“Stan, grab an empty bucket and follow me” was Grandpa’s order as he stood with a garden spade in his hand, in the doorway between the car lot office and the shop where I was cleaning a car. With that, he turned and walked back through the door. I dropped whatever I was doing and grabbed the first empty bucket I could find and followed him. I moved quickly and excitedly because I knew what the spade and bucket meant.
I caught up with him as we walked out the front door of Grandpa’s used car lot, South Side Sales. He turned right and walked toward Broadway as I followed behind. I followed him across busy Broadway, to the back of the grain elevator which was just across the street. Grandpa stopped and dug his spade into grain silage that accumulated onto the ground below where grain was transferred to train cars on the siding by the C&O Railroad line.
This scene played out many times before I started working for Grandpa in 1972. I remember the first time was a curious one for me. I must have been only 8 or 9 years old. I couldn’t figure out what a spade, bucket and grain elevator had to do with fishing until I saw grandpa turn over the first spade full of silage. There, under years of accumulated rich compost, I saw the movement of thousands of fat, juicy red worms. We hit pay dirt! He panned as I picked the gold. Only a fisherman could appreciate the site before my eyes. Thousands and thousands, or so it seemed, of worms that would surely attract world record Bluegill, Goggleye, Sunfish, and any other fish that might be lurking in the waters where Grandpa took me. That became our free bait shop where we would go every time we went fishing.
We walked back across the street to the car lot, Grandpa with a spade and me with a much heavier bucket. Grandpa stopped by the office door and said to dad, “We’re going fishing.” He shut the door and I followed Grandpa to his car, without regard to the curious look on dad’s face. I was just following orders, of course.
After my first experience at panning for fish-gold as a boy, the routine was always the same. He told me we were going fishing, I grabbed the bucket and he the spade, I gathered the worms, we went to his house on the other side of the river to fetch the poles and tackle, and we ventured to another new fishing spot. The places where we fished were numerous and seldom repeated. We fished in rivers, ponds and lakes all over the area.
As we drove to each new location, Grandpa would tell me how he found out about the place; a customer told him about it or another customer owned property on which the fishing spot was located or he heard about it while drinking coffee with friends at the corner cafe. In each case, the fish were plentiful and huge and we were sure to come back with stringers full. That was also part of the routine.
Grandpa preferred fiberglass, telescoping 18-foot cane poles. I used the small rods with the Zebco 202’s. Those were classic beginner rods and reels. His, on the other hand, were higher on the evolutionary scale from old-school cane poles. They were heavy, harder to keep from getting tangled in trees, took longer to set up, but could reach out further from the water’s edge than other cane poles. And the routine was the same here as well but far more agonizing for me. He set up his telescoping pole at the trunk of the car and carried it to the fishing spot as he told me to carry the rest; the other rod and reel, tackle, fish basket, bucket of worms, and anything else I could hook on my belt, carry with my hands and arms or throw over my shoulders.
As we ventured to the water’s edge, he always seemed to choose trails through the woods or brambles or over hills or through deep weeds where I would frequently have to drop all that I carried so that I could pick his fishing line from the tree branches or bushes or weeds. I always walked at least 18 feet behind him so he wouldn’t hit me with the whip-like end of the pole. I never really understood why he didn’t wait to assemble it at the water’s edge. Fully collapsed, the pole was about 6 feet long, easy to carry and would never get tangled in trees. But, looking back, I suppose as long as he had his own fishing Sherpa, ease and convenience need never be considered.
I was always happy when my cousin, Alec, came to visit. Alec and I would follow the same routine and gather worms at the grain elevator but Grandpa could count on two Sherpa’s to help untangle the pole from trees and carry all the gear to the water’s edge. I found those fishing trips with Alec much less exhausting.
I think he began to notice how tired his fishing Sherpa was getting. He always made me carry a large metal tackle box but never used much of the tackle except the sinkers, line, hooks, and bobbers. But I lugged that heavy thing like any obedient pack mule would. I think out of pity to me but oblivious to the embarrassment it might cause, he later decided to put all he used in an old black patent leather purse of Grandma’s. I remember my shock as we went to the back porch of his house to gather the tackle and he pointed to the purse and said, “Grab the tackle box.” With Grandma in the doorway shaking her head in disbelief, I looked at her with an obvious look of, “Is this a joke?” He walked out the door of the back porch and said, “Let’s go. It’s getting late.”
I grabbed the tackle including the cute little black patent leather tackle box, and, leaving my manhood behind, I followed grandpa to the car. I remember thinking like a typical sarcastic Williams, “Shouldn’t I be wearing matching black pumps?” I dared not ask that question as I knew he would go back to the house and get them for me. As my grandmother waved with a look of pity but choking back laughter, I was off on another fishing adventure with Grandpa.
My work as Grandpa’s fishing Sherpa finally came to an end when dad bought a 16-foot speedboat. While any bass fishing purist would turn up their nose at our boat, it worked well for me. The bow was open so I could stand up in the bow and, with a mighty cast, could fish at quite a distance from the boat. The floor of the boat was stable and Grandpa could whip that monstrous cane pole from side to side without the interminable fights and entanglements with tree limbs. So, when I turned 16 and, after good instruction from dad on proper boat towing and landing, Grandpa and I forsook the arduous walks through trees and brambles to unknown waterholes for larger bodies of water. There, we could wander in the speedboat from spot to spot and this pack mule was finally free!
Angry Outburst Skillfully Diffused
On one particular fishing adventure, we hit the mother lode of Crappie spots. Crappies are great eating fish and collect in schools, large and small, and feed mostly on minnows. We were prepared with their favorite treat and as I approached a stand of dead trees sticking out of the water, I anchored the boat and dropped the minnow bucket on the opposite side of the boat from the spot I just knew the Crappie were collecting. Grandpa baited his 18-footer and I my rod and reel. With bobbers floating in the water, we waited for the feeding frenzy. I didn’t wait long when my bobber went under the water and with a mighty tug, I brought my first Crappie into the boat.
Any Crappie fisherman knows the routine. The Crappie is taken off the hook, put into the fish basket (if the fish is a keeper), and another minnow is retrieved from the bucket which stays in the water over the side of the boat to keep the minnows fresh. As I came up with my fresh minnow to put on the hook, I noticed that Grandpa had moved his bobber into the spot where I caught my first fish. I would have thrown any other fisherman overboard for that offense but, it was Grandpa and I wanted him to catch fish (even though Grandpa loved to fish, he was never really good at it).
I threw my minnow, hook, and bobber into another spot and immediately hooked another one. Meanwhile, Grandpa stood with 18-footer in hand without as much as a nibble. I landed my second one, took it off and put it into the basket, and retrieved another fresh minnow from the side of the boat. I put the minnow on the hook and returned to the other side of the boat, only to discover that Grandpa had once again broken the Cardinal Rule of fishing: NEVER throw your bait into another fisherman’s spot!
Careful not to show disgust, I chose another location in the large collection of dead trees and underwater tree stumps. Without a minute’s wait, I hooked into another Crappie. I brought it in, put it into the basket, and got another minnow to throw back for the fish to gorge on. But Grandpa beat me to my spot again.
This was repeated many times that beautiful sunny spring day. I caught Crappie, Grandpa threw his bait into the spot where I hooked a fish, I filled the basket once again and retrieved a fresh minnow, and I reluctantly threw to another spot, only to catch a new one there. All the while, Grandpa never caught a fish. The only time he interrupted his impatient waiting was to check on the status of his minnow. His minnows frequently died of boredom, I suspect, so he’d unhook the minnow and throw it into the reservoir and get a fresh one out of the minnow bucket, thinking fresh minnows were the reason he wasn’t catching fish.
For me, it was a glorious fishing day. I remember catching 26 Crappie while Grandpa was still skunked. After my 26th, I went to the minnow bucket right after Grandpa had just been there to replenish his dead bait. As I reached over the side to grab the bucket, I was in shock. Grandpa put the bucket back into the reservoir upside down with the lid open and all the minnows escaped their fate. I stood up, turned to my 75 year-old Grandpa, and yelled with disrespectful fury, “Grandpa, you put the minnow bucket back in the water upside down and now all the minnows are gone!”
With a calm that only 75 years of experience with much greater tragedies than the loss of minnows could bring him, he responded wryly, “Oh well. We weren’t catching anything anyway.” Then the hint of a smile came upon his lips.
My fury was instantly diffused. No more was the slaughter of schools of innocent fish important. In that one response and look from Grandpa, I saw again why I loved to go fishing with this man. I knew he didn’t put the bucket back in the water upside down deliberately. He was simply a clumsy, terrible fisherman but he loved to fish with his grandchildren and I loved him so because he loved to spend time with me. His comment was not unusual. Like so many other times before, with a funny retort and a wry smile, he could calm an ocean of fury.
I’ve reflected often on the many fishing experiences I’ve had with my grandfather, father, and many others. I think of the times my sons and I sat on the banks of a favorite fishing hole of ours and fished and talked and spent time with each other. I can recall with uncanny clarity just about every time I went fishing with someone. I remember where it was, who I was with, the personalities, and the crazy stunts from any of us. The only time that I can remember the number of fish I caught was that one time with Grandpa, fishing for Crappie. The only reason I remember that I caught 26 and Grandpa got skunked that day is because it was pertinent to his one response to me.
Dad often took mom, my two sisters, and me fishing. I can recall one particular memory on the Eel River, just upstream from Chili, Indiana. The place we fished was called, “Lost Bridge”. My sisters and I got muddy and wet from swimming in the river with our dog and oh how we enjoyed the thrill of a river rope swing. All the while, dad was fishing for Smallmouth Bass and doing quite well. At lunchtime, mom opened the picnic hamper and the family feasted together. I can’t remember how many fish any of us caught, only the carefree, wonderful time we had as a family.
An Unlikely Fishing Conversation
I have no idea if I even got a bite one summer day in 2001 when my dearest friend, Dennis Miller, and I decided to go fishing. He was in his 3rd year of chemotherapy for Colon Cancer and we were enjoying the time together in the boat. In idle conversation, I just happened to mention that I needed to line up someone to paint my house. I knew that he used to paint houses to make money while on summer break from his job as a science teacher. I asked him if he knew of anyone I could call.
He turned to me from the front of the boat where he sat casting for fish and said, “Stan, I want to paint your house.” I was shocked by his response because he was weak from the chemo treatments and I was fearful that he couldn’t and shouldn’t do it. I answered, “Dennis, I can’t let you paint my house. It’s too big, two and a half stories high, and you are weak from your treatments. I’ll get someone else to do it.”
He turned further in my direction so that he was seated directly facing me, he threw his pole to the bottom of the boat, pointed his finger at me and said with a righteous indignation I’ve never seen in him before, “Stan! If I spent the rest of my life trying to repay the kindness you and Lisa have shown to me and my family in the past three years, I could never live long enough. You will NOT deny me this one opportunity to repay you!” Tears came streaming from his eyes and mine as he expressed his deepest emotions. With that, I bowed my head in shame and said, “Dennis, I love you!” He told me he loved me too. Looking up at our place on the small body of water with cottages all around and other fishermen in their boats, I said, “Dennis, we gotta be careful. We’re fisherman on a lake full of rednecks. We could get shot for saying “I love you” to each other.” We laughed through the tears.
He painted my house that summer. Three years later, with my wife, Lisa, at my side and with his family and a few other friends present in his home by his hospital bed, I told my best friend and fishing buddy that I loved him for the last time.
What I Remember Most About Fishing
Every time I’ve gone fishing, the trip began with fish in mind. We were going to catch fish and I was always over-prepared with more equipment than I’d ever use and I planned to come back with stringers or baskets full of fish. But I can never remember how many fish we caught except for that isolated, golden moment with Grandpa.
I can remember the big fish we caught but, more so, how we all celebrated catching the “trophy”. I can remember who I was with, where it was, and how we all loved that moment and celebrated it together.
I guess I have to admit, after a lifetime spent fishing, that it never really was all about the fish. I tried to make it so as I prepared for each adventure, carefully checking the rods and reels, replacing the old line for new, and making sure I had the right lures for the fish we were after. In retrospect, the memories with family and friends, of laughter and tears, of adventures and challenges, of new places and old, are what warm my heart and bring new tears of joy to my eyes.
These experiences I remember and some I’ve shared above were completely serendipitous. We didn’t plan to make a memory when we went out with rod and reel in hand. We simply spent time with each other doing something we enjoyed. Those rich moments I now recall just simply happened.
We cannot plan quality time. We can only plan to spend copious amounts of time with others. Quality moments rise up and delight us without warning. They are immediately etched into our memory banks and come back to bless us with warm hearts and wet eyes when we need them the most.
We all are mortal and only a breath away from death. However, most of us go about our lives ignoring the inescapable fact that time could be robbed from us at any moment and we would be left with things undone. We have people with whom we’ve long wanted to reconnect. We have forgiveness to seek from others and relationships that must be re-built. We have places we’ve wanted to visit but just can’t seem to save enough money or take enough time. We know we should re-order our priorities but are just too busy to address them. We get caught in the web of deceit that we have plenty of time and we’ll get around to it, some day.
Grandpa’s Most Precious Gift
Grandpa taught me that time is the most precious gift we can give someone. In the time he gave me, precious memories were formed. Fishing just happened to be a way he chose to spend time with me. It cost very little for him. Digging for red worms and substituting a metal tackle box for Grandma’s old purse was evident of his parsimonious approach to fishing.
As I grew older, and my love of fishing increased, I began the futile thinking that it was all about the fish. Evidence of this is the obscene amount of fishing tackle I’ve accumulated over the years. I now realize that an old cane pole and used purse would have given me the same, blessed memories with my boys. I am even more confident that my use of a cane pole and purse would have given my boys even better stories to share!
As for any remaining fishing adventures in my life, I’ll resist the temptation to obsess about the fish. And I’ll ask my wife if she has an old black purse I can borrow.