The Way It Was
One man's memories of fishing in bygone days
Let me tell you a few facts and remembrances that I recall pertaining to angling in the 1930s and 1940s. Old timers may relate to these facts and younger folks may get a little surprise.
Unlike the lakes of the present day, which are often a morass of oxygen-depleting Eurasian watermilfoil, and algae, the lakes of the 1930s were clean and clear. They often contained acres of beneficial rice beds, which were an angler’s friend. He could troll or cast within one or two feet of the beds without being fouled up with weeds. The fish also used these rice beds as a hiding spot from which to dart out and engulf their prey, or get hooked on an angler’s lure. The rice, which is actually a type of grass, was harvested in the summer and fall and sold as wild rice.
The bays of the 1930s and 1940s lakes were a haven of platter-sized lily pads, which were great places for largemouth bass to shelter. They made for easily accessible angling targets.
In the lakes of yesteryear, a couple of excellent places to fish for walleye were the pools below the dams adjacent to the power stations, and the sluices below these same power stations. The sluices had a bonus—they were home to big channel cats in the 20-pound range. There were even muskies at the entrance to the lakes. Unfortunately, these places are usually off limits to anglers today.
Most of the rivers of today are much the same with one possible exception—those of yesteryear were a little faster and deeper and I’m convinced they harboured more fish.
The gamefish we targeted in years gone by and the ones people fish for today remain much the same. They include smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, muskie and walleye (we used to call them pickeral). There was also those little fun-making panfish: sunfish, crappie, perch, rock bass and bullhead (catfish).
The one big difference between then and now is that the fish in the bygone days were more plentiful. I’m ashamed to say that most old-time anglers kept all the fish that they caught and a lot were wasted. Thank goodness for today’s size limits, slot size and catch and release.
The Fisherman’s Accommodations
When I went on fishing trips as a young guy, there were usually four of us. We camped out in two small wall tents. We also had the standard camping equipment of the day, which included sleeping bags, Coleman stoves, coolers and such, as well as mounds of personal equipment.
All of this equipment was transported in two secondhand 1930 Ford coupes. One was blue and the other was yellow, which we nicknamed the Bluebird and the Yellowbird, respectively. What fun we had in those cars.
As we became more affluent, we graduated to a rental cabin. These cabins were typically built by a local farmer who was trying to get into the tourist business. The cabins were usually right on the shoreline and had a private dock. But they were primitive. They had no electricity, used a two burner propane stove and icebox, and were illuminated by coal oil lamps. The cabins also had no running water so we had to carry pails of water from the local pump. A wood-burning box stove heated the cabin.
The bathroom facilities were out back. So-called back houses, some were one-holers and some were two-holers. I remember a prankster from Ohio who was staying at the same camp as us wired a microphone under the seat of a two-holer. He waited for a certain lady to enter the backhouse, activated the microphone and said, “Lady would you mind moving to the other hole, we’re painting down here.” You can imagine the screams.
How much did these cabins rent for? Would you believe fifteen to eighteen dollars a week and that included a boat. We didn’t exactly live like kings, but we loved it and had fun.
The Fishing Boats
When I was a young fellow, the first boat I owned was a skiff, which was pointed with a seat at both ends and had two cross seats for the rowers. The sides of the skiff, from the keel up, were constructed of shiplap cedar strips. The keel, prow and stern were made of oak. In my view, skiffs were beautifully designed and very easy to row.
Around that time, another type of boat that was available was the punt. They were often cheaply and crudely constructed of pine or spruce and had a flat bottom and 12-inch flat sides. Plywood was often used in their construction. Punts were rough-and-ready boats used mostly for rental purposes.
There were also many beautiful boats of the day but they were costly and the 1930s were hard times. What’s worth noting is that the 1930s was the time of the beautifully-made mahogany strip boats. They are the antiques of today.
The Fishing Rods
One of the first fishing combinations that I ever saw used was an eight-foot bamboo fishing pole to which was tied a heavy 10-foot cord and a large hook baited with a big gob of worms. Did it catch fish? You bet.
Here’s an example. A group of teenaged boys using bamboo poles came to the lake that I visited and they caught more fish than most anglers. Here was their technique: Using a pointed skiff one boy rowed while one boy stood in the prow and the other stood at the stern. Both boys who were fishing used baited bamboo poles. The idea was to swing the bait out and let it sink, then jig the bait up, change sides of the boat and repeat the process. If they hooked too big a fish, they simply threw the pole overboard. It floated and the fish towed it around until it tired. The boys then rowed over and netted the fish.
The first fishing rod that I owned was made by American Fork and Hoe out of Ohio. It was made of tempered steel. The first big fish that I caught caused a “set” in the rod that I never got out. Later I got a better rod made by True Temper Co., which was also from Ohio.
The reel was fastened to the straight handle of these rods by two metal sleeves. The early rods had no drop seat reel position. The beautifully-designed plastic rods that came later, along with the graphite rods, eliminated the problems of earlier tempered-steel models.
The first outboard motor that I remember was a Johnson 2½ horsepower that was started by spinning the motor’s flywheel by hand. That is, it had a sprin-loaded pin sunk into the flywheel. You pulled up the pin, grasped it in the palm of your hand, and spun the flywheel briskly until the motor started (hopefully).
The next phase of outboard motors that appeared were started with a rope. The rope was knotted at the end and put into a slot in the motor’s flywheel. You would then wrap it around the wheel two or three times, and pull sharply. The process was repeated until the motor started.
I owned a Johnson 1½-horsepower motor that I called the “mixmaster.” It could practically be lifted with two fingers. In a stiff breeze, the motor had to be run at full speed and you had to row at the same time to make any headway at all.
I remember my first look at an electric outboard motor. It had a small water-tight electric motor with a propeller on the shaft. It was fastened to the boat’s tiller. Two wires came from the motor, fastened to the tiller, ran up the side of the boat and into the boat and connected to a car battery. It was extremely quiet but quite slow.
The Fishing Reels
My first fishing reel was a small one by today’s standards. I don’t know who made it, but it does have the word “sport” engraved on its side. The reel has a ratio of one to one. That is, one turn of the handle moves the barrel of the reel one turn, which makes it rather slow. It’s prone to backlash as the barrel of the reel overtakes the outgoing line. Surprisingly, this reel has a level-wind feature. It doesn’t have a braking system or an anti-backlash control. After all, this little reel is at least 75 years old.
The Fishing Lines
In the early 1930s fishing lines were mostly made of cotton, much like a thin butchers cord. Then came, as I remember, a linen line, sometimes braided but still not easy to cast. Later still, the companies who manufactured fishing lines brought out silk line. It was easier to cast, but expensive, and had a tendency to rot.
To prevent rotting, we had to dry the line every day after fishing. We did this by stringing the line between two nails driven into the wall about 10 feet apart. The next day, the line had to be rewound back onto the reel. It was time-consuming and a nuisance.
The Fishing Lures
In the 1930s, the first lure that I remember getting was the June Bug spinner distributed by AL &W (Allcock, Laight & Westwood) located on Yonge Street in Toronto, Ontario. When baited with a worm, this lure caught just about every kind of fish.
Later, in the 1940s, I came in possession of a weedless Dardevle lure. Designed by Ed Eppinger of Michigan, it came to be known as the northern pike standard. Red and white was the most productive colour. In those days I could buy a Dardevle for thirty-five cents.
Around this same time, another great lure came on the market−the Flatfish. Made by Charlie Helin of Michigan, the orange T4 Flatfish was a walleye killer. Some said it was the only lure you needed in your tacklebox.
If you were a muskie angler in those days, you had to have a Pikie Minnow, designed by the Creek Chub Bait Company of Ohio. Would you believe that I have my original Pikie Minnow to this day? It’s pretty well beat up now, of course. Another great muskie lure was the Double Buffalo Spinner.
In the late 1940s a lure came on the market called the Heddon King. It was made by the Heddon Lure Co. of Michigan. This lure was a combination of a wabler, spinner and fly. In my opinion, it was one of the great ones because it caught everything. A personal favourite of mine was the Heddon River Runt because it was extremely productive for all gamefish.
Also in the late 40s, the Heddon Dowagiac came on the fishing scene and caused a mild sensation. It was meant to look like a little fish chasing a minnow, and became fairly popular. Later a Swedish lure called the Rapala came onto the market and has gone on to become one of the great lures.
In closing, I’d like to share a story about an old fishing buddy whose name was Bill Cooke. Old Bill was an extremely ardent angler. He would fish in all kinds of weather, hot or cold, rain or snow, calm or rough. Let me give you an example. Bill and I were casting the pilings of a bridge that crossed a nearby river. When a funeral procession started across the bridge, Old Bill lay down his fishing rod, stood up, doffed his cap and bowed his head. He remained standing until the funeral procession passed out of sight. I was impressed and said, “Bill that was a very decent thing for you to do.” Bill replied, “It was the least I could do. After all, we would have been married twenty-five years tomorrow.” That’s an ardent angler and that’s the truth.
After all, would a fisherman ever tell a lie?
Ray Hines is the co-author of the Ontario Fishing Guide series of fishing books. He is 95 years young.