Most of my writing is designed to make people smile. I write primarily short essays – a few of them are about fishing. I started fishing when I was about nine years old. “Sucker Fishing” is about that experience. The following one is about fly fishing, that’s much more sophisticated but no more fun than sucker fishing when you’re a kid.
Sometimes I write novels. Occasionally I diverge into politics where I enjoy irritating conservatives, which I do particularly well. My next few posts won’t be about politics but I will get back to that topic … promise!
Jeff is a trout fisher so I thought he’d enjoy this one and the next.
You didn’t think I’d do a collection like this without a piece about fishing. (That was a statement, not a question.) The sucker is a trash fish. A trash fish is not one caught primarily for sport like trout, bass, walleye and pike. Suckers are bottom feeders. If you hook one on light tackle it will make a heart-stopping ten second run, just enough to make you think you’ve hooked a nice trout. Promptly at the eleventh second, the sucker stops and lets itself be brought to net. It probably isn’t worried because it realizes that any self-respecting fisherman will throw it right back in the water.
These are ugly fish. The head is large; the mouth is down-turned and puffy. They weigh two to four pounds, sometimes more. The meat is boney. Their advantage is that they are easy to catch and there are huge numbers of them in the Great Lakes and in many major rivers. They spawn in the spring when thousands run up the Great Lakes tributaries. They are so plentiful that they can be picked out of the water by hand. While this is possible; it is illegal. The fish must be caught by hook and line unless one has obtained a netting permit. People who fish for them usually can them, a process that dissolves the bones, or they smoke them. Smoking can make anything taste great, even cardboard. …The first fish I ever caught was a sucker.
I was visiting my grandfather and grandmother, Daddy K, and Mother Daisy. They had a cottage, an old converted schoolhouse, about a mile from a tributary of the Susquehanna River. It was 1936 and I was nine years old. I knew very little about fishing. I had only seen pictures of it and read about it in “Huck Finn.” Daddy K probably didn’t know much more about fishing than I did. I think someone must have told him that there were sucker runs in the area creeks and he thought it would be fun to take me fishing. He had a couple of old metal fishing rods and some snelled hooks. Snelled hooks are hooks with some leader already attached so all you have to do is tie the leader to the line. He also had some good sized lead split shot. You needed to pinch some split shot on the line so the bait would get down to the creek bottom where the suckers fed. We dug some worms and we were ready to go.
This was a real adventure for me. It was the first time my grandfather and I had ever done anything together. He knew there were suckers in the local creek and that our odds were good, but all he said was, “I think we might have some luck if we fish down at the creek today. We might catch a sucker or two.” I think he didn’t want to get my hopes up.
I was wearing Mother Daisy’s old gardening knee boots to keep my feet dry because it was spring and the creek banks were muddy. We parked his pickup at the bridge, and then went downstream about twenty yards. He showed me how to squeeze the split shot on the line with my teeth. Then he showed me how to pinch a worm in two and thread half a worm on the hook. The suckers were not particular; a half worm was just fine with them. I didn’t much care for this unkindness to the worms, but when your grandfather shows you how to do something, well, you do it.
Daddy K put me on one side of the creek opposite a small pool while he went down the other side until he was just opposite me. This was a very small creek, no more than ten feet wide. I couldn’t tell how deep it was because it was too muddy to see the bottom, but it was likely no more than two or three feet deep at most. I’m sure there was no danger of drowning. Although if my mother had been there, there would have been hell to pay, what with the potential damage to my teeth from clenching the split shot, the possibility of swallowing one of those lead sinkers and getting lead poisoning, and the proximity to that creek whose bottom was completely out of sight. You can see why Daddy K wanted me to visit all by myself for the weekend.
I let out some line and managed to cast the bait so that it wound up in the creek. That, in itself, got an, “atta boy” from Daddy K, which pumped me up considerably, as Daddy K was not given to effusive compliments. I waited what seemed an eternity; it was at least four minutes. Then the line gradually tightened, “Daddy K, Daddy K, I think I got a bite!”
“Lift up your rod tip. Quick, pull it in. You’ve got something!”
I did indeed have something. I backed up, cranked on my reel to take up some line, and there emerging from the muddy water, was a small snapping turtle with my worm firmly in its mouth.
“OK, put your rod down and just use your line to pull the turtle up on the bank. Don’t touch it. I’m coming right over there.”
He needn’t have worried. I wasn’t at all interested in touching it. He was beside me in about twenty seconds. “Sonny, that’s a snapping turtle. It’s different from the box turtles you see around the house. Snappers are good to eat. They’re hard to clean though, and they do have a nasty bite. He can stick his neck way out and get your fingers even when you think you’re safe. Probably best to stay away from them.”
“He’s let go of my worm. What’ll we do with him?”
“I’ll just push him back in the water and you put on another worm and throw back in there. Maybe this time you’ll get a fish.”
I did as I was told and, as sometimes happens when you do that, a good thing happened; the line went out again and when I raised the rod tip, there was quite a commotion. Something was swimming around just under the surface and it was a lot more energetic than that snapping turtle. “Good job Sonny, now when he gets tired pull him up on the bank.”
He didn’t seem to get tired very fast and when he did, and I got him on the bank, he recovered and started flopping around. I was afraid he’d flop back into the creek. “Grab him boy, don’t let him get away.” I tried to grab him but that was one slippery fish. I finally put the rod down and went for him with both hands holding the fish against my shirt. That gave me some traction. Daddy K came around again and showed me how to unhook the sucker which he put on a stringer and dropped back in the water. “He’s not going to get off there is he?”
“No he won’t. Now let’s see if you can catch another one.”
I did catch another one and Daddy K got skunked. I don’t think he minded that at all.
We put the two suckers in a wet gunny sack, threw it in the back of the truck and drove back to the cabin. I was one happy kid. When we got back we laid the suckers out on the lawn. I went in and told Mother Daisy to come out and see what I’d caught. “Daddy,” she said, “Why did you let that child bring those things home?” Daddy K looked down at the fish, “Well, Mother we’ll just put them in the garden, they make real good fertilizer. Sonny had a lot of fun catching them.”
“Well, I hope he did. Look at the mud on my boots, and what on earth happened to his shirt front? Sonny, you get in here and take off that shirt. I’ll have to wash it right now.”
The shirt was covered with fish slime. I slipped out of it and Mother Daisy took it back in the cottage mumbling to herself. Daddy K got out the garden hose, washed the mud off the boots and then I watched him spade two holes and bury my suckers.
“Sonny, Your grandma’s right, these don’t make very good eating. They’re awful boney.”
I’m sure he was right, but I’d rather have found that out for myself. I never stayed at their cottage again and we never went fishing again. I did do some fishing with my other grandma who was very different from Mother Daisy. Kids have two sets of grandparents for a very good reason. It helps the odds that at least one grandma and one grandpa will be a real delight even if they aren’t married to each other.
Excerpted from “More of the Same” © by Henry E. Klugh
Fly Fishing 101
Fly fishing for trout is a very popular sport, but before you decide to get involved, there are some things you need to know. The whole idea of fly fishing is to cast an artificial insect, the fly, bits of feathers and thread attached to a small fish hook, so that it floats tantalizingly over a feeding trout. Properly done, this will entice that trout to rise to the surface and try to swallow the fly. When the trout does this it will likely hook itself and you can then bring to your net. If you are fishing a catch and release stream, you must now release your prize so someone else can take advantage of the poor thing. This will happen because, in spite of legends about wily trout, they aren’t very bright. On the other hand, neither are some fishers. (The approved non-sexist substitute for fisherman is fisher.) Of course a fisher is also a small furbearing animal. Context will usually provide a clue as to which variety of fisher one is talking about.
Before even approaching a trout stream, one must be properly equipped. First, and most importantly, comes the fly rod. This eight foot long, elegantly thin and very strong wand, is used to throw the fly line and its various attachments, including the fly, in the direction of the trout. The fly line is usually tapered and of an appropriate weight to match the rod. It is not cheap. (My wife once offered to buy a new fly line for me and when she discovered the cost exclaimed over the “outrageous price for a piece of fishing string.” We are still married, but it was touch-and-go there for a while. )
The fisher does not attach the fly to the fly line; it would be physically impossible because the line is much too thick to go through the tiny eyelet on the fly. Also, the line is clearly visible. It would look much like a doughnut tied to a ship’s hawser. Even a stupid fish would ignore that. So the line is tied to a tapered nylon leader. Various tapers can be had and the fisher needs three or four different tapers and several different leader lengths. On a clear day one needs a twelve foot leader tapering to perhaps four or five “x.” (The higher the “x” the thinner the leader.) At night one might use a seven foot, 2 ”x” leader. Even so, one doesn’t attach the fly to the leader. One often changes flies and that means the leader will get shorter and shorter as one snips off the unsuccessful fly and ties on the new hopeful. (Sorry about all these “ones;” admit them to your prose and they multiply like rabbits.) To avoid shortening the leader, one buys several packets of tippets. These are eighteen-inch pieces of nylon in various thicknesses which are tied to the leader with excruciatingly intricate knots and then the fly at long last is tied to the tippet. We are almost ready to fish.
You will have bought waterproof waders, a fishing vest, a net and a fishing hat. The vest will contain a waterproofing paste to be rubbed on the line because the line must float. If the line sinks it will be hard to retrieve from the water when you attempt to cast it. It may also drag the fly, which must float, under water. The leader, on the other hand, must not float. If it does it will make little dimples where it touches the water and these, legend has it, will spook the trout. Consequently your vest carries a wetting, or de-greasing, agent to rub on your leader so that it will sink. Of course the fly must float; it is imitating an insect floating downstream on top of the water. If the fly gets wet it will sink. Therefore you have a small bottle of ridiculously expensive liquid to apply to the fly so that the fly will float.
In addition to the leaders and tippets you will also need a fly box and a considerable selection of flies. You will need a lot of flies, in part because the fish will never be feeding on one of the flies imitated by a fly in your box. Next time, at the fly shop, you will have to buy a wider selection, so flies accumulate. You will also need a lot of flies because they get lost in trees, snagged on stumps just out of reach and, very rarely, lost in giant trout that break your leader.
Your fishing hat completes your little outfit. (That was my wife’s description of the fisher’s gear when I first took her to a trout stream.) The hat should have a wide brim to shield the eyes from the sun, a sheep wool band on which to stick a few extra colorful flies, and it should be shower proof. Be sure it fits well enough not to get blown off your head if a wind comes up. The fisher looks quite awkward running through the water chasing after a hat. Appearances are very important.
Your fishing equipment is now ready; you still need some comfort materials. There are many unpleasant insects along trout streams. There are mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies and other pests. You will need insect repellent. This liquid must be carefully applied because it can dissolve the elegant varnish on your new fly rod and render opaque the transparent plastic fly box you just bought and melt the frames of your eye glasses. It does keep away mosquitoes. Finally, you need polarized sun glasses. These allow you to see through the glare of sunlight reflected from the water’s surface.
One thing more — bring a silver flask with your favorite beverage. It should provide a sufficient supply so that after several possibly fishless hours, the success or failure of the fishing will be progressively less relevant. Your attention will instead be focused on your delightful afternoon in the out-of-doors.
Excerpted from, “A Double Dozen and Six.” © by Henry E. Klugh
P.S. Anyone who calls a fishing rod a “pole” should not be allowed near any of your female relatives!