By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
Sometimes the tools we used remind us of the jobs we did, and the people who helped us along the way.
The Old Men maintained a small flotilla of fishing boats to get them where they needed to go. It was never a commercial enterprise, we never sold a fish, but hard work and dedication were never in doubt. They belonged on the water, the boats and the men, and the work we did together belonged to the ages.
Countless mornings began before sunrise, two Old Men and I, driving west as the light appeared behind us. Full day found us baiting hooks with catalpa worms, either live or frozen. As the day’s heat built and burned the last of the dew from the gunwales and cooler lids, we’d return to the first lines we’d baited.
Through the day we’d fill the boat with catfish, often cleaning as we went, breaking for lunch then pressing on through sunset, bringing the last of the day’s catch home to be cleaned beneath work lights on tables purpose-built to their own design.
I think about those days often now, as the boats sit idle and time whittles them slowly away. They were a variety of shapes and sizes, but all were utilitarian just the same. Each had room to sit and drive, room to bait a hook or haul a trotline, open space for ice chests, a rack or two for spare rods and reels.
The oldest one in my memory was a small jon boat with a flat bottom and a square bow. Bench seats divided the floor space and a small, white outboard pushed it along. There are photos of this boat that are older than me, and much of what I remember may be those pastel Kodak images brought to life, another’s moments passing for my own, but the photos don’t predate my arrival by much.
Deep in the archives of my personal highlight reel there are moving images that correspond to the photos. Nothing extensive, just a clip here and there, but I know the images are as real as the photos, only with colors more vivid and strong.
They remind me of a time decades ago before the Old Men were old, when fishing was part of their personal pride, an element of who they were.
The last fishing trips the Old Men made took place on a pontoon boat one of them accepted in payment for a welding job. This one was geared more for pleasure than hard work, but they attacked pole fishing with the same vigor they’d once applied to trotlines, which is to say, all they had.
The little jon boat is long gone and the pontoon sits on its trailer today accumulating pine straw and leaves. The water is lost to it now, but it’s the scene of too many fond memories to simply cast away.
But that was beginning and end, omitting the middle. The boat most common to my memories remains strong and lakeworthy. Its carpet and cushions have greeted thousands of sunrises on the water, but its hull is sound and its outboard is willing. Maybe it’s fitting the trajectory of their boats transcribes the fishing careers of the cadre of Old Men who ran them.
I’m pleased the middle boat from my memory is still watertight and solid. When springtime arrives and the weather warms again, maybe it can host some first boat memories for my own youngsters, Technicolor images of a way of life I hope will be theirs.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.