CHICKEN GUTS & HUNTING CATS

Playing in front yard.

The pond was always muddy because cattle stirred the water to keep cool.  Nobody cared that it was overpopulated with less-desirable fish species.  Willow trees leaned out over the dam and spillway.

Angling was a new experience for three brothers.  Fishing gear was simple–willow pole, cotton line, bobber, and hooks. Bait was plentiful–grasshoppers, earthworms, crickets.  Securing bait took a modicum of effort.  It was fun for a time, until reality set in.

Fish could be lousy, unrepentant bait thieves.  There were days when fish were lazy and wouldn’t bite.  It was back and forth to the house–the screen door slammed constantly.

“Mom, the fish just won’t bite.  I’ll bet I could put a dollar bill on a hook and they still wouldn’t bite.”  Not that fish had any interest in paper money.

“Maybe they’re just not hungry?”  Mom suggested.  She was probably right, but us three brothers were persistent.

“Why don’t you try chicken guts?”  Mom said, out of the blue.  It took a while to sink in.

“Chicken guts?  That’s disgusting.”  “You want to catch fish–don’t you?”  Came the reply.

We raised chickens for eggs and to eat, so there were leftover chicken guts aplenty.

Mom’s brothers were sportsmen–knew about fishing and hunting.

Fishing resumed with a bucket of smelly chicken guts, accompanied by Tags, the dog, and a few hunting cats.  Every kid needed a hunting cat or two or three.  We had plenty to spare.

Hunting cats descended from barn cats–to father’s chagrin.  Tamed by us kids, they no longer caught barn rats and mice.

My orange tabby tomcat came along–stayed in the shade.  Chicken guts were baited on hooks to the tune of disgusted “ewwws” and “yucks.”  They proved enticing to snapping turtles and catfish.

Disaster struck.  My tomcat seized a piece of chicken gut on a baited hook. He yowled, clawed at his mouth.  The hook was stuck fast to the roof of his mouth.  He fought rescuers tooth and claw.

Dad came to tomcat’s rescue with pliers.  The hook was removed, after first inserting the business end of hapless cat in an old boot.  The rest of us held the boot tight–that way doctoring could be done without arms being clawed to shreds.

Tomcat wasn’t the least bit grateful–ran back to the house.  The cat may have lost one or two of his nine lives in the process.  He spent the remainder of his life (lives) doing things that hunting cats did.

Editor’s Note:  I’m in the middle of the picture holding a cat (not the cat in my story).  My older brother isn’t pictured.  Tags, the dog is in the picture.

ROCKIN’ WITH OLD JAKE

fishing 1

I remember this one time, when my best friend Dave and me, drove out to Jake Murphy’s before the sun came up.  Jake’s coon dog’s were raising ten kinds of hell, soon as we drove down the dirt driveway.  “I hope Jake remembered that he promised to go fishing with us this morning,”  Dave said.  “He knows, now,” I answered when the lights came on.

Trust, honesty, and fear, went along with knocking on someone’s door at five in the morning.  Jake answered the door, half-asleep; pulling on his bib overalls.  He didn’t have an undershirt on.  Neither Dave, nor myself, wanted to know, if anything else was missing.  Jake grumbled something unintelligible, stumbled across the porch; sat on the steps; put on socks and shoes.

“Good morning sunshine,” I greeted.  “I knew it was you guys when I seen them headlights,” Jake bristled in defense.  He tossed his fishing gear and cooler in the pickup bed.  Jake’s slouchy railroad conductor’s cap barely covered his wild gray hair.

Jake, secured himself in the window seat, closed the door.  It was a good thing, it was summer, and the truck windows were down.  Because the stench of musk cologne was overpowering.  It almost made up for Jake’s poor hygiene habits.

Junked out lawn mowers, an old wheelbarrow, an old green pickup truck bed–converted into a trailer, and other miscellaneous junk, leaned against Jake’s old garage.  Inside, his trusty Mercury Marquis, sported a crude, hand-brushed, dark blue repaint job.

When he wanted to work, Jake did odd jobs around town.  But, mostly, when he needed more whiskey.  He was a better house painter half-drunk, than most people were, when sober.  Most people avoided him.  They thought he was odd–a little too strange.  He wasn’t “funny strange” or anything like that.  He just wasn’t sociable.

That wasn’t why we invited him to come along.  Jake Murphy was a “fish witcher.”  It was spooky how good he was.  He could read water ripples like pages in a book.  “Throw over yonder–by that stump,”  He’d say.  “There’s a big bass waitin’ to strike.”  And sure enough, he’d be right.

We stayed all day at Jake’s favorite fishing hole.  Caught a few keepers.  The sun went down, day gave way to darkness–cricket chirps, and bellowing bullfrogs.  An ambiance that called for a roaring campfire.  The mosquitoes were hungry–we were too. Jake and I whittled points on sticks to roast hot dogs.

None of us thought to bring hot dog buns.  It was too late to do anything about it–so we did without.  “That’s enough to keep us from starving–I reckon,” Jake said.  “I would sure liked to have had some beans to go with ’em.  I’m going to stay up here for a bit–take a smoke break.  You fellas go ahead and fish some more.”

“I’ll bet Jake eats lots of beans,” I said.  “That’s probably why he farts so much,” Dave joked.  “I’ve heard that he survives on beans and peanut butter.”  Neither of us knew for sure.  On the opposite side of the pond Jake’s cigarette tip glowed bright orange. Campfire light glinted off his raised whiskey bottle.

The catfish didn’t cooperate, we landed a monster snapping turtle, instead.  It was an ugly, moss-covered creature, not one bit happy about being caught by two teenage boys.  “You want to keep it?” I asked, looking over at Dave.  “Naw,” He answered,  “Let’s cut it loose.”

Jake sat in an old rocking chair on the dock–nursed a bottle of “Heaven Hill” bourbon whiskey.  He sang some nondescript  old country song.  The drunker he got–the louder he sang.  It was more like, wailing from tortured souls in hell, than singing. Nobody was around to complain.

None of us knew exactly how it happened.  Jake might have leaned over too far?  In his inebriated state–who could really tell? Somehow, Jake rocked himself off the dock into the water.  He didn’t really holler much–it was more of a moan.

Dave and me jumped in, pulled Jake out–wet overalls and all. Almost drowning sobered him up pretty quick.  He began dancing, jumping, and hollering around the campfire to dry out.  Jake’s “war dance” was hilarious.  Jake laughed, checked his pockets for fish.  What else could he do at that point?

People around town joked about, old Jake rocking off the dock, for a long time after that.  The story got twisted into, “While everybody else was rocking ’round the clock, Old Jake, was rocking off the dock.”  The joke was really on them–because they missed the big dance!  When Jake was drunk, things could get pretty weird.

FISH HUNTING

img367

My little troopers and myself set out on a fishing expedition one morning in June.  We were armed to the teeth with fishing rods, tackle boxes, fish baskets, and bait.  I almost forget to mention snacks–in case we were suddenly overcome with hunger.  The question arose, “Did fish like gummi worms?”  I didn’t know the answer, but didn’t think so.

Our fishing foray played to the short attention spans of little anglers.  As expected, my time was taken up baiting, re-baiting hooks with wriggling earthworms to the exaggerated “ewws” and “yucks” of squeamish grandchildren.  The youngest angler employed his, specially selected for durability, steel fishing rod for the first time.  He was curious as to whether the crank handle turned backwards.  This caused numerous line tangles and downtime for repairs.  He stood firmly on the edge of the water, tried a new technique–snagging fish.

Several small bluegill were caught.  I encouraged them to catch and release.  My older grandson insisted on keeping his as a pet.  I knew it would end up sacrificed on the altar of appeasement.  We carefully placed it in a bucket of pond water from whence it came.  The next morning the fish lay lifeless on top of the water.  Sadly, it had expired.  It’s been too many years to recall the poor creature’s name.  We respectably said a few words over the recently departed piscine pet, buried it in nearby mud.

After an initial period of about twenty minutes, only two of the original four remained.  The rest of us enjoyed exploring nature.  Meadowlarks called in the distance.  Water Striders glided across the smooth surface of the pond.  I explained that bluegill nested in little mudholes.  The females stayed over the nests–similar to chickens and birds, while the males stood guard.  The two boys lowered sinker weights to watch males attack.  Attention turned to searching for frogs and turtles.  A crawdad mound was checked with a stick for occupancy.  The adventure ended in time for lunch.  Their grandmother wasn’t pleased with our muddy clothing and shoes.

My first fish was a small yellow perch caught with a crude willow pole and twisted cotton line.  Several decades later, in the seventies, a proud uncle helped his nephew catch his very first fish, (as pictured above).  A fishing expedition to Pere Marquette State Park with daughters in the eighties had been unsuccessful.  Unsuccessful, if success was measured, only by the quantity and quality of fish caught.

Exploring the wonders of nature doesn’t cost anything.  Maybe, someday, we’ll look back with fond memories of past “fish hunting” expeditions.  Perhaps, we too will realize, as my depression-era parents and grandparents did, that “less is more.”