Sighting the first robin, dogwoods in bloom or sandhill cranes lazily flying north signal the beginning of the much awaited spring season. Last week I witnessed one of the surest indications. Two young boys peddled their bikes along a rural road bordering Wildcat Creek. Gripping the handle bars, they each held a fishing rod in one hand and small tackle box in the other.
They never even winced as they rode over the bridge I was standing on. Once crossing the concrete span they dropped their bikes and began preparing their tackle. Without hesitation the boys quickly pulled the lid off a plastic butter container and began threading small garden worms on their small gold hooks. Steeped in tradition, this creek has been the birthing ground for thousands of budding young anglers.
“Watcha guys up to?” I asked, as they lobbed their baits into the olive colored water. “Fishing,” one said smartly, holding up his Zebco rod and reel, looking at me in disbelief that I had actually asked him that question.
As the baits neared the abutment the dance of the first bobber was short-lived as it bobbed once, twice, then began moving towards the center of the creek. “Got one!” one of them said, hoisting up a small creek chub as the sun reflected off its silver and green scales. As he released the fish, memories of my own childhood flowed to the surface. I recalled fishing with friends around that same bridge. We used to catch small rock bass, bullheads and those same creek chubs.
Another one of our favorite spots was a section of Wildcat Creek that flowed behind the old Joy-Ann Bakery which used to sit on the south-east corner of Washington and Superior streets. The number one fire station stands there now. I’ll never forget sitting on that shaded creek bank eating fresh baked cinnamon bread, still warm from the oven, while catching small sunfish. The only hand sanitizer was the creek water.
I remember when my brothers and I would also carry our own fishing rods as we peddled our bikes to several of our local streams. An old army store surplus backpack would be crammed full with peanut butter sandwiches, candy bars and a green plastic canteen filled with Kool-Aid. Before fishing trips we would gather to find bait. Garden worms were the most common and easiest to catch. Although we preferred slimy night crawlers, they were so much faster than the smaller worms and harder to catch as they always seemed to pull out of our fingers before retreating back into their holes.
The worms we did manage to catch were put in a small coffee can filled with black dirt and a little grass. We made sure to punch holes in the plastic lid so they could breathe. We took special care of our bait which is why the can of worms was always nestled safely between our food and drink.
As we got a little older, our day-long adventures turned into full-fledged camping trips. Things weren’t as complicated back then. In addition to the items already mentioned, the additional necessities needed were flashlights and a small pup tent.
We fished drainage ditches, small ponds and of course, our creeks. Plenty of small bullheads, creek chubs, goggle-eyes and the occasional bass fell for our baits. It didn’t really matter what we caught, as long as we caught fish. It was fun watching a bobber dance on a rippling surface while at the same time keeping a close eye on another rod, its tip propped up in the “V” of a forked stick pushed into the mud. Excitement ran high as we believed the “big one” would grab our bait at any moment.
The age we were allowed to make our first camping trips was about the same time we made that huge step from kid to teenager. But like most pre-pubescent adolescents, we considered ourselves adults, able to handle any of life’s challenges.
We didn’t know that one of our parents would secretly check on us from time to time, but for the most part, we were on our own. I remember how we’d get scared at night, but only a fool would have admitted it. It was even more foolish to be the first one to fall asleep! After all, boys will be boys.
Raised in Kokomo’s north-end, these special adventures were part of growing up - almost like a passage into manhood. For the most part, our parents didn’t worry about us because they knew we stood a better chance of getting into trouble hanging around the neighborhood. Back then, wetting a line was for the most part, serious business.
“Got another one!” said the smaller of the boys, jolting me from my daydreaming trance. This time a small green sunfish danced at the end of his line as he reeled it up past the old bridge.
“You boys be careful and good luck,” I said, walking back to my truck which sat parked at the road’s edge. Pausing, I turned around to face both boys. “By the way…Thanks.” “For what?” they both asked simultaneously with puzzled looks. “For helping me relive my own childhood”.