My great grandmother Rose grew up in a simpler time, before and during the Depression, when fishing meant feeding your family.
She was old, bent over and gray by the time I came along in the early 1950s. Pictures from her youth show her to have been an attractive girl.
Our farm pond was easy to access in my grandfather’s Model-A Ford, the only car they ever owned. We bounced over the pasture while Grandpa tried to steer around sticks or other obstacles, creating quite a bumpy ride for me in the dusty, musty smelling black-leather backseat.
Cane poles and my great grandfather’s old steel rod with a J.C. Higgins red bait caster reel were tucked neatly to one side with his Sears tackle box that was about the size of a loaf of bread. I could hear hooks, bobbers and other fishing stuff rattling as the car bounced. Grandma occasionally glanced back at me to make sure I was surviving the sometimes-wild ride. She always returned my big grin.
The pond was surrounded by pasture so we drove up to the shoreline. The air smelled sweet on spring mornings we went fishing, unless you walked by a cow pie or two. But that was just part of country life and we paid little attention, unless a misstep landed in the squishy mess.
Grandpa pulled out all the equipment and carried it to an appropriate spot on the pond dam. He always gave us the best fishing spot. He made sure Grandma had a can of worms, then smiled at me and walked to the ponds opposite end.
Then Grandpa found a quiet spot to fish in peaceful solitude. I learned later that he had bouts with depression earlier in life. His quiet fishing moments because therapy, a term that did not exist for Missouri farm people in those days. They just solved problems their own way.
Grandma loved to let me hook an earthworm. She would smile at my struggles with the squirmy worm and always took over before frustration set in. Soon the worm was firmly threaded on a genuine Mustad hook, the kind sold in round metal boxes in those days. I always turned the red and white bobber over and over in my hand as she patiently waited for me to hand it over.
The bobber was added about a foot up the nylon line. She stepped closer to the shoreline before leaning forward to expertly flip the rigging with a long cane pole. The hooked worm and bobber always perfectly positioned at the end of thoroughly stretched fishing line.
“Now honey, you sit and watch that bobber,” she said in a soft voice. “Hold the pole still and don’t move the bait. You never know when a great big catfish is going to eat that worm. But don’t move it. You might take it away just before he takes a big bite.”
I had no idea that she was giving me a lesson in patience, an important aspect of fishing to be used the rest of my life.
Then we sat and waited. Both of us held canes poles and studied our bobbers that bounced on the surface. I occasionally got impatient and started lifting my fishing pole. She would lay a hand on my shoulder and reassure me.
“The bait is fine, just wait and watch,” she said in a patient voice.
Sometimes she would slip me a Lifesaver, green or red because they were my favorites.
We generally caught small bluegill, commonly called sunfish by their generation. Grandma always got a smile out of watching me pick up the long cane pole to drag the fish ashore. I always held the fish up for Grandpa to see before tossing it back to grow. You could see his smile from across the pond.
Then one day my bobber slashed under the surface and stayed down. I picked up the cane pole and felt more pull than a 3-year old could handle.
“Take the pole Grandma,” I urged. “I’m afraid the fish is going to pull me in.”
“No honey,” she said in a calm voice. ”You hang on and I’ll help.”
Grandma stepped behind me to grab part of the cane pole and we fought the big catfish as it ran back and forth. I did not know to set the hook so the fish apparently hooked itself through a savage strike. The fish displayed a lot of power, sometimes pulling me forward even though Grandma was holding the pole too.
Grandpa heard the commotion of a good fish slapping the surface and came to help. Somehow, we all three grabbed the pole and drug the 5-pound channel catfish on shore. I remember jumping up and down as my grandparents smiled at my youthful energy and excitement. He held the fine fish up for me to see and proclaimed it my first catfish, even though I had plenty of help landing the good fighter.
Grandpa cut up the catfish and then Grandma took over. Few will ever fry a fish better, generally in fresh hog lard. My grandparents arrived later with my mom and dad to enjoy a beautiful catfish dinner with friend potatoes, peas and a fresh blackberry cobbler. Everyone, of course made a big deal about me catching dinner. I wish they were all here so we could talk about that day. Maybe they were with me as I wrote this memory.
Great Grandpa and Grandma were gone a few years later. I wonder if their fishing spirits have prompted me to make a living writing about their favorite sport. Somehow, I think they might.
Hopefully my grandchildren will remember fishing with me in 50 years.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.