From the very beginning, my 10-year-old friend Eddie and I were as infatuated with the process of catching bait as we were in catching fish. Our typical fishing expedition, in fact, was so handicapped with jars, cans, boxes, and buckets of wiggly things it was difficult to find room on our bikes for our tackle. Seldom did we leave my yard for the Little Spokane River without at least a few hellgrammites, a jar of grasshoppers and of course – a big coffee can of nightcrawlers.
For us, gathering bait provided an excuse for being outside the entire spring and summer, gave us direction, and kept us wet and dirty – positive, consequential considerations, despite our mothers’ notions to the contrary. Nothing else made us feel quite so free as plunging recklessly into the Little Spokane River in search of crawdads, and easing a seven-inch nightcrawler from the back lawn at midnight under the dim approval of a dying flashlight was exhilarating.
Our procurement of bait was divided into two categories – plucking and trapping. Minnows, beetles, and crickets were trapped. Worms, nightcrawlers, maggots, grasshoppers, periwinkles, and frogs were plucked. Crawdads and hellgrammites could be taken either way, though we preferred to pluck them.
Sometimes, Eddie and I modified our plucking techniques, especially for grasshoppers, which had a greater tenacity for life than your average earthworm or maggot. A worm or maggot would just lie there when we kicked over a pile of rotting manure or a long-expired cat. “Oh, oh,” they’d say. “See what happens when you hang around for dessert!” Then, they’d roll their little invertebrate eyes and give up. Grasshoppers, though, were always looking to escape. You had to be quick to get a grasshopper.
One year, right around the Fourth of July, Eddie and I, a jar of grasshoppers and several other containers of live bait accompanied Eddie’s father, Max, to Eloika Lake for the weekend. Eddie and I paddled about in a yellow, two-man raft, dunking worms for small perch and sunfish, turning over logs for hellgrammites and generally “fishing” the way we always did. His dad was bass fishing on the other side of the lake.
“How’d you kids do?” Max asked as he nosed his rented 12-foot rowboat into the dock at lunchtime.
“Great!” Eddie and I exclaimed in unison. “Two perch, four sunnies, eight hellgrammites, and three frogs,” I said. “How ‘bout you?”
Max smiled broadly, reached into a metal cooler at his feet, and withdrew the biggest fish I had ever seen – a four-pound largemouth bass. Then, he lay the fish on the wooden boat seat, reached into the cooler again, and withdrew one at least two pounds larger.
I was speechless. Eddie had to suppress a gasp. “Get ‘em on a frog?” he finally squeaked.
“A Heddon,” his father said.
“A Heddon?” I questioned. “Is that some kind of minnow?”
“I guess you could call it that,” Max replied, “but this one is made of wood.” He held up a plug with treble hooks. The back half was white and the front half was red.
“You caught those fish on that?” I asked incredulously.
“Those and a bunch of smaller ones I let go,” he said. “If you boys want to give it a try, I’ve got more plugs.”
Eddie and I went out with his father that evening, and we did, indeed, catch some nice bass. From then on, we started adding plugs, spoons, spinners and jigs to the Roi Tan cigar box that had once held only hooks, sinkers and bobbers. It was the end of an era. Eddie’s dad said we were getting “more sophisticated.” It was kind of sad, really.
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