Sunday, April 27, 2008

Everything I Know I Learned While Fishing

It’s a good thing I did a lot of fishing when I was young, and learned everything then, because sad to say I haven’t done much fishing for many years now.

When I was a school boy in Point Arena, 1949-1960, I never thought about going fishing, I just went. Unlike modern-day anglers, or even many during my boyhood, fishing only required a minimum of equipment (meaning it only required a minimum of cash), and a lot of time. Time I had, money I didn’t, so fishing was a perfect choice.

As a pre-teen, fishing consisted of catching trout in Point Arena Creek (also known as Shit Creek, because the waste water from the sewer ponds went into it, or Sweetwater Creek, again because the waste water from the sewer ponds went into it), which flowed along the southern edge of town.

Sweetwater Creek was small. You could step across it in most places. Its banks were well protected with stinging nettles growing amongst the thick willows. About two-thirds of the way up Mill Street the creek went over a small falls, only about a three-foot drop, but that was enough to stop the trout from going further upstream.

We soon stopped fishing further upstream and just concentrated on a half-mile stretch from the falls to where Soldani’s cattle made a crossing about a hundred yards from the sewer ponds. At that point there was still over a half mile of creek between the sewer ponds and the ocean, but we never fished down there.

I guess the thought of catching fish swimming amongst sewer pond overflow put us off.

We never talked about it, we just never went there.

The trout fishing was pretty good without expanding our territory.

We outfitted ourselves with wrapping string for fish line that we begged from whoever was working the counter at Gilmore and Stornetta’s General Merchandise Store. In the 1950s, many of the things we bought at the store were wrapped in paper and tied with string. We would tie the string to a four to five-foot willow pole, tie a leader with hook to the string, and as soon as we dug a couple of dozen worms we were ready to fish.

A note for the historical record.

Usually it was Jackie Gilmore or his wife, Sue, or my buddy Bob Seymour’s mother, Floe, working the cash register. For several years, Taylor and Doris York, the parents of my fishing buddy, Chuck York, worked in the store before they took over running Titus’ Sweet Shop. Doris was one of Jackie’s older sisters. Her sister Merle, and Merle’s husband Wendy May, also worked in the store. Now and then we would be waited on by one of Jackie’s parents, Orin or Leona Gilmore, although they owned the store and spent most of their time in the raised office area a third of the way in on the right-hand side.

In those days, in the little town of Point Arena, this small general merchandise store provided the total financial support for four or five families. Then there was the McMillen General Store just down the street, and it supported another four families. As times passed, and their competition became the national retailers in Santa Rosa seventy-five miles away (almost a two-hour drive), profit margins were squeezed and eventually the two stores barely supported one family each as owner/operators. Finally the out-of-area big stores like Costco, then the added competition of the Internet, only left a market big enough for one store to survive, and Jackie and Sue closed Gilmore’s, then later sold it and the building was converted into the Coast Community Library.

Back to fishing.

Most of the good fishing spots on Sweetwater Creek were easy to reach, particularly when we were careful not to brush the stinging nettles. We approached each fishing hole quietly. Most of them weren’t much bigger than a large bathtub. We put a worm on the hook, and then tossed it into the water. Usually something happened immediately.

Often our worm would be swarmed by sticklebacks, minnow-sized fish with three needle-sharp spines on their backs that would nibble and worry the worm until it was torn from the hook. When it looked like stickleback were hitting the worm, we would pull it out of the water, usually with a stickleback or two hanging on, and let the sticklebacks fall off on the ground, and eventually die.

We would toss the worm back in, or rebait our hook if necessary, and hope that a trout would get to it first instead of the sticklebacks. As soon as a trout struck the bait, we would bring the tip of our willow pole fishing rod up to set the hook, because the trout would spit the worm out immediately otherwise.

If we were successful hooking the trout, a short battle would ensue. Our main concern was keeping the trout from wrapping the line around underwater roots, while also keeping it from catching in the branches above. If we could prevent entanglements, the trout was quickly ours.

As much as we learned stalking the wily trout, our real education began with ocean fishing, usually from the Point Arena Wharf or the rocks north of the wharf. We usually caught perch or greenling (sea trout) from the wharf, and perch, greenling, and cabazone or the occasional ling cod from the rocks.

Our fishing gear was very inexpensive because of the continuing chronic cash shortages. Our biggest investment was a 100-yard ball of braided cotton line (90¢), and a dozen leaderless 6/0 black hooks (25¢). Bait was abalone guts and trimmings preserved with rock salt we collected and stored in a large crock, and took fishing in a coffee can. For sinkers we went to the local gas service stations. The mechanic at Pelascio’s Union 76 station, the late Jimmy Morrison, would toss old spark plugs replaced during engine tune-ups into a box in the garage, and we took what we needed for sinkers. Our tackle boxes were gunny sacks, and the only additional gear we needed we found on the rocks, pieces of drift wood to wrap our lines.

Casting our lines was simple. We would unwind line from the stick, being careful not to tangle or catch in on the rocks or around our feet, then swing the line with hook, bait, and sinker over our heads, then release it hopefully to fly out and land where we intended. We tried to hit deeper holes between patches of seaweed, and if we were successful we would take in the slack and hold the line in our hand and wait.

As soon as we felt a couple of sharp tugs, we would yank the line back to set the hook, then pull it in hand over hand, dragging the fish over and through the seaweed. If all went well we would pull in a flopping fish. After we took it off the hook, which sometimes was quite a chore if the fish swallowed the bait and was hooked deeply, we put the fish in a small tide pool to keep it fresh while we continued fishing.

It was on these fishing trips on the rocks where we gained the wisdom that has guided our lives so well. Our first lesson was that whatever we needed for a successful fishing trip we had to plan and bring with us. We didn’t have a car in those days, and anything we forgot or didn’t think of was at least a round-trip hour’s walk away. The other side of the issue, of course, was that anything we brought with us we had to carry in our gunny sacks on our long walk to and from the rocks. If we had a good day fishing, the weight of the fish would be added to the weight in our sacks, so in packing to go fishing we had to make allowances for possible success and the weight of fish in our sacks.

We realized that for an overall satisfying fishing experience, we didn’t want to take everything with us, just the right things.

This then led us to the learning process we soon labeled, “If, maybe, and next time.” While we were fishing, killing time listening to the Giants on my transistor radio, or eating our lunches/snacks, while waiting for a bite, we would often remark about something: for instance, “If we carried some water with us, we sure wouldn’t be so thirsty right now.”

“Maybe we can find some bottles to fill with water.”

“Next time we’ll have water with us when we feel thirsty.”

One time we caught our late friend, Jimmy Hedden, eating our frozen bait shrimp raw.

“If we always brought a tin of kippered herring with us, maybe next time Jimmy will leave the bait shrimp alone.”

Our assumption was that we would remember to bring water in bottles, or kipper snacks, or whatever, the next time. The reality was that we would often forget what we planned, and when we were thirsty again, or run out of bait, then we would remember.

“If we would bring a piece of paper and a pencil every time, and write stuff down, then maybe we would remember it the next time.”

What this did, of course, was give us the opportunity to add a pencil and paper to the growing list of things to forget the next time.

However, as our youth passed slowly and unhurriedly, and we joked about “if, maybe, and next time,” I think we learned a lot about other people and ourselves out of the independence and challenges of our fishing experiences.

But I can hear protests from those who read this far: “My husband/significant other/boyfriend, Gavin, has started going fishing with his friends, and he isn’t acting any wiser. In fact, he seems dumber.”

I can see the problems already. Anyone named Gavin is from a generation or two after mine. Gavin and his friends were never allowed to just go fishing by themselves. They didn’t have an opportunity to scrape together a buck or two and rig a fishing outfit, then walk a mile or two to the ocean by themselves.

Gavin and his friends were organized, supervised, and authorized to go fishing. They didn’t have the exertion of walking a mile or two carrying their fishing gear, then the frustration of finding they had forgotten something, then the satisfaction of figuring how to work around whatever was forgot, the elation of doing it all themselves, and increased confidence from being at the ocean on their own.

I’ve seen fishermen who have started fishing later in life. They buy expensive, very powerful boats, outfitted with every convenience known to man, and space age fishing gear. Fishing just becomes another competition: bigger, faster, costlier – more fish are caught quicker, trophy fish are sought – and a day fishing is anything but cheap relaxation.

If the fish aren’t biting, the day’s fishing is a failure.

When we went fishing, if the fish weren’t biting we spent the time chatting and philosophizing, and still had a great time. We didn’t rush anywhere, because there was nowhere else we had to be, and we weren’t late for anything.

We would run over the rocks because it was fun, not because we had to hurry somewhere.

Our parents trusted us not to do anything dumb enough to get ourselves killed or badly injured, and knew we would be home by suppertime.

Maybe even with some fish to add to the family food supply.

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