By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Two brothers, a weathered wooden skiff, tin buckets stuffed with bait, cane poles and a well worn path down the steep, rocky banks to the river…. what more could a 10 year old boy need on a lazy summer afternoon in 1914? According to my dad, known in his later years as Pop, one needed no other ingredient to make his day perfect!
Pop grew up in Hudson, New Hampshire and was exposed, at a very early age, to the Merrimack River, lazily meandering through the state. He and his two brothers had to take only a brief walk across the dirt road in front of their home on Maple Avenue and nimbly shimmy down the treacherous bank to find themselves on the shoreline. Stretched before the three eager boys were hours and hours of youthful adventure and fishing pleasure. The seed had been planted in Pop. A seed he joyously cultivated for the next 70 years.
Time and circumstance brought Pop to live his adult years in the deep south, but no matter the location, he never lost his childlike desire and interest in fishing. The state of Alabama prides itself in having numerous lakes and rivers, which serve as literal goldmines for those, like Pop, who relish the sport of fishing.
Lake Guntersville provides an abundance of small inlets that teem with a variety of fish. A plethora of catfish, bream, bass and crappie await the eager fisherman. One of the small creeks on this lake is Short Creek, located about thirty minutes east of Pop’s home. He owned a furniture business and couldn’t wait to spend his day off each Thursday fishing at the creek.
Around 1950 he had purchased a small aluminum boat and trailer from a local resident, then toiled long hours organizing and labeling his fishing gear to fit perfectly inside the boat. Mom and I called it his “Treasure Chest” on water. Each Wednesday night Mom would pack a picnic lunch and at the break of dawn the next morning Pop would hook up the boat and the three of us would happily rumble down the highway in his old blue truck, anticipating a full day of fun and fishing.
Any true fisherman will tell you that there is as much time spent in preparation for the sport as there is in the actual activity. One must collect and maintain the proper equipment and be prepared for any situation that might arise. The vocabulary of a fisherman is unique. He can chatter for hour upon hour about sinkers, flies, floats, spinners, rods, reels, lures, etc. Not only did Pop talk about these objects, but he often designed and created them for his specific needs.
He’d spend every free minute he could spare, peacefully working in his workshop, doing what Mom called “piddling in the basement”. He was a fellow who whistled when he was happy and we heard a lot of whistling coming from that basement workshop. Pop’s keen imagination was on alert at all times for objects he might use to enhance his fishing technique. There were times when I wondered if he was reincarnated from the depths…he seemed to think like a fish. One could almost see his mind working to develop a piece of equipment that would attract an inquisitive fish… the perfect color, movement, shape, etc. Whatever his mind could conceive his talents could achieve and in time, his collection grew in size and gained admiration from fellow fishermen.
Always a packrat, Pop stored and catalogued old buttons, hollow deer tail hair, lead weights from car wheels, colored glass beads; anything he felt his catch might take notice of as he skillfully skimmed it along the surface of the water or patiently suspended it near the murky bottom to entice the curious fish.
“Are you alright back there?” Mom asked me from the front seat. “Do you have enough room with all those suitcases and bags?”
“Yes, I’m O.K. How much longer till we’re there?”
Finally, after weeks of eager anticipation and thorough preparation, Mom, Pop and I were off on our annual trek for a week of fishing, swimming, fishing, eating, fishing, reading, fishing and more fishing! His boat and trailer were always ready and Pop had created a master list of personal items for his suitcase, so in no time at all we were gleefully on our way south; Mom’s ever present thermos of piping hot coffee and snacks for the road tucked carefully in the front seat between the two of them. My private domain for the journey was the tiny space remaining in the back seat, where I was crammed between coolers, blankets, suitcases and boxes of supplies. Just prior to backing out of the driveway Pop always said a prayer for our safe travel and then….off we’d go!
Decades before the words fast food, condominium or timeshare were known and very few motels or hotels dotted the landscape, our family had discovered a little piece of fishing heaven. All one had to do was drive due south for five hours, until the pavement met the ocean. There it was…the breathtaking Gulf of Mexico.
A few miles north of this body of water was a placid, secluded river known as Bon Secour, which promised to fulfill the ardent fisherman’s desire for as many Speckled Trout as he could possibly catch. This was Pop’s destination and desire!
Campbell’s Bon Secour Cottages, a half dozen, small, four room brick structures, were snugly nestled along the banks of the river, as were the adjoining slue and wooden boat dock. The overhanging limbs of the aged, massive oak trees, strung like sagging cobwebs with Spanish Moss, created a cavernous setting, sheltering everything below from the sweltering heat of the summer sunshine overhead. This tranquil setting would be our home away from home for the next seven days.
Before daylight each morning Pop would quietly slip out the front door, ease into his waiting boat and slowly chug away from the dock, heading down the river to Meme’s Bait Shoppe to buy fresh bait for the day. Mom and I remained snuggled peacefully under our warm covers, knowing he was on his way for hours and hours of fishing pleasure. It was nothing for him to be gone eight or ten hours at a time and with a cooler of food, drinks and a bait box of fresh shrimp, Pop couldn’t have been happier.
Around five o’clock, when we’d hear his little boat come putt, putt, putting back into the slue, Mom and I would scurry to greet Pop at the dock to see how many fish he caught that day. One would imagine that sitting in a boat for all that time would make a fellow tired…not Pop. He’d immediately tie up the boat, began cleaning his catch, often numbering fifty or sixty, and packing them in ice chests to transport home at the end of the week. He’d keep out just enough for us to eat, which was where Mom eagerly and proficiently took over to prepare our feast of the evening.
Mom and I enjoyed fishing too and would join Pop several times during our stay at Bon Secour. We particularly enjoyed the times he took us all the way down the river and into Mobile Bay, where it opened into the Gulf of Mexico. Mom and I knew that we shouldn’t disturb Pop during his precious moments of fishing, so we’d have to bait our own hooks, repair broken lines and take care of any fish we might be lucky enough to catch that day. Neither slime, guts, glassy fish eyes or blood would deter us in the least, nor could the possible painful reaction from the wrath of an angry stingray, struggling jellyfish, or vicious pinch from an angry crab. In other words, we dare not be helpless females if we wanted to accompany Pop!
One particular incident comes to mind when I think about fishing in the bay. Around noon one day the three of us peacefully bobbed along on the waves, keeping an eye on our floats for that much anticipated tug from below. Bright sunshine sent sparkling shimmers across the slowly lapping waves and soaked warmly into our exposed arms and legs. The clear, blue sky overhead seemed to stretch to infinity and all was well with the world! We felt like a tiny, weightless feather floating rhythmically on the surface of a huge expanse of water, miles from land in any direction. Suddenly, Pop began to quickly reel in his line, commanding us to do the same with ours. As we watched, puzzled by his alarming actions, he frantically yanked at the rope to start the outboard motor.
“Hurry,” he shouted at Mom. “Pull up the anchor. We’ve got to get out of here right now!”
“What’s wrong, Daddy?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“Look out there!” he shouted, pointing toward the rapidly darkening southern sky. “Here comes a waterspout and we’re right in its path. We’ve got to get back to shore fast! Check you life jackets, be sure they’re secure and get ready to move!”
Sure enough, dipping and rising, twisting and swirling its way straight toward our little craft was a tornado, just a few feet over the surface of the water. The skies instantly turned as black as night. That raging twister grew larger and closer. The waves, now churning whitecaps, viciously slapped against and sloshed over the sides of the small boat, as its three terrified occupants held on for dear life. Pop jerked the throttle up full tilt on that whining engine and we sped for shore like a bullet. The menacing monster continued to pursue us with a vengeance. Stinging rains slashed across our faces and sunburned bodies in our frantic attempt to escape from certain death. Our hearts pounded with fear as we shot forward in a frenzied panic.
We’ll never know what caused the waterspout to suddenly change directions that afternoon, perhaps it was simply our good luck. Whatever the reason, it still frightens me to realize that the three of us escaped certain destruction by mere moments and inches that day. Several years passed before we dared venture out into the bay again with the same lighthearted sense of security we had once… so innocently taken for granted.
During the next 30 years a multitude of memories were created on these wonderful fishing trips. There was the fall Pop won first prize for catching the most fish during the annual Speckled Trout Rodeo. He proudly displayed that beautifully crafted trophy on his bedroom dresser for many years, along with the magazine article containing the story and picture of him smiling broadly, while holding his cherished possession.
Then there was the great bond of friendship Pop and Mom formed with Thelma and Bob Campbell, the owners of the little cluster of cottages that became our home away from home during those years.
The couple, originally from up north, had moved south several years earlier and purchased the cottages from the previous owner. Bob, an excellent handyman, converted one of the dwellings into a comfortable year round home for the pair. Looking after their customers gave Thelma and Bob little time to get away for a vacation of their own. In time, as the two couples got to know each other better, Mom and Pop were trusted to run the business for a week or two, while the proprietors traveled to visit their relatives. On several occasions, during slack tourist seasons, we invited the Campbells to visit us at our home in North Alabama. The couples had much in common and thoroughly enjoy spending time together.
Perhaps one of the last, yet best fishing trips Pop made was the trip he shared with one of his original fishing pals from childhood along the banks of the Merrimack River… nearly 66 years earlier. His one remaining brother, Chet, had settled in California shortly after college, but had kept in close contact with Pop, regardless of the passage of time or distance of miles. After months of detailed planning, the siblings, both approaching 80 years of age, made arrangements for Chet to travel south to join his brother for a glorious week of fishing at Bon Secour. Viewing the photos taken that week leaves no doubt that every expectation for their union was completely fulfilled. Looking down at those happily beaming faces and observing the body language of the two brothers, one can almost hear the jovial laughter, feel the warm love and see the special joy that had so naturally come full circle from those long past, yet memorable, cherished days of boyhood.
By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
That solitary joy of fishing simply can’t be beat,
why that’s half the treat.
The perfect spot and temperature, the lure, the rod,
when joined in perfect harmony… make fishing really great!
Though placid to the viewer’s eye, adrenalin pumps fast.
The optimistic fisherman anticipates each cast.
Just certain that the bass or bream, crappie or trout is near,
you try to calm your beating heart, for fear the fish will hear.
Then oh, so slightly there’s that nibble, tug and then the strike.
What joy…only true fishermen can tell you what it’s like!
Your patience warns you, “Give it time” before you set the hook.
There’s skillful work yet to be done before that fish you cook.
A jerk of line, a whiz of reel, a firm and steady pull.
Your prize leaps wildly from the depts.
Your heart pounds joyous, full!
Just one more hurdle must be crossed before your job’s complete.
The space between the line and net seems like a million feet!
So cautiously and carefully you calm your frantic wits,
attempt to guide that fragile net for the absolute fit.
‘Tis only then a signing breath escapes your trembling frame.
For anyone who’s ever fished…
No sport can be the same.