Hooks and Feathers – Chapter One

I’ve been a fly fisherman since the mid 1970s. It took me a while to get there. My various adventures and experiences that led me to hooks and feathers on trout streams began way back in the 1950s in city park fishing ponds. This part is mostly the back story of how this all sorted out. There will be other chapters.

xxx forest parkIn my early youth I occasionally found myself sitting on the edge of a pond equipped, by a well meaning adult (my dad or mom), with a cane pole, floating bobber and a worm impaled on a barbed hook. We were usually in a St. Louis city park. I was told to sit and be very quiet and not move the pole. The adult sitting beside me seemed content to spend the hours watching a bobber drift aimlessly at the end of a string.  I was puzzled by this but it was viewed as quality time and we were supposed to be having a good family experience together. After a while I would pull up the worm to see how he was doing or if he was even there. I was curious by nature and wondered about how the worm was supposed to catch a fish. I also wondered about the grass, the trees, the ants, the birds and anything else I could see. I really wanted to throw rocks in the water and float make-believe boats out into the pond. Once in a great while I would get a nibble and the bobber would jiggle in the water. Occasionally I would catch a fish. My adult companion usually had better luck than I did. Somehow my older brother managed to dodge the bullet — or the worm — and was conspicuously absent during most of these fishing expeditions.

xxx big piney 3A few years later we would drive several hours down Route 66 to my uncle and aunt’s – and cousins’ – cabin on the Big Piney River in the heart of the Ozarks. My uncle was a dedicated fisherman — he was born that way. Part of his family was from the area and he spent his childhood summers on an island in the Gasconade River hunting and fishing. He had a boat at the cabin so the fishing activity usually centered around sitting in the boat for hours. We fished with minnows and I graduated to a real fiberglass rod and reel. Sometimes my brother would be in the boat and sometimes one of my cousins would be in the boat or my dad. My uncle was usually in charge — he knew how to run the boat and avoid the fallen trees or other hazards in the river. He knew the good fishing spots and was full of advice and encouragement – in his own way. He smoked a pipe and I associate pipe smoke with some of these trips on the river. This was much better than sitting on the bank with a cane pole but there was still a lot that caught my attention. There were turtles sunning on logs, egrets and herons flying up and down the river, maybe Indians or bears or turkeys in the forest, rocky river cliffs towering over the water, plants of every description on the bank and huge trees draped across river. I enjoyed it, mostly. I was not a good swimmer and was nervous about the boat but it was sturdy and stable. I was not much of a sitter, either, but there was no place to go in the boat so I was stuck. My fishing experiences improved even though I didn’t catch that many fish.  We ate what we caught so there was also that issue of gutting and cleaning the fish and then the big fish fry at the end of the weekend. Different kinds of fish taste different. Catfish, bass, perch, crappie all had slightly different qualities.

One year I spent the summer with another aunt and uncle in Paducah, Kentucky. They were childless so I made friends with the local kids. We all lived a couple blocks from a swampy woods that was the local kids’ playground. There was a pond or maybe a slough back on the woods that had all sorts of large water birds — big cranes, herons egrets and things that I never could name. Usually if it was big and white we called it an egret. This was an interesting place to play and catch frogs and turtles. It was also full of mosquitos and snakes.

Several times that summer we would drive over to visit my aunt’s mother (Missus H) who lived on a farm near Fisk, Missouri…deep in the southeast corner of the state, sometimes called “Swampeast Missouri” because it was in the Mississippi delta region and very swampy. Much of the land had to be drained by large canals so it could be farmed. The canals ran into the St. Francis River or the Mississippi. My aunt’s mother was an interesting woman. She had been married five or six times and was quite plump, wore silk stockings  and smoked cigarettes from a long white cigarette holder. Her current husband was a quiet man about twenty years her elder and he let her rule the place…as if he had a choice. I enjoyed those trips and actually learned where things come from and what it was like to live on a farm. I churned butter and collected duck eggs and pulled vegetables out of the garden for the dinner table. On some of the weekend trips there would be other kids there  — Missus H’s grandchildren — and we would all decide to go fishing in the St. Francis River.

xxx st francisThe St. Francis River has a split personality in Missouri. The upper reaches of the stream are fast and wild with class four rapids and small waterfalls. By the time the river reaches Fisk it is brown, slow and moody and confined by levees and steep mud banks. We were heading to the muddy part. Missus H was leading the expedition through the forest to her favorite fishing hole. It wasn’t exactly a forest. It was a damp, hot, bug infested jungle and she was wielding a machete while we followed single file behind her. After chopping through the jungle for twenty minutes we emerged at the top of a eight foot mud bank overlooking the poorest excuse for a river I had ever seen.  There was no discernible current and the water was more like liquid mud than water. We were all outfitted with cane poles and slid down the bank to the river’s edge. I think somebody caught a catfish or two but I have wiped most of that experience from my memory. I may have blacked out from heat stroke or loss of blood due to the mosquitos.

xxx big piney 1On my jubilant return home at the end of summer I was greeted by the news that the family dog died while I was gone. I was bummed. As a consolation prize my parents decided to spend Labor Day weekend at my uncle’s cabin on the Big Piney.  That weekend I was introduced to fly fishing. My aunt had taken up fly fishing and my uncle would often have a go at it as well. It looked like fun and you didn’t have to sit still and watch the bobber. My uncle took my mom out in the boat to show her how to use a fly rod and they came scurrying back about a half hour later because my mom launched her fly into a hornets’ nest and the hornets didn’t go for that. After backing the boat as far away as they could while the fly was stuck in the nest, they gave it a yank and then raced back home before the hornets figured out who to blame.  That weekend I learned to love fly fishing for small mouth and perch with poppers. You could stand in the water and fish. The river was murky but clear enough that you could guess where the fish were and almost half the time you would be right. I caught more fish that way than I ever did watching a bobber.

At that point I had no knowledge of trout or trout streams even though there was a nice one only about ten miles up river. I didn’t discover that until almost twenty years later after fishing trout streams in Wyoming and Colorado.

*    *    *

Next chapter — the Tongue River and the Big Horns

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