As I have mentioned before, growing up on the farm, I was spoiled—I just did not know it. We were surrounded by water—the Chickahominy River on one side and Diascund Creek on the other, and a ten-acre pond right in the middle of the property. There were plenty of opportunities to go fishing—and as residents, no fishing licenses were required.Paul, my father, liked fishing almost as much as I did, and was very patient instructor. He taught me to bait hooks, take the fish off the hooks, and later taught the fine art of casting, spin casting, and fly fishing. He was a practical fisherman—that means when he went fishing, he expected to catch fish. We knew a few people who “went fishing” but did not really want to be bothered with actual fish!
Of course, he also taught me how to clean and prepare the fish for cooking. The basic rule was: you clean and eat what you catch and keep.
My first fishing experiences were from on the river from the wall in front of the lower (Susie’s) house. With a few worms or crickets and a cane pole, you could catch sunfish (sunnies), brim, bass, and catfish almost any day.
On the pond, we could fish from the dam or paddle around in a small boat. Fishing from the boat was “serious.” My father would wake me before sunrise, usually on a weekend morning,
An aside here: My father had no patience for oversleeping. He would ask me what time I wanted to get up. I would give him a time, and at that time he would stick his head in my room, tell me it was time to get up, make sure I acknowledged it, and that was it. If I rolled over and went back to sleep, I missed whatever was scheduled for that morning. He would not call me twice. I learned this at a very early age, and soon also learned to be up and getting dressed almost immediately after he woke me. I am still like that today—no snooze alarm for me.
We would be at the pond in the early morning dawn, well before sunrise. The surface of the pond would be still with wisps of steam fog rising from the surface. And I remember the quiet, except for a few birds and frogs that always seemed to have something to say.The pond was a wooded swamp that had been dammed off from Diascund Creek. Sometime in the early 1940s there had been a hard freeze shortly after the pond was dammed off and before it was full. The pond froze over enough to safely walk on the ice, and someone had gone out and cut most of the trees that had been in the swamp. Of course this left stumps, and when the pond rose to full level, these stumps were four or five inches below the surface of the water. They made great spots for fish, but it was also very likely that paddling along, you would run up on a stump and have to paddle hard and rock the boat to get off the stump.
About age 14, one warm summer evening, I collected a few earthworms and went to the wall on the river in front of the lower house to fish for catfish. I used a bobber and let the bait hang down from the float to what I thought was just on or near the bottom. The river is tidal, so I had to take into account the height of the tide and whether it was going in or out. This particular evening it was nearing high tide, so I had about four feet of string below the float to the hook and bait.
I was fishing near some old posts that had supported a pier that had been destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. This was a good area for catfish.
Catfishin’ is a lazy sport. You toss the bait out where you think you will have the best chance of catching something. Prop the fishing pole up next to where you’re sitting, and put your feet up, glancing at the float periodically to see if it is showing any signs of activity.
It was a nice evening and I was enjoying the view, the sound of the frogs, and sitting with my feet hanging off the wall. Leaves would float by in the slowing current of the incoming tide. The float was not moving but showed slight ripples of tidal flow, so I guessed the bait was sitting on the bottom, sort of anchoring the float in place.
The sun was just above the horizon, still warm, and reflecting off the long reach of the river to the southwest (left) of where I was sitting. The sky was clear, no sunset color that evening.
Movement caught my eye. The bobber was dancing in the water, then, as fast as a rock, it sank out sight, diving down and away. I grabbed my fishing pole and pulled up on the rod to set the hook and begin to reel in whatever I had caught. The pole bent nearly double, and the fishing line was spinning out quickly; my real making a whirring noise. The fish was swimming deep and out into the river. It was clear that if I pulled too much, the line would break. If, however, I did not slow the fish down it would undoubtedly swim under a long or something and my line would break anyway. I pulled as hard as I dared, but the fish continued toward the middle of the river.
In true parental form, he cautioned me about pulling too hard and breaking the line, and came down to watch. The fishing line continued to play out for nearly five minutes. I could slow the fish down, but had not been able to turn it around.
Finally, a good, long, steady pull halted the fish’s progress away and turned it around. The next ten minutes was a battle of wills. The fish would apply a burst of energy and swim away, I would fight and reel it back in, each time pulling the fish in closer and closer. As I began to pull the fish in nearer to the wall, we were concerned that it might dart off between the old pier piles and tangle the line around a post. I worked hard to steer the fish away from the hazards and gradually worked it up near the wall.
By now, my mother was standing at the top of the hill in the front yard watching.
I finally got it up near the surface and we could see it was a big catfish, more than two feet long.
My father got down on the wall, and as I tugged and guided the fish up to the top of the water, next to the wall, my father reached in and grabbed the fish by its jaw and hauled it out of the water. All of this had taken long enough that it was now nearly dark when we got the fish out of the water.
When mother saw the fish come out of the water, she immediately ran back in the house for a camera. After a couple of photos of me holding the fish, we weighed on a set of baby scales (I cannot find that photos, but I have it somewhere and will post it when I find it!). It weighed more than 12 pounds.
That evening, in the dim light of the outside back door light, we skinned and cleaned the catfish. It was big enough to make steak cuts across the fish rather than cutting it into fillets. Before the night was over, we dined on catfish steaks and whatever else Lois fixed with it, probably a salad and potatoes.
We ate most of fish we caught. There were some types of catfish that were not all that good, and we simply tossed them back.
My favorites were channel and willow catfish, largemouth bass, and bluegills. Any time we caught six or eight nice bluegills, we knew were going to have a good fish breakfast the next morning.