“When I was a kid there were creek chubs in a stream, I started with a stick, line and a Christmas tree hook…I was 3 years old.”
— Arthur Ahalt
Most called him, Clay.
I called him, Grandpa.
That’s him in the window, and me on the bench.
In this photo he is not blowing me kisses, instead he would, as he called them, always blow me wishes.
Various times in my young life he blew me wishes of being a pirate, a cowboy, a good boy who would eat carrots, or one who would quit falling in the pig slop.
He grew up on a farm in Canada, became “one of us” on Jan. 7, 1937 … I have his citizenship paper framed and on my wall. I was 30 years old before I realized that he “probably” wasn’t a jet pilot, train driver or had walked on the moon.
Summer Saturday’s Clay “would borrow the kid,” me, and we would go “fishing” at this exact Buffalo city dock.
I was 5 years old, all of his quotes come from the stories my grandmother, his wife, Tess, would tell me over the years. They were married for something like 35 years when he passed due to lung cancer.
I do remember this though, I was horrified as a little kid when he took a worm out of a cup and stuck a “needle,” hook, through it and tossed it into the Niagara River.
Grandma: “Clay came home all upset saying 'I might have ruined the kid, Tess. Donnie was crying saying I kilt the worm and how did I know if it could swim or not.'”
Frankly, I think I had a legit point, even if I was just 4 or 5.
The next Saturday when we went fishing, this is what he pulled out of his Sears tacklebox …
… I have to be honest here, this lure has always been called “The Lure Donnie Painted So He Wouldn’t ‘Kilt’ Any Worms” but me, being the aforementioned “Donnie,” doesn’t remember painting any little wood thing especially, especiallly if it had hooks hanging off it.
I just call this the Family Lore Lure.
I do remember this though … Gramps and me, nope, we never kilt another worm while fishing.
I also remember the feel of his callous hands as he gently wrapped them around mine to show me how to hold a fishing rod. I do remember watching him throw the lure so far that it would “land in tomorrow.”
I remember “dock splinters,” big trucks driving by and beeping their horns when they saw a big fish being held up, charcoal broiled hot dogs at a small shed named “Ted’s” under the Peace Bridge and stories that Gramps would tell of fishing as a little kid like me, “just over there,” as he would point to Canada across the river and smile.
Why we fish: Memories … childhood memories so special it takes a lifetime before we truly appreciate them.
Awhile back I went on social media and asked a very simple complex question, this: “Tell me your childhood memories of fishing.”
Many responded, and I picked these three friends, from stage left: Lowell Aberson, Nick Nichols, Ricky Haley.
They wrote me about their childhood, stories of family, friends and fishing. I don’t think that they know each other. I do know that they didn’t grow up near each other, with childhoods mainly in the South and Midwest.
I am going to post here bits and pieces of what they wrote. I did not edit any of it, kept their words as they wrote them, did not gently push them in any direction to reach any sort of conclusion or story flow.
But know this, after more than a dozen years on the road, all over this country meeting anglers, both pro and no, and listening and writing, I sort of in the back of my mind believed in what some may think is a heretical thought, this … deep down we may be more alike than we are different.
All, if not most, of us.
In hundreds and hundreds of conversations with friends and strangers I honestly smiled more than I frowned, Gawd's honest truth.
Seems that in some parallel universe a 5-year-old kid fishing on a rickety wooden graffiti smeared urban dock somehow had much the same thoughts and giggles as a child fishing the "crick" behind their family vacation cabin, or a Midwest kid with toes dangling in a pond and hoping to land a 5-pound bass.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
— John Muir
“That’s me the last kid on the left…
… I was one of nine kids in our family, grew up on a farm. During the summer our lives revolved around making the farm go! In addition to the year around chores like raising hogs and milking cows, we had many other duties to attend to. We had three huge gardens that required seemingly constant weeding and harvesting so that food could be preserved for the fall and winter.
At dinner, which is noon on the farm with the evening meal being supper, we would gather around the huge table and wait. After eating mom always read the Bible for our daily devotions and closed with prayer. When she was done, dad would stretch, light an unfiltered Camel and proclaim, you boys better go dig some worms. Chairs hastily scraped backwards, and the mission commenced.
We dug and the little brothers broke apart clumps of dirt and picked out all the juicy wigglers that we could find. We usually wound up with more than a dozen containers packed in a cardboard box because several of us figured that we needed our own special can of worms.
A bell sinker tied on the line above a small gold Aberdeen hook with a chunk of worm was hastily cast to the water; it was always a race to see who caught the first fish. It never took long and within a few minutes, someone would holler 'I got one!' These days were always a day that made everyone feel good and sure brought us all closer together.”
Hmmm, forgot about that kilt worm part.
“… made everyone feel good and sure brought us all closer together,” love what Lowell wrote there, know how true those simple 11 words are, sure know what they mean to me.
I was 5 when Clay died and yet 63 years later I still write about him, still get tears in my eyes when I do …fishing did that. Whether I fished or not it was the time spent on that urban dock that has never left me, nor does that childhood time seem to have left Lowell here either.
Take a moment, think back, you may have the same type of memories.
“Children learn more from what you are, than what you teach.”
— W.E.B. DuBois
“Some of the best times in my life…
… came on the banks of the Tennessee River on Wheeler Lake at my Grandfather’s cabin. A place my brother called, Pappaw’s River.
I remember well the early morning fishing trips that would end only when the smell of breakfast cooking filtered down the hill to the boat dock. I also learned some life lessons at Pappaw’s River.
One of these was the lesson of working for what you wanted and taking care of what you had. One of Pappaw’s rules was he would not pick up after us. If we left our rods, fishing tackle or anything else out when it was time to leave to come home, they became his. Then the next trip to the cabin he would come down to the dock and fish with his “new” rod or lures he found laying out the week before.
But little did I know as a young boy roaming the woods and trails at Pappaw’s River what this place would come to mean to me as I grew older. It became a place for me and my kids to go to rest and relax, a place where my kids started learning how to fish.
It became a place to go to heal, to grieve and even to start over in life. When we lost our Pappaw the river is where I wanted to go and remember him and what all I learned from him. It is where my wife and I were married, bringing two families together to start a new life together. When we lost my son, it is where I went to both grieve and heal.”
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
— Cesare Pavese
“I always gravitated to the water…
… I fished. I fished for catfish. I fished for bass. I fished for bream. I learned knots and baits. I would sit on the dock for hours just watching. When the sun would hit the water at the right angle I could watch how the bream would stalk a bug and then strike. I watched the bass just sit and wait till a school of shad would come just a little too close and then just bust on them. I was learning and did not even know it. It was my fish camp.
My dad, mom, grandfather and two uncles all fished and were vast wells of information and stories. I would sit for hours listening to their exploits and then dream of what mine would be like.
We have raised two daughters and I am proud to say that they are very capable in the outdoors. I have watched them show friends or a small child who has never fished what to do then laughed and cheered knowing that there is now someone else hooked on our great sport.”
“If you want children to continue dreaming to the moon and beyond, then dream with them, both by sharing your fervent dreams, and by diving heart first into their own.”
— Vince Gowman
And so last summer, myself and my buddy Mac, took my son, Jim, out on the Long Island Sound fishing, something he’s never done before and a little buddy trip before he got married the next week.
We hope to this summer repeat the trip, this time with my daughter, Ashley.
To be honest, I never had the opportunity to do stuff like this with my kids when they were small, I was always working, either gone, or packing to go, honesty again, I could be classified as a drive-by Dad, my wife will fill their memories.
You folks, Lowell Aberson, Ricky Haley, Nick Nichols, all those in the B.A.S.S. Nation and the Elites, and all of you I meet out there on the tour, the memories you share with me, I hope to play catch up and pass some on to my kids … you taught me that … and I thank you.
I hope as you have read the stories that you can have a responsive chord to a bit of one, a bit of another, see yourself or your family within these memories, see it as some small proof of how alike we all may be.
“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
— Oscar Wilde
I'll close with a quote from the lady who basically raised me, Clay’s wife, my Grandmother Tess.
I was asking her what Gramps liked to fish for, and where else he fished other than the dock we used to go to all the time, and if he loved fishing all his life.
Tess (smiling with teary eyes): “Oh Donnie (at the time I was 35 with kids) fishing, Clay … ha … most times he didn’t even bother to put a hook on the line. He had to borrow the fishing stuff, he didn’t own any of it except some green metal box he bought at Sears …”
“Um, what, but we …”
“… Donnie he didn’t love fishing, he loved you that’s why he took you. It was never about the fish, it was about all about you.”
Why we fish: Memories.