It was the worst of times. Daddy was seriously sick. The wolf was at the door and his name was Federal Land Bank. We lost the farm but the kindness of a few folks prevailed and while we were destitute we were not yet desperate. We traded houses with a man in North. He picked up the mortgage to placate the wolf and at least we had a roof over our heads. We needed money in the worst possible way. That’s how I met Mr. Julius.
Mr. Julius was our neighbor about two houses down. He was an elderly gentleman, a grandfatherly type and I don’t know who adopted who but I know it was one of the best things that happened to me during a very bad time.
I was nine years old but strong for my age from farm chores and I needed a temporary replacement for Daddy. Daddy was going to be away a long time and all my grandparents were dead before I was a year old. Mr. Julius served me well.
I was on my way to pick up Dr. Nelson’s widow’s mail, for which I earned a quarter a week when Mr. Julius hailed me from his front porch.
“Aren’t you Bill’s boy?”
“Sorry to hear about Bill.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Can you paddle a boat?”
“No sir, never been in a boat.”
“Where you headed?”
“Going to get the mail.”
“Come here a minute?”
When I walked up on the porch he was writing something on a pad on the table he sat behind. The table was loaded with books and pens and a huge teapot. He handed me a folded note and said take this to your mother.
“It’s about getting you to work for me if you want the job. You have to get up very early and I can only employ you when there is no school.”
“It’s summer. I can work every day.”
“No. I can only use you one or two mornings a week. We’ll work it out. Get along now. I must get back to my memoirs.”
When I dropped off Mrs. Nelson’s mail I hurried home. I was dying to know what was in the note but didn’t dare look. When I handed it to Mama she got her worried look she had been wearing a lot lately.
“What is it, Mama? Is it bad?”
“Mr. Julius wants you to paddle the boat for him to fish. He says he will teach you the basics tomorrow at six a.m. and after he will pay you five dollars per trip to paddle while he fishes. Would you like to try it?”
“Yes ma’am. Five dollars would help us a heap.”
“Five dollars would help us.” mama corrected.
“Yes ma’am. It shore would.”
“Oh, why do I bother?”
“It’s settled. I’ll wake you at five. You must go to bed early tonight.”
I went to bed early but it wasn’t much use. I was too excited and scared to sleep till I was totally worn out and about the time I drifted off mama was waking me up it seemed.
Mr. Julius was waiting on his porch. He had everything ready and I helped him put it in his station wagon. We went to a huge pond called Poole’s Millpond. He kept a canoe there locked in a shed on the water. He lowered it in and told me to get in and sit down. Then he got in behind me and handed me a boat paddle as he sat to face me.
“In a minute we are going to paddle out in the lake and when we start you do exactly what I do. Today we will only practice and depending on how well you do possibly Wednesday or Thursday we will try again. When I think you are ready you will paddle while I fish. Can you swim?”
“A little. Daddy was teaching me when he got sick.”
“In any case you will wear a jacket.” he said as he pulled one out of a canvas bag behind him and handed it to me. I put it on and he told me how to adjust it. He put one on too.
Then he said “Ready?” and he picked up his paddle and put it in the water and he pushed it toward me. I had picked up my paddled and was pushing it towards him through the water. The boat moved just a little but the forces almost canceled each other.
“You’re a quick study, boy.”
“You did just what I did.”
“Yes sir, I thought that was what you said to do.”
“You’re going to do just fine. Now ship your paddle and I’ll take us out and then we’ll start the lesson.”
I didn’t move and I must have looked blank because I felt it and he knew it.
“When I say ship your paddle I mean for you to lay it gently in the boat.”
I did and then he took us out and he gave me directions on how to paddle. He showed me how to go straight, turn, back and brake. It all seemed so sensible and the canoe moved with ease.
“Son”, he said, “You are a natural just like your Daddy.”
Right then I would have paddled that old gentleman forever for free, but true to his word he paid me that day as soon as we had unloaded the gear. He told me to wait for him a minute and he went in the house. When he returned he was carrying a small Coca- cola which he handed to me and he said, “Miss Myrtle says we can go Thursday morning so you be here same time day after tomorrow. Got that?”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”
Over the next two years I paddled Mr. Julius twice a week almost every week. He explained the basics of fly rods, and casting reels and how to read the lay of fish even in strange water. He taught me to clean fish and to catch and release and we only took a few home any given time. We shared. He would usually take one or two for him and Miss Myrtle and give me three or four for my family. He only fished for largemouth bass and if he caught any thing else he either returned it to the water or sometimes gave it to his cleaning lady. He fished the year around even in the dog days of summer and it was one of those sweltering days that left me a concrete memory that has given me pleasure over and over again, first in the doing and later in the reliving.
It was hot. By eight a.m. it was ninety. It had never cooled during the night. We had made a big circle fishing the grass beds, snags, stickups, every remotely fishy looking spot. Nothing, not one rise. There was no ripple on the water and Mr. Julius had said a hundred times over the years never fish when there’s not a ripple on the water.
“Son”, he said, “Are you game to try something fool?”
“Whatever you want me to do sir.”
“You’ll think I took leave of my senses but it’s something I saw my Daddy do once and it worked. Paddle me around that point and the cove again just as hard as you can and pay no attention to my shenanigans.”
I dug in the paddle blade with fast furious strokes till I was leaving a generous wake for a man powered craft. Mr. Julius crawled up in the front of the canoe. He took the long pole he carried for occasionally retrieving a fly from a willow or dispatching an overly insistent cottonmouth. He began to flail the water. I paddled fast and furious and he slapped the big pole on the surface just as fast and furious till we were both panting. He signaled me to stop. He loaded his pipe. He lit it and relaxed as he poured us both the last of the tea he always carried.
“Mr. Julius”, I said, “what did we just do?”
“Reveille, son, reveille. I’m as good with a fly rod as any man alive, but we have not seen one rise. There can be only one logical explanation. The bass are all napping. It’s to hot for anything but lethargy. They must be asleep, so I have awakened them. We will give them a few moments to ready for dinner and try again. Drink your tea and rest.
He finished his pipe and the tea and instructed me to take him around slowly once more. He hooked, landed and released three bass that would have averaged five to six pounds each and then we loaded the gear and went home. As he drove he told me of a day when his Daddy had done almost the same on a small lake in Georgia.
Since then I’ve read all sorts of documents about thermal layering, aeration, mixed layer theory, noise attraction, drawing up cold water. I don’t know what happened. You believe what you want. For my money, Mr. Julius just woke them.
Reveille~Gray’s Sporting Journal~Feb/Mar 2007