A fishy tale…

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    There was a public fishing area at Blytheville Air Base. It was stocked with bass, bluegill, and catfish but my dad was a Southern boy, and you just don’t fish a stocked pond if you can find native fish. He promised to take me fishing once I could cast accurately.

    I practiced casting in the backyard with an old trolling rod. You’ve seen these dinosaurs at auctions and garage sales, the line guide works back and forth as the line plays out and keeps the spool clear. At least that’s how the engineer supposedly designed it. What happens is you get the worst backlash you can imagine if you don’t ride the spool with your thumb acting as a friction brake.


    It’s a frustrating experience for anybody but a seven-year-old just isn’t designed for patience. I eventually learned to cast it with decent accuracy up to 30 feet away. I was pretty impressed with myself, 10 yards is a long way when you’re four feet tall, and the black 30-pound test braided nylon line in the reel made the degree of difficulty just that much greater.

    My dad picked me up after work one evening and we headed two miles east of the house to a muddy creek that ran under the highway. I didn’t think anything could live in such dirty water, but it was the south, and the fish are different down there.

    We walked down the bank under the highway bridge, and I saw hundreds of mud tubes that resembled little volcanoes. “Mud dog holes,” my dad said. He went on to explain that a mud dog is a little salamander and that you always find fish where you see mud dog holes.

    He was right. I put on a big earthworm and cast 20 feet into the muddy water. “Let it sit, and watch your bobber,” he said. Once again, that ugly word, patience, came to mind.


    After what seemed to be an eternity, but was probably more like three minutes, the bobber began to dance. It finally went under, I set the hook, and I played in my prize with all the style of an oil-field winch truck.

    The catfish was only about 10 inches long, but it was my trophy. “Throw it back,” dad said. “There will be bigger fish.” 

    He was right but I’ll always remember that slimy little channel cat sitting just off the highway. It was 60 years ago, and it seems like yesterday. You always remember your first fish.


    Little streams, farm ponds, and brooks that are barely more than a trickle have always drawn me. The attraction has jumped a generation to my granddaughters Jayne and Norah.

    There is a small stream that flows on the southern edge of their favorite playground, “The Green Park” as the girls call it.

    We’ve spotted minnows, and a few frogs and waded through the little unnamed creek. After climbing the nylon spider web, swinging to the moon and planets, and sliding down a giant menagerie of steps, ladders, and slides the creek awaits us before we head back to their house.


    Another, larger stream, the Loyalhanna Creek, sets the northern boundary of Manor Park, east of the girls’ hometown of Irwin. This was once coal country and the Loyalhanna has bits and chunks of black bituminous coal in its bed and along the shore. It also has a few water snakes to terrify their grandmother and thrill them, but the main attractions are snail shells and an occasional freshwater mussel.

    Between that catfish in 1963 and a trip to the waters of Westmoreland County just last week there were many other encounters with small streams.

    The best, probably not by size, variety, or any other tangible measurement, but because I was a junior high school kid came at Mather Air Force Base, a semi-wild Strategic Air Command Base that had the largest navigator training school in the world located on its dozens of miles of runways.

    South of non-commissioned officer housing on the main street of the air base was an overpass over a small, sluggish stream.

    The inaugural Earth Day took place earlier that year, but trash, tires, and old cars were still commonplace along most of America’s rivers and streams.

    My friends and I rode our bikes for about five minutes to reach the overpass. When the afternoon light was perfect, you could see schools of bluegill swimming in the water. They were finicky fish, but one day I hooked one with a worm on a bobber and sinker rig. I was by myself that day. Today, a cell phone pic would suffice (if you could get a kid to leave his video game or if his overprotective mom would let him ride his bike on a busy road) but back then, you needed proof.

    I found a discarded milk carton, cut it down to size with my pocketknife (another no, no for a modern youngster) put a little water in it, and dropped in the four-inch bluegill. I pedaled at warp speed back to the house to show my mom, then returned my prize to where I caught it.

    The water was teeming with life, microscopic life. I still have a 100, 200, and 300-power metal microscope that I received for Christmas when I was 13.

    I took some samples of the water at the overpass in an eyedropper bottle and put it under the microscope.

    Euglenas, paramecium, and other microbes that I didn’t recognize filled the eyepiece. We learned about those in science class, but never got to see the real thing under a microscope. My friends Larry and Jerry loved it as well and brought samples from stagnant water near their houses.

    We were after a hydra and would have settled for an amoeba, but we never found either one. The paramecium swimming around was cool enough.

    A final spot on the air base with my two buddies had all three of our fathers in the base commander’s office after air police caught us inside a boundary fence along the main flight line.

    There was a deeper section of a stream that flowed into the big pond on the base golf course, but it was behind a six-foot tall chain link fence with three strands of barbed wire on the top.

    There were sections with the bottom of the chain link detached from the posts. We just lifted the wire, climbed under it, pulled our bikes through then kept riding. It worked great until the afternoon a couple of Air Policemen spotted us, took our IDs, wrote down our names, and reported us.

    We had previously made a dam of rocks that backed the water up deep enough to swim in. We caught crawdads and dropped them into the pool, along with small bass, bluegill, and sunfish that we caught with nets in the smaller pools around the rocks.

    That all came to an end when our fathers came home after a visit with the colonel.

    I like to think that our dam is still doing the job and that kids still try to catch fish, snag crawdads, and ride with abandon in the summer sun.

    It was the essence of youth, and future generations need to experience it.


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