It started like this. A cane pole and the Big Sioux River. Eleven years later I would get my first boat and my fishing horizons would expand forever. (Photo by my mom)
Reprinted from the Sioux City Journal
As you go through life, you will experience many firsts.
Most of them you will forget as time goes on, but many of them will stay with you forever.
For instance, who can forget their first car? Who can forget your first date? Who can forget your first wife? (Well, my first wife and I just celebrated 57 years this year.)
But there is one first which may overshadow all others. This is true especially if your passion is fishing.
That would be your first boat. Sorry, Fran.
It seems like only yesterday that I, a 15-year-old farm kid, sat at the dinner table with my mom and dad. I had given dad a brochure which explained the process of buying a class ring.
He studied it, brows furrowed. Then he looked up, leaned across the table and said, “What do you want, a class ring or a boat? You can’t have both.”
That was, as they say today, a no-brainer.
“I want the boat.”
The next day was Saturday and we headed to Sioux Falls to look for a boat.
It seemed everything we looked at was far beyond our simple budget. There was not lot of money in farming in the 1950s.
Then we found an old, 12-foot wooden boat in the back lot of one dealership. It needed painting, but it was all there, complete with oars, and sound. It was $50 and we bought it.
We later hauled it home in the back of one of our grain wagons, put it on sawhorses under a big elm shade tree where I would paint it red and white on the outside and gray on the inside. It had three bench seats and removable slats for a floor which would keep your feet out of the water because wooden boats all leak, at least for a while.
But we needed a trailer to haul the boat to area lakes.
Dad picked up an axle out of our junk pile. If I remember correctly it belonged to a Model T Ford.
“We can make a trailer out of this,” he said.
I had my doubts, but thanks to a few more trips to the junk pile we soon had springs, iron for the frame and we bought a 15-foot length of steel for the tongue. You can say what you want about the old farmers, but give them a welder and some steel and they could make anything. Another trip to the marine dealer and we had rollers and a winch. Our bunks were homemade out of 2X4s topped with scrap carpet.
When we were done, it looked pretty good. We lifted the boat onto it, tied it down and hooked it up to my 1952 Dodge and took it out to the gravel road to see how it trailed. No problem. Out to old highway 77 and run it up to 60 miles an hour. It tracked like a charm.
So, now I had my boat and trailer.
I soon learned that rowing a boat was a lot of work, especially if the wind is blowing. Dad soon picked up a used 7 1/2-horse Scott-Atwater outboard motor. Now we were set. We could fish all across all of the small lakes in our region.
Our closest lake was Lake Alvin, a small impoundment about 15 minutes away. It was well-stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, bullheads and walleyes. It was good for those late-evening, after-chores adventures. The easiest fish to catch out there were crappies and I concentrated on them most of the time. Much of my crappie fishing in those days in the evenings was done with a fly rod and popper. The crappies came up out of the deeper weeds and were willing to hit anything on top.
I also fished Wall Lake, a small lake southwest of Sioux Falls and about a half hour run from our place, a few times but I never caught much more than small, hammer handle northerns there.
Now, bullheads. That was another thing. For numbers, South Dakota’s best bullhead lake at the time just might have been Swan Lake near Viborg. When I was a little kid I remember there were a lot of sunfish in the lake, but by the time I was a junior in high school with a boat it was primarily a bullhead lake. Agriculture runoff had silted it in and water quality suffered.
But the bullheads didn’t notice.
Every chance I got, I headed to Swan to tangle with those bullheads. There are two islands on the lake and I usually fished somewhere near the big one, letting it block the wind.
My senior year I branched out to Lake Madison, Brandt Lake and Lake Herman. These were walleye lakes and I trolled the paint off Lazy Ikes and Creek Chub lures. But I soon learned the Johnson Two-Way Spinner and a piece of crawler was the way to go.
These lakes weren’t that far from the farm, but I usually stayed overnight. I brought my camp stove and cooler and slept in the backseat of the Dodge. I ate fish and beans and life was good.
Then came college. The boat stayed parked in the grove and I moved on to bigger things. I won’t say better, because to this day I still treasure those outings with that small boat. Who needs an alarm clock when you’ve got red wing blackbirds singing in the rushes at dawn. Nothing tastes better than fresh fried fish when you can hear the waves lapping the shoreline. You have no worries at that age. Your only concern is how hard the wind will be blowing the next day.
Years passed by quickly before I went out to check on my boat. Time had not been good to it. The transom had come loose from the sides. A gaping hole somehow developed in the bow. The paint job I so lovingly applied was chipping and flaking away. The trailer was rusted. Forever, the boat would just be a memory.
I walked away feeling sorry, feeling that I had let my trusty boat down. I should have taken better care of her.
It would be another year before I got my next boat. And I can’t even tell you how many there have been since then.
My first boat was a simple 12 footer. Wooden. Reborn by my hands. Nothing special by today’s standards. But I will never forget her. How could I?