By Jon Osborn, (first appeared in Sporting Classics).
Born between the two Great Wars, Grandpa Floyd was the eldest son of Dutch
immigrants. Growing up on a dairy farm during the Great Depression, he seldom went hungry, but luxuries were few and far between. He’d wake before dawn to the impatient lowing of cattle and collapse into bed well after dark, moving to the predictable, pastoral rhythms of farm life.
With WWII looming on the horizon, any red-blooded American was expected to sacrifice
and chip in, familiar territory for country boys like him, but when the draft notice arrived in 1943, Floyd blanched with fear. He hadn’t ventured beyond the county line before. Then again, these trying times literally required “all hands on deck” and he embraced his patriotic duty without complaint.
For the next 18 months, Grandpa and the crew of the USS Venus played hide-and-seek
with Japanese submarines and Kamikaze planes in the Pacific. Before then, he’d secretly
longed for a break from the monotony of farming but after months at sea, mucking out the stalls wasn’t looking so bad. When the Axis powers finally surrendered to Allied Forces in 1945, Grandpa stepped off the ship for good. But he hardly settled into a life of ease; the rigors of farm life demanded round-the-clock attention, even if fishing sounded far more fun.
"He was always in the barn or out in the field," my mother remembers. "The only day he
rested was Sunday, and even then, the cows needed milking before church." In spite of his
demanding schedule, Grandpa rarely complained; offering a toothy grin and a cheerful response instead: "Fine and dandy, slick and handy, can't be beat," he’d always say.
Optimism can take a man a long way down the rocky road of life, but flat tires and speed
bumps are inevitable. Such was the case in 1968 when two government officials rapped on the front door of the whitewashed farmhouse.
"The State needs your back-forty for the new highway," they announced, as if it were a
privilege. "I-196 will cut right through your pasture." This marked the second time Uncle Sam
had altered Grandpa's plans. Without the farm, he reasoned, there wasn't much use for cattle or combines, so he and Grandma sold everything for a song and bought a vacation home on Monterey Lake and a future in fishing. By then, Grandpa's passion for bluegills was rivaled only by his enthusiasm for Detroit Tigers baseball.
An ancient pontoon boat, bristling with rods and tackle, bumped against the railroad-tie
seawall out front, but Grandpa rarely fired-up the weathered Johnson outboard, no matter how much us kids pestered him. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that motor even ran. Maybe he’d simply had his fill of open water by then.
"No reason to fish anywhere else on the lake," Grandpa explained. "Right out there,"
he'd gesture with a work-worn hand, "is the honey hole. Those ‘gills are just waiting for an invite to dinner." Normally he fished with night crawlers, but he wasn't beyond wax worms or crickets either. He'd set-up shop in a faded plastic chair, balancing a Zebco spinning rod in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other. There he'd wait, heron-like, for his red and white "dobber" to dive for the bottom like a retreating German U-boat.
Watching that scene unfold fostered my own love of fishing. Even today, I grow fidgety when the water warms to that magical 69-degree-mark and platter-sized bluegills start spawning in the shallows. Grandpa was a live-bait angler through-and-through, but I gravitated toward bamboo rods and flies, forging my own path in the world of angling. Watching bluegills wallop foam spiders never got old, but our respective methods were potent reminders we were born of different eras. Although he never voiced it out loud, I suspect Grandpa viewed fly rods as fancy affectations rather than effective tools for putting food on the table.
"Catch as catch-can" was his motto, and he applied that mantra to fish and game alike.
Come harvest time, Grandpa cradled a full-choke 20-gauge across his lap as he rumbled across the field atop a pumpkin-orange Case tractor. During those forays, many a pheasant met an untimely demise, and never on the wing either. Fair chase or foul play, those gaudy roosters were dinner, plain and simple.
Grandpa's fishing followed a similar approach. The concept of catch-and-release was
unheard of, and he’d happily fill a wire basket until it bulged with pumpkinseeds and perch,
bullheads, and black bass. Bluegills were always tops, but meat was meat in the end. Only
lowly, red-eyed rock bass were spared from the fryer. "Mud bass," he'd mutter in disgust as he pitched them over the gunwale, insisting they tasted like silt."Have you ever tried one?" I once asked."Never needed to. Everyone knows those dirty buggers taste like mud," he replied.
I wasn’t so sure. One day, while fishing alone, I creeled some red eyes and decided to
test his theory. When no one was watching, I disguised the "mud bass" fillets beneath a generous coating of seasoned flour and fried them alongside the bluegills for dinner that night. "Nothing beats fried fish," I prompted, casually scooping a second helping of golden-
brown fillets. I maintained a decent poker face but chuckled inside at my trickery; "Deeee-licious!" Grandpa agreed enthusiastically."You can't beat bluegill, can you?" "No sir," I agreed with a crooked grin.
When the truth was revealed, he eyed me suspiciously from the corner of his eye, like a puppy who’d gnawed through a live strand of Christmas lights. Grandpa didn't fly fish, but he thoroughly enjoyed catching and eating bluegill. Among our most memorable meals together was a supper we shared at his house, just months before he died. By then he'd grown frail and hadn't fished in several years, so I was responsible for procuring "the meat."
Beaming at the platter of crispy fillets that evening, his blue eyes lit-up as he flipped
through a mental rolodex of fishing memories; recollections of countless fish caught and
creeled, hooked and lost. Joy was written all over his face.
"No mud bass in this batch," he winked. After he passed, I went fishing again. It was a muggy, mosquitoey evening – a sure bet for good fishing, according to Grandpa's wisdom.
The humid air smelled of summer and Deep Woods OFF - seasonal perfumes I'd grown to love. Rings widened over the glassy surface of the lake, proof that hungry bluegills were on the prod. Aside from the occasional thhhuk! of feeding fish, all was silent, save the subtle, swish-swish of fly line as my rubber-legged spider flew back and forth.
As the western sky softened from orange to pink to lavender, I felt like I could linger out
there forever. But time is fleeting; I knew it, and Grandpa knew it too. When the darkness
finally arrived, I’d ascend the steps toward the softly lit cottage upon the hill. For the time being, though, memories of Grandpa and the solid tug of a bluegill on the end of my line were all I needed.