August afternoons in Missouri are always hot, and this one was no different. I was 5 years old, and our country was at war with Japan. My daddy was off building the Alcan Highway, and my momma and I were visiting Grandpa's farm. Someone suggested we go fishing. I had never been fishing, but I was all for it.
Grandpa wasn't a serious fisherman. He was a farmer working to scratch out a living from 80 acres of rocky hills with six milk cows, some pigs and chickens, and a team of mules. He didn't have time for hobbies. Relaxation for him consisted of smoking a pipe and whittling.
Like all farmers, Grandpa was resourceful. So, when someone observed that we had no fishing gear, Grandpa winked at me and opened his big tool chest. He rummaged inside for a minute and came up with a ball of stout brown twine.
"Here's our line," he said. Digging deeper, he extracted a Velvet Tobacco can that rattled when he shook it. He grinned at me and dumped about a dozen rusty fish hooks into his big hands.
"We don't have any bobbers!" said Momma, but Grandpa was a step ahead of her. We walked into the barnyard where he picked up a couple of dry corn stalks. With his ever present pocket knife, he cut a few short pieces of stalk and said, "There you go. Bobbers."
"How about sinkers?" Grandma asked.
Grandpa went back into the tool chest. He found some big nails which he bent into a circle with a pair of pliers and a hammer. "There's our sinkers," he said. "Now all we need is bait."
Grabbing a potato fork, he led me to the manure pile behind the barn. On the way, we stopped at the junk pile and found a can. A little digging at the edge of the pile produced some skinny red worms and fat white grubs, which Grandpa said no perch could refuse.
"How about fishing poles?" I asked.
"Don't worry about that," Grandpa replied, "We'll get them when we get to the creek."
Prancing and skipping like a racehorse approaching the gate, I went with Grandpa and Momma down the old wagon road to the creek. It took about 30 minutes to get there, but it seemed like forever. That creek and I would later become close friends, but I never knew if it had a name. Someone once told me it emptied into the Little Niangua River, but to me it was just the stream that ran through the farm. With a couple of deep holes filled with crawdads, some sunfish, frogs and a few turtles, it was a virtual paradise to a boy adventurer.
Momma contributed to our family income by working as a waitress at a local cafe. Most of the time she dressed in a starched white uniform and white shoes. When not in working clothes, she wore conservative dresses or a suit. For our fishing trip, she donned a long skirt that hung down to her ankles, brown, flat-soled shoes and one of Grandma's sun bonnets. In fact, I think the entire outfit was Grandma's, except for the long-sleeved work shirt. That was Grandpa's. It was the only kind of shirt he owned.
The old wagon tracks wound past the orchard and tomato patch to the big oaks that formed a shady canopy down to the water. We stopped from time to time for Grandpa to cut a fishing pole from a bush or sapling.
When we reached the creek, he tied twine to the poles, making each line just a little longer than the pole. First he tied on a piece of corn stalk. A little farther down he tied in a bent nail, and at the end, a hook. He put a big grub on my hook and showed me how to throw it in the water.
"Now then, Son, you're fishing," he said.
We sat on a flat rock ledge that hung over a shady pool fed by a small waterfall. I saw fish under the surface, but they seemed very small. We spoke softly and watched our floats, waiting for the moment when they would plunge out of sight. We sat so quietly that birds drank at the edge of the water a short distance away, and a little turtle climbed on a nearby rock to get some sun.
I caught the first fish. It was a bright, silvery sunfish that fought hard while I jerked it from the water and onto the rock. Grandpa assured me it was big enough to keep and took it off my line.
"Now we need a stringer," he said. He walked over to a sapling and cut off a forked branch. He cut one side of the fork down to about a foot long, and the other side down to about 2 feet. He ran the long side of the fork through the fish's gill and lay the forked stick and fish in a small pool of water.
"That will keep him fresh for supper," he said, and we resumed fishing. We all caught fish that afternoon, but some were too small to keep. Momma's hand was our length limit. If a fish was smaller than Momma's hand, we threw it back.
We wandered down the creek, dropping our lines in any pool that might hold fish. Then we crossed and came back up the other bank. We saw a hawk, lots of caterpillars, some squirrels and a hornet's nest. I built a couple of boats from tree bark, but both sank in the shallow rapids.
Momma and Grandpa seemed to have as much fun as I did. She called him "Dad" and he called her "Sis." She gave a little squeal every time she caught a fish, and Grandpa chuckled as he took it off the hook. They laughed and reminisced about days past, and Grandpa teased her about how her sunbonnet was going to ruin her hairdo.
We also saw a brown snake swimming with a fish in its mouth. The fish was bigger than any we caught. Seeing the snake pretty much ended the fishing trip for Momma, so we trudged back up the shady road to home.
Grandma cleaned the fish and fried them in corn meal and bacon grease for supper. It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten. She assured me the biggest fish was the one I caught, and I ate it all after Momma picked out the bones.
In later years, I spent lots of time fishing with my other grandpa. He loved to fish and had rods and reels, tackle boxes and minnow buckets. I remember an overnight trip we took on the Gasconade River with some uncles. We caught a lot of fish, and two uncles gigged a bunch of frogs. We had a campfire, boiled coffee in a gallon bucket and roasted wieners.
As an adult, I've spent many a peaceful hour sitting on the bank or in a boat trying my best to outwit the fish below. I've never landed any trophies but I've caught a few that were "big enough to keep."
Of all the fishing trips I've taken, I must admit that none was more fun or as memorable as fishing with my Momma and Grandpa on the little creek that somewhere, maybe, empties into the Little Niangua River.
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