While most of my current fishing exploits involve “glamour fish” like salmon and trout, my boyhood in California was devoted to pursuing much humbler fare. During my summer vacation, I’d leave my hometown of Coalinga, a place with no fishing of note within 40 miles (or water either!), to visit my grandfather in the more fishing-friendly confines of Modesto. There was a lot more water in that area, plus orchards instead of cotton fields, and lots of fish to catch.
?We could head up to the Sierras and fish the alpine lakes for trout or troll or work a bobber in some of the lower level lakes for bass or pan fish, but most of the time we went out to his favorite spot on the San Joaquin River. The river was just a few miles from my grandparents’ little house, and I’d always bug my grandfather until he took me to the river.
My grandfather was one of the first members of the Old Fisherman’s Club, a little set of buildings and docks dedicated to the simple camaraderie of the time—bingo, mulligan stew and fishing. In the clubhouse was a faded picture of him as a youth, climbing the flagpole (he was a pole climber with Ma Bell) to put up their first Old Glory. While a lot of different kinds of fish swam in the river’s muddy waters, including salmon, striped bass and sturgeon, our best efforts were made to catch a mess of little catfish.
Most of our bites came from these whiskered little fish (rare was a cat over 12 inches) and the little striped bass that often played havoc with the carefully cut chunks of sardines Grandpa bought at the bait store (and bar). This stinky fish was purchased in a shoebox that the bartender filled with a fat sardine and a bunch of sawdust and ice to keep it from getting too soft! We’d get our bait, down a beer and soda for luck, and head to the Old Fisherman’s Club—a perfect day.
When my brother, Pat, and I had the opportunity recently to fish the dammed sections of the Snake River near Halfway in Eastern Oregon as part of our bear hunting adventure, we were excited to chase up a few catfish to renew the fishery of our youth. We had enjoyed great success with crappie and other pan fish and had even caught a few smallmouth bass and trout, but as our guide, Larry Cantrell, assured us, these catfish would be a bit different from those we chased in our youth.
??Unlike the fish near Modesto in the ‘50s, these fish came in several species. There were blue catfish, channel cats and flathead cats. All reached much larger sizes and could give an angler a heck of a fight. Preferred bait was not a little chunk of sardine or a worm but a much bigger fillet of another sort of fish, something that could appeal to a bottom-feeding monster of some size. Most fishing was done in the evening and we arranged to go out on the riprap of Brownlee Reservoir in the evening to give it a try. We put on a couple of ounces of lead, a circle hook and some 20-pound line!
It was a bit spooky climbing out to cast, since the rocky shore was notorious for rattlesnakes, and they were hard enough to spot in the daylight! We also had to attach little bells to our rods so as not to miss a strike in the darkness. I greatly regretted that I hadn’t brought along one of Ed Hope’s SmartRods. Those special night fishing outfits (we featured in an earlier column) would both give off an alarm and show us flashing lights. When old whiskers gave the bait a pull, the whole shoreline would know about it! I made a note to have Ed send a couple off to Larry to field test. I think they’d be perfect for late night adventures on these big, snaky waters. As it was, most times that we grabbed a rod, we knocked loose the warning bells, and then had to look for them in the rattler-infested rocks!
It took awhile for the fish to get busy. We enjoyed sharing stories with Larry and watching and listening to the wildlife on the mountains surrounding the fishing grounds. We saw a lot of deer and a couple of bears over on the Idaho side of the river, and enjoyed calling to a gobbler in the bush above us. But we couldn’t get too involved since the rods were getting active. We soon landed our first fish. While Larry insisted it was tiny, the 16-inch catfish was a big event for Pat and me! The biggest we had ever caught or seen was a couple of inches smaller that that fish. But better were coming soon.
Larry heard a fish “ringing” from around the corner and pretty soon my brother was having a pretty good tug of war. Larry soon dropped down the bank (look out fangs!) and emerged with a big cat of some eight pounds or so. While Larry insisted that this was just an average fish, Pat and I were overjoyed! It was a lovely light gray channel cat, fat and heavy! We celebrated for a while, and cleaned our fish. With fillets that were a lot more substantial than those of the crappie and pan fish we had enjoyed the morning before, we headed home.
Our only regret was that Grandpa couldn’t have enjoyed the evening with us, and that we didn’t have our SmartRods to save us the hassle of digging through the rocks for our bells! That storied old fisherman would have loved the big fish, and the stories told in his honor.
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.