April 20, 2012
My family moved from a backwoods farm into the village of Westport in the fall of my ninth year. Hockey dominated my winter. Jimmy Sherwood, the local electrician and hardware store owner, sold live bait as well, so the enterprising merchant built a rectangular pond on a lot across the street from his house. At about a hundred feet in length, it made a perfect rink for the neighbourhood kids.
The Westport Lions Club sponsored minor hockey at the municipal rink as well, so every kid scraped together skates, sticks and equipment and got started on his way to the NHL. I still have the miniature hockey stick Maurice Richard autographed for me at my first Minor Hockey Night at the Tweedsmuir Inn. Needless to say we were pretty impressed with the hockey legend.
But the highlight of my first year in Westport came in April, when I heard classmate Terry Thake announce, “The shiners are running! My brother caught two dozen last night.” No one could actually tell me what a shiner was, but soon I noticed older boys walking up the street carrying stringers loaded with silver and green fish, flat on the sides like bluegills, but larger and better. These were the shiners.
When I looked up “shiner” in the encyclopedia I found a small, bony minnow, but the fish I saw on the stringers and willow branches corresponded to the name “Black Crappie” or “Crappie.”
My friend Dale Derbyshire’s father owned the Western Tire store just down the street. I had been looking at the fishing rods in a rack beside the twenty-twos and shotguns in the corner. Dale’s older brother Elwyn set me up with a fishing rod, spin-cast reel, and some nylon line, as well as a pack of hooks and a carton of worms.
Off I went to catch a stringer of shiners.
Everything worked except the worms. Oh, I caught fish with the worms, all right. Couldn’t keep them off the line. But they were all bluegills and pumpkinseeds. These trophies just got laughs from the older boys who lined the docks, shoreline, and hung from boat-house windows during the height of the shiner run.
So I began to watch how the best fishermen did it. I didn’t know all of their names, but two surnames stood out, Marks and Cawley. The various Marks brothers, Jimmy, Johnny and Mike, each caught more than the rest of the crew on the dock combined. The Cawleys were pretty good, too.
They cut “shiner bait” from the throat of a dead shiner. A nick just behind the chin freed the flap of translucent membrane. A pull from a knife clenching the flap against one’s thumb would tear the skin back to the gill cage. Hooked carefully, this bait would flap in the water like a pair of bloomers on a clothesline.
Shiners like to sit motionless in the sun, a couple of feet below the surface. The skilled angler would fly-cast this light bait over the fish, then try to retrieve it over the target’s shoulder. A strike would often occur just as it entered the fish’s strike zone and the fight would be on.
Other times the shiner would swoop up from below, engulfing the bait and startling the angler with a hard strike.
What was great fun about this style of fishing was that you could see everything, and whether the fish bit or not seemed to depend more than anything upon the skill of the guy on the other end of the rod.
I couldn’t catch anything but bluegills at first, but someone gave me a piece of shiner bait, so I found myself a spot and began to cast with that strange fly-casting motion. The bluegills ignored this bait. So did the shiners. An occasional perch took it, and a bull head, but that was about it.
The first solid personal goal in my life (apart from becoming an NHL goalie) took form in my mind. I wanted to be the best shiner fisherman in the cove below the fish sanctuary where the crappies schooled. Then later I wanted to be the best shiner fisherman wherever there were fishermen. By the time I moved away from Westport at sixteen, I had become a lot better at catching shiners, but I was still far from the best on the dock.
Later on in life I discovered crappie fishing at lockstations in the Smiths Falls area. Generally I was as good as anybody at the dock on a given day, and usually better than most. But then I saw this willowy teen-aged girl who caught three fish to my one. Her stance, one hip high, rod tip down, reminded me of Johnny Marks from the Westport docks, twenty years before.
I looked over at her: “Are you from Westport?”
“My father is.”
“Are you a Marks?”
“John is my dad.”
This lovely woman has haunted my fishing trips around Smiths Falls ever since. She’s flat-out better than I am. The shiners go to her by the dozen, and I’ll only be left with her rejects.
In nearby Delta I found the stream out of the Old Mill supports a healthy crappie run. Most of the locals fished with bobbers and tube jigs, with middling success.
One man fished shiner bait with the characteristic Westport jigging motion. Turned out Dave Ross grew up with me on the docks in Westport, and now lives in Delta. But I could always outfish him.
When we bought WYBMADIITY II we soon found her a slip at Indian Lake Marina. This place was heaven. It boasted deep, clear water adjacent to excellent cruising, shady trees for afternoon reading, and best of all, crappies schooled under the docks in early morning. Outstanding crappies!
And best of all, as a member of a private club I didn’t have to compete with any of the Westport crew. Dave Ross’s sister Maureen showed up on a Carver with her husband a few years later, but Maureen wasn’t that keen on fishing, so I was able to earn and keep the title of best crappie fisherman for my entire twenty-year stay at Indian Lake Marina.
And that, to a kid growing up on the waterfront in Westport, is success of a sort.