Mar 10, 2015

My Playground

I grew up in the country a few miles north of Oshkosh. We lived about a quarter mile from Lake Winnebago and all around me were woods and fields. It was my playground and a great place to be a kid. My playground started right out my back door with the woods in back of our house. It was there I learned to walk in the woods. Even before I was old enough to have a shotgun, I spent hours in the woods throughout the year. I enjoyed every season, and got to know it like the back of my hand.

It wasn’t that big, but it seemed big enough for me. A few deer were seen in the woods from time to time. It still was worth calling the entire family to the windows in the back of the house when we saw deer at the edge of the woods or in our backyard. My father had a large garden in our backyard but he never minded when the occasional deer stopped by for a snack. I guess he figured there was enough there for everybody. Deer were never hunted in our area. Deer hunting was an “up north” activity in those days.
Later, as I began hunting, the woods were my private hunting area because no one else ever hunted there. I shot a lot of rabbits and the occasional pheasant back there. There were squirrels in the woods, but it never seemed like there were that many.

And, for some reason, I never got into squirrel hunting so they had nothing to fear from me. Around the woods there were a number of fields that either had corn or soybeans in them. I never hunted them because, even as a young hunter, I realized one person hunting a large field was never going to be successful. There was just too much room for pheasants to run around you.

However, there was a drainage ditch that ran between two fields and it was just the right size for one hunter to work by himself. I always made an effort to hunt it, and although it didn’t happen often, every now and then I would kick out a pheasant.

Today, my woods have grown larger. A couple of fields, once farmed when I was a kid, have been left undisturbed and are now overgrown with brush. In time, the brush might grow into full sized trees. Although deer were never seriously hunted in our area when I was a kid, the deer population has increased. Now, one of my mother’s neighbors bow hunts in the woods behind her house for deer and also for turkeys. We never heard of turkeys when I was a boy. They were imported sometime in the late 1960s and early 70s. Now they are everywhere. It is a great conservation success story.

There were a couple “other woods,” all within reasonable hiking distance, and I would hunt them too. These other woods had rabbits in them, but it seemed not as many as just behind our house. I always hunted them there anyway just to have a different place to hunt. When I go back there now, homes are built in those “other woods” or so close to them it would be impractical to hunt them anymore. As I drive by them, I say to myself, “I used to hunt rabbits there.”

Also, west of my parent’s house was a railroad track line. When I was growing up, no one seemed to mind if we hunted there. When the pheasant season began, there was always the possibility of kicking out a rooster or two. Once the snow was on the ground you could also find rabbits there. It was a great little hunting spot, and for the most part, I had it all to myself, especially in the winter.

As a kid, I remember the railroad tracks as being fairly busy. I can remember, for some reason, we thought it fun to put a penny on the tracks so the train would squash it as it ran over it. We carried around the flattened pennies as if they were trophies. Apparently, in later years, it was frowned upon to have people hunting there. Today, there is one track line still there, and I suppose occasionally it is still used, although I do not think I have seen a train on it for years. I can’t tell you when the last time I had to wait at the crossing for a train to come by. The other track has been pulled up and is now a path for bicycles, snowmobiles and ATVs to use. I suppose kids don’t put pennies on the tracks anymore either.

A quarter mile east of my parent’s home was Lake Winnebago. The road running past our home ended at the lake. Some people used it as a boat landing and, for a number of years, you would normally see cars with boat trailers parked along the side. There was a grassy area just to the south of it and that was part of our playground too.

There was a sandy beach there and we swam there as often as our parents would let us. Right after school let out we wanted to go swimming there but our parents told us the water was too cold. To kids, who want to go swimming, no water is too cold so we could not understand our parent’s restrictions. However, usually within a couple of weeks, we were finally allowed to go swimming, in part, I suppose, to finally stop us from whining about why we could not go swimming. For several years I think I spent just about every day, during summer vacation, swimming there.

Our swimming hole came to an end, as did the boat landing. People from the city began to move out there and they built homes on the grassy field. They didn’t like people using the end of the road as a boat landing and discouraged us kids from swimming in front of their homes. There was some yelling and screaming as I remember and we resented these people from taking away our swimming area.

There was one area, just east of the homes on the lake, that wasn’t touched. It was a wooded area bordering the rocky shore right to the water. I began to explore it and the people who lived in the houses closer to the road never bothered me when I was there.

Again, it was another private playground. For some reason, and I’m not sure why, there seemed to be a slightly mysterious and spooky element to this area. No one, except me, ever seemed to venture into it. I felt it too but it could have been my overly active imagination at work. It didn’t stop me; it just added to the adventure. I found a small tarpaper shack in the woods. It was probably about the size of an icehouse and may have once been one, abandoned there many years ago. It added to the mystery.

Another time in the fall, I was exploring these woods and found a wooden decoy washed up on the rocks. It was a bit battered and some of the paint was worn off but otherwise it was in fairly good condition. I kept it. I did some research on it and think it is a Mason decoy, which is fairly prized today by collectors. Even then, back in the 1960s, I wondered why anyone would have been using these decoys, risking the chance at losing them. I still have the decoy today as it was the beginning of a small collection of twenty some wood and cork decoys now displayed in my office.

There was a small rocky point extending about six feet into the lake. As I look back at it now, I wonder if someone years ago made the point by piling rocks there. Maybe the same person who had the little tarpaper shack? Throughout my youth I was a big reader of outdoor magazines and somewhere I read minnows came into the shallows in the evening and, of course, the bigger game fish followed them. One night, all by myself, I decided to test out this theory by fishing at the little point. I rode down to the woods on my bike, hid it in the woods and taking my spinning rod, waders, a small trout net, a flashlight and a couple Johnson Silver Minnows, I walked through the woods to the point.

After pulling on my waders, I waded out to my thighs and started casting. I chose the Johnson Silver Minnow, not only because it was my favorite artificial bait in those days, but also because in front of me were weeds and I read fish liked to hide in the weeds. I must have been casting for about half an hour when suddenly my bait jolted to a stop. My spinning rod was doubled over and I could feel a fish thumping against it. It put up a great fight and I really wanted it. A moment or two later I was leading the fish into the net. I was overjoyed. It was a smallmouth bass and I quickly put the fish on a stringer, which I tied to a rock.

I waded back out and, a few minutes later, caught another smallmouth. That also went on the stringer. It was starting to get dark as nightfall descended, but I kept fishing. Another fish slammed my bait. That one was a white bass. A few minutes later, I had another fish on but lost it right in front of me. I wasn’t disappointed. I had three fish on my stringer so it had been an extremely successful night.

Now it was dark and I waded back to shore, turned on the flashlight, tugged off my waders, slipped back on my shoes and, with the flashlight, I walked back out of the woods to my bike. If the woods were a bit spooky in daylight they were a whole lot spookier in the darkness. I was very glad when I finally got my bike and started to peddle home. I felt triumphant. Not only did I find this new spot all by myself and there were fish there but I confronted the spooky woods.

I never told anyone, except my buddy, Gary, about the spot. He and I returned at least once a week through the summers to this little hot spot. Sometimes we got skunked but it didn’t seem often and we caught a variety of fish. There were not only the smallmouth bass and white bass I found the first time I fished there, but also northern pike and walleyes. We never caught a lot of fish at any given time, but we generally caught a couple and for young boys that was enough. The woods remained spooky at night- but it never prevented us from fishing there. Today the woods along the lake have houses built where I once explored the spooky woods. Of course, there is a road built there and now the rocky shore I once had to myself has docks jutting out in the lake. I wonder if anyone has ever thought about casting a Johnson Silver Minnow from those docks to see if there are any fish there?

The other huge part of my playground was the channels. When we first moved out to the country, the channel was one huge trench leading out to the lake running parallel to the two roads. Along the first part of the channel, there were a number of boathouses and closer to the lake were a couple of homes. Across the channel and behind it was a large marsh. Within a few years, several more trenches were dug out into the marsh. Even as a kid, I could recognize someone had a plan for them but, throughout my boyhood, they just looked like muddy ditches. There wasn’t any development going on so perhaps the person who started it just ran out of money or interest in the project. That was perfectly ok by me.

It became a perfect fishing spot. I started fishing there for bullheads. Although a lot of people might not care for bullheads I have always had a soft spot in my heart for them. I learned to become a fisherman on bullheads. They actually put up a fairly good fight, especially on the light fiberglass rod and Johnson Century reel I had then. For a second rod, I had a long stick with some line tied to it. I just threw out the line on the stick so it sunk to the bottom with a small sinker and put a bobber on the line with the spin casting outfit. If the fish were on the bottom, close to the bank, I caught them with the stick and if they were off the bank I got them on the bobber.

In the spring, the crappies came into the channels and the crappie run seemed to be the highlight of spring and early summer. The run would start somewhere in early May and run for about three or four weeks. One of my neighbors was a big fly fishing guy and he would be down there catching them on flies. I went out and with my meager allowance, saved up enough to buy a cheap bamboo fly rod. The first time I tried it on crappies I actually did catch a crappie, but wasn’t sure how to pull the fish in so I lost it. It was a bitter disappointment for a young fishermen.

I eventually learned how to use a fly rod and discovered what I thought was a new bait. I had caught my first crappie on a royal coachman fly and, after that, it became my favorite fly. I still use it today for panfish. However, if I was going to fish a fly with my spin casting combo I needed to get enough weight on it to cast so I added a split shot just above the fly. Suddenly, I was catching bunches of crappies. What I didn’t realize then was basically I had the equivalent of what would be a jig. For years, the royal coachman fly with a split shot was my main crappie bait.

There were other fish in the channel besides crappies and bullheads. All of the different panfish were there, as well as small northerns and the occasional bass. Perhaps ten years later, I was fishing the channels for crappies, but before I started crappie fishing, I would make half a dozen to ten casts with a heavier rod and big spoon. Several times I had a hard, jolting strike but I never was able to land the fish. My guess, it probably was a big northern pike.

One of the best fish I ever caught in the channels was after several days of rain. The channels were especially muddy then but I went down there anyway. I was casting a yellow and silver spinner. I now had a larger spinning rod with a Mitchell 300 spinning reel. I had come up in the fishing world. One of my buddies always had luck fishing spinners with a nightcrawler wrapped around the treble hooks. Considering how muddy the channels were, I thought the nightcrawler would help.

I was casting for about twenty minutes when something slammed into my bait. I pulled back, my spinning rod was bent in half and it felt for a moment as if I was snagged. Then the fish charged off. My drag let out line. Up until that time, I never caught a fish big enough to take out line on my drag. This was getting exciting! I stopped the run and got the fish coming back, but again it ran off. I really, really, really wanted this fish and I think I was even praying for divine assistance. The fish rolled on top of the water making a washtub size swirl.

This was the fish of a lifetime for a fourteen-year-old boy. I wondered what kind of fish I had. It made a couple more runs before I finally got it to the bank. I looked down and it was a big catfish. It didn’t matter to me. It was a big fish and that was all that mattered. Now, I had the problem of how to land it. I didn’t have a net and I am not so sure I could have gotten down to it to use a net if I did have one. I solved the problem by just dragging the fish up the bank and my line held. I was praying it wasn’t going to break. Once I got it close enough, I just pounced on it. It was a channel catfish, probably weighing about five or six pounds and one of the biggest fish I ever caught at that time in my life.

A few years later, there was some movement to develop the channels, after being neglected for so many years. A couple of bridges were put in and roads built- but nothing much more than that by the time I joined the Army in the early 1970s. Soon thereafter, homes started to pop up there. Now, the channels are all built up with houses and docks out front with boats tied up to them.

Change is inevitable and so it came to my playground. Some of it remains. The woods behind my parent’s house are still there and intact. My father passed away fourteen years ago and last year my mother sold the house she and my father built in 1958. She moved to an independent living apartment in town. It was another change. What hasn’t changed, are the memories and I will have them always. It was a great time and place to grow up.