Wet a line and learn something of life
“If everything’s gonna turn out right, you’re gonna fry fish tonight.” — Johnny Cash
I remember the pounding of my heart and the almost breathless existence those last few hours of waiting for the first day of trout season held when I was a kid.
Preparations would have started days earlier with the picking of nightcrawlers in any part of the backyard clear of snow enough to show grass or dirt.
My brother and I would be out there in the dark cold, each with an old Folger’s coffee can and a cheap plastic D-cell flashlight that often wouldn’t work unless you smacked it against the palm of your hand.
In those very cold springs, before the warm rains would bring up big worms to the gardens or the lawn, we’d often come up with only shorter, thinner, skimpier bait to offer the trout.
Sometimes, we’d pick for hours, especially during warm summertime rain showers.
Once we had enough worms, we’d either put a plastic lid on the coffee can and poke air holes in it with a fork, or we’d dump the worms into an old earth-filled washtub “down the basement.”
We’d sprinkle some coffee grounds over the black dirt for the worms to eat and, if they were still in the coffee can, place some grass over the top of that. I’m still not sure what that was supposed to be for.
Picking worms was always great fun for me. I think my brother liked it too. But this wasn’t something my dad would have been out there doing. He’d fish but picking worms and cleaning catches were tasks below his station.
My mom would fish, bait hooks, pick worms and clean catches.
To this day, the fresh smell of the clean, cool air on a rainy spring night sends me back to those simple times of picking nightcrawlers in the backyard.
Like a lot of things when you’re a kid, the times of your life are marked with dates and ages of extending privileges. Sixteen for this, 18 for that, 21 for everything – by 30 you’re already old.
For me, I always knew I could fish without a license until I was 17. I remember the beautiful colored trout stamps my dad would buy every season so he could fish “all species.” Trout stamps haven’t been required for years.
The last Saturday in April was always highly revered as the day we could begin fishing for brook trout again – like the return of singing robins to the trees in the yard – it was a true realization spring had come.
In addition to the worm picking, there would be getting our fishing poles ready and making sure there was air in our bike tires. Getting our poles ready meant making sure we had a hook tied onto the end of our lines, a lead sinker secured, and that there weren’t any tangles or knots that we could see in our line.
Our reel of choice was a Zebco 202, which back in the 1960s cost less than $10 for a reel, line and pole combination kit sold at the local Coast-to-Coast store. Today, they still make Zebco 202 combos that sell for about $20. The company calls the line winders “the reel that taught America to fish.”
My brother and I would often beg to be taken somewhere to fish, but we’d often find ourselves on opening day peddling out past the flooring mill to the railroad tracks and the peat bog where the slow river wound back and forth between grassy hummocks.
We’d fish the slow bends where the water had undercut the grassy banks, or inside big corrugated steel culverts the water ran through to get under the highway or the railroad tracks.
Some of the bigger fish loved to hide in these dark places, especially if the water got deeper in there. I loved to stand along one side of the culvert and look through to see green grass or light on the water on the other end.
I’d cast my line and it would disappear into the blackness. I’d hear a familiar splash as the lead sinker and then the worm hit the water. Sometimes, the line would jerk hard and shoot straight out the second the worm touched the stream’s surface.
The line would then zig-zag back and forth and around as a big trout would dash under the water, trying to spit the hook. Other times, the line would just lie slack for a good long time, giving you space to think, to dream and to look around. No bites.
Maybe I’d hear a car rolling by up on the road or a train whistle blowing back in town, see a heron flying overhead or smell the richness of that good black earth.
In those times, thoughts were occupied with things like football cards, bubble gum, Hot Wheels cars and shows on television like Jonny Quest, Batman and The Mod Squad. Of course, there was always music, a constant companion in my ears and in my head and heart.
I’d learned how to clean fish by watching my mom. I’d stand on a chair and help her clean smelt at the kitchen sink after my dad had run up toward L’Anse with some friends to get a plastic garbage can full.
I can still see the bright yellow color of the eggs from the females, and I remember cutting off the fish heads with a pair of stainless-steel scissors. The silvery little fish tasted fantastic when deep fried.
For trout, there were a few different steps and things you wouldn’t do to clean them, but it was basically the same process as cleaning smelt. We’d slip the fish we caught into old hard-woven wicker creels we slung over our shoulders.
Inside these baskets we’d place wet green grass to try to keep the fish fresh for the ride home. Maybe this is the reason we put grass in with the nightcrawlers in the coffee cans?
The trout we’d fry in a pan with butter, after they were rolled in flour. Once cooked, we could lift the backbones out, which drew the rib bones out too. The meat of the fish was incredible, the tails were crunchy and delicious.
Despite all the preparation, the anticipation and the determination, often the opening day of brook trout season was characterized by days with streams still flowing so high it was too difficult to even get to the water’s edge, or by water so cold trout were unlikely to be very active, let alone bite.
But there have also been times when the creeks were flowing low, the day was warm and I’ve caught my limit of keepers within just a few minutes, or certainly within a morning’s time.
But it didn’t matter really matter — and it still doesn’t — whether we caught fish or not, it was the being out there that stuck. If I don’t go out on opening day, I feel like I’m missing something important.
My brother moved away and my dad’s dead, but I’ve still got the itch.
I think there’s a coffee can down the basement, and I know there’s a flashlight under the kitchen sink. I’m going to get up and head out the back door to find some nightcrawlers in the yard.
Tomorrow is Saturday morning and as the old song says, “If the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise,” I intend to be gone fishing.
Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to email@example.com or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.