we were already great friends, anyway, other conversations get in other than fishing,” Hayden said. “You end up talking about your families, about your other friends, about your jobs, your faith. We pretty much cover every topic there is.”
Sometimes Hayden and Gillenwater have taken along family and friends, but the majority of the time it is just the two them — fishing alone from the water banks.
A fun-spirited competition developed along the way, and each man always tries to be the first to reel in the month’s coveted catch.
“Typically, we will go together each month,” Gillenwater said. “And, we will both try to catch the first fish that month just so we can smack talk the other guy about, you know, ‘What’s taking you so long?’”
Playful heckling is as much a part of the fishing streak than bait and fishing line.
“A lot of times, whoever catches the first fish will say, ‘I remember when I didn’t have my November fish or my December fish or whatever,’” Hayden said. “So, you got to listen to the other one mouth off, which has always made it more fun.”
Gillenwater said it usually doesn’t take too long for the second fish to be caught, and the men can ease into conversation and simply enjoy one another’s company.
But, it’s not just the pleasure of lazy days on the water or their fellowship that has kept the streak alive month, after month, after month.
As the years ticked by, a supporting cast of family members, friends and even acquaintances has grown — rooting for Hayden and Gillenwater to continue their streak.
Gillenwater said even his wife, Stacy, will sometimes nudge him to gather his fishing pole and get on the water with Hayden, if she thinks the streak is in jeopardy.
“My wife will tell me, ‘It is kinda getting toward the end of the month, don’t you think you should be catching your fish?’” he said.
While Hayden and Gillenwater are humble in their quarter-century long accomplishment, they rarely talk about the streak unless asked about it.
“There is not a week that goes by that I don’t get asked about it multiple times,” Gillenwater said, adding that he recently ran into a former co-worker who he had not seen for 20 years who asked him if the fishing streak has continued.
He said an old friend’s jaw dropped when he said the streak was intact.
“It’s reactions like that that help Jamie and I realize how special this is,” Gillenwater said.
Hayden said it has been a pleasant surprise to see so many people become emotionally invested in the streak.
Although the easy-going pair welcomes all vicarious bystanders, their biggest supporter has always been Gillenwater’s 97-year-old grandmother and former wife of the man who originally spurred the streak, Florence Enteman.
Gillenwater said virtually every time he sees his grandmother, she will ask about the streak.
“We certainly don’t want to disappoint her because she is really in tune with it, too,” Gillenwater said. “It is kind of a way to hang on to him [Art Enteman] a little bit, too. She knows that inspired us. We have continued to do kind of in his memory.”
The men have caught the majority of their fish at private lakes and ponds in Clark County, and when it comes to fulfilling the month’s quota, any fish will do.
“We don’t care how big it is, or what kind of fish it is,” Gillenwater said. “We are just trying to get that month under our belt.”
Gillenwater said they were once notorious for waiting until the end of the month to get their catches, but as they have gotten older and wiser they’ve learned to plan their trips earlier in the month, especially in the winter months when the fishing is more difficult.
“You don’t always catch a fish,” Gillenwater said. “We have gone many times to come back empty-handed, only to be planning on our way back when the next trip is.”
Gillenwater said there have been occasions when it looked liked the streak was going to be broken.
“There have been really close calls a handful of times,” he said. “I am talking within a few hours to midnight, and we thought is was pretty much over,” he said.
While the men don’t claim to be expert anglers, they have learned a few tricks along the way in pursuit of their streak.
Gillenwater said that several years ago they were fishing late on a frosty Nov. 30 night. He had already caught his November fish, and Hayden hooked a fish with only 20 minutes to spare before the end of month.
“After he caught it, we were relieved, of course, and thought, ‘What the heck?’ Gillenwater said. “We just stayed there, and waited until after midnight, officially the next month, to get our December fish.”
Reaching 25 years in November was a massive milestone, especially for a streak that originated as a 12-month goal.
“Hitting the 25th year, the pressure is really off, now,” Hayden said. “That was the big goal, to go 25 years.”
While the significance of their achievement isn’t lost on either of the men, they both agree the most rewarding catch along the way is their friendship.
Gillenwater said that there is a really special bond between him and Hayden, a bond that even their other friends support and recognize as unique.
“It is a kind of a special connection that I don’t have with anyone else,” Hayden said. “You can’t help but become closer friends when you do something like this.”
Fishing stories are known to be fodder for egregious exaggeration.
Family, friends and members of the community join in prayer at the memorial garden dedication at St. Luke's United Church of Christ in memory of Tara Willenborg Saturday in Jeffersonville.
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