In mid July of 1956, I was ready to enter third grade and my brother, Keith (Keeter), was all set to become a first grader when we were ready to enter the hallowed halls of Blair Branch Grade School a few short weeks later.
In the meantime, we had 10 days of vacation to enjoy at our Uncle Jim’s and Aunt Alpha’s home at Uz (pronounced You-zee) situated there, in Letcher County on the bank of the north fork of the Kentucky River.
You may find it difficult to believe that an 8 and a half year old boy can retain a lot of memory into his 70 year-old self, but I assure you, the memories of that vacation are more firmly etched in my mental being than a lot of stuff I did last week.
For example, I have no idea where I put my leather pipe tobacco pouch last Friday. I’ve been looking for it ever since. Ask me where Uncle Jim’s shiny Shakespeare, fiberglass, bait casting rod and reel was placed in July of 1956, 63 years ago, and I can spend a paragraph telling you the exact spot where it was located in his thick-walled, cut-stone, utility building. I can also tell you that he had three other rods with black Bakelite and metal reels, mounted on short spring-steel rods, stacked beside the high-end Shakespeare and that one of them was made by Ithaca. Half a dozen bamboo river cane fishing poles were propped up outside the building because they were far too long, 10 or 12 feet, to fit inside.
There may have been such things as spinning reels and plastic, monofilament, fishing line on the market in 1956, but they had yet to have any appeal to Uncle Jim. By the early 60s he had Zebco 33s and Johnson Century spinning reels with matching rods, but on that magical vacation of 1956 the line was braided “cat gut” line on bait casting reels that had scant utility for two little boys.
We were allowed to use the rods and reels, but only if we got the tangles out of the line every time it back-lashed and made “crow’s nest” inside the reels. That happened every time we tried to make a cast. The untangling could take up to an hour, unless we sneaked around and enlisted help from Aunt Alpha.
She would say, “Now don’t tell your Uncle Jim, cause I’m not supposed to be doing this. You have to learn yourself.” Then she would untangle, in less than a minute, the mess we’d made. She also showed us how to lay the rods down, gently pull out 20 feet or so of line and coil it up on the river bank. Then we’d take the baited hook and sinker and heave it out into a fishing hole. I caught a few red eyes (rock bass) using that technique but it seemed more trouble than it was worth.
Keeter and I spent most of our time wading a long, shallow, gravel-covered shoal that was probably 400 feet long and stretched from the back of their house to a place where automobiles and horses could drive or wade across the river. If we ventured upstream of the house or below the crossing, wading and/or fishing would be over for that day. I don’t recall ever getting caught on such a trespass but I’m sure I must have tried because that’s just the way I was and still am.
We would spend mornings, then the hot hours of the day, Keeter on one side of the seine and yours truly on the other, searching for soft crawdads and grampus (hellgrammites) as we kicked up small rocks and gravels where the bait might be hiding. Ten hours of bait catching netted us two hours fishing in “the big hole” with Uncle Jim and/or Aunt Alpha from after supper until dark.
Uncle Jim would tell as that a grampus was as good as having a bass on the stringer if we could get it on a fish hook. He was deathly scared of them because they would pinch and bring blood. I can recall grabbing them by the head with pliers while he quickly got the hook baited.
By the end of that vacation, I had given up on the fishing rods and decided the long cane poles had far more utility if I really wanted to catch fish. I caught my first small mouth bass on one and broke the pole trying to land another one. Those heart pumping, adrenalin rushes, from the summer of 56, left me forever addicted to the fishing habit
If Mr. Parkinson would cooperate, I would be on a creek bank right this minute.