Memories of an Empty Creel


by Dan Copp
Illustration by Carolyn Skrzydlewski

To this day, whenever I see a pancake, I'm reminded of early outdoor trips with my dad, when meal-plan A was to dip our catch in Bisquick for a fish fry. Plan B was to have enough Bisquick along to make pancakes if we got skunked. We sure ate a lot of flapjacks on those trips.
And they had a chewy, tortillalike texture, because we never took along eggs or milk. That would have been to anticipate failure a little too much, to maybe even queer our luck. It was sort of, Of course we'll catch fish, but let's take extra Bisquick in case we run into some kind of emergency. Also, Bisquick and creek-water flapjacks were a kind of self-imposed penance that sometimes went down with a seven-inch rainbow trout or two split three ways. Considering all, I'm a bit surprised, some 45 years later, to find the pancake-induced memories are such fond ones.
Fishing success was hard to come by for a ten-year-old growing up in the San Fernando Valley in 1949. The closest running water was two hours away by car in the foothills of Ventura County, a trip a busy father could make only once or twice a year. The rest of the time I made do by pedaling down to the pond at Reseda Park, where under-twelves were allowed to fish each Saturday morning.
Still, some of my greatest fishing triumphs occurred at that little mudhole in Reseda. When a 100 kids hunker around a two-acre pond catching an occasional four-inch bluegill, a six-incher is cause for tucking the stringer under one's belt and nonchalantly promenading the waterfront. It was the equivalent of a victory lap. I took one of these strolls one Saturday with a ten-inch largemouth flopping against my thigh, only to be surrounded by dozens of kids who'd never before seen a bass or any fish that big. To top if off, when asked what I'd caught it on, I could casually point to the tiny Wobble-Rite spoon rigged at my rod tip. I had actually caught it on a lure.
I can't remember my children's birthdays or who won last year's World Series, but I can tell you that in the summer of '49, Tommy Magnuson caught a 14-inch largemouth bass at the Reseda Park pond, a record that may yet stand. For a ten-year-old, this was heady stuff. I made plaster casts of anything over six inches, and my best friend, Rich, once kept a bluegill alive in his family's only bathtub for over a week. The whole bunch must have themselves smelled like stale fish by week's end, but if they did, I didn't notice.

Of course, we felt we were only marking time until our families moved to Montana or Kentucky-maybe even Montauk Point, when the real fishing could commence. But, mostly, we spent hours reading Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, which showed us what fishing could be like if we just didn't have to live in the crummy San Fernando Valley. Ted Trueblood and Corey Ford were my favorite writers. Trueblood offered excellent fishing advice, while Ford was always good for a trunkful of belly laughs. But the articles that flamed our imaginations were the fishing yarns or fishing folklore. They were written as first-person adventures, and I never doubted their authenticity. All I know now is, today's tales of salmon fishing in Siberia or stalking black snook in Costa Rica can't hold a candle to the great fishing stories of 1949.

Here are some I remember. This guy is in a canoe bugging for smallmouth in some southern bayou when a six-foot alligator gar takes his lure, promptly trashes his rod, then charges, and capsizes the canoe. The guy is lucky to escape with his life! Now there's a tale to catch the attention of a kid bred on panfish. Then there's the one about the 30-pound muskellunge that inhaled a mud hen accidentally snagged by a Michigan perch fisherman. And the backwoodsman, fighting a whopping black bass in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp, when a giant water moccasin slithered right up his fishing line and into the boat. And what about those guys who waded up to their necks into the murky Mississippi to wrestle 100-pound blue cats out of potholes with their bare hands!

Of all the stories I remember reading in the fishing magazines of that era, my favorite is one that still crops up now and then with only slight variations from the original. Call it Old Bucketmouth and the Fieldmouse. Old Bucketmouth lived in that deep pool in the shade of the Main Street bridge for as long as anyone can remember. Run at least nine pounds and has a rusty Davis spinner dangling from his jaw from the last time he broke off, four years before. Little Jimmy's uncle has been trying to hook OB since he was himself Jimmy's age and has used every bait and trick in the book without success.
Well, Jimmy gets this idea: he goes out to the hayloft and grabs a fieldmouse, keeps him in a shoebox until one night the moon comes full. Jimmy sets his alarm, and at midnight he tiptoes down to the Main Street bridge, rigs the mouse in a harness with a 6/0 hook, and floats him down into Old Bucketmouth's lair atop a giant sycamore leaf. When Jimmy gently tugs the mouse off the leaf and he starts paddling for shore, all hell breaks loose....What especially appealed to us about the story back in those halcyon days was that it seemed applicable to our immediate fishing opportunities at the Reseda Park pond. Wrestling giant catfish and outwitting wily alligator gar were adventures that would have to wait. Rich and I actually did try for weeks to catch a live mouse, hoping to snag a huge catfish. But the trap was too efficient, smackering the heck out of every mouse it caught. We finally decided a live frog was better than a dead mouse and spirited down to Reseda Park on our bicycles one dark night at 4am, with a box full of small frogs our hearts thumping in our chests. With the very first cast, all the roosting waterfowl raised such a ruckus that the light in the caretaker's cabin flashed on, flushing us in a panic. Fishing was permitted only from nine till noon. We pedaled frantically home in the pitch black, expecting sirens and flashing lights, visions of prison in our heads.

I would have to say, though, that 1949 was the zenith of my fishing career. Alas, my folks did not move to Montana or Kentucky or Montauk Point, and today I still live within an hour of Reseda Park, which long ago suspended its fishing program. Since those carefree days, a whole lot of water has flowed under the Main Street bridge. I've fished occasionally now and then, with mixed success, but always with pleasure, and if pressed, I would claim to be a lifelong fisherman, even though I have never caught a rainbow trout larger than eleven inches, don't know how to mend a line or tie-off a whip finish, and frequently returned home with an empty creel.
I've recently eyed those ads for one of the guided trips to Alaska or South America. I know I'd enjoy the experience. But sometimes when I'm sitting over a pancake breakfast, I think that what I really need to do is make good on my boyhood a couple of hours up toward Bakersfield to find a farm pond where I could finally catch an eight-inch bluegill on a worm. Or, better yet, maybe someone out there could teach me how to rig up a mud hen and point me to some giant muskie water.
I'd be much obliged.

About the author: Dan Copp, an independent real estate developer from Ojai, California, still gets out on the local creeks occasionally and is still looking for that 12-incher.