by Ed Wall
To me and a lot of other folks, she was a fishing icon, a standard by which others were judged. Even though she was a large woman (“full-bodied” in today’s vernacular), she was surprisingly agile when it came to maneuvering around a farm pond or down a bank of the Neuse River.
And that was where she could be found more often than not when the chores at home permitted. In fact, she was known to let chores wait if the word came that the bream were bedding in one of her favorite spots and she could get someone to take her out there.
Most people knew her as Ms. Myrtle; to me she was Granny. And, she was a master of the angling craft, one of those rare individuals of whom it is said, “They could catch fish in a mud hole.”
Granny’s methods were simple but deadly. Although competent with more sophisticated tackle, she preferred a cane pole for freshwater fishing. Armed with one or more ten to twelve-foot poles and a can of red worms or a box of crickets, she would dredge bream, bass, catfish or perch from nearly any given water body, regardless of the weather or time of year.
She often did this while other anglers, slinging lures with spinning or casting tackle, looked on – empty handed. Granny, like a lot of other old-timers, knew a cane pole in the hands of a skilled fisherman is perhaps the most effective tackle ever invented. It’s also one of the most aesthetically pleasing.
The ultimate in simplicity, a cane pole is a slender length of bamboo which, when dried and varnished, has amazing strength and resiliency. When tipped with an equal length of 8 to 10-pound test line, a sliding cork, a piece or two of lead shot, and a hook appropriate for the quarry being sought, it becomes an angling system that has probably accounted for more fish dinners than any other type of tackle ever invented.
While a cane pole lacks the complexities of modern baitcasting and spinning gear, it still requires a certain degree of expertise and finesse. Comparing a cane pole to a graphite spinning outfit is sort of like comparing a traditional-style hunting bow to a high powered rifle. The former, in both cases, requires a greater degree of stealth and, often, patience on the part of the user.
Cane poles are hard to find nowadays. Once they were a standard commodity at nearly every country store, hanging on a makeshift rack on the side of the building or propped in an easily accessible corner. More than just items for sale, they were symbols of an easier life. They were evidence to every farmer who stopped by the store that, although there might be another ten dusty acres to plow or a field of corn to plant, at some point the sun would dip behind the trees, cool shadows would creep across the pasture, and bream would gather in the shallows of the farm pond.
Cane poles have been largely replaced by telescoping fiberglass poles many anglers call “bream busters” in deference to one of the earliest brands. The synthetic models are a step down, aesthetically, from traditional cane poles. On the other hand, they are at least as durable and, since they can be collapsed, are more easily transported. In any case, the new man-made versions of the cane pole retain the most important features of the originals – the heft, feel and simplicity.
Old hands with poles, whether they are traditional cane or the modern kind, are a pleasure to watch. They swing, flip or roll their line as the situation dictates, often dropping their bait into holes in the vegetation the size of a coffee can.
They let their line slide into the water so there’s not so much as a ripple, or let it plop so it sounds like a bream sucking a bug off the water’s surface. The latter delivery is intended to grab the attention of nearby fish and make them think they’re missing an easy meal.
Traditional fishing with a cane pole is not only sporting, it’s meditative. There’s a natural symmetry to gliding along a creek bank in the gathering dusk, flicking a cricket into promising spots. While June bugs and tree frogs begin their nightly duets, the limber pole arcs forward and then back with a sureness and a rhythm that is as old as the ages.
Occasionally the little bright bobber slides under the surface and, with a quick whip of the pole, the hook is set. For a few moments it pulses and jerks, the line scribing tight circles in the water. And then, gradually yielding, a hand-sized panfish comes sliding over the boat’s gunwale. It either joins others in a cooler or, depending on the whim of the fisherman, splashes back to swim – and will hopefully be caught – another day. The hook is baited again and the ritual continues.
It used to be that you could tell someone was going fishing because there would be a bundle of cane poles tied to the car’s rain gutter or sticking out the rear window. It was a declaration that, “Hey, you might be working but I’m not. I’m going fishing, so na-na, na-na, na-na.”
Just seeing those poles strapped to that car could set the observer to daydreaming about an afternoon at the creek, a big ol’ catfish flopping on the grassy bank. It could also make him a pretty useless employee for the rest of the day. Modern equipment doesn’t do that. The rods and reels, even the telescoping bream busters, are locked up out of sight.
Cane poles were made for what Izaak Walton called “The Contemplative Man’s Recreation.” They make you slow down and get close to what you’re doing, and that’s a good thing. At least it was good enough for Granny. If there are farm ponds in Heaven, I’ll bet that’s where she is right now. And I guarantee you she’s using a cane pole.