Here it is the middle of June, and I’ve yet to wet a line.
I don’t have a good excuse. I’m just minutes away from the Niangua River and only about a half-hour from Bennett Spring on the east or Lake Pomme de Terre to the north.
I can’t even use “no fishing permit” as an excuse. I haven’t needed one of those for six years. I didn’t need one when I was a kid, either, and I took full advantage of the liberty. I never came up with an excuse not to go fishing.
Dad didn’t take his boys to ball games, amusement parks or on vacation trips. He took us fishing — year-round.
Some of my best memories of Dad involved fishing poles and Ozarks creeks. Before starting school, I rode with him throughout much of the Ozarks as he made his A.I. technician rounds. He always carried fishing poles in the trunk of the car, and when time allowed, we found a river, creek or pond where we could wet our lines. Dad must have known every fishing hole in a dozen counties.
I vividly recall one where blue-green water with whipped cream-like foam swirling around tree roots produced big, black perch as fast as we could pull them out. Another was a placid mill pond with rock walls and profuse lily pads concealing big bluegills. Still another was a crystal-clear stream where we grabbed hog suckers off the gravel bottom.
I was just a boy when I caught the biggest crappie I’ve ever seen from a deep hole on the James River. I can still see the little sticks and leaves floating atop the watery abyss into which I dropped my line. That day it wasn’t one of Dad’s poles I used, but a long sycamore sapling he cut and tied a length of fishing line to, enabling me to stand safely away from the edge of the dirt bank, reach over the tall weeds and lower a hook baited with a plump river worm into the depths.
When I was older and living on the farm at Elkland, we often made two or three trips to the river every week. Dad no longer roamed the Ozarks. The Pomme de Terre near Fair Grove, the Niangua near Charity, and both McDaniel and Fellows Lakes on the Sac River were frequent destinations.
I learned the Pomme from above the Lost Bridge to below Potter’s Ford like the back of my hand — which holes held catfish, bass, goggle-eye or carp. I waded most every hole that could be crossed and dropped hook below every rock and root wad. That was before the lake and before purple paint. Younger folk will never know the river we came to love, the inspiration for my essay and subsequent book, “River of Used to Be.”
I often ask myself why I don’t go fishing like I did when I was younger, then answer with my own musings: Like so many people and places I’ve loved, the rivers and streams of years ago are gone.
Fishing, for me, was never about racing across a lake in a powerful boat or standing elbow-to-elbow in an algae-choked trout stream with fish heads floating over my toes.
Imagine a couple of boys and their dad sitting on a gravel bar on a warm spring evening in the hours before moonrise. Each has a couple of bait-casting poles propped in forked sticks stuck in the ground.
Flickering, yellow kerosene lantern light illuminates the tips of fishing rods, while the taut line disappears into the dark depths of an oft-proven catfish hole. Splashing near the distant bank betrays a muskrat at work. On the ridge over the river a pair of owls call one to another. The river fishermen talk in low voices, watching their lines and listening to the night sounds. Dad’s cigarette glows in the dim light, but no brighter than the green glow worms twinkling in the dirt river bank behind him.
Suddenly, the tip of one of my poles bounces, then the line goes slack. I pick it up, crank the reel to tighten the line, feel the tug of something on the other end as it starts to move away. I lean back and set the hook. “Got one!”
In a few minutes, I’m using needle-nose pliers to twist the hook out of the spiny mouth of a fat bullhead catfish. It soon joins four or five others on the stringer secured by a stick in the gravel bar. We’ll have catfish for supper tomorrow night.
That’s what fishing was about when I was a boy. I’ll never again be that kid on the riverbank with his dad and brothers, but I still wish I might.
Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this column previously published in the Buffalo Reflex. ©️ James E. Hamilton 2019.