Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
In the Beginning…
Young boys and fishing seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. The problem is that fishing also goes along with fishhooks, like bologna and cheese. Worse still, fishhooks and perforated skin also seem to go together, like bulls and china shops.
My twelfth summer was the first in which I spent a lot of time out on the trout streams by myself, or with companions nearer my own age; always before that I had the benefit of a wise and beneficent father, who kept me from getting tangled up too badly in barbed, pointy objects of recurved steel. This summer, however, my main fishing companion became the thirteen-year old local miscreant and walking disaster, a fellow named Jon. Jon had recently attained the magic age of thirteen, and now possessed the assured wisdom of being, officially, a Teenager. His wisdom did not extend to extracting fishhooks, or even to preventing fishhooks from being emplaced in his (or my) anatomy.
Problem was that Jon was a bit clumsy; turning thirteen had come hand in hand with a growth spurt of vast proportions. Seemingly overnight he shot from four feet eleven to five feet ten, with hands and feet expanding to the size of canoe paddles. This was a recipe for awkwardness unlike anything we’d seen before.
A bright June morning found us making a three-mile hike through the hills to a favored spot on Bear Creek a mile short of the Upper Iowa River; smallmouth bass found their way up the large, slow creek from time to time, and fat trout lounged in the deep pools. Several of the large pools were favored fishing spots; we set up on the bank of one large, deep, still stretch, across from a limestone cliff face alive with chittering cliff swallows. Trout were rising in the early sunshine, and all was well with our world.
“I know just what to use,” Jon assured me, tying a #2 spinner to his line. This spinner had a triple hook on the tail and another right behind the spinner blade; Jon promptly got one hook in his thumb, and another in his index finger.
“Ow! Hey, help me out here!”
Jon wasn’t the sort to suffer in silence. A series of yelps, barks and shouts accompanied my efforts to extract the spinner from Jon’s flesh. As the positioning of the hook made it necessary to lean over Jon’s hand, all of the various epithets were directed into my left ear at the range of about twelve inches. What’s worse, Jon had a set of lungs that enabled people to hear him a good mile downwind; I was subjected to the approximate noise level of a jet airliner on takeoff.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!?”
When I finally started to actually try to get the hooks out, things got worse.
The yelping, barking and shouting was heard at incredible distances. The caretaker at the Girl Scout camp about a mile off later reported hearing horrible sounds, as though someone was skinning a pack of wildcats, live. Old Amos Shepherd was tending a sick heifer when the caterwauling reached his farm three-quarters of a mile upstream. His dairy herd of Jerseys stampeded, no doubt thinking a pack of freshly skinned wildcats was closing in; the only way Amos saw to avoid being trampled was to grab a passing cow’s tail and hang on for dear life. Unfortunately for Amos, the Jerseys’ could run much faster than his 72-year old frame was equipped to keep up with; this resulted in his being practically airborne for the duration of the stampede. Folks living on the lower Bear Creek road were treated to the sight of a herd of Jerseys charging flat-out down the road, with a skinny old man joining in on the stampede, clinging on to one cow’s tail for dear life and running in incredible ten and twelve foot bounds.
After about fifteen seconds, during which we were unknowingly surrounded by panic and chaos, I finally worked the hooks loose and handed Jon back his spinner.
“Try to be a little more careful!” I admonished him. Jon rubbed his bleeding hand, wincing. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it” he assured me.
To his credit, Jon managed to get this spinner tied on without further incident. Stepping to the bank overlooking the pool, he let out a little line, drew his old spinning rod back, flicked it forward with a practiced flip of the wrist – and sunk the hook in the back of his head.
Jon wasn’t the only kid to have difficulties wish needle-sharp fishhooks. We all faced the necessity of extracting a barb from one portion of our anatomies or another, sooner or later. And the worst of all fishhook injuries were, of course, not self-inflicted. No, for when you feel the hook sink into your own flesh, you can stop its progress; when someone else sinks it into your cringing soft tissue, you have no control over their mistaken belief that they’ve just tied into a four-pound trout.
And that brings me to Wimpy Neidert.
There’s Always A Townie.
Every school seems to have a kid like Wimpy. Our version was, at twelve years of age, roughly five foot three, and just about as wide as he was tall. Topping the roly-poly frame was a pudgy, freckled, amiable face with Coke-bottle glasses, topped by a tangle of blistering red hair. Wimpy wasn’t often found along on our outdoor excursions; couches and television were more his forte, usually accompanied by a large bag of cheese puffs and a dozen or so cans of pop. In fact, Wimpy had difficulty walking farther than the distance from his parent’s house in town to the bus stop; he arrived at the stop red-faced and wheezing.
In other words, Wimpy wasn’t material for the Presidential Physical Fitness Program. Needless to say, Jon and I were a bit surprised to find Wimpy accompanying us on our annual trip to the Upper Iowa River for the early summer sucker run. Wimpy would have preferred to stay home, in fact, and eat cheese puffs while watching television; but a trick of history intervened.
Wimpy’s father and Jon’s dad were best friends. They had gone to school together, joined the Army together, went to Vietnam together, and were to that day frequently seen together imbibing cold beers in various local watering holes. Wimpy’s father wasn’t pleased with his son’s rotund frame and slothful outlook; as we discovered later to our chagrin, Jon’s Dad volunteered our services to take Wimpy out fishing, “to get him out in the fresh air.” Both Dads agreed it would do Wimpy good to tag along with us; we weren’t so sure. The sucker run was beginning, though; we had a nighttime outing planned to go snag suckers; it was too late to back out now.
And so it came to pass that late one Friday evening Jon and I were pushing our old bikes along the lower Bear Creek road towards the Upper Iowa, ambling along in the growing darkness as Wimpy puffed along behind us, astride his ancient coaster bike, accompanied by a host of groaning, creaking and squeaking sounds. Wimpy’s bike was making some noise as well.
It was close to ten o’clock by the time we arrived at the river. Jon and I were disgusted at the delay, but we waited patiently as Wimpy, gasping, parked his bike, arranged his fishing gear, and finally followed us down a fifty-yard trail, over a wooden style spanning a barbed-wire fence, and across a cow pasture to the river.
The surface of the river was as smooth as glass in the moonlight, the mirror-like surface broken here and there with the ripples caused by large white suckers cruising just below the surface.
The sucker run was an annual tradition. Every year, in spring and early summer, white suckers ascended smaller streams from the Mississippi to spawn. Living in the rich, silty Mississippi enabled some of the suckers to grow to prodigious size; ten-pounders were routine, twenty-pounders not unheard of. Since the single-minded fish didn’t feed much while spawning, we pursued them with snagging gear, heavy bait-casting rods with twenty-pound line, tipped with huge treble hooks cast inside lead weights. The trick was to cast past the ripples in the river, and bring in the hook in jerks, bouncing it along the bottom, hopefully to snag in the sides of a large sucker.
This, of course, was a recipe for disaster with Wimpy along.
We split up there on the bank of the river. Wimpy, still red-faced and wheezy, stayed put; I went upstream a hundred yards or so, and Jon opted to try his chances downstream an equal distance. Silently, in the darkness, we made our way to our fishing spots.
The night was cool, the stars twinkled overhead in the velvet-black sky, from the hill above the river a hoot owl called once, twice, and then dropped down the hillside to whisshhh by ten feet over my head. Magical evening. I cast and yanked, cast and yanked, and on my third try hooked into a reasonable sucker; in a few moments I had the six-pound fish flopping on the bank.
Downstream, Jon was having less luck. Repeated efforts yielded not one fish; at his chosen spot the water was a bit deeper, and the bottom-hugging fish left no revealing ripples on the surface. Not one to be defeated by a primordial fish with the brain the size of a chick-pea, Jon redoubled his efforts, yanking the hook vigorously along the bottom. A small crowd of cows started to gather behind him on the bank, their curiosity piqued by the spectacle.
In between, unknown to either Jon or me, Wimpy was finally beginning to enjoy the evening. His tackle box contained no fishing gear. Wimpy settled himself on the steep dirt bank, feet dangling over the water, and extracted from his box a bag of cheese puffs, a bottle of pop, a flashlight, and the latest Captain America. He had just settled in for a nice read when the bank gave way, landing him with a loud splash in the river.
Upstream, I heard the splash, and thought little of it. Cattle were grazing up and downstream from us; loud splashes are not uncommon when cattle are near water. Downstream, Jon heard the splash, thought, “beaver,” and noted the location in order to return with a few traps the coming fall. Wimpy landed in about three feet of water and came up spluttering. Then, with a panicked start, he noticed his cheese puffs bag floating away downstream on the current. Grunting his annoyance, Wimpy splashed away in pursuit.
As it would happen, Jon chose that moment to try another spot, a few yards upstream at the top of a steep bank where the river undercut the shore. The cows followed; cows rarely get any sort of entertainment, and so are easily amused, even at the sight of a boy trying to snag a sucker.
They were about to get the show of their lives.
Jon, on the high bank, couldn’t see the river well in the darkness. He hadn’t been able to see any telltale ripples before anyway, so nothing lost; he began anew his routine of casting and yanking, casting and yanking. A splashing sound intruded on his senses; he wrote it off as a cow. He wasn’t far off in that assessment.
Wimpy had pursued his cheese puffs bag downstream, finally catching up to it in a swirl of water where the river undercut a high bank. Reaching out a pudgy hand, he snagged the fugitive snack. An odd sensation then; something slowly slid up his left leg, feeling oddly like… like… twenty-pound fish line.
On the bank, Jon was bringing in his triple hook again, rod tip bouncing up and down in vigorous, slightly annoyed jerks.
Wimpy felt the line riding up higher, now past the knee. The full implications hadn’t sunk in yet; he froze in indecision.
Jon felt a slight resistance on his line. He lowered the rod tip, gave a slight yank, felt the resistance again.
Wimpy felt the line now past the thigh; he still hadn’t quite figured out what was going on. He was about to find out.
Jon grinned to himself in the darkness; visions of ten-pound suckers filled his head. He lowered the rod tip, took in a little slack with the reel, braced his thumb tight against the spool, and gave,
The huge, lead-weighted triple hook leaped clear of the bottom of the river, gaining speed, propelled by the springy tip of Jon’s fishing rod, sped on its way by Jon’s young, strong arms, his muscles hardened by a youth spent tossing hay bales and wrestling dairy cattle. The line sang as it ripped clear of the water; the hook, still gaining speed, rose, sped towards its unintended target, to sink itself not in a ten-pound white sucker, but directly into the crotch of Wimpy’s cut-off painter’s pants.
Jon, feeling the hook hit something solid yet slightly yielding, leaned his weight into the rod to set the hook deep. And set the hook he did; two prongs penetrated deep indeed, ripping through denim and cotton to find the most sensitive portion of Wimpy’s anatomy, while the third ripped through to sink itself in the bottom end of Wimpy’s zipper, and to anchor itself there as though set in concrete.
No breaching whale ever rose from the water more impressively than Wimpy broaching from the Upper Iowa that night, propelled by the agony of the two needle-sharp prongs impaling the Neidert family legacy. On the bank above, Jon recoiled in horror, faced with what was either a red-haired, screeching whale broaching unaccountably from the shallow river, or a red-tipped missile fired from an unseen enemy submarine somehow concealed in the river. Jon engaged reverse gear and hit the gas; he proceeded exactly three feet before colliding with a curious Holstein.
The cow reacted as cows do, butting Jon in the small of the back with some force, sending him stumbling forward, over the bank, into the river; he went down the bank as Wimpy went up. Somehow, he had the presence of mind to hang onto his fishing rod. He landed in the river with a loud splash and surfaced just in time to be yanked back up the dirt bank face-first.
Wimpy had cleared the high bank in one phenomenal surge, and set off across the pasture, wailing in agony, trying to flee the impaling points. Before Jon could react, the line went taut, yanking him over the bank and dragging him through a thin line of trees into the open pasture.
Upstream, I heard the initial scream, followed by a series of splashes; I reeled my hook in and made for the open pasture myself. There I was greeted by an incredible sight.
Wimpy was charging across the pasture, screeching like a banshee; about twenty feet behind him was Jon, skidding face down through the pasture, hands clenched on his fishing rod. Wimpy hit the fence at the end of the pasture, rebounded with an audible TWANG from the barbed wire, and reversed course. Jon was carried along, airborne briefly in a half-loop as Wimpy set off for the opposite end of the pasture. Fascinated, the cows clumped along behind. I winced as I saw Jon dragged face down through a series of fresh cowpats. I had to do something.
“JON!” I shouted. “STOP HIM!”
Summoning a terrible strength from somewhere deep within, Jon managed to flip himself over, get his feet under him, and haul back on the rod. Wimpy fought like the lunker he was, but in the end a final yank from Jon stopped him, cringing and sobbing, in his tracks. Wimpy dropped like a poleaxed steer.
I approached cautiously. Wimpy was on the ground, moaning, both hands clasped over his nether regions. Jon was muttering words that would have earned him a clout from his mother as he knelt next to Wimpy; at first I thought he was examining Wimpy in concern for his injuries, but as I drew closer I saw that Jon was using Wimpy’s shirttail to clean cowpat off his face.
“Think he’ll be OK?” I asked Jon.
“If he has any kids, they’ll be stupid.” Jon replied.
“Big surprise there, huh?” I grinned at Jon. He flicked a bit off cowpat off his ear. The Holsteins gathered around, their eyes wide. They hadn’t had this much fun in years.
The journey home was less than pleasant. In the lead, Wimpy walked, or rather waddled, with shrieks of agony at regular intervals; neither Jon nor I professed the expertise to perform the necessary extraction. Jon followed, answering every shriek with a shouted imprecation. I brought up the rear, a good twenty yards back, the better to avoid Jon’s rather strong barnyard odor.
It took a long drive to town to the local Emergency Room to finally extract the hook and thus ensure the continuity of the Neidert line, but Jon and I weren’t there to see it. Breaking free as soon as we delivered Wimpy to his father at Jon’s house, we headed off to an upper stretch of Waterloo Creek near the Hooper farm for a bit of nice relaxing midnight trout fishing.
There, on the moonlit creek bank, all was peaceful. Jon looked over at me, grinned, and drew his rod back to cast. He flicked the rod tip forward briskly, lodging his spinner’s hook firmly in his left ear.
“OWWWW!!” Jon yelped. “Hey! Help me out here!”
I was already half-way home.