Kid Starts Fishing
|Earl Mead, my dad, with a nice smallmouth bass|
from the small lake near Arcadia, Michigan
where I was born
As is true with many anglers, I cannot remember the first time I went fishing. According to family legend, Dad took me fishing early one spring, when I was scarcely three years old. He had a wooden boat he kept on the lake behind the house. So goes the tale, we took the boat and I caught one fat springtime crappie after another – although we called them speckled bass. Dad held the back of my life jacket, baited hooks, removed the fish, and put them on the stringer.
Yet, one trip does not an angler make. Several folks played key roles in getting me started on a lifetime commitment to fishing.
Dad and Mom
Dad was instrumental in introducing me to fishing. In addition to the early times together, over the years we remained good fishing buddies. We fished together for more than 50 years, in later years including my son, Craig.
When just a kid I learned several key fishing lessons from Dad. The most enduring has been that all kinds of fishing should be fun. The species caught did not make any difference. Bluegills and sunfish were sought on the days they were biting. If crappie were active, we went for them.
Perhaps the diverse quarry we caught was simply because I was a little guy and Dad wanted to be sure we were successful. Nonetheless, I learned from these times we did not have to catch a particular species to have a good time.
Another key lesson was that getting bait was part of going fishing. In the early years, I doubt I knew bait could be purchased. For bait, Dad and I used whatever nature provided in sufficient abundance -- worms, minnows, grasshoppers, crickets.
There was a cedar swamp just outside the little town in Michigan where I was born. The earth there was black and moist and filled with fat, blue earthworms. Though the mosquitoes in northern cedar swamps rival any in North America, and I remember the swamp was filled with them, I do not recall they interfered with us. Dad turned the dirt with a shovel and I picked up the worms and dropped them in a tin can. Over the years, I cannot remember ever digging worms where they were as plentiful as they were there. Condominia sit on a filled-in swamp noe and no fathers and sons dig worms there.
We also seined minnows. I must have been about five years old the first time we netted minnows. We went to “the harbor,” a shallow, sandy bottom inlet between the small lake and Lake Michigan. Dad kept yelling instructions, the same instructions I later gave Craig. “Keep the net tight.” “Keep the net close to the bottom, they’ll get away.” Dad explained why one side of the net had wooden floats and the other lead weights and how they helped catch the minnows. Further, I learned we could try again if we did not get enough minnows the first time. A lesson of some utility in life – try again.
By the time I was in high school, I was taller than my father. So, in tougher circumstances, like along the bank at Pickerel Lake where we seined minnows, I operated the deep end of the minnow net. Dad still urged me to “keep the net tight,” even though I pointed out that the cedar limb tangled in the net came from the shore and was on his end of the net. I can remember Mom standing on the bank admonishing, “Earl, he can’t go any deeper. The water is right to the top of his boots now.”
We also used the seine to catch grasshoppers for bait. In late summer, Michigan, if you are not a farmer, is blessed with clouds of grasshoppers. Dad and I extended the seine and ran from one end of the yard to the other. We then dropped the net on the grass, with the hoppers under the mesh. The hoppers simply waited for us to pick them off the net and drop them in the minnow bucket we used for minnows, hoppers and crickets. Easy pickins.’
Now I realize we caught crappies and yellow perch on minnows and bluegills and sunfish on worms, crickets and grasshoppers. At the time it simply seemed some species bit better on some days than other species. Dad, however, had it all figured out. We selected bait depending on his assessment of the prospects of catching different species. It was years before I figured that one out.
Mom also played an important part in making me an angler. My folks kept the house near Lake Michigan after moving the family to southern Michigan. During the summer, Mom, my younger sister, and I returned while Dad finished his master’s degree.
Mom let me go down to the little lake with a cane pole and sit on a semi-public pier and fish. I was 50 years old before I learned she was terrified I would fall in the water and drown. She could look out the sun porch window to confirm I was still on the pier. Even if she saw me topple into the water, however, she could not have run the quarter mile quickly enough to yank me out. Further, Mom could not swim, at least not well enough to save us both. But it did not seem as frightening to me. And she never let on.
Whenever I caught fish, Mom “oohed and aahed” when I brought them back. She cooked them even though, as I discovered years later, she was concerned I had not cleaned them well enough.
One thing Mom did, though I doubt either of us knew how important a contribution it was, was to assist me in reading about fishing. Mom made a special effort to order Ted Trueblood’s The Anglers’ Handbook. And I’m sure it was Mom who made certain at Christmas I received Ray Bergman’s Trout, Bass Fishing and J. Edson Leonard’s Flies. I read and re-read these books and cherish them yet.
Most of all, my folks made it possible for me to fish. Dad took me with him, probably lots of times when he would have done better had he fished alone. When I was a little guy, Dad always wanted, or so I presumed, to fish for little fish and lots of them. Years later, when I wanted to try more sophisticated techniques and fish for larger game, Dad wanted to fish for bass and pike with bait casting equipment. Of course, he had bait casting gear all along. Before I was born, he spent lots of time casting for bass at night.
I always had the gear I needed. Dad supplied hooks, poles, bobbers, sinkers, line. Later he helped me select rods, reels, and lures and showed me how to use them.
Bill Yunk was a purist. Trout on dry flies. That was fishing. Anything else was done by lesser men for lesser quarry.
Uncle Bill was not really my uncle. I was born in my parent’s apartment, the upper floor in Bill and Eva Yunk’s home. By default they became uncle and aunt. One evening, probably when I was six or seven years old, I learned what taking trout on a dry fly was all about.
Uncle Bill, Aunt Eva and I were riding back roads, probably looking for deer. We crossed a bridge over a small creek, fifteen feet or so across. There were half a dozen cars parked along the road and fishermen scattered along the bank. Up and down the stream there were splashes and swirls. The hex hatch, called caddis by the Michigan locals, was on.
Aunt Eva urged Uncle Bill to go home, get his fly rod, and return. “No,” he said. It would take too long, by the time he got back the hatch would be over, the best spots were already taken, and it was getting dark. In a few moments, however, Aunt Eva’s urging and the purist’s itch prevailed.
Uncle Bill brought me back to the creek with him. I had never seen anyone fly cast. It seemed to me, unlike the lessons Dad taught, Uncle Bill spent far too much time whirling his bait around in the air and too little with it in the water. Dad coached bait had to be left in the water long enough for fish to find it and they could not find it if it was not in the water. Further, Uncle Bill was using a little blob of feathers that would never catch a fish. I can remember thinking the other men, persons I could hear talking to one another about the fish they were catching, must be going about it differently than Uncle Bill.
In a few minutes, however, Uncle Bill muttered to me, “I’ve got one.” A little boy, standing in tall marsh grass in the dark, I could not see what was going on. Shortly, Uncle Bill had a huge brown trout, the first I had ever seen, laid out in the grass. My recollection is that it was about two feet long and weighed several pounds, a trophy. When we got home and laid the fish in the kitchen sink, it seemed like (and still does) the most beautiful fish ever.
The next summer, though Aunt Eva died in the interim, I spent a week with Uncle Bill. He operated a mirror works for a furniture factory. Most of the day, I hung around while Uncle Bill made mirrors. We talked about baseball, particularly how the Detroit Tigers were doing and why. And we talked about trout fishing.
One evening, he took me trout fishing at Bear Creek, a tributary of the Manistee River. Bear Creek was 15 miles or so from town and a large portion of the trip was over gravel roads. Uncle Bill could remember when, with no cars in town, only week long trips to Bear Creek were worth the effort. Now, however, a trip after work was practical.
Bob Starke, one of Uncle Bill’s fishing buddies and owner-operator of the furniture factory, went along. Bob Starke, as I recall, was not a purist; it was rumored that he sometimes took big brown trout on streamers. What streamers were I did not know, but I could tell from the way Uncle Bill talked about them they were problematic ways to catch trout. A summer or two later Bob Starke and another local trout angler got in some sort of bragging contest. Many mornings in the center of the meat counter in Mr. Schafer’s market there were two brown trout caught by the contestants. Each weighed between five and seven pounds. Disparagingly, Uncle Bill suggested they had not been caught with dry flies.
Though I was not big enough to fly fish, I could station myself near a log jam and drop a worm in the water. Not the same as fly fishing, of course, but a way a kid could get started and certainly one of the steps toward virtue.
During the evening, a bat captured Uncle Bill’s dry fly during a false cast. I had never seen a bat before. It splashed on the surface while Uncle Bill tried to get it unhooked. How he accomplished that I can’t remember.
From beneath the log jam, I caught four small brook trout, the first trout of my career. Uncle Bill and Bob Starke caught two each, so I was the “leader” for the evening. As grown men do, though I did not understand it at the time, they dragged me up to the home of the Department of Conservation officer who lived near the stream to operate the rearing ponds there. With great show, we showed our catch. The officer was appropriately impressed with our fish, particularly the four brookies I caught. When we got in the car to head home, I was very impressed with my future as a trout fisherman.
The last time I fished with Uncle Bill I was in college. We went to Bear Creek with Dad. Uncle Bill had been in failing health for some time. Doctors told him fly fishing, at least for the time being, would be too strenuous. Later perhaps. So Uncle Bill was forced to fish with small lures, the size we called “fly rod” though they were ill-suited for use with a fly rod.
Whether any of us caught trout, I do not remember, though I could look it up in the log book I kept at the time. But I remember Uncle Bill admired one of my flies, an outsize #10 spent wing Adams. “Where did you get that fly?” he asked. “You can’t get flies like that around here. Those are just what the caddis hatch calls for.”
“Uncle Bill,” I answered, “I tied those flies. Would you like some? Take a couple.” At the time, he refused. He said he did not want to take flies out of my box to put in his. When I got home I tied up a dozen or so, the very best I could make, and sent them to him.
Whether Uncle Bill ever caught any trout on those flies, I don’t know. But I remember I got a letter from him thanking me. Dad told me Bill Yunk rarely wrote anyone or anything and I should be very complimented to get a letter. I was.
Uncle Bill got me started as a trout fisherman. Many times on streams in Montana or Alaska or one of the other famous trout fishing spots I have thought, “I wish Uncle Bill could have fished here.” Indeed, for a time, I was a purist, like Uncle Bill.
The Detroit Tigers, in 1950, were in first place when I met Dick Jones and all was right in my world. My parents were friends with Dick Jones’ parents. So, even though Dick and his wife Millie were fifteen or twenty years older than I, they became special friends of my sister and me. We met in the Upper Peninsula when both sets of parents were searching sites for cabins. Perhaps the second day we were together, the fathers and sons went to the Whitewash site on the Sucker River trout fishing.
Dick, also a purist or nearly so, caught the then Michigan limit of 15, with one rainbow about 15 inches long, all on dry flies. Using worms and fishing under a shoreline stump, I caught four brook trout. Dad and Clair Jones, Dick’s father, caught two each. All the way back to the cabin, Dick kept up a steady rat-a-tat about how the sons really beat the dads. He made me feel a full partner on the winning team.
That week, Dick started to teach me how to bait cast. Dad has some home movies of Dick coaching me, then scurrying for cover as I drew the rod back as a prelude to another backlash. Dick also helped me undo the tangles. Now, every time I whip a spinnerbait under willow branches or drop a plastic worm next to a pier, I owe the first steps and encouragement to Dick Jones. Dick was a right-hander, and he taught me, a natural left-hander, how to cast right-handed. Now, however, I can cast with either hand, a major advantage that I would not have had Dick not taught me.
He also introduced me to the wonders of catching fish on artificial lures. Pike were (and still are) plentiful in the small lake near the cottage. Several times Dick took me with him as he cast for pike. Once, I remember, Dick had already rowed a hundred yards down the east side of the lake, but when I ran to the edge of the lake, he rowed back to get me.
Dick assured me pike were so common a red-and-white Bass-Oreno dragged behind the boat would catch one. He gave me one. The next day I went out in a boat with others, Mom, sister Nancy and probably Millie on the oars. Several times I thought I felt a jerk on the line and when we got back to the cabin I had a 14 inch pike, my first pike and my first fish on an artificial lure. In the next half dozen years I caught a lot of bass and pike on that lure. It is now retired and I would not put it in the water for anything.
Dick also taught me to fly cast. On the narrow trout streams of northern Michigan, fly casting is not so easy as it looks when Lefty Kreh does it on TV. The twisted course of the streams means alders are always just behind the caster. When I was in the eighth or ninth grade, the exalted status of a purist had evaded me, despite effort.
After a couple hours of frustration on Grand Marais Creek, I quit fishing and wandered down the stream to watch Dick and see how he did it. From the bluff above the water, I could see Dick flicking his fly under cedar branches, never tangling in the alders behind him. His fly landed deftly on the water rather than slapping the surface as mine did. Periodically, Dick caught a trout right before my eyes.
Dick saw me and yelled to ask what I was doing. I explained I was trying to see how it was done. I had never caught a trout on a dry fly and wanted to study someone else as I was not making much progress on my own. “Well,” Dick said, “we’ll fix that. There are always trout ahead of the beaver dam.”
Dick positioned me knee deep in the water and said, “Stand right there.” He eyed the beaver pond, the direction of my likely cast and the trees and branches behind me. With no chain saw for assistance, Dick tore through the underbrush, clearing the way for my backcast. With a little coaching I soon had my fly landing on the water like something natural. After a couple such casts, darned if something did not swirl at my fly. With more coaching on what do to then, I caught one, then another.
Dick always had time for me, even when it seemed he was wasting his. One year he agreed to take me bass fishing on opening day. Though I told everyone for months that Dick was taking me out on opening day, when the day finally arrived, I overslept. Dick did not leave. He sat in the car waiting for me to appear. As before, he accommodated his schedule to mine. Mom realized, in the way I guess moms do, I was not up and about, and hustled me out.
We went to a lake west of town. Dick rowed the boat up the north side of the lake and we cast to the edge of the weeds. Just at dawn I noticed a swirl only a few feet from the boat. It took a couple of tries, but I dropped my Hula Popper in the open spot in the weeds where the swirl was. It disappeared. With some coaching from Dick, we got the bass in the boat. It was the first largemouth bass I caught on a plug.
Johnnie Reule was the Scout Master the first few years I was a Scout. He tied some of his own flies, though I don’t think he ever was as involved with tying as I became. For reasons I cannot recall, Johnnie and I became fishing buddies.
Johnnie’s fishing passion was largemouth bass at night. Starting about when I was in seventh grade, Dad, Johhnie and I went fishing at nearby lakes, starting after dinner and fishing until midnight. Dad or Johnnie rowed and I fished from the bow. At the time I wished I could either row or sit in the stern: the bow, it seemed, was where the “little guy” got assigned. Now, of course, I know the bow is the preferred position providing the first shot at fish.
Johnnie always wanted to go around the lake in the same direction. His casting rod, made of split bamboo, the premier material at the time, had a set in it. A set, or permanent bend, was very common among bamboo rods stored upright in a closet all winter. Johnnie fished almost exclusively with a black popper and he believed if he always “popped” his lure in an anti-set direction the set would be reduced or even eliminated.
Several of the first largemouth bass I ever caught were caught on those trips. I recall one which took a black Hula Popper over an extended weed bed. My four and a half foot steel rod bent toward the water and hearing – rather than seeing – the splash as the two plus pound bass jumped. When we got home, I regaled Mom with just how I had done it. Years later, I enjoyed hearing Craig explain to his mom how, “When the fish swam left I held my rod tip to the right and when the fish swam right I held my rod tip to the left, just like Bill Dance said.”
Johnnie told Craig about one of our trips. While I was in high school I scarfed up a dilapidated wooden row boat. Dad helped me refurbish it, at least well enough that I could fish from it. When I was alone, the boat, only ten or twelve feet long, was fine. When two persons were in the boat, however, a pinhole somewhere on the transom was below the water line. Johnnie, and Dad too, had to suffer the indignity of watching their tackle box float and sitting with their feet in the water.
None of these people ever became famous anglers, tv personalities widely known in the fishing community. Yet, when I showed interest in fishing, they spent time to encourage me. In turn, the encouragement led to a lifetime of adventure. Their patience made it easier when it came my turn to introduce Craig to fishing. They are all in my personal Hall of Fame.
At the time, the fish were most important. Now, the friendships are.
Last updated on December 20, 2013