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Thread: Fishing the Tippicanoe

  1. #1

    Fishing the Tippicanoe

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    The Tippicanoe River, “the river of lakes,” joins the Wabash somewhere on its 225 mile journey on the outskirts of Lafayette, Indiana, the place of my earliest memories. It was here that William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh on the south bank of the river. He had cheated the Miami Indians out of millions of acres of land and tried unsuccessfully to establish slavery on it. We are fortunate that the last person to be President born a British subject had so short a tenure. He died after a month in office from a common cold before he could do any real harm. My battles were on a smaller scale and consisted of week-end excursions to fish this river.

    It was the mid 1950’s. While the greater world rang with Joseph McCarthy hearings, and black rock & roll groups leading white youth to perdition, I learned to cast a fly rod. My father, a professor at Purdue, had no patience to teach me. Before disappearing downstream for a day’s fishing he would demonstrate, “back to 2 o’clock, forward to 11 o’clock, then lay it down,” and then he was gone. The wind was not my friend and behaved as if it had been bribed to send my line into a tree. The rocks were not behindhand in this game and grabbed every fly I managed to get into the water. You would think they had mouths full of razor sharp teeth, seizing each fly and grinding it up before my line slackened and was released.

    The Tippicanoe is too warm to hold trout, but is otherwise as diverse a habitat as Darwin ever could have desired. Coarse fishing as the British styled it then and now, our prey was the smallmouth bass.

    “Inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims,” my father would often quote, thumping Doc Henshall’s 1889 Book of the Black Bass like a born-again-Christian and his bible.
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    My first rod was an 8 ft. club made of fiberglass by the Southbend Company. It was stiff and an ugly yellow color like bad cheese. My reel was a hand-me-down Medalist, large enough for salmon or steelhead which my father had bought 2nd hand on the hopes of future big game adventures. With these accoutrements I tackled the job of fishing, and most days was found wanting. My father would return after a day wading the river and would ask, “any luck?” Crestfallen, I would point to a Gordian tangle of my line and leader. It would be clipped and left on the bank (we did not know then about it fouling the nests of birds) and retreat to a fisherman’s bar for respite and a hamburger.
    * * *

    The War Canoe

    One particularly rainy weekend, I think it might even have been opening day of fishing season in 1958, we returned from the Wabash, cold, miserable and empty handed. My father was in a foul humor and had struck terror into me over my usual tangled line. We were driving along in an electrified silence in our 1950 Ford sedan when we passed a large white farm house, gray and weathered, like the kind of hideout ambushed by bounty hunters on tv. An 18 ft canoe was on the front lawn, resting on 2 saw horses. “For sale, $25, inquire within.” The canvas had numerous clumsy patches, injuries from rocks on ill conceived river ventures. It had been repainted several times with a dark green marine paint but still was a beautiful thing. It was an Old Town sailing canoe. This graceful vessel with its varnished wood was meant for the gentler usage of lakes. Its sailing rig had been lost and my father bought it on the spot with 2 battered paddles and an odd little anchor that looked like its first job had been a paperweight. After considerable bargaining it was ours for $20.
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    It weighed over a 100 pounds and I could not begin to hold up one end. I dubbed it the war canoe it since it began a war between my parents that continued through the rest of my child hood, an armistice only occurring when we sold it and moved east. Not long ago I went through a canoe and guideboat phase. I bought a used square stern 16 ft aluminum canoe with a smoky 2 horse Evinrude. I sold that and bought a Kevlar guideboat, which looks like a canoe but it has a keel and is rowed. When it blew into a tree I bought a magnificent wooden guideboat. I had looked for a restored Old Town sailing canoe and found one that was identical to ours, but instead of inspiring the sparks of excitement attendant upon such prospective purchases, it gave me an odd chilled sensation, and I never went to see it.

    From the time we bought the canoe, my mother was conscripted into all our fishing trips. As reluctant as a dog being taken to the vet, she would load the car with enough books for a snow-bound winter, an portable “plein air” easel with materials for painting and drawing, Balkan Sobranie Turkish cigarettes and to eat, preserved ginger (she never liked anything normal,) and bittersweet chocolate. My parents would lift the war canoe onto the top of the Ford, the ubiquitous cop car in 50’s film noir. They would struggle to secure it to a vehicle hopelessly wrong for the purpose, and together with my sister and Foxie, the fox terrier, we would set out like opposing camps mistakenly put in the same car bound for a conference at the UN. My sister did not object to these excursions on snobbish, intellectual grounds. She was a girlie girl and wanted to play tea party. Since none of us ever gave that idea a minute’s consideration, she played her games alone in the back of the car and on the shore of the lakes and streams we frequented. The one thing my sister and I shared was the conviction that when crossing a bridge, we had to sing in unison and at the top of our lungs the Mickey Mouse theme song. When we reached the other side, the song would end abruptly. I don’t know how this musical program came about, we certainly never discussed it. It was just a tacit musical bargain between us that could not be deterred by even the great power of the combined parental will.

    At the start of each fishing trip, Mother would set up her easel with the air of the first Indian chief sent to a reservation, and look daggers at my father. Her outdoor painting never came to much, and the most glorious landscapes were reduced by her to the murky blurs of abstract expressionism, a school she had seized upon like an angry manifesto. Fishing in a canoe is at best a precarious affair. Once launched, my father in the stern and me in the bow, we strove to stay upright and not hook each other. Frequently I was the cause of overturning the canoe. My balance was never good at the best of times, and bitter recriminations would follow. Until I had my own child I never realized what a perfect pattern my parents presented of what not to do, or rather how not to do it. A state forest should not feel like a detention center, and fly fishing for small mouth bass should not become a work detail.

    One mitigating fact stands out in my memory of this period, something oddly kind about my father. Whenever we were driving and saw a turtle crossing the road, he would stop the car. No matter how far back the turtle or how dangerous the traffic, he would always get to it and set it out of harm’s way at the side of the road after showing it to us. They were almost always box turtles, occasionally a wood terrapin and once a large painted turtle in search of a new bog. Today, if I see a turtle crossing the road, and they are much rarer now, I stop and briefly think of him.
    * * *

    Source of the Connecticut
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    The largest river in New England bi-furcated the world of my teens, a gash through the fabric of highways that surrounded Hartford like a maze. On trips south, north or east, we would cross it, or travel its banks as it carried the waste of Pratt & Whitney, Colt Firearms and Traveler’s Insurance out to sea. In the decade that I spent within a few miles of the river, I never once was on or in it, except the summer of my 15th birthday. School had been out for a few weeks when my father decided we needed to “get away.” Fishing gear and camping equipment were stuffed into the Volvo and we headed north. While the weather was warm for most trout stream fishing there were spring fed lakes near the Canadian border where huge rainbows loitered like roués in an air conditioned bar.

    The Connecticut, foul and unfishable at home, was narrow enough that I threw a rock across it when we made camp in New Hampshire. I think we tried to fish it, but by then the water was hovering around 720 and the trout were in a deep torpor.
    In the morning we caught eager young brookies in a tributary of the Connecticut and cooked them for breakfast. It is one of the few meals I remember eating in tranquility with my father. We floured and pan fried them, making a meal just on fish and coffee. There is nothing to compare with the flavor of wild brook trout, cooked the minute it comes from the stream. It has firm, delicate flesh with subtle flavor and nuance completely absent in the hatchery fish. They emerge from the water like the answer to an unsolvable problem, a mosaic come to life as if from the stones of the stream.

    This was to be my last fishing trip or real excursion of any kind with my father, since my parents divorced shortly thereafter and I sided against him. Children always end up taking sides and the lesser of evils was not hard to figure out. The trip was also of lasting importance to me, closing a mordant passage in my fly fishing evolution. Gone were my tangles on the bank. I waded easily, cast fairly well, and had a good feel for my youthful repertoire of trout flies: Hendrickson, March Brown, Rat Faced MacDougal, Royal Coachman, Professor, Silver Doctor, Wooly bugger, gold-ribbed hare’s ear. We had rented a boat for the evening and had gone out into the middle of a large New Hampshire lake.

    The sun was going down and we lit an old kerosene lantern in the bow. My father was casting furiously, to no avail, constantly changing flies and swearing. I decided to try a completely different approach. In the bottom of my fly box was a large white fly, I think it may have been a white Wulf. I tied on extra tippet and cast it out into the twilight. It sat, and it sat as my father cursed, “Son of a gun, this is murder, you S.O.B., Christ almighty…” After an eternity that was probably not more than 10 minutes I gave the fly a twitch and there was a splash. My rod was bent double as the fish dove with my line, trying to shake the hook. I played to exhaustion a 20 inch rainbow trout, as magnificent by lantern light as the treasure of an archeological dig. My father was beside himself. At last I had bested him and become my own man. It was the beginning of the end of his tyrannical reign.
    * * *

    David Bershtein
    Last edited by handifly; 04-15-2013 at 10:23 PM.

  2. #2 plankowner
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Southern CT

    A very interesting, visceral and thought provoking read.

  3. #3

  4. #4
    Hi, I just joined the forum and read your story, as with any good fishing story I was a little sad to come to the end of it . It was a great read thanks for sharing it.
    Craig from Tasmania

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