By Leon Archer
My father always seemed to know when it was time to do certain outdoor things.
I’m sure he checked the calendar, but more often, he would look for signs that it was time for a certain activity.
For just about every year while I was growing up, my father would gather all the gear and we would go to Black Lake to put out a nightline for catfish. We always got catfish, which my father would clean and bring home to smoke.
Perhaps my very favorite food as a child was smoked catfish.
Black Lake catfish that we caught on the nightline averaged about 6 pounds, but we caught them as large as 26 pounds.
The small ones of a pound or two we would roll in cornmeal and fry up in a big cast iron frying pan on the shore of the lake the day after we ran the line. They tasted pretty much like bullheads, but they had a greater oil content.
That was why they smoked so well. We only set the line two nights before we headed back home, but we still took a cooler full of fillets with us.
A number of years after I graduated Albany State, I decided to put a nightline out on Black Lake. I had everything I needed and I put it out in the same spot off Manley Rocks where we had always taken fish.
The next morning when I checked the line, I had one eel, one small catfish, two bullheads and several large bluegills and perch. My father and I had never done so poorly.
When I got back from my less than stellar attempt at catching catfish on a nightline, my father told me, “I knew you wouldn’t do much. You went too late. If you want to catch catfish, you need to go when the shad berries are in blossom. They’ve been done for about three weeks.”
Shad berries or service berries grow on a small tree and the whole tree looks white when it is in blossom, so it’s hard to miss, and that was the sign dad always watched for before heading north to fish.
I’ve cataloged a few of nature’s signs over my 70-plus years, but that is the one I remember best. My father also always said, “Ice out for perch and trout.” That is right on for both of them.
The trout in ponds and lakes were right up near shore and hungry, and the perch were in shallow water ready to spawn. They bit like crazy.
Dad didn’t tell me, but I learned the very best stream trout fishing (at least on Little Sandy Creek) was when the willow trees were “eared out.” The new leaves on the willows looked like little squirrel ears.
Of course, I could have been scientific and kept track of air temperatures and water temperatures, but watching willow leaves come out was easier. In addition, right after the trout were in high gear, the sucker run would be starting.
Yogi Berra, who I got to watch play one time at Yankee Stadium, was noted for his quips that have become quotes. The one I like best is, “You can see a lot by looking.”
Dad would have agreed with that. You see, there is book learning, and then there is real learning; honest to God, hands on, eyes and ears open learning.
Nature is full of signs that animals are attuned to, but men are slower to see what is right in front of them. All too many of us have forgotten how to look.