My grandfather was born and raised in the tiny town of Nauvoo near Dyersburg, Tennessee. Like many poor southern families, the Butler clan moved north to find work in the 1940s.
Unable to let go of his southern roots, Grandpa made frequent trips home to visit friends and family. During those trips, the boys would usually find time to fish for bluegills, or as they called them, “bream,” at Reelfoot Lake.
I was able to accompany him on some of these trips, building a strong affection for those sweet-tasting panfish fillets.
As a youngster, I cut my teeth on bluegill fishing along the small lakes of my boyhood home. Living so close to water allowed me the privilege of countless evenings sitting on the dock while I could still display my age with fewer than 10 fingers.
Of course, as time passed, I moved on to the more complicated exploits of fishing for bass and other prized game fish, but the magic of watching a bobber dance has never faded.
I remember on one of the first trips we took, Grandpa showed up on the boat dock with a cane pole, a basket of crickets and cooler of everything but soda.
I roared with laughter in my own head.
His cane pole could only extended 10 feet, so there was no way he could match me and the casting distance of my fancy spinning outfit.
We slid into the nearest cypress forest and began to prepare for our attack. I watched as Grandpa clipped a bobber on his line two feet above the hook with a single split-shot somewhere in between. A cricket was the final piece of the puzzle, and the simple rig was set to work.
Grandpa slid us through the cypress trees as quiet as a ghost, softly setting his bobber down within an inch of the old moss-covered trees. To my surprise, his cane poles began to bend in half each time he placed his offering. He was filling the cooler with black, purple and orange bull bream, all of them weighing in excess of a half pound or better.
My frustration escalated quickly as I continued to cast, hang-up; cast, hang-up; cast, hang-up. Grandpa finally had enough and told me in only the words an angry grandfather can to take this rod from him and use it or swim with the snakes on my way back to camp.
I took the rod and was introduced to the beautiful simplicity of true bream fishing.
With a severely damaged ego, I targeted the nearest cypress stump. Before the cricket could have possibly had time to fall to its intended depth, my bobber zipped under. I set the hook with a ferocious jerk, ripping it away from whatever was trying to sample my offering and proceeded to hopelessly tangle my line in cypress limbs above my head. The hook may not have set into the unsuspecting gill, but yet another angler became hooked on simple bream fishing.
Evenings brought another adventure all together — dinner. No one has ever accused me of being a picky eater.
Generally, if you set it down in front of me, I’ll put it away.
But, of course, there are culinary favorites of every palate, and most of mine are served at a fish fry. The first time I experienced true southern cooking after a hard day’s fishing, I’d have eaten until they had to go across the road to catch a few more fish to fry.
Grandpa might not have been impressed with my shiny Shimano, but he sure appreciated my appetite. Bluegill fillets, onion rings, black-eyed peas, fried okra, hush puppies, cornbread and sweet tea, all prepared better than a restaurant could hope to do.
Grandpa has taught me many valuable lessons over the years, but few have impacted me more than bobber fishing for bluegills with cane poles and crickets. I only wish we could share a boat one more time.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.