Hip Shots

Escaping boredom in a tiny town, population 26, was a battle fought every day as a youngster.  When the wind blew relentlessly across the open plains, shooting hoops in the driveway felt like the equivalent of casting a size 26 Adams behind a jet engine during takeoff.  I remember yelling at the wind as if it were an enormous schoolyard bully.

In this part of the country, one must calculate wind speed and direction on top of all the normal mechanics of a jump shot.  When the wind didn’t blow, I would rejoice, but my dad would curse under his breath. A windless day meant the windmills didn’t turn which meant he was hauling water all day to stock tanks so our herds wouldn’t perish.  Oh, the constant demands of the American rancher.  There is never a shortage of things to bitch about.

We grew up in the middle of nowhere.  School was twenty miles away.  But the real indicator that you live in the boonies is proximity to a Walmart which in our case was a full two hours down the road.  The only friends I had to play with were my two younger sisters who were never particularly interested in taking wild baseball pitches at their heads or having rocks blasted at them from a sling shot. 

Lucky for me, my dad and granddad had leased land for the past thirty years on a four mile stretch of creek that was full of largemouth, bluegill, crappie, catfish, gar, and carp.  Since possibly none of these fish were native, somehow at an impossibly slow rate they had either migrated from the East or more likely were introduced into this small piece of water in the Texas Panhandle by a rancher fighting the same boredom I grappled with daily. 

In some areas you could step across this trickle of water we called a creek.  Yet when a heavy thunderstorm erupted in the west, the trickle could stretch to a quarter mile wide creating yet more work for everyone as the debris destroyed fences in its path.  Cue the bitching.

The fishing holes on the ranch were scattered and some were deceivingly deep.  White tail deer and droves of cattle watered along its muddy banks, as well as they typical racoons, skunks, coyotes, and bobcat.  There were unexpected locations where after a big flood, sand would form sizable beaches we thought must be similar to the ocean.  The floods would also litter the banks with limbs and washed up artifacts. 

After one such flood, dad found a buffalo skull that was almost completely petrified protruding from the sand.  For some reason during that flood, the earth that had consumed the skull just decided to spit it back out.  Today the ghostly skull sits in the Heritage Museum along with other items that are either too modern or too weird you raise an eyebrow as to whether they are remotely museum-worthy, even in such a quirky small town. 

Typically, when we fished the creek we would drown worms or huck balls of home-made stink bait on treble hooks with a Zebco spinner hoping for a blue catfish, but I never remember catching such a fish until I was in my 30s, and it was on a wooly booger, and a fly rod.  When the fish weren’t biting (which was always the case when I was fishing) I would fend off boredom by chasing huge carp in the shallows with a four-pronged, fully barbed, frog gig.  We’d buy them at the feed store two towns over, and affixed them to a length of windmill sucker rod about eight feet long.  It was hunting, not fishing. 

This is how the Potawatomi fished where my Native American ancestors were from in the Great Lakes region, so you could say spearfishing is somewhere in my blood.  Ok, that might be a stretch, but it is exhilarating to hunt like an Indian even if the bloodlines have been thinned out by the Irish and just about every other species of Caucasian, but I do carry my Citizen Potawatomi Nation card proudly and sometimes obnoxiously. 

Gigging carp is dangerous business, but we didn’t think about how far away the pick up was parked or the nearest hospital being fourty miles away had the barbed shank somehow impaled a foot.  Minor details when you are young.  Our cousins thought our family was almost dangerous and definitely redneck.  Yet there was no missing teeth or incest, so we believed ourselves to be quite sophisticated compared to some of our neighbors.  Now these cousins willingly come to Colorado for camping and a fly-fishing lesson, which I approach with a little more tact and poetry sprinkled with Texisms I probably won’t ever shake from my vocabulary. 

Walking along the banks of the creek, the object was to spot a cruising carp in shallow water and lay chase at a full run, spear over the shoulder ready to strike.  Aiming behind the gill plates with our prehistoric gaffs since their sides and backs were hard and slippery and could sometimes reject the dulled points.  Most often, we would whiff and lose the fish in the churned muddy water they would leave in their explosive departure. 

The other standard approach was to stand like statues on the bank and hurl the spears at the front of a wake which was their major tell.  We were told by our elders that these were trash fish and would “take over a creek” so they would be dispatched and flopped up on the bank for the buzzards after being mercilessly stabbed to death. 

Once during a flood, there were loads of carp trying to swim over a county road that was under four inches of water.  It looked like an Alaskan Salmon run in a low river bead.  Dad and I pulled up next to a rusty white pickup that I recognized as my dad’s uncle Kay.  He was smoking a cigarette leaning on the hood with a .22 rifle in hand.  There were a few dead carp lying on the caliche road near his tire and some drifting back into deeper water. 

He greeted us between drags and pointed to the carp run in front of us on the road proud that he was doing his ecological duty of ridding the county of these monsters.  I have no idea how long he’d been parked in the middle of the road shooting carp, smoking Pall Malls, and drinking Olympia, but based on his accuracy, it had been a while.  As we drove away, dad shook his head and it was then I sensed Uncle Kay’s behavior might not be normal.

Growing up surrounded by this slaughterhouse attitude toward carp, never would I have imagined these fish were brought to America to eat at Thanksgiving dinner in upper class dining rooms back East.  Even now it seems like a stretch.  I read somewhere that the best way to eat them was to cook them over an open flame with butter and lemons on a cedar plank, throw the fish away and eat the plank.  After netting and gigging many of these beasts, I still haven’t attempted preparing one for consumption.  Once you see those lips, you can’t unsee them.

There was an evening while waiting in ambush for one of these wily invasives a four-foot gar cruised slowly past the front of my spear in its eerily slow snake-like swim.  These fish haunted my dreams, with their hundreds of visibly sharp alligator teeth and extremely long scaled bodies, seemingly not afraid of anything in the world.  I launched my gig at its dead center with all the strength I had.  It felt like the spikes had hit a stone with a scraping sound resonating up through the sucker rod handle. 

The fish boiled away with an enormous splash of the tail and a wake that extended to all banks.  When I pulled the gig from the water the tips didn’t come back with a single scale, adding to my fear of the creature. 

Dad told me once while running trot lines on the creek he’d seen an enormous black scaled back break the surface and a small gar was clamped onto the dorsal fin.  I still don’t like swimming in the creek.  In my mind that gar has been plotting his revenge on me for decades and my toes are not safe.

            There is an especially long, deep hole accessed by a coarse walk through chest-high sage and even taller sand plum thickets.  At ground level there are sand burrs to your knees and the occasional rattle snake.  Therefore, at every level, some kind of prickly plant or animal is trying to stab you.  This is not an ideal walk with a strung-up fly rod in tow. 

The gauntlet of thickets tear at your clothes, your skin, and grab everything that passes by.  Fly line especially.  But the fishing is worth the holes in your shirt and the cuts on your arms.  It’s a unique spot in that it has never changed course or shape to my knowledge nor to my father’s.  In the center of the dark water a fallen tree trunk stretches nearly across the whole width of the water just below the surface. 

Only the trunk remains, and it’s covered in dark moss.  It is only visible for a short stretch where it protrudes like a lance from the undercut bank.  The remainder sulks beneath the dark water where it is likely full of lures and a definitely a few of my flies. 

It is the only structure in the deep hole, and it produces at least one fat five-pound bass on each trip.  I usually fish the whole pool and save the tree for last as it is too good to cast to first.  It would be like eating the cherry out of your cherry limeade before drinking it.  Worth the wait every time.

The first time I remember fishing this log was when I was a dumb kid who had just received a new Daisy BB gun.  Dad and I had planned to try out some fresh dear liver as bait one Sunday afternoon after mass (which he didn’t attend and I despised).  A landlord was in town and my grandfather, Jim, was trailing him around the headquarters corrals pointing at things in a pace faster than usual.  My dad was also preoccupied and walking fast which was strange as neither of them ever seemed to be in a huge hurry unless a momma cow was chasing them up a fence. 

Dad and I were walking back from the hay barn and on our way to fishing I hoped.  I was shooting bbs at various inanimate objects when something caught my eye.  An ancient Dodge pickup was returning to the earth where it had sat for decades.  The only thing not completely rusted through was the cool oval back window.  I pulled off a hip shot thinking I would surely miss the whole vehicle at that distance or that the bb would bounce off the glass if I was lucky enough to actually hit it. 

To my shock the bb landed dead center of the glass and it spiderwebbed with a startlingly loud pop.  Dad stopped, swung around, and leadingly asked, “Did you just shoot that window?!”  He had crazy eyes and he yelled when he asked the obvious question.  Impressed at the shot yet knowing I was now in deep shit, I said, “I think so.” 

Dumb kid.  He was visibly pissed off and made up some story about how an uncle or cousin or something had plans to fix that thing up someday.  I looked at the pile of rust over his shoulder that would never, with no amount of work, move again barring a Class 5 tornado.  I remember thinking he was totally fabricating this story, which he totally was. 

“You better go tell Jim what you just did!”   That was harsh punishment as I never wanted to disappoint my granddad.  My stomach fell as I handed over the straight-shooting piece of weaponry to my dad.  For some reason Jim was nowhere to be found so we loaded up and headed to the fishing hole in absolute silence. 

He dropped me off as close as he could drive to the creek without getting stuck in the sand, handed me the tackle box, a plastic bag of bloody liver, and a spinning rod.  He told me to “think about” what I had done, alone.  It started raining after the sound of the engine faded into the sage brush and I just sat there by the outstretched log never casting a line, sobbing.

Thinking about it today though, that seems like a stupid move because the fish would have been biting for sure in that perfect rainy weather.  Yet I sat there feeling sorry for myself, worrying about how Jim would react to my magnificent yet destructive hip shot.

When dad finally came back for me, I was soaked to the bone and wholly defeated.  We drove back to the corrals and I found Jim, hustling around the barns with the landlord.  I approached with my tail between my legs and told him what I had done and that I was terribly sorry.  “Oh hell, that old thing?  That’s fine,” he said smiling through a handful of yellow teeth.  Then he sped off once again chasing the man from the city who had a hundred stupid questions. 

Dad wasn’t pleased with the outcome, so he grounded me from the Daisy until further notice, still crazy-eyed.  It felt like if he were horseback, he would have hopped off the saddle and tuned on my butt with his reins.  I think the landlord’s presence my have spared my ass that day.

Since then I’ve graduated to an uppity fly rod and tying my own streamers in the middle of a large western city where the hospital is eight blocks away, and trout streams are closer than my school growing up.  I’ve tied a brace of one-off, slightly hideous, streamers from quail and lesser prairie chicken feathers my dad has found in that very pasture where the deep hole with the log lives, and I’ve caught some fine fish with these streamers, despite their eyebrow raising, gaudy appearance. 

On one of my last trips home I surprisingly caught a carp on one such streamer, which I excitedly and carefully landed, snapped a photo of, and released back into the water completely jazzed to have hooked one on a fly I had tied.  I must be getting further away from my childhood blood lust because I didn’t think for a second about bonking it on the head and throwing it onto the bank for the buzzards.  I only held the fish up to eye level appreciating its strength and perseverance.  City boy.

A person heavily smarter than me noted that a body of water with a diversity of species, even carp, is a healthy one, absolutely contrary to what I was raised to believe.  Re-thinking beliefs I was taught when I was young has in many cases become a theme in my adult life.  It is my hope that I and all my fellow humans leave this world a more curious person than when we arrived.  Now, I’m not going to start releasing these goofy looking animals into every stream I see, but now they get my appreciation for how smart and powerful they are and not four barbed prongs behind the gills.

The deep hole in Wolf Creek full of carp and bass and crappie and even gar has been there since my dad was a kid and he said the log had been as well.  And every time I go home, without fail, I rise early and walk through more pricks than a priest convention to fish under that log jutting out of the bank.  The only sounds here are the lowing of the bullfrogs and an eighteen-wheeler gearing down in the very far distance punctuated with the sucking sound of a carp eating cottonwood seeds off the surface film.  And without fail, I remember those boredom-free days, a deadly barbed gig, and a fabulous hip shot.

Published by willbarch78

I grew up in the middle of nowhere Texas. The nearest Walmart was a full two hours away. My family still runs a ranch back home that I grew up on, but at some point in my treasured youth I hung up the idea of becoming a cowboy, and pursued my passion for architecture. Today I still find myself trying to fit in to a life that has treated me with the average ups and downs one can expect after a certain number of years. My wife and I moved to Denver after attending Texas Tech School of Architecture in Lubbock as we needed a grade change from the Llano Estacado. We camp with our three growing girls all summer and into the fall while I write and create and fly fish to maintain sanity. Life is moving fast as our careers and children progress in all areas, so being outdoors with each other keeps us mostly grounded.

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