The cork, which originally closed a vinegar jug, snapped out of sight leaving only two bubbles circling the sudden undertow. The green cotton line popped as tight as the string on Roy Acuff's fiddle the water to the right. The tip of the sycamore shoot which had become a fishing pole a few minutes earlier bent dangerously toward the surface of the water. Then it broke off.
I never was to know what kind of great fish had taken hook, line and sinker on that day more then a half century ago the Elk Fork Creek in Todd County, but like all fishermen I have long remembered that one that got away.
Most outdoors folks on the shady side of 60 can draw on a store of fishing tales from their salad days in the 1930s and '40s when the world moved a little slower and things were simpler. And most of us came to realize later that we were doing more than fishing.
Fishing, at least the way the boys I knew did it, was sure much simpler than it was to become later. But it wasn't quite as romantic as some writers would later try to make it.
Everybody has heard of the famous bent pin on the end of a piece of household twine supposedly used by all lads of the long-gone past but it's hard to find anyone who will say that he actually used or even saw a rig like that. As a practical matter, a straight pin bent into a hook would be difficult to tie securely onto a line and, lacking a barb, wouldn't be especially effective.
Because of the Great Depression and its shortage of cash and World War II causing shortage of materials, we may have been a little shy on tackle in those years. But the boys I knew were never that shy.
The hopeful young angler of 50 years ago could always scrape up a dime to get some "real" tackle. Real tackle consisted of a self contained outfit made up of one hook, one split shot and one twisted cotton line which was always green. The affluent might spring for the next step up which was the same gear with the addition of a cork split about halfway through on the long side so you could slide it onto the line. This deluxe version cost about 12 or 15 cents. My friends and I reused corks from empty bottles.
I usually say "bobber" now to describe the piece of plastic used to tell if you're getting a bite, because many anglers don't know what a "cork" is unless they enjoy a good wine. But "cork" still comes quicker to my tongue. (Besides, everybody knows that a bobber is a Halloween party-goer who's using only his mouth to grab an apple floating in a tub of water. )
Both of packaged outfits came wrapped around a wooden frame that looked like a ladder with only two rungs, one near each They were always painted red or green and looked like they would be useful for lots of things. All our boyish ingenuity, however never seemed to come up with much use for them except to keep a fishing line on.
A lot has been said about the joys of cutting fishing poles on the bank, but nobody I knew who had any respect for the angling art did that except in the most extreme emergencies. If a green shoot had enough spring in it to let you feel the fish, it was probably small enough to break under much pressure. If it was big enough to safely hold one of the trophies you expected, it felt like you were fishing with a broom handle. So a good cane pole was a necessity for the complete adolescent angler and you could get one for a few cents from the bunch leaned up against the front of the hardware store. Most tackle came from the hardware store or maybe the five-and-dime. Sporting goods stores and bait shops were inventions still waiting in the wings, at least in the kind of small town where I grew up.
A bait dealer would have starved to death anyway if he'd depended on those long-ago lads for business. There were too many fishin' worms in the garden in damp weather and under every log and plank and manure pile that had been on the very long. Fishin' worms became "nightcrawlers" later, but they're still fishin' worms to me.
One of the first pieces of secret fishing lore every boy learned was you had to impale the worm so that both ends were free to wiggle around and attract the fishes' attention. And you had to spit on the bait if you expected to have any luck at all.
Years later I read that a scientist who was much into such things suggested that there actually was something in saliva which acted as an attractant for fish. He probably wrote his PhD dissertation explaining his discovery but we could've told him the same secret in 1940, except he probably wasn't born then.
Since we rarely carried spare tackle, for waterside maybe a few hooks, the loss of any piece called for waterside improvising. If the current carried your hook under a sunken log and in trying to get it loose you broke your line, you probably had some spare line wrapped around your pole. A few feet of line wrapped tightly around the pole gave you not only a backup but it also kept you from losing a fish if the tip of the pole snapped off, as I learned early on.
And you usually had a few spare hooks in your shirt pocket -- you learned quickly from sharp experience not to put bare hooks in your jeans pockets -- but what about the sinker and cork?
The more prudent amongst us carried spare hooks stuck into a spare cork, but those of us more reckless with our funds had to scrounge around for a floater. With any luck we would find a piece of dry cornstalk which would float pretty well until it got waterlogged. And that didn't take long. Even a short piece of dead wood would serve, but it wasn't as sensitive as a real cork.
If somebody had a split shot you could borrow, you were back in business as soon as you crimped it on the line with your teeth. If there was no extra sinker around, you might work a rusty nail out of a fence post or you might find a pebble you could use. Nails looked kind of funny but they were easier to tie, stayed on the line better and were heavier.
Unless you were lucky enough to live near a major stream or lake --and there weren't nearly as many large lakes then as now -- your fishing was limited to the little creeks and farm ponds within walking distance or, at most, bicycle range. It didn't take long to learn the habits of the quarry in these small waters.
A series of quick jerks on the cork was probably a bluegill or some other sunfish. A sudden yank and run could be a little bass although a big bluegill would sometimes do the same thing. A slow, downward pull and an equally slow move away was probably a catfish.
The same kind of slow, downward pull and no movement signaled that a "crawfish" was taking your worm. If you leaned back on the pole and your hook came up clean, you knew to ease the hookup slowly next time and you could probably bring the crayfish, holding onto the line with his pincers, to the top of the water but seldom further than that.
The boys of those summers past rarely caught enough fish for a good mess, but I think we caught something important than a few fish.
Nowadays, when I watch weekend anglers peeling out for the big lakes and rivers -- with their boats worth more than many a modest home of five decades ago, heavy with tackle and more electronic gear than a World War II destroyer, usually pressed for time and determined to catch fish and have fun at all costs -- I realize how much we really caught in the little creeks and ponds of the past.
On those long, easy afternoons while we waited on bluegills and crayfish, time was never heavy on us. We watched the watersnakes "S"-ing across the pool, their heads up like little periscopes, and the kingfishers suspended in air with their eyes bright for minnows.
We learned how long it takes for the sun to dry the shells of turtles after they inched their way out of the water, a trick used by Indians to determine if anyone had passed by recently. And we watched the little green herons -- "shikepokes" as the old folks called them -- go flapping and spurting away when we disturbed their hunting in the shallows.
And we dreamed boys' dreams as the sun angled lower across the water. Dreams of things we would do tomorrow and the great accomplishments which would be ours when we were men.
We dreamed, too, of fishing in the time to come, based on books we'd read and the pictures in Life magazine and National Geographic -- of the deep and icy waters to the north with monster salmon and trout, muskie and walleye. And of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, warm with a tropic sun and alive with sailfish, sharks and rainbows of fish we couldn't name.
But summers come to an end in the turning of time, and with different days come different paths. For some of us at least, though, those paths eventually lead to the blue waters of the North and emerald seas of the tropics and these adventures generated their dreaming, too.
At last summer's end, as the sun angled lower and each moment revealed a new face of beauty on Lake of the Woods in Ontario, I thought back to that little creek in Todd County. We were overly proud then of the little bluegill and catfish which went on the forked stick we used for a stringer, but we see our most important catch of all.
We were catching the spirit of fishing and the outdoors and just beginning to learn how we were a part of it all. The full realization was to come slowly and much later in life -- when we the distance of time to view it and understand it. We never dreamed that some day those first glimmerings would seem so long ago.