AUTHOR'S NOTE: With spring turkey hunting season almost over, I thought everyone might be tired of turkey-related topics, so ....
Once upon a time, I did a lot of bank fishing. When you are a kid and basically obsessed with fishing (when you weren't hunting) and you don't have a boat, bank fishing is it!
For some reason, we don't seem to hear as much about fishing from the bank of a river or lake as in the past. Like all of my fishing, my bank fishing has decreased down to pitiful levels (and I really need to do something about that).
Back in the ancient times, before fish finders, 100 mph bass boats, outdoors TV fishermen wearing goofy jump suits (remember those?), and a multimillion dollar fishing lure and equipment industry, we fished from the bank. It was all pretty simple.
First, you gathered up your gear, which was usually pretty sparse by today's standards: two or three fishing rods, (we called them poles, as in the proper vernacular "feesh poles"), whatever we had for bait buckets and cans (yes, this definitely involved live bait, more on that later), plus a tackle box of some sort — if you had one. During this age, if you were a youthful and thrifty (read: you had no money, I mean NONE) fisherman, you might have had an actual tackle box, or maybe not. The actual tackle you carried could often fit in the pockets of your ragged jeans. A small box of hooks, a few spilt-shot sinkers and maybe a rope stringer to put fish on was about it.
With tackle in pockets and feesh poles in one hand, this left the other hand to carry various bait buckets and cans. If you had live minnows in a proper bucket with a lid that stayed closed (we called this a "minner bucket"), you were really outfitted well. Now off we go to the river or lake, and in this time period for me and my fishing buds, this usually meant on foot wearing "tenner shoes" (tennis shoes or sneakers).
Arriving at the water, one of the first things we would look for would be the all-important forked stick. This wooden stick, about two feet long, with a fork on one end to hold the rod (feesh pole) and the other jabbed down into the ground, is a key component in any bank fishing. Once the bait was on the hook, be it worms, chicken liver or even dough balls (we had a secret recipe), this entrée was lobbed out into the water. The rod needed the forked stick to hold it upright, making it easier to detect when a fish would bite. These sticks would sometimes already be in place at popular fishing holes to be used by the next crew of anglers to move in.
Now I mentioned that live bait thing a minute ago. Bank fishing almost always involved live bait or some form of organic offering such as chicken liver, dough balls or maybe some kind of cheese. The actual catching of the live bait was often as much fun as the fishing, and in truth, I probably preferred it at times.
Live minnows were often taken with a seine, a net with poles attached on each side. The seine could be operated by one person holding a pole in each hand, or by two people, one on each side. In the small, muddy-banked creeks that we usually seined for bait, this net was deadly, and in the deeper holes under tree roots and other structure, you really didn't know what you may pull out of there. It could be larger fish such as bass or catfish, crayfish, water dogs (mud puppies) or even the occasional water snake.
This, of course, added to the fun.
Salamanders, known to us as "spring lizards," were a favorite bait and were caught by prying under rocks in small rocky creeks; crayfish were caught the same way. A favorite of mine was going after the hellgrammite, which is the larval stage of an ugly critter called the dobsonfly.
Hellgrammites are black, about three inches long, flat in appearance, with a magnum set of pinchers on the head. The hellgrammite lives most of his life underneath the rocks in fast-flowing water, and he can be caught by holding the seine open downstream of a stretch of water as your buddy works upstream, lifting rocks and letting any hellgrammites wash into the net. The hellgrammite has to be held directly behind the head or he will pinch you, and I mean really pinch, as in maybe draw blood. Again, this added to the fun as you are standing in swift water trying to maintain your balance, toting a bucket or two, all while trying to handle a menacing varmint that looks like something from a 1960s-era monster movie. ("Godzilla vs. Hellgrammite" would have been a hit in my area.)
Once the various baits were skewered on hooks and cast into the depths, the bank fisherman could relax and get down to the serious business of fishing, as in watching the lines for any sign of a bite. As you might imagine, there was plenty of time for river bank conversation, which ran mostly to fishing techniques, how to set a hook when a fish bites, the best bait for each fish and so on. It should be no surprise that the talk could also go down other roads, including high school football, who had the best rabbit dog, a new shotgun you wanted, or even girls. For the long hours spent on the river bank, some sort of comfortable chair would be very handy, but for the life of me I can't remember us having anything other than maybe a five-gallon bucket turned upside down. I guess we were a lot tougher then.
Bank fishing was hot summer days in the shade watching for that rod tip to twitch, seeing a great blue heron glide onto his fishing spot across the river from you, and arguing about how much a channel cat you caught weighed. You could debate why boat fishermen cast toward the bank while you cast as far out from the bank as you could.
Bank fishing was night fishing with a big fire and watching the sparks from the wood ascend toward the stars and heaven, and then then wondering what that was really like.
Bank fishing is another part of our outdoors world that I hope has not passed us by.
Be careful with those hellgrammites.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at email@example.com.