April was the traditional start of fishing season here in the mountains, a chance to dip a line after a long winter off the rivers and creeks in the area. My family participated in that annual ritual, and being a family of outdoorsmen enjoyed it, but Daddy decided he’d try a shortcut: Become a trout farmer.
We had a gulch at the edge of the garden with a small branch running through it.
The gulch itself had suffered the fate of many mountain gulches in prior decades, having become a dumping ground for old appliances back in the days before landfills and garbage pickup.
Nothing had been actually dumped in it for probably 30 years before I came on the scene, and most of what had been dumped had deteriorated.
What was left was mainly an interesting collection of old bottles that had held concoctions such as liniment and Witch Hazel, and I would imagine possibly some stronger stuff here and there.
At any rate, the dump wasn’t much of a dump. What trash we did have we burned in a spot across the branch. Years later at an Editorial Board meeting where the sins of littering and refuse was being discussed, it occurred to me maybe we were too poor to have garbage.
More likely the case was, in the words of Cecil Grove of Southwestern Community College fame, “Eat it up. Wear it out. Make do. Or go without.”
Live like that and you don’t generate much garbage.
Anyway, we had a gulch with a branch running through it just sitting there, and opportunity called.
Daddy’s first trout farming experiment was to block the branch and let it fill up in a small pond, whence hatchlings were deposited. The plan was off to a rousing start until the scent of the fish ran down the branch into East Fork Creek, luring ravenous water snakes from, I’d guess, all the way to the Mississippi. We were overrun and in short order our trout farm went bust.
Not to be deterred, Daddy, a carpenter by trade, fashioned large fish boxes with metal mesh wire.
The mesh was small enough for the fish food to get in but not large enough for the larger water snakes.
On a typical day there would be one or more laying atop the screen, eyeballing the trout like a kid with his nose pressed up against a department store Christmas display.
So, we were back in business, and the whole scheme worked surprisingly well.
But as these things go, the episode did not pass without a dose of drama. Or trauma.
I was in college when the fish farming era was upon us, and in my stint as editor of the student newspaper I’d often get home barely before dawn. Daddy was a get-up-and-go sort, and these two characteristics meet a confluence one morning after he’d been up to go to wherever it was he purchased the fish.
I’d been asleep maybe 10 minutes when Mother, who could throw a panic with the best of them when appropriate, was suddenly shaking me yelling “THE FISH ARE DYING! THE FISH ARE DYING!’’
Daddy had tried to wrestle a 50-gallon drum full of new trout out of the back of his truck and had tipped it, spending fish spilling all over the driveway.
If you ever get a chance, try going in under 30 seconds from a dead-to-the-world sleep to scooping up handfuls of wriggling, unhappy fish and sprinting to throw them in the fish box before they asphyxiated.
It’s a sensation I really cannot describe.
Daddy seemed more concerned with trying not to bust a gut laughing than he was with the welfare of his fish. Or his youngest son.
I’d taken a shower when I’d gotten home and would up taking my second within half an hour to get the smell of fish panic off me before going back to bed.
It occurred to me maybe the whole thing was a dream. When I did go back to sleep, my slumber was filled with visions of google-eyed fish staring up from my hands, screaming “YOUR MOTHER WAS RIGHT! I’M DYING!’’
I can’t remember why Daddy quit trout farming, but vaguely recall a cloudburst flushed our little farm into East Fork. I find beauty in cloudbursts to this very day.
Jim Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.