I was born in a small Arkansas farm community in 1950. My father was an Ozarks farmer with a few head of cattle and a 140-acre farm. A lot of hills and rocks, is what he grew best. In 1956 the federal government had a plan to help the farmers build farm ponds. They gave the farmer money so that they could use the pond to water the livestock and were able to stock it with fish for recreation purposes. Dad had two ponds built on the farm. They were about two acres in size and he had bass, perch and catfish stocked in each.
I was too young to go to the ponds by myself the first couple of years they were there, but, watching Dad and Mom sit on the bank fishing with long cane poles, I was intrigued. They would hook and land the hand-sized perch with a quick sweep and rise of the long poles. Occasionally, Dad would hook into a bass about twelve inches in size, and then, to my wonder and amazement, he would carefully release it back into the water, saying, “Go back and grow up.”
Each spring he and his friends would speculate as to when the dogwood trees would be in bloom. He told me that was a sign that the bass would be hitting top water soon. At the age of seven I had no idea what “hitting top water” referred to. I knew, though, that it must be very special to grown men because of the excitement in their voices when they talked of it.
One evening in the spring of 1958 my father asked me if I would like to go to the pond to do some fishing the next day by myself. I was so excited that all I could do was squeak out a weak, “Yes!” Dad spent what seemed to be the entire next hour telling me what to do and what not to do. “Close the barnyard gate, watch out for the bull, don’t walk through the oat field, watch out for snakes, don’t throw rocks in the water.” I could not have repeated one of the rules back to him had he asked me to. All I could think of was being able to go to the pond like a grown-up and spend the morning fishing. I had no plan for how to catch the fish or what to do after I had caught one.
I went to the shop where Dad kept the cane poles and took down the longest one he had. I took it out to the yard and pretended I was catching fish. Dad came over and showed me how to put on a hook, and then told me to go to the barn lot to dig some worms. “Hey, this is going to be great,” I said excitedly, as I headed to the barn. After about thirty minutes I had a soup can full of red wiggler worms. Now all I needed was for tomorrow to come.
After supper I went to the family room and took out Dad’s Outdoor Life magazine to read everything l I could about fishing. With no television to distract me, I read about men hooking giant marlin, huge trout and giant catfish. At about 8 p.m., Mom said that she knew I had a big day planned so I should go to bed and get some sleep. I did not want to argue with anyone and take a chance of getting myself into trouble, so off I went. Laying in my Roy Rogers bunk bed, I pictured every inch of the pond. I thought of where I had seen Dad hook perch and where I knew the big bass were hiding. Sometime around midnight I finally went to sleep.
“Son, it’s time to get up!” Dad called from the kitchen. Woke me from a sound sleep. “If you hurry you can catch them fish while they are still asleep.” The day was here and I’m ready, was my first thought. Mom handed me a chocolate bar and a Mason jar of grape kool-aid wrapped in newspaper to keep it cold. Then she gave me my marching orders for the day. “You be home before lunch and don’t make me have to come after you, do you hear?” “Yes mom, I will be home long before lunch and can I take my dog with me?” “Yes, but don’t let him chase the cows.”
Out the door and down the lane toward the barn I went. With Mike, my cocker spaniel, and my lunch. As I climbed over the gate into the barn lot I remembered I had forgotten the cane pole. Back over the gate and up the lane to the shop I ran. Now with lunch, dog, and pole, away I went again. As I neared the gate I remembered the worms. Darn! Back up the hill again! Mike looked at me like he thought we were playing some kind of game. Run to the gate then run back home. He decided to just sit by the gate and wait for me to make the next trip. This time I even remembered to get extra hooks, sinkers, bobbers, and a stringer. Now, back to the gate.
The oats were just coming up and the field was green with new growth about four inches tall. I had already forgotten that Dad had told me to not go through the oat field, so the quickest way to the pond was straight across the field. As I neared the far side of the field, I looked behind me could see every step I had made in the new oats, and then I remembered. Boy, I hope Dad don’t see that, I thought to myself, as I started over the hill to the pond.
As I came to the crest of the hill I could see the pond at the base of the hill next to the pine trees in the valley. The water looked like a mirror reflecting the sky. I could see the ripples made by the perch as they swam in the shallows next to the shore. My legs could not carry me fast enough I ran as hard as I could toward the pond. Mike was running next to me like he also was excited about what we were about to experience.
I dropped my kool-aid and tackle on the ground and started to unwind the line from the cane pole. As I watched the water for signs of fish movement, I placed a bobber about a foot from the hook and placed a gob of worms on the hook. The worms wiggled and squirmed in a big ball on the hook as I swung them into the water. I watched as the rings flowed away from my bobber as it sat quietly on the surface of the water. In less than a minute the bobber suddenly twitched and then with a sudden “plop!” went under the surface and shot toward the middle of the pond. I lifted the pole and the tip bent as the line went deeper into the water. I pulled harder and with a splash lifted a large perch from the water. WOW! My first fish! I was a grown man now. The perch landed by me on the bank and started to flop in the grass. I reached for it and the dorsal fin stuck my palm. Ouch! I never knew they would hurt like that. I placed my foot on it gently to hold it down as I took the hook from its mouth. I put the perch on the stringer and swung it into the water next to shore then tied the stringer to a small bush on the bank.
The worms were still on the hook so I repeated the routine again, and the same thing happened. I had about ten perch on the stringer when the routine took another route. As the bobber sat on the surface of the water there was a huge splash and I could see the green, black and white coloring of a huge bass as it twisted around with my bobber in its mouth. My heart stopped then, and started again with a pace that it has never reached again from any experience in my life. Including sex, war or drag racing. The bass was gone as fast as it had come. It left me standing there with my eyes bugged and my mouth gaping open. “Did you see that?” I asked my dog. He looked me like he wondered what the heck was that and where did it go. My bobber sat rocking in the waves of the splash and foam.
After a short time I returned to catching the perch again. This time things were different. As I was landing a perch the pole was almost torn from my hand. The line shot across the water, leaving a wake behind it. There was a huge bulge in the water in front of my bobber and the pole was bent almost double. I staggered as I lifted and pulled the line to the bank. As the fish came into the shallow water I could see the back and dorsal fin of a huge bass and figured it had to be at least seven pounds, eighteen inches long and four inches across its back. When it came to within a foot of the bank the bass opened its mouth and the hand-sized perch came flying out! I felt my knees get weak and I sat down on the bank. The huge fish slowly turned and swam back into the darkness of the pond.
In the distance I could hear my mother calling my name. Mike, my cocker, sat up and looked toward the direction of the house, then at me as if to say, “You better go home now.” I gathered my tackle and untouched candy and kool-aid and headed for home. As I reached the crest of the hill I looked back at the pond and saw a violent splash on the surface near the bank. The bass seem to be telling me to came back and try again.