It was my first fly rod, but it wasn’t a fly rod at all.
It was a willow pole (species unknown) that grew along the Vernon (West)
Fork of the Muscatatuck River west of Crothersville, my old home hometown
in good ol’ Jackson County.
As you may know, the Vernon Fork of the old Muscatatuck gets its start
in west-central Ripley County. It flows a southwesterly course through
Jennings County, then dips sharply to the south along the east boundary
of Jackson County to pass some two miles west of Crothersville. Ultimately
it joins the Muscatatuck River’s East Fork, which, in translation, meant
“Peaceful Water” to our red-skinned predecessors.
The East Fork starts as Big and Little Graham Creeks, a bit southwest
of Versailles. This river flows a gentle southwesterly course to become
the Jackson-Scott county line about two miles south of Crothersville. The
two forks converge about five miles north of Little York (Washington County),
and the main stem of the river continues westward to a confluence with
the East Fork of White River west of the town of Milport.
I offer the above to establish the fact that with the two forks of
the Ol’ Muskytuck (as she was known to some) passing our sleepy little
town some two miles to the east, south and west, and a scant 10 miles to
the north, it was a pretty good place to grow up, the more-so for a kid
who was bent in the direction of hunting and fishing.
One of my fond recollections of growing up at C-ville stems from the
fact that during the 1937 flood, our town was said to be isolated by flood
waters that covered even U.S. 31 and halted all arrivals and departures.
I had a smug little feeling of self-reliance about that even though some
of the town fathers were concerned that it the need should arise, we would
be unable to get anyone to a hospital.
Shucks!” I thought. “Nobody wants to go to a hospital, anyhow (strong
evidence that I was more concerned with those willow poles.)”
Whether or not the willows that grew at water’s edge along a half-mile
stretch of the west fork (also known as the Big Dredge Ditch) were a species
of their own, I could not say. My interest at the time centered on their
great value as fishing poles.
I have looked for willows of their slender, whip-like characteristics
every place I have found willows since. But no other willow--anyplace or
anytime since--can measure up to them. They grew 10 to 12 feet tall, their
big (butt) ends no greater in diameter than my thumb, and tapered, almost
without limbs, to the thickness of a match stem at the tip.
In those days my fishing paraphernalia amounted to the hooks, wrap-on
lead sinkers fashioned from flattened rifle bullets, and lengths of a black,
braided fishing line done up it neat little individual skeins, some kitchen
matches for starting fires, and small amounts of salt and pepper tightly
wrapped in little packets of paper.
I preferred a pole about eight feet long because if they were longer
they also were heavier. After all, I had to hold those poles a good part
of my waking hours. I would tie a skein of line a foot or so loner than
the pole to the pole’s tip, then tie a small wire hook (a hook with a gap
of only a bit more than one-fourth inch) at the other end of the line.
A popular hook in those days was made of wire, had a gap of less than
one-fourth inch, and a shank of about an inch. The shank and bend of this
hook would hold a lot of bait. My rig was completed by wrapping a small
strip of lead onto the line six inches or so above the hook, just enough
to take my baits to the bottom of the swift water.
Two or three-hundred yards above the Dredge Ditch Bridge the river escaped
a long hole of deep water and skirted large banks of water willow (a wild
plant, not a tree) that grew in the shallows to provide great cover for
a variety of fish, including red-belly sunfish (long-eared sunfish) as
big as the hand, and largemouth bass.
Nearly half a mile downstream the fast water dropped again into a long,
deep hole that stretched almost uninterrupted all the way to the Twin Bridges.
To further enhance my scenario of joy, construction of the old iron
bridge had left some big (but moveable) rocks in the water, not to mention
some riprap rocks that extended into the water to eliminate the threat
of damage to the riverbanks or footings of the bridge.
Crayfish, hellgrammites (larval stage of the dobsonfly),
and other insect larvae lived under and on the rocks to offer an endless
supply of bait. Larval stages of the insects and whole craws (soft or hard
and of varied sizes) or the white meat of their tails was as good a bait
as a kid (or a fish) could want. Still, as summer and fall came on and
terrestrial insects reached adult stage, they too were hot commodities
Smoking tobacco for both pipes and “roll-your-own” cigarettes (Prince
Albert, Half-And-Half, and other brands) came in flat little cans with
hinged tops that fit neatly in a back or shirt pocket and the empties proved
to be grade-a bait containers. They housed everything from night crawlers
and garden worms to assortments of the others. At one point the Half-And-Half
folks even sold their product in a telescoping can that echoed the company
name. It was a popular bait box.
With my fenderless bicycle stashed in the roadside brush, my pole cut
and rigged, and my bait caught (at least enough to start fishing), I would
enter another world.
Standing knee-deep in the water on the shallow side, I would cast my
offerings half fly rod, half pendulum style upstream and allow them to
settle at the edge of the beds of water willow on the deep side. As the
current swept my bait past the weeds, I would watch my line at the point
where it entered the water. When my line paused, or started moving upstream,
I would set the hook and my pole would become a buggy whip.
I would be lost in the sunshine.