Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hunting and Fishing


The year before first grade was the year I began hunting with my father.  He bought a new double-barreled 12- gauge shotgun and we hunted squirrels and doves along Holiday Creek.  In the winter we hunted ducks at ake Wichita.  The limit was 20 and live decoys were legal; my father raised a penfull of mallards (I suspect my mother took care of them along with her chickens).  Their wings were clipped so they couldn't fly, a weight was attached by a cord tied to one leg, and they were placed in the water to decoy wild ducks.  They were so effective that their use was soon prohibited, but it was fun while it lasted.

            The live decoys seemed to know what they were doing and, especially the hens, appeared to enjoy luring the big drake mallards to their doom.  My father was a fantastic wing shot on both doves and ducks, with the latter he shot only the greenheads (Male Mallards).  It never occurred to him to shoot a bird on the water and to this day I cannot bring myself to "ground sluice" a sitting or even running bird.  He never lectured me about sportsmanship, but set an example that I knew he expected me to follow.  He soon bought me a single shot .410 gauge shotgun; almost immediately ducks began to fall, even at long range when I shot.  It was years before I realized that good old dad was backing me.  I may not have been nearly as effective a "wing shot" as I thought I was, but there were no concessions to youth on gun safety and hunting etiquette. I simply knew that if I violated any of those unwritten rules, I would regret it. 

            Fishing was the most fun of all.  Lacking an automobile, we were dependent on my father's friends from the railroad for transportation.  The two I remember were Mr. Soule and Mr. Hanks. Mr. Soule was a taciturn, rather dour, man, who not only had a car, but also a boat and motor on a trailer, a tent, Coleman stove and lantern, cooking utensils and, even, knives, forks and plates.  Going fishing with him was like going on an African Safari; it took him forever to assemble all his gear.  I think he got more pleasure from the equipment than from the fishing; he was the first person I knew who owned real fishing clothes.  My father wore his regular work clothes, a blue work shirt under blue bibbed overalls, a blue jacket, and a blue cap; all denim and soft from frequent washing.

 A fishing trip with Mr. Soule was an expedition and serious business.  We would put the boat in the water and load all our gear in it, meticulously supervised by Mr. Soule to insure stability, and, after carefully testing the motor, we would run for an hour or so to some site selected by Mr. Soule .  He would cut the motor at the precise moment for the bow to just nudge the shoreline and after my father had pulled the boat well up on the beach, would supervise the unloading.  I was always eager to start fishing, but with Mr. Soule, we had to pitch the tent and get everything shipshape before the fun began. 

            Once camp was in order, we would put out the trotline (a trotline, to the uninitiated, consists of a long length of cord from which hooks at the end of drop cords are suspended at intervals) and seine along the shoreline for gizzard shad or other bait for the trotline.  After we had baited all the hooks on the trotline, we could finally paddle out to emergent vegetation for some fishing with hand-held equipment.

            All the lakes in north Texas are reservoirs, created by damming streams of various sizes and resulting in impoundments of comparable dimensions.  Because all flooded river beds or creek bottoms, they drowned most of the trees in the area.  That was probably a botanical catastrophe, but it did produce a bonanza for fishermen.  The decaying vegetation supplied nutrients for the food chain and the skeletal limbs and trunks provided shelter for young fish.  Every reservoir experienced a population explosion of fish in its early years, but because of our primitive fishing methods, we did not always cash in on them.

            Initially, our hand-held fishing gear was a cane pole(called a "slaughter pole" in south Louisiana) about nine feet long with a line of about the same length tied to the end and again halfway down the pole.  There was a hook and, usually, a sinker just above it on the end of the line and a bobber (we called it a cork) 3 or 4 feet above it.  It was remarkably effective along the "rip rap" dam facings and even more so in the vegetated backwaters.  With a live minnow sneaked into open water between lily pads or tree limbs, it was deadly on bass, especially when wading. 

When we became affluent enough to afford them, we bought a "rod and reel" for everyone.  That gear consisted of a short, stiff metal rod and a level wind reel filled with line.  A sinker (weight) was tied to the end of the line and several snelled hooks were attached at varying intervals above it.  Various baits, depending on availability and the fish we were seeking, were impaled on the hooks and the drag was released, allowing the sinker to take the baited hooks to the desired depth.  When the sinker hit bottom the line became slack and you reeled in until the line was taut.  We called it "tight lining" because we didn't use a cork and you could feel the fish take the bait and see the rod tip move at the same time.  Live minnows were the bait of choice for crappie and an occasional largemouth bass, earthworms enticed mostly sunfish and catfish, and "doughbait" was for carp (We never used the latter-we tried to not catch carp and we never used such exotic bait as chicken entrails for catfish).

            Fishing with Mr. Hanks was much more relaxed; he was corpulent and enjoyed the creature comforts.  His equipment consisted of, in addition to his rod and reel, a large ice chest filled with cold beer, soda pop, and sandwiches.  We would drive to some large reservoir such as Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth or Possum Kingdom (where they got those names, I don't know), rent a boat, buy several dozen minnows and either row or motor to some treetops or other underwater shelter.  (I've fished in churches, schools, and businesses drowned by the rising water resulting from damming rivers).

  Once there, we would "bait up" and put the remainder of the precious live minnows we had bought over the side in a perforated "minnow bucket" so they would get enough oxygen to survive until we jabbed a hook into them. Mostly we caught crappie, often big one or two pound ones.  They have paper thin mouths and require some delicacy in bringing them to net (that's metaphorical we not only didn't own a landing net, we'd never even heard of one).

 I had no preference between Mr. Soule and Mr. Hanks fishing with either one or the other; their styles were strikingly different, but I enjoyed them both.  I've hunted and fished with numerous people of both types subsequently and I think I've been more able to accept them because of my early association with Mr. Soule and Mr. Hanks.

            Our Assistant Scout Master, Mr. Oglesby, introduced me to artificial lures when I was an early teenager by giving me several ancient "bass plugs" and explaining how they were supposed to work.  I remember being more than a little skeptical of the likelihood of those clumsy looking combinations of carved, painted wood and hardware, especially the multiple exposed treble hooks, enticing a hungry bass to eat one for dinner.  I spent hours trying to learn how to cast them; initially. I was a threat to anyone, especially myself, within about 20 feet of the rod tip.  I eventually began to get the "hang of it" so I could shoot the heavy lure a respectable distance, with my thumb on the revolving spool preventing backlashes and subsequent long, unproductive periods repairing "backlashes". 

I had to work it out on my own because none of the adults I knew had even heard of catching fish on anything other than "real bait".  The concept was, to them, so ridiculous it was hilarious.  Several adults and kids watched with amusement the first time I tried it in the spillway below the dam at Diversion Dam, one of our favorite fishing sites.  The Gods must have also been amused, because on the fourth or fifth cast into the strong current, an equally naive young largemouth bass attacked and became impaled on the multiple hooks.  I tried to appear calm as I horsed him in before the incredulous eyes of the skeptics.  I was hooked far deeper than the fish; I was quickly back into the current, flinging with all my might. 

            Although I spent a substantial part of the small amount of money I earned over the next few years on increasingly sophisticated rods and reels and, specially lures, I kept all those bass plugs that Mr.Oglesby gave me in my tackle box until they were lost in a van fire when we moved from Seattle back to Texas in 1970.  I'm sure I hadn't risked the chance of losing one of them by actually fishing with it for 25 or 30 years, but they were always in an honored place in the top tray of my tackle box.

I recently read of a big auction of antique artificial lures; mine would probably have brought a bundle.  They were antiques when Mr. Oglesby gave them to me in the late 1930's.  I thought I was the only person in North Texas who had discovered bass could be caught like crazy on artificial lures, but that was obviously not the case because all the hardware stores had shelves of lures that caught more fishermen than fish. However, the bass were cooperative; they seemed to enjoy being caught as much as I enjoyed catching them, a bit of anthropomorphism that I find even more prevalent in recent years.

            Some of my acquaintances who are anti-hunting but avid fishermen talk about how cruel it is to KILL a duck or deer, and then go into the joys of CATCHING a fish.  Those bass back in Texas, the salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the marlin in Baja California weren't engaged in a sporting event, they were fighting for their lives after being conned into going for an easy, usually crippled, meal.  I don't feel sorry for the fish, not even when they are threshing around in the muck of the bottom of the boat as they suffocate, but I deeply resent some fly fisherman describing the catching of trout with dry flies from some mountain stream in reverent tones as though it was a religious experience that took place in an outdoor cathedral. HELL, they're as eager to catch those trout as the blacks with their "doughballs" and chicken guts were to catch the carp and catfish years ago in North Texas.  I've released a lot of fish; mostly because I had more than my family and friends could handle, but none that I remember, BECAUSE HE PUT UP SUCH A MAGNIFICIANT FIGHT.           

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