Posted by: ktzefr | June 4, 2010

Fish Tales and Appalachian Summers…

We were talking about fish earlier, my son and I.  His fish connection goes back to elementary school, to swimming in the sea and raising mollies in an aquarium, to his first job in middle school sorting and identifying fish species at the Smithsonian.  The research scientists he worked for at the time went through thousands of specimen from various expeditions round the world  to search for new species, oddities, interesting changes.  So he spent his summers looking for that one extra dot or fin or bone on tiny fish as small as a nickel and, over time, developed a natural affinity for sea life.  A highlight and big responsibility was checking the level of alcohol in the tub holding the coelacanth, a fish once believed to be extinct.  Now he scuba dives with live fish and, as a chef-in-training, has learned to identify fish by their flesh and imagine the possibilities of a chunk or a slither swimming in sauce.

We were talking about the connections in life, the way one thing associates with another, the past and the present, people and places.  Mention almost any topic to anyone, from chocolate to flowers to politics, and some memory will be stirred.  Here, then, are my own fish memories…

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Summer, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, always brought the relatives home and the men took to the river.  When they gathered under a nearby shade to swap fish stories I was never out of earshot.  The two pictures below were taken years before I was born, but these fishing excursions continued throughout my childhood.

Fishermen (my dad, second from left) on the Cumberland River, circa 1930s

The old saying that every fisherman has a tale about the big one that got away is not an exaggeration.  My uncles had a fair share of such stories.  Uncle Bill told so many outrageous tales that he was nicknamed “Windy Bill,” though I don’t think anyone ever called him this to his face!  Uncle Bill spent years fishing on the Indian River Inlet and the Delaware Bay, and his fish that got away were enormous.  He would stretch both arms as far as he could reach in opposite directions and say this didn’t do justice to the size of those fish.  Bill couldn’t hear very well so he spoke loudly and this added an air of importance to whatever he said, making the fish sound even bigger and stronger than any creature the local Cumberland River might spawn.  Most of us had never been to the ocean at that time so these Delaware fish were difficult to imagine and, subsequently, we didn’t believe a word of it.

Uncle Bual’s fish, on the other hand, weren’t necessarily big, but they were sneaky, slipping away from even the most expert fishermen and disappearing under a solid sheet of ice.  Bual told stories of drilling holes in the ice in Canada and fishing in the cold water below.  This didn’t seem possible to me because I had never seen ice that thick or solid and I figured he would have fallen through if he drilled holes on a lake.  But Uncle Bual maintained that lots of people went out on the ice to fish, and no one fell through, and it was some of the best fish you ever ate.  My dad said he had heard about ice fishing but didn’t think he’d like to do it.  A pan full of fish wasn’t worth freezing half to death over.

The Tennessee lakes held Uncle Drew’s favorite fishing holes.  He liked the peace and quiet of Norris Lake in the days before jet skis were invented, and he told of renting a houseboat and floating for days with his buddies.  Drew talked more in terms of the vast numbers of their catch rather than the size of individual fish.  His Tennessee lakes were teeming with bass and sun granny and blue gill and it was just a matter of dropping a line and waiting. Some of the men liked this.  They said it was like sitting on your front porch in an easy chair and waiting for the fish to come to you.  Others believed real fishermen needed more of a challenge.

When my Uncle Chester got a turn to talk he swept us all away to Michigan.  His favorite fishing was north of Detroit, where he lived at the time.  His stories of island cabins and clear lakes on those hot summer days brought to the Kentucky hills the scent of pine forests and the cool, crisp breeze off the northern waters.  There was more to Uncle Chester’s stories than mere fish.  I had no interest in fishing but could imagine sitting beside such a lake with a good book.

Mom, front and center, my grandmother, Dad, and the group

So far as I recall, my dad didn’t have a favorite tale about the fish that got away.  He was more of a hunter than a fisherman.  But he did tell stories of fishing in other rivers and lakes across Kentucky and claimed that the tastiest fish in the world swam in the shadowed shallows beneath the Rockcastle River bridge.

When the men packed their supplies and headed to the local Cumberland to cast their lines, I wondered why they even bothered.  The muddy Cumberland River could not compare with the Atlantic Ocean or the lakes of Tennessee or Canada or the still, cool waters of northern Michigan.  And yet you could feel the excitement in the air as they gathered bait and tackle, rolled up their pants legs, and headed for the river.  They had grown up along the Cumberland and many of them, one after the other, had left for other places.  Every summer, though, they chose to leave some of the best fishing holes in the country and come back home to cast their lines.

Sometimes they’d bring back a basket full of fish to fry on the outdoor grill.  My Uncle George usually cleaned the catch and threw the heads to the cats and my mom and her sisters cooked as long as the fish lasted.  A bait bucket full of minnows was usually left over and my cousins and I buried them once they died.  We created a small cemetery in a patch of dirt on a hill behind the house and put the minnows into match boxes and gathered rocks for tombstones.  We sang hymns and prayed and ended the summer fishing expedition in our own somber way, matching the mood of the men who were getting ready to leave home again.

These same men who had come bearing exotic tales of other places, enjoyed rehashing old stories of boyhood fishing excursions.  They seemed to be drawn back to simpler places and times in the same way the unknown had once drawn them away.  Just as Uncle Chester’s stories of the Michigan lakes were more than mere fish tales, these summer jaunts to the Cumberland always turned out to be more than just another fishing trip.

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Today…new generations, new equipment, and new fishing holes.

At my brother’s lake, just steps from the Cumberland, the water is clear enough to see the fish swim close to the surface.  There’s food in a bucket hanging on the bridge.  You can feed a fish one minute and catch him the next.  But there won’t be a fish fry…



The only requirement to fish?  You gotta toss it back!

...but you can get a pic first!

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