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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fish Traps

I was around fifteen and we lived in the country on a farm.  My mom, sisters and I were farm laborers for my mom’s brother, my uncle.  We were very poor but so were a lot of other families in the area so we weren’t alone.  Since we had limited finances I often supplemented our diet by hunting rabbits and fishing in the Cocklebur ditch which was about a half a mile from our house.  In summer it was fun and not a problem.  You didn’t even have to have a fishing licensee until you were sixteen.  In winter it became harder since the fish went to the deeper water and were harder to catch.  It was also harder to stay outside with a fishing pole long enough to catch enough for four people to eat.

I decided there had to be a better way.  Using some old one-inch by three-inch welded fence wire I made a fish trap.  The trap was about eighteen inches in diameter and four feet long. It had a flat end made of the same wire on one end and a cone shaped wire end in the other. The opening in the wire cone was about four inches in diameter and about eighteen inches from the end of the trap where the cone was fastened.  The fish would swim into the hole suspended in the center of the trap but couldn’t find the hole to swim back out. I cut an opening in the side and covered it with a larger piece of wire formed to fit the round shape then hinged it with bailing wire on one side and a tie wire on the other so I could open it to get the fish out. I fastened a piece of straight wire to one end of the trap so you can pull it to the bank of the stream to remove your fish without having to wade into the cold water.  The holes in the wire were small enough that nothing was really trapped unless it was large enough to eat.  Throw out your trap and come back in a couple of days.  My better way worked great.  All I had to do was throw the traps out into the stream with the open end pointing up stream so the fish would swim into it as they swam down stream.  We had a regular supply of fish to eat even during the cold winter months. 

I would go to the ditch near dark every other day and empty the trap, keeping enough fish to eat and releasing the rest.  The only problem with my new system was that it was illegal!  I wasn’t selling fish or keeping more than we needed to eat so I didn’t really think about it being wrong. 

There was an open, flat 80-acre field between the ditch and our house, a distance of half a mile.  When you stood on the bank of the ditch you could see anything that was coming toward you and the trap was placed in the ditch on the north end of the field so it was a quarter of a mile off the paved road.  I guess the game warden had boated down the ditch at some time and seen the traps lying in the clear water.  He evidently wanted to catch the lawbreaker more than he wanted the traps removed.

One evening, just at dusk I walked down the paved road and then north to the end of the field.  As I was walking north along the ditch I noticed a truck, as it parked and turned off its headlights on the paved road by the bridge.  It had come from the east, the other side of the ditch, so I didn’t think anything was wrong. I didn’t think much about it until I saw another vehicle’s lights coming toward me on the dirt field road that ran on the north end of the field.  I hid in the bushes that lined the bank of the ditch and watched to see what was going on. The game warden, had parked on the road had started walking through the field along the ditch following me!  I was boxed in by the person walking and the vehicle coming toward me on the field road! I didn’t know then who it was but would find out later that evening.  I crouched in the bushes and tried to decide what to do. It was dark enough to be hard for them to see me if I sat still but light enough to see someone moving in the open.  If I ran north they might be able to see me.  I could get away if I could out run the person walking but the other vehicle driving down the field road could go back to the highway and come back down the every field road, one every quarter of a mile all the way  to town, which was three miles north of where I was.  I couldn’t cut across the field and go home because they would know where I had come from.  I definitely couldn’t go south!  I was trapped!

There were no access field roads on the other side of the ditch for over a mile.  It was December and freezing cold.  I needed to catch fish to eat but I sure couldn’t afford a fine from the game warden.  The ditch was only a little over waist deep to me in that spot and I could reach the water and wade it without them seeing me. I had waded it during the summer so I knew how deep it was.  I crept through the brush, down the bank, removed my shoes, socks and jeans and shirt and jacket.  Holding my clothing above the water, I waded across the ditch in my underwear.  It was so cold!  I could hardly catch my breath.  I wanted to scream from the cold water but if I did they would know which way I had gone. When I reached the other side I crept up the bank through the bushes until I was in the field on the other side.  Putting my cloths on my wet body and now dirty feet was not fun but I was able to warm up pretty quickly.  I thought I would run north now that I was on the east side of the ditch.  However, as I sat there thinking I realized that there was no way the game warden was going to wade that cold water even if he figured where I had gone.  I was relatively safe where I sat and if I stayed crouched over I could move behind the cover of the brush on the bank. 

In a few minutes I heard the vehicle driving on the field road stop and soon could hear men talking.  I couldn’t hear everything they said but enough to understand that they couldn’t figure out where the man with the fish traps had disappeared to.  I could hear them looking through the bushes and then could see their flashlights moving north in the next field.  I ran the half mile south back to the road, crossed the bridge where the game warden’s truck was parked then ran a half mile south along the bank of the ditch to get away from the road. I was by then south of where they were looking for me.  I then followed the tree line in that field back to the gravel road that came back north to my house.  I was home, cleaned up and watching the movement of the flashlights out the windows before they gave up and drove off.  They came to every house in the neighborhood (4) then to our house.  When they honked their horn Mom went out to see what they wanted.  They asked her if she had seen any strangers walking the fields or roads in the last hour.  Of course she didn’t have to lie when she said no.  I wasn’t a stranger. 

A couple of days later, during the day, I walked along the edge of the ditch with my shotgun looking for rabbits.  When I got to the path that went to where my traps had been I went over the bank to look.  They were gone of course and I breathed a sigh of relief. That was not the end of my fish trap days.  I built another trap, placed it in a different location and used old moss woven into the wire to camouflage it.  We still had fish but I learned to be much more careful where I fished and how I went to the location.  Was I a crook, I guess so.  Did I think I was?  No!!  I could keep all the fish I caught during the summer on a fishing pole.  What was the difference in using a trap?  To me there was no difference.  I was feeding my family.  Should a fifteen year old have to take the responsibility to feed a family?  If it is necessary, Yes.  I have, however, on other occasions during my life remembered the feelings I had that evening while being pursued by the authorities and it has never been difficult for me to resist the impulse to do illegal things. Was it because of this incident?  Maybe.

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