I read with interest the stories of fishing exploits in the area along with pictures of large fish, remembering the words of my friend, Tommy Simmons. After a couple of years of serious bass fishing, Timmy figured that the one prize bass he mounted, plus a few he put on the table, cost him somewhere around $300 per pound, the price he paid on miserably cold mornings or drenching afternoons on Lake Norman or the New River. With this in mind, I remember the many hours I spent as a youth with a cane pole and a can full of red worms. There was never a trophy fish of any kind. Most of the fish, the beautiful little sun perch or bream, provided about one good bite after removing the head and tail. But I didn't spend any money on the sport since I dug up my worms, walked to the river or creeks and waded into little pools or fished from the banks most of the time.
Please allow me to return yet one more time to Pleasant Gardens, in the foothills of the North Carolina's western mountains and discuss the simple joy of unlimited fishing, mostly rewarding and always very cheaply done. While everyone in the neighborhood fished with cane poles for bream, catfish or bass, I finally hit the big time around my eleventh birthday, when I was allowed to order a rod and reel set from Sears, Roebuck Co. at a cost of around $3. Never mind that about every third cast resulted in a backlash, or that a careless toss had you climbing trees to retrieve your bait, usually a juicy red worm or a grasshopper. With this little beauty, I assured the family that from now on I would be in charge of “meat on the table.”
On the head waters of the Catawba River, my brothers and I moored a homemade jon boat, the “Tar Baby”, fashioned from extra thick boards full of worm holes, necessitating a generous coating of tar and making the boat so heavy that it was extremely hard to paddle, but on the brighter side, no one cared to steal it. It was usually used to paddle to a favorite spot on our half-mile section of the river that flowed slowly enough to navigate. Something occasionally took the bait and wound up on the table for “supper”.
Buck Creek was ideal for bream, small catfish and suckers, a bottom feeder that I never remember anyone eating. Cold, deep ponds afforded me most of the thrill of the sport, for here you could wade out into the clear water and cast to any spot you felt had promise. When the gates of Lake Tahoma, about three miles up the creek, were closed, we waded into the pools and grappled for fish, reaching back under the banks to bring them out bare-handed. The bream were usually small and sometimes accompanied by an irate water snake, also small, and worst of all a catfish who could make you consider giving up the sport once he hit you with that dorsal spine. This endeavor wasn't for the faint-hearted, but as young lads know, the worst brand you can carry is ”chicken," so you bit your lip and stuck the old mitt back under the bank.
In Curtis Creek, about four miles west, there was an abundance of suckers that could be caught in a number of ways. Seining at night was a sport the younger men in the community took part in a few times a year. As the neighborhood mascot, more or less, I was always invited to go along, and while the 20 to 30-year-olds manned the seines, a skinny kid of 12 was found dragging a wet “tow” sack full of fish across slippery rocks and through ankle deep rapids and sometimes into chest deep water in the name of sport. With sometimes two seines being used at a time, someone was always yelling, “Sack!" I barely had time to stash a full sack on the bank and head back into the water. My heroes always assured me that I was having a good time and was the best “sack man” that they had ever seen. I never thought they would lie about a thing like that. World War II put an end to this sport, and I never got a chance to drag the seine and yell, “Sack!” I left the community in 1942, and the young men who returned to Pleasant Gardens after the war had much more on their mind than catching suckers.
The most unusual method of catching suckers was called “snaring," finding a deep hole with fish swarming and from a cane pole, dropping a treble hook to the bottom. About one foot above the hook, a white button was tied. The water was clear enough to see the button and anytime a fish passed over the button a quick jerk caught the fish in the stomach. I remember seeing piles of the fish beside the stream, and I believe they were used to fertilize gardens rather than for eating. Since they were bottom feeders, I imagine, like carp, they had a muddy taste. Maybe my dad's carp recipe would have worked. Take two sourwood shingles, cover them with butter, salt, pepper, cinnamon, sliced spring onions and green tomatoes. Clean the carp and place it between the shingles. Cook for two hours at 350 degrees. Take from the oven, throw the carp away, add lemon juice and eat the shingles.
When I moved to Hickory in 1942, everybody paddled to their favorite fishing holes on Lake Hickory, or sat on the bank, poles stuck in the bank. If it was at night, they had a roaring fire going to discourage the bugs and “skeeters." I remember the first powered boat other than a big mahogany Gar Wood inboard based at Lakeside. It was a surplus Army crash boat, powered by a 50 horsepower outboard engine. It had struts going in all directions to keep it from tearing the boat apart. When it came up the channel at about 20 miles per hour, everyone ran to the water's edge to watch it fly by. Now the smallest of bass boats have smaller but much more powerful engines than that.
Once, while fishing with my brother, Roy, in Gulf waters, west of New Port Richie, Fla., I dropped my sunglasses overboard. Roy suggested that I go overboard and look for them, assuring me that the water was only chest-deep at that point. Over I went and after searching for a while for my glasses, surfaced to find no boat in sight. He had motored off over the horizon. That's a funny feeling, standing three miles off shore in chest-deep water and no one in sight. When he finally returned and I crawled aboard, I stepped in the middle of a section of laminated, hand crafted fly rod, made especially for him in Thailand many years ago when he served in the Air Force. As I watched the beautiful laminated strips curl up around my bare foot, I felt like joining my sunglasses in their watery grave.
Who would have dreamed that there would ever have been high-powered boats designed especially for fishing and stores selling nothing but fly rods, spinning rods, deep-sea rods, bait casting rods, thousands of different lures, minnows and buckets, worms, crickets, lizards, bug repellent and last but not least, fishing license? But I'm sure $3 won't go far on a nice bait rod now; I imagine a can of red worms cost more than that. Always in good taste, a fisherman's lunch, consisting of a moon pie and Pepsi would be extra.