Growing up in southeastern Ohio in the 1970s, I had ample opportunity to spend time in the outdoors. None of those opportunities were more alluring to me than fishing. I can remember fishing trips with my parents when I was just 5 years old. Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was a child, and my father didn’t retain his interest in angling. It was up to me to learn, any way I could, the many intricacies of wetting a line.
Aside from the tips I found in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, and the few times friends’ fathers took me under their wing, I was pretty much left to my own devices when it came to learning anything new about fishing. However, I was fortunate in that I had a grandmother who was patient, loving, and an ardent pan fisherman — or should I say, pan fisherwoman?
To an 8-year-old, my grandmother’s wisdom was legendary. She was an outdoors woman with a lot of experience. She was a serious naturalist, which helped in her herbalist endeavors, and she was a “sanger” of high regard. The term “sanger” means she was a hunter of ginseng, a very valuable and profitable healing plant whose roots, even back then, would net a tidy sum. She also raised an impressive herb garden and two vegetable gardens, as well as laying hens, that to a small boy seemed as large as domestic turkeys. But all this paled in comparison when she took to the water in search of the one fish she felt worthy above all others — the bluegill.
Back in those days, any fish to me was fair game. It didn’t matter if it was a largemouth bass in a farm pond or a trout in a crystalline pool in a storied river. If it swam, it was worth my attention. However, my grandmother felt the bluegill was the gamest fish that swam, and she was as old-fashioned in her angling ways as she was in the rest of her outdoor endeavors.
Her equipment would seem sparse to the modern angler, who might own a forest of rods and reels to match an untold number of lures to entice even the wariest of game fish. I can only imagine what she would think of today’s bass boats. Her choice of equipment was a cane pole that must have been at least 8 feet long, no reel, and a 10-foot length of black Dacron line she kept coiled up around the end of the pole. A long-shanked Aberdeen hook was attached to the other end. Her bait was a simple earthworm, or as I knew them growing up, a “fishin’ worm.” But it was what she attached to her line that made her style of fishing so attractive to a boy like me.
Most angling today is done without the aid of a “strike indicator,” except in the few instances when used in nymph fishing for trout. My grandmother felt that the red-and-white bobber was paramount in the pan fisher’s arsenal. She attached it a few feet above her hook, depending on the water’s depth, and carefully lobbed it a few feet out into the water. I would watch, mesmerized as the ripples from the bobber’s landing would dissipate, and within seconds the bobber would begin its tantalizing dance. Unbeknownst to me, my grandmother would wait for some indeterminable time and then quickly pull a flopping fish out of the water and onto the bank beside her. She would eye it for just a second, deciding whether it was big enough to keep, and then deftly remove the hook. A few went back into the water, but many found their way into the 5-gallon green pickle bucket that was her combination creel and seat. Within a few hours on any given afternoon, she’d fill the bucket half full and bring the fish home for cleaning and freezing. I never remember her going home empty-handed.
After a few trips, she decided that if I was going to become a competent angler, I needed to learn how to fish the right way. It was a time of tutelage that I’ll never forget. She showed me how to approach a pond bank by walking softly and keeping a low, nonthreatening profile, but most importantly, how to present my bait. I learned how to bait a hook with a wiggling worm that wanted to do everything but be impaled by a hook, and how to attach the bobber and gently cast my line. I remember she once scorned me, though softly, when I tried to cast out as far as I could reach. She told me that she never understood why people would stand on one side of a pond yet try to cast to the other side. Were the fish not on this side as well? She proved to me countless times that they were.
These days, my fishing rarely involves live bait of any kind, unless a friend and I are drifting live shad for landlocked stripers. And my arsenal of rods is coming close to matching a small forest. However, there are times when I may be fishing a small farm pond alone for bass, and my mind begins to wander, and I remember my beginnings as an angler. I can conjure up untold angling experiences that run the gamut from huge catfish as a high school student to serious angling for creek bass with a fly rod. But I think that as long as I can wade a creek, climb into a boat, or walk a pond’s bank, nothing will mean as much to me as those days nearly five decades ago, spending a summer afternoon with my grandmother leaned over my shoulder, watching as I held stiffly to the cane pole, watching the dance begin, and she would whisper to me, “Wait, let ‘em take it under.”
Eric Jaeger has been working in communications technology for 20 years. He and his wife live on an acre and a half in the countryside. He enjoys gardening, bird-watching, improving his golf game, and most of all, fishing.