Monday, January 30, 2012

Catfish

As a Texan by birth, the two fish of choice are catfish and bass.  Yes, there are other fish in the waters, but catfish and bass are the real reasons a Texan fishes.  I personally never really cared what I caught as long as it had fins, until I learned to scuba dive. 

I had a long running contest with a friend where one would issue a challenge, and the other would accept or forfeit.  Oh, and there was a sizeable bet along with this contest.  The rules were relatively simple.  If one refused, the contest was over.  If both participated to completion, the contest went on to another challenge.  It went on for years, and through it I learned among other things to kayak, mountain climb, scuba dive, and sky dive.  Ultimately I lost the contest on the sky dive, but that’s another story.

Hank and I had just returned from a kayak adventure in the Grand Canyon when he challenged me to learn scuba diving.  It sounded interesting, plus there was that big ten-dollar bet I didn’t wish to loose, not to mention bragging rights.  We headed to a sporting goods store to find out about the process, and in a couple of weeks we were sitting in a small class learning the process and safety guidelines.  Soon we were in wet suits in a tank learning to breath underwater.  And soon after that we were certified, which ended this round of the challenge.

We had gone on several lake dives in the certification process, and we had found that it was very interesting as long as the waters were not too murky.  One week in the late summer I mentioned to Hank that I would like to dive at a lake west of Fort Worth known as Possum Kingdom.  He agreed that it would be fun, and off we went. 

We arrived near the dam area and realized the water was a bit dark, but we suited up anyway and jumped in.  It was more than dark, it was black.  I had no idea where Hank was and had no hope of finding him.  Just then I felt a bump, and I turned my light in that direction expecting to see Hank.  All I saw were two eyes about eighteen inches apart and one big mouth—one very big mouth.  The catfish swam by me and its head was out of sight before its tail came into view.  I shot straight up out of the water and ran to shore about four feet above the waves.  By the time I had stripped out of the wet suit, I knew I was coming back next week with a boat and some heavy fishing gear.

Hank couldn’t join me for the catfish hunt the next week, so I went alone.  I hooked up the biggest boat in the collection of fishing boats at my grandparents lake home, borrowed my Uncle Sam’s big saltwater rod and reel, bought a few huge hooks, and drove back to Possum Kingdom.  I stopped on the way to fill the cooler with sodas, ice, and a couple of fresh chickens.  After arriving and launching the boat, I motored out onto the lake about where I had encountered the giant catfish, tied on one of the big hooks to that heavy saltwater outfit, and skewered half of one of those chickens onto the hook.  Into the water it went.  And I waited. 

Two hours went by, and I noticed a small boat drifting about 50 yards away with an older man and a young boy in it fishing.  I had fun watching them realizing that the boy’s grandpa was teaching him how to fish.  I could hear some of the conversation they were having and was reminded of some of the things my Uncle Sam had taught me about fishing in the past few years.  Sam was a very good fisherman, and for about two years he taught me everything he could before he suddenly quit fishing.  I never really understood why he quit, but I had grown to really enjoy our outings together, and listening to the conversation in the other boat brought back those memories.

Then the boy got a strike—a hard strike.  He pulled hard, but the fish pulled harder.  Back and forth they went for about half a minute, then the boy was pulled overboard.  I retrieved my line as fast as I could, but before I could start my motor, the boy popped up to the surface.  This is the reason for a lifejacket.  His grandpa pulled him back into the boat, and I powered over to them anyway to see if they needed any help.

The boy was wet but just fine otherwise.  He was upset about losing the fish and his rod and reel, but he had tried to hang onto it as long as he could.  It took some work to convince him that it would be easier to replace the rod and reel than him.  Still he was mad about losing the fish.  In some ways I can’t blame him for that one.  As they headed back up the lake to their launch, I went back to fishing.  I know the boy hooked that big catfish, or one of its cousins.  I replaced the chicken half with a fresh one and I waited.  And I waited. 
 
I made it back to Possum Kingdom only a handful of times over the next 3 years, and I never did catch that catfish.  Oh, I caught many catfish, just not that catfish.  I didn’t lose interest in catching other fish, I simply wanted that fish.  But it was never to be.  Sometimes I wonder just how big that fish really was.  The mind plays tricks on perception when in a strange environment, and that catfish may have been a little smaller than I remember.  Still, I remember that mouth—that very big mouth.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Santa Caught Fly-Fishing on the San Gabriel River

Once again Santa has made the news.  This time he was caught fly-fishing on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing and was given coverage in the Fisheries Resource Volunteer Corp newsletter.  FRVC is a group of volunteers working to protect the fisheries in our national forests.



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pig Hunt

I was never an avid hunter, but I did enjoy it, and I always found it difficult to walk away from an opportunity.  Fishing was my first love, but the outdoors has always had a loud voice in my ears, and given a choice of hunting or nothing, I would definitely go hunting. 

My first real hunt was when I was sixteen years old.  I had a deer tag, but since I had no adult to go with me, I was limited to the use of a bow and arrow.  Texas laws at that time prevented me from owning a firearm of any kind until I reached twenty-one, although I could use one if someone over twenty-one was supervising.  I didn’t have that luxury, and I didn’t mind.  I was very good on a target up to sixty yards with the bow, but I had never been tested with a hunting situation other than a few rabbits.

My bow was three-piece takedown recurve with a seventy-pound pull.  I had six cedar-shafted arrows with a four-blade hunting tip on each one, and I loaded these into my hip quiver.  I had secured permission to hunt on some property about an hour outside of Fort Worth, and I drove my old car (yes, I was sixteen, but things were a bit different in the mid-sixties) to the gate and let my self in.  The dirt road disappeared into the trees, but I just parked out of site of the main road, grabbed my bow, strapped on my quiver, and started into the woods.

I followed the road for about two hundred yards, and then I moved into the trees.  It was a bit difficult to walk quietly on the fallen leaves of the oak trees, but I was taking my time and moving as slowly as I could while searching for a deer.  This process took me about sixty yards in an hour and a half, but I saw a deer between the trees about forty-five to fifty yards ahead.  It was a fat forked horn whitetail, and it had no idea I was around.

I slowly brought up my bow, drew back, held my breath, and released.  The twang of the bowstring seemed as loud as any rifle shot I had ever heard, but the deer simply looked up for a moment, and then went back to browsing.  I had missed.  I rarely missed a target center at that distance, but I missed the deer.  So I did it again, and again, and again.  The deer by now was fidgeting and soon began to wander off.

I stood still for about five more minutes and another deer walked up to almost the same place.  I brought my bow up again, drew back, and released.  Nothing.  So I did it one last time.  That was the sixth release.  I was baffled that I could not bring down a deer.  I walked back to the car.

I broke down my bow and put it into its case.  Then I took off my quiver, and to my surprise, all six arrows were still there.  It took me a while before I realized that I had simply been strumming that bow like a harp.  I never put an arrow to the string before making my draw.

I was too confused to go back into the woods that day, although I did return the following week and brought home a nice fat whitetail.  It took me several years before I talked about this event with anyone, but I did discover I wasn’t the first to do something like this.  It even has a name—buck fever.

A few years later I somehow managed to turn twenty-one, and I bought my first rifle and followed up quickly with a hunting pistol.  But I found that I still preferred the bow in most circumstances, and that was my weapon of choice when I was invited on a pig hunt.

The west Texas javalina is a mean pig.  They tend to not take kindly to strangers shooting at them and are known to take umbrage with even the smallest disturbance to their lifestyle.  And they smell bad.  I don’t mean they have a poor sense of smell, I mean they stink.

An old high school friend of mine called me one day and asked if I would be interested in going out to his family property in west Texas to hunt pig.  He and his dad were going, and if I could get a few days off work, they would be glad to have me join them.  I had some vacation time coming, and no plans, so the trip was arranged, and in a couple of weeks we were looking for pig.

I brought the rifle, pistol, and bow with me for the hunt, but I chose to use the bow.  As an afterthought I strapped on the pistol, and by sunup the first day, we were several miles back on the property.  The three of us were walking and watching for any movement that would betray the pig’s presence, but by mid-morning, we had not seen anything.

We walked up to a small hill, and I took the left side while my friend and his dad turned to the right.  It wasn’t a big hill, maybe fifty or sixty feet high, but it was about half a mile long and maybe a quarter mile wide.  I walked about five hundred yards and stopped near a small tree of sorts to take a break when I spotted a pig.  It was feeding on a prickly pear no more than thirty yards from me, and he hadn’t seen me.

I loaded an arrow (something I had learned to do several years earlier), brought up my bow, drew back, and released.  The twang of the bowstring startled the pig and it moved just before the arrow arrived.  Instead of a heart/lung shot, I clipped its ear.  And it didn’t like it.

That javalina turned to look at me, opened its mouth and squealed the most obnoxious noise I had ever heard.  And it was answered by many similar voices.  I looked at the low rise in the near distance and saw many dark quickly moving objects.  I was in trouble.  I grabbed another arrow and brought down the pig that started the problem, and then I looked at the only place I could take refuge—that low tree of sorts beside me.

The juniper tree was no more than ten feet high and had no real trunk, but I climbed in and up as high as I could.  My feet were about five feet from the ground, but there was no way to climb higher.  Then they arrived, and they were mad.  I unloaded my .357 carefully and deliberately making each shot count.  I reloaded with my last six rounds and brought down another six pigs.  Now I was stuck.  The pigs were madder than ever, and they were starting to chew the lower limbs of the tree.  I’m not certain how long I was in that tree before I saw the first pig fall over just before hearing the sound of the rifle, but I was already seeing my life flash in front of my eyes.

My friends unloaded their rifles into the pigs, reloaded and unloaded again before the pigs ran away.  They had heard my pistol and knew I wouldn’t be firing it unless I was in trouble, so they came running.  I climbed down from the tree and waded through the twenty-six dead pigs.  One look at the base of the tree told me that I had only a few minutes left before the pigs would have eaten through it.  Never again would I hunt with a bow, and never again would I short myself on ammunition.

Four years later they invited me to go back to hunt for more pig, but I had no desire to put myself back in that position, so I declined.  Later that summer, I learned that the pigs killed my friend’s dad on that trip.  I never learned the details, but it didn’t matter.  My friend was devastated by the loss; however, he understood the risk that was taken, and the last time I saw him, he was going hunting.

Javalinas are not something I hunt anymore; in fact, the only thing I hunt now is fish.  But pigs, deer, bear, or fish, it’s still a sport of man verses nature, and sometimes nature wins.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Barracuda

I fished freshwater for about 45 years before seriously considering saltwater fishing.  Oh, I had thrown a line into the saltwater on Padre Island once, and once in Charleston an acquaintance talked me into some fishing from his boat out on the Atlantic, but it didn’t have much appeal for me.  The halibut I nabbed in Alaska was fun, although it was more work than I cared for.  I had also been out on both shrimp and oyster boats in the Gulf.  I liked bass and trout.  I liked catfish and walleye.  I liked crappie and pike.  I knew nothing about saltwater fish.

Then I was introduced to the husband of my wife’s friend.  He couldn’t get enough of the ocean.  He had been in the Navy, and he kept returning to the ocean like a river to the sea.  Nothing could convince him to skip a fishing trip in order to make a living.  And one day I joined him on a local day-boat to fish the waters near Catalina Island.

I’ve been on boats before.  My grandparent’s lake home was surrounded by homes of family members, and boats were everywhere.  There were big boats, small boats, good boats, bad boats, and anyone could use any boat at any time.  And I did.  I’ve been on stormy lakes in small canoes, calm lakes in big boats, and in every combination possible of boat and weather—all on lakes and rivers.

The fishing on Padre Island was from the sandy beach into a very calm Gulf, and the shrimp and oyster boats in the Gulf also experienced very calm waters.  In Charleston, the Atlantic was relatively calm with very moderate swells, hardly enough to notice.  And the waters I fished off the Alaska shoreline were almost glass smooth.  But the southern California Pacific waters were different.  The boat was over eighty feet long and at least sixteen feet wide, and the swells topped at over twenty feet tossing this big boat around like a beach ball.  Sometime we were on top of the swell, and sometimes we were on the bottom.  For a while my stomach felt as though it would turn inside out.  Someone handed me a beer and told me to take a couple of swallows, then let it go overboard.  It would make me feel much better.  I did, and it did.  Suddenly I was just fine and ready to fish.

I had an old two-piece fiberglass rod that had been rewound by someone just learning to wrap rods.  The guides were in approximately the right places and most were in alignment.  It was triple wrapped, triple coated, triple thick, and triple heavy.  By itself the weight of this thing approached two pounds.  I added to it a reel I found at a yard sale.  The reel was adequate for the task, but it also weighed in at well over one pound.  By the time I added fishing line and tied on a lure, I was holding nearly four pounds of equipment.

The man who brought me on this journey was an old hand at this game.  He drove a truck with every conceivable piece of fishing equipment known to man in the camper shell, and when he arrived at the landing, he started asking questions about where we were going and what we could expect to catch.  Consequently he was able to choose what to bring onto the boat.  His equipment was in top shape and lightweight.  His tackle box was filled with exactly the right things for a day trip in these waters.  And he brought along a hat and sunscreen.

Why did I forget my hat and sunscreen?  It’s part of my basic fishing equipment, and I don’t leave home without them.  But on this day I just forgot.  I think it was because I was thrown off my routine of preparing to fish by the uncertainty of ocean fishing.  At least they sold ball caps at the landing.  That would provide some protection to the spot where hair used to grow.  And I could probably talk someone out of a dab or two of sunscreen.

We paid our fare and climbed onto the boat’s deck.  Racks were available to hold our tackle boxes and clips were attached to the outside of the enclosed cockpit and galley to hold the rods.  About sixty other fishermen followed us on board, stowed their equipment, and stormed the galley in search of beer.  The captain made an appearance to inform everyone of his rules, but I was the only one paying attention.  When he finished, he walked over to me, curled the right side of his upper lip and spat out, “Rookie!”  Then he walked over to the line of rods, grabbed mine, held it up and growled, “This @#$%!& thing’s yours, ain’t it?”  I thought he was going to toss my rod and reel overboard, but he stopped himself about halfway through the motion and just dropped it onto the deck.

Someone belched behind me, and I turned around to see several men watching what had just happened.  One of them put a hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry too much about it.  The captain was always like this when the boat was full.  Then again he was always like this when the boat wasn’t full.  Come to think of it, the captain was always like this.

I heard the captain make an announcement on his loud speaker.  “Today we got us a @#$%!& rookie on board.  I ain’t @#$%!& helping him none, and you @#$%!& better not neither.”  There was a series of words attached to the end of his announcement that are better off not included here, but needless to say, I wasn’t enjoying this.  I got a few more pats on the shoulder and several reassurances, but I noticed the men were looking to see if the captain was watching them.

I searched for my fishing companion, but he was nowhere to be seen.  I went into the galley, down to the bunks, and around the perimeter of the boat, but he had gone into hiding somewhere after the captain made his appearance.  So I leaned against the rail and watched as the crew cast off the lines and we pulled out of the slip.  Shortly afterwards a crewmember came around collecting for the jackpot.  It was ten dollars, and some men were declining, but most were laying down their money.  Considering my position with the captain, I thought I had better participate.

Almost two hours later the boat stopped where the swells were much diminished, and the anchor was dropped.  Men lined up at the rails and started tossing their lures and bait into the water.  Almost immediately fish were being pulled on board.  I quickly learned that these were mackerel, but where the mackerel were, bigger fish were there to eat them.  I heaved out my big blue and white lure and reeled it back.  Nothing.  I did it again, and again, and again, but nothing.  The man standing next to me leaned over to me and whispered, “Try blue and silver.”

I didn’t have blue and silver, but I had a small file, so I removed some of the white paint from the lure and tossed it back into the water.  I landed a small mackerel.  The man leaned back over to me and whispered he had never seen such a small fish take such a big lure.  Maybe I should just toss the lure back out there with the mackerel still attached and see what happens.  I thought this was a good idea.  I’ve used baits attached to lures in freshwater before and it was a dynamite combination, so why wouldn’t it work here.  Back out it went. 

The mackerel was a lively one, and it was interesting to have such a tug of war with my bait, but suddenly the tug shifted to a jerk and a hard pull.  I had hooked something much bigger than the mackerel.  It was everything I could do to keep the fish from tangling my line with everyone else’s line, but everyone was cooperative and moved aside as I fought the fish.  Finally, it came to the surface, and a crewmember gaffed it and brought it on board.  It was a big barracuda.  I looked down at it lying on the deck, and then up to see that the crewmember who gaffed it was the captain.  The resemblance was astounding.

He unhooked my fish, threw away the mackerel, and carried the barracuda to a burlap bag with my boarding number on it.  After tossing it in he climbed up on the bait tank and bellowed, “Why in the @#$%!& are you @#$%!& letting a @#$%!& rookie win the @#$%!& jackpot?  We ain’t @#$%!& going back ‘till you @#$%!& catch a bigger @#$%!& fish.”  He looked down at me from his perch and spat out, “Rookie!”

I went into the galley and there sat the guy who brought me on this journey.  He was just biting into a huge hamburger, and I thought I would get one also.  The cook made one for me, set me up with a large order of fries and a soda, and refused to take my money.  “It’s paid for.  Captain’s orders.”

Maybe it was just a rookie’s luck, but I won the jackpot that day.  It was almost five hundred dollars, and I was tempted to keep it, but as I looked at the crew working this boat, and thought about what they had to put up with to keep their jobs, I decided to give it to them.  I didn’t know at the time that it was customary for the jackpot winner to tip the crew, and I didn’t know that these workers labored for such minimal earnings, I just simply gave the crew the money.

When we got back to the landing, I was ready to set my feet on solid ground again.  The men lined up to disembark, and about one-third of the men had left the boat when my turn came.  Then a hand grabbed me and jerked me out of line.  My first instinct was to throw a punch, but one hand was holding a rod and the other was holding a tackle box.  “Stand here.”  It was the captain again.

After everyone except the crew, captain, and me had left the boat, he gave me a handful of free passes for future trips.  “Damn rookie, but a good one.  Next trip’s on me, and bring a few friends.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Dogs

What is it about a dog that attracts me?  They smell bad, they have fleas and occasionally ticks, they scratch, they lick, they bark, they dig, they…  The list is endless, yet for some reason I have a soft spot for dogs.

I’ve had a few dogs over the years.  First was Blackie.  I was 6 years old, and someone gave me a puppy.  Since it was black, I named it Blackie, but the vet called him Elmer, so his name became Blackie-Elmer.  I don’t remember much about this dog except I was afraid of him.  As I recall, the dog loved to bite, and he was good at it.  The other thing he was good at was chasing his tail.  I remember one day he caught it and bit down on it so hard he yelped in pain.  Then he went back to chasing it again.

Blackie-Elmer lasted about 6 months before he “went away.”  I’m quite certain my dad took him to the pound, but I never asked.  I was just glad I could go into the back yard again to play.  But I knew this dog was the exception.  My friends had dogs, and they could play with their dogs.  And so could I for that matter, but I wanted to have one of my own to play with.

Tippie was the second dog.  By this time I was about 12 or 13, and someone driving by stopped and shouted,  “Hey, kid!  Want a dog?”  And Tippie joined our family.  Overall he was a good dog, but we didn’t have a fenced yard, so he ended up on a 20-foot chain attached to a doghouse.  This was not good, and after a short while, Tippie found a new home.

Terri was a stray I took in when I was about eighteen, but it turned out she was very ill and the vet couldn’t save her.  I decided owning a dog was never going to work for me, and I would never own another one.  Then a friend moved away and left me his dog Hubie.

Hubie and I had about 4 months together before he was killed in a hunting accident.  My pain stayed with me a long time.  My friends didn’t know what to do for me.  They tried parties, picnics, amusement parks, etc., but I wasn’t interested.  One of my friends took a wild guess that another dog would be the answer.  She gave me a little ball of white fluff that was taller than he was long.  Larry was his name.  He was half miniature poodle and half toy poodle, and he was not what I wanted, but he was what I needed.

My job had me on the move every day, often several times a day.  I traveled the length and width and breadth of the United States on a regular basis, and Larry couldn’t travel with me very often.  I found a boarding kennel for him to stay in while I was gone, and the owners quickly adopted him as their own, but he knew to whom he belonged.  And I couldn’t get him off my mind.  I called to check on him every day when I was traveling, and they would hold the phone up to him so he could hear my voice.  They said he always responded to me.

Larry was with me for about four years before I moved from Texas to California.  In California my parents took him over.  I don’t know what happened, but suddenly he belonged to them and not me.  The deal was sealed when I got married and the apartment where we lived would not let us have a dog.  About two or three years later, my mother became ill and it was time to find Larry a new home.

I posted a photo and a note on a bulletin board in a feed store near where I worked, and the same day a little, well-aged gentleman contacted me.  The next day Larry was his, and his new name was Lee.

Larry stayed with them until just after the man’s wife passed away.  Soon after her passing, Larry also died.  By this time I had already let him go, more or less.

It was a few years later when Geoffrey came along.  I had helped a couple rebuild their business after a flood had literally wiped them off the map.  As a reward for my efforts, they presented me with a Springer Spaniel puppy.  Not just any puppy, but one with an impressive pedigree.  This time I was in a position to spend a lot of time with him.

As he grew, my wife and I took the time to properly train him for obedience and for hunting.  Actually, there was little we could do to train him for the hunt.  He was a natural.  And he was one fantastic dog.  But circumstances changed and we had to give him up.  Geoffrey was destined to spend many years in dog ecstasy.  We gave him to a breeder specializing in Springer’s for hunters and show.  And once again I made up my mind I would never own another dog.

Well, that was 30 years ago, and I’ve successfully avoided owning another dog all these years.  Sort of.  We’ll talk about Biggie later.