The word “fishing” in my day had several meanings. There was the pole fishing with a cane pole and a store bobber that the city folks used. Then there was the homemade braided thread line, the cork from a discarded whiskey bottle and a sinker that looked a lot like a nut from Dad’s shop. The pole in this case was a freshly cut willow sprout. And none of that commercial bait either: A can of freshly dug worms from the coffee-ground soaked soil around the north well, or some night crawlers caught as they tried to cross the new cement driveway did very well.
Then there were the fishing nets. Dad had one that he set at the mouth of Paul’s creek. It was a hoop net with several round wooden loops that held a woven net through two funnels to reach some rotten corn that made good bait, but the fish would be unable to find the narrow reversed funnel and find the way out, and so were available when the net was lifted the next morning.
The homemade fish trap was a more permanent type of net, although it was usually made from chicken wire over a hickory frame. Dad had a couple of these and once caught Waldo Brian helping himself to a catch one morning. Waldo admitted that he had found the trap an easy way to get a few pond fish without the bother of catching them.
But the big fishing event was when several of the uncles and aunts would converge on the Piper farm and all the men folk, and some of the more adventurous girls, would don old shoes and overalls and head for the creek to “hog” ’em out. The first thing they did was to set a string seine across the creek under the bridge so any fish driven down would not find refuge in the water lilies that grew so profusely on the east side of the bridge. They would then go up Paul’s creek about to the Sumner and Chauncey Roads and get in the water, maybe ten grown-ups and boys (me included), and walk or wade in the water with their hands down to feel the fish as they were found. They walked slowly and didn’t splash nor talk so they just sorta drifted along and you could touch a big old buffalo, run your fingers up his side and poke your fingers into his gills and yank him out, and throw him into a gunny sack that someone was dragging along in the water and go for another. How some of those girls would squeal and break the code of silence when they felt a fish for the first time, but they soon became even better at the job than the menfolks. It is unbelievable that fish will allow a person to catch them this way, but they did. We called it “hogging,” but there were half-a-dozen other names this form of fishing went under.
One thing you had to watch for was finding a big catfish and getting stuck with those bayonet-like fins. You soon learned to tell the slick skin of the cat from the fish with scales.
By the time the group had reached the big steel bridge, the gunny sack would be full and running over with “keepers,” as many of the catch would be thrown back for future catching, or because they were “rough” fish, like the Hickory Shad that was so full of bones it could not be eaten. This was in the days when Muddy Creek was really unlike its name; the waters were clear and the pond lilies were beautiful this time of the year. Once in a while, you would step in a cast-off tin can that someone had carelessly tossed in after emptying it of bait. Old beer bottles were common, as the grove at Muddy Creek was a great place to hold parties, and “home-brew” was not an unknown beverage, but careless clutter like the pollution of today was unknown.
The deep holes of Muddy Creek were wonderful places to swim. The bottom of the creek was blue mud, swept bare and hard where the current was the swiftest. The water there was always twenty degrees colder than the air and it was here the bass and better sun fish could be found.
Because the water was so clean, the fish were excellent quality: Even the carp stayed firm and sweet far up into August. There were many mussels snagged by the “hoggers.” Mussels were good only for their shells, as there was not enough sand to cause a grain of it to irritate the mussel into coating it with material to form a pearl. Some ambitious fellows would catch a wagon load every two years and sell them to a buyer from Vincennes for good money.
Oh, yes. We would snag several snappers during the “hogging” operation. They were almost always thrown back, but a few “soft-shell” turtles were saved and we would have a week of turtle soup and fried turtle. Turtle is very good, if you don’t know what you’re eating.
Snakes? Naw! The few water moccasins we saw lit out for higher ground and they were the only ones we were worried about.
After dividing up the catch, we would often have a big fish fry with all the trimmings. My mother had a giant skillet that was used to fry fish and chicken in. She would bring that out, and also a huge cast iron one, and they would be half filled with fresh lard and heated on the laundry stove in the summer kitchen (to keep the heat out of the house). The fish would be descaled and cleaned. Who had ever heard of “fillet” in those days? The smaller ones were usually left whole. They were dipped in a mixture of egg and cream and rolled in corn meal, and then fried to a crispy golden brown. The whole fish would be so tender that the bones were edible. Fresh fried fish, homemade bread, and real butter, all washed down with real churned buttermilk is a feast fit for any king. FC
The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newpapers in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.