Archive for July, 2012

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  • July 25th, 2012

Cold, Cold Water Fishing


            It is 105 degrees today and has been above 90 for long enough to qualify as Hell on Earth, so I figured a piece I wrote after a frosty fishing trip might make sweaty folks appreciate their condition a tad more.

            But probably not.  Anyone for a wine cooler?

By Joel M. Vance      

            “What was that splash?” Spence Turner asked.  “Was that a fish rising?”

            “That was one of my fingers falling off,” I said.  Wind gusted downriver with no more bite than a Doberman pinscher guard dog with an attitude.  This was Arkansas, the sunny South, where waitresses ask, “Y’all want food with your grits?” and “Ain’t it hot out today, though?”

            No it wasn’t.  It was cold enough to freeze the longjohns off an Inuit.  We were trout fishing on the Little Red River, home of the world record brown trout and repository of four trout species: brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat.  The South?  Ain’t no trouts in the South, man.

            Well, there are, on quite a few streams.  The Little Red River is one of those Southern meandering warm water streams that the Corps of Engineers found on a day when it had too much concrete.  Greers Ferry Dam was the last public dedication John F. Kennedy made before he flew to Dallas–October, 1963.

            When the Little Red headwaters vanished beneath Greers Ferry Lake, what had been smallmouth bass country suddenly turned troutish.  Yankee fish invaded Arkansas. 

            You find honey ‘n ‘lasses trout where there is a dam that spills cold water or, less frequently, you find them where there’s a huge spring that spits cold water, but mostly you simply don’t find them.

            Sometimes when you find them you don’t find them.  “This pool last month was so thick with fish you couldn’t see the bottom,” said our guide, Bo Vining.  Of course guides always say stuff like that, but Southern guides are prone to tell the truth (grits, gravy and collard greens make them forthright.

            It is a Southern law that all guides are named either Bo or Billy Bob.  I looked over the side of the boat and saw the bottom, lots of it with no fish to obscure my view.

            “You should have been here last month,” said Bo, repeating something I didn’t want to hear.

            My fingers were those of the Neanderthals they dig out of icebergs, except the Neanderthals didn’t get frozen on purpose.

            Later that day I invaded the local WalMart for a pair of longjohns, preferably about three inches thick.  “If we have any they’re over there,” the clerk said, pointing.  I started pawing through the underwear, all shirts.  Then I finally found one bottom, the last one in Arkansas.  It was marked “XXX” and I didn’t know if that meant it was hot pink and edible or if it was large.

            It was, I found out, not only large, but large enough to host the Super Bowl.  Spence didn’t quit laughing for an hour.

            The resulting outflow from the foot of the dam is icy cold and for 30 miles it stays cold enough for trout to thrive.  In the wintertime, the whole area can stay cold enough for trout but unbearable for anglers.

            Billy Lindsey, whose folks founded Lindsey’s Resort a year after the dam dedication, figures that he has a year-round fishery going and he’s right…if during January he is visited only by Aleuts.

            The fishing is good; the weather can be enough to cause meteorologists to barf their cookies.  Billy does his best to ameliorate the discomfort.  His cabins heat to 80 degrees or more–I know because I had the thermostat cranked up to Beyond Hot.

            And he offers a feed to visiting dignitaries (I sneaked in under the tape when everyone had his or her face half-buried in Willingham’s Memphis Barbecue) that would make Julia Child moan like a dog with its paw caught in a corn sheller.

            Ray and Alta Pruett represent Willingham and they sacrificed a pig in a pagan ceremony that made me want to dance naked under the stars–well, considering the cold, maybe dance in a fur parka with a hood.  The Little Piggie went to the smoker in the Pruett trailer where it turned a golden tan over several hours and appeared on a sideboard with a smile and a flavor that would make angels consider sin if sin was overdosing on barbecue.

            “So, how’d you do today?”  The response is, depending on success, “We wiped ’em out” if you caught a ton or “Well, it was slow, but we did all right” if you caught two 12- inch stockers.

            At mid afternoon I was still waiting for the stockers; else I’d have had to mumble some lie about, “Lost a big one…”

            Then my strike indicator twitched and I reacted about one month late, came up empty.  It’s hard to react quickly when your extremities are five degrees colder than Robert Falcon Scott (who froze to death at the South Pole).

            Oh, I caught a few trout–foot-long stockers that would have taken anything that looked like food: worms, corn, salmon eggs, Big Macs (well, okay, not Big Macs).  The nice thing about the Little Red is that you don’t need to feel guilty about keeping trout to eat. They are stocked to be caught and eaten.  They are extremely dumb fish that it’s a mercy to catch before they do damage to themselves out of sheer dumbity. 

            Of course they are a tad smarter than I am.

            But I was first in line when the pig came to rest on the sideboard.  “You got to dig right in with your fingers,” said the Pig Roaster.  I flexed my fingers, warmed in the 80-degree heat of Rainbow Lodge, and I said, “Stand back–this might get messy.”


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  • July 13th, 2012

Grandpa’s Gun

By Joel M. Vance

             If Frank and Jesse James and I have anything in common, it’s that we’re Missourians.  I haven’t robbed any banks and I’m not dead….but I do have a Colt Army .44 pistol, a model that that both Frank and Jesse packed in their early days of homicide and lawlessness.           

            Chances are Jesse and Frank James opted to upgrade from their relatively low-power .36 caliber Navy Colt single action pistols when the gun’s big brother, the Army .44 caliber became available to aspiring bushwhackers.  Too often if you shoot someone with a .36 caliber ball he gets up and shoots back.  Not so with the .44 which equates to using a baseball bat to get someone’s attention rather than a willow switch.

            My great grandfather was no bushwhacker, just a Chariton County, Missouri, farm boy whose brief military career in the Civil War lasted all of three months and whose combat experience comprised one morning.  He did, however, have that Army Colt .44 and it has made its way through three subsequent generations to me.  

            I also have blurry photographs of GG William Siebert Vance and his brother John Alexander Vance in uniform as well as copies of their Union Militia enlistment record, which began July 2, 1864 and ended October 15.  Both men ostensibly were farmers, although Great Uncle John was afflicted with virulent wanderlust and a misguided sense of adventure and, in the manner of big brothers everywhere, he dragged his kid brother along.

            Great grand uncle John was a restless type and he lit out for California, lured by the discovery of gold in 1849 at Sutter’s mill.  He was convinced he would return home every bit as rich as that Sterling Price fellow from south of Dalton who not only was rich, but also an Army general.  Like most of the Forty Niners, John returned home sadder but not necessarily wiser with what he ruefully called “a case of cooties.”

            Undaunted, he mounted a second trip to the gold fields and may well have encountered another Missouri would-be prospector, Samuel Clemens, from Hannibal, whose fruitless attempts to dredge gold from the California creeks he would later document in a book titled Roughing It under the pen name of Mark Twain.

            The second time he sought California gold, great grand uncle John dragged along his younger brother Bill but the trip was no more successful than the first one.  At least he got to share his cooties with family.  Both men, cured of gold fever, came back to Missouri to resume farming….just in time to be a very minor part of the national madness known as the Civil War (or the Late Unpleasantness if you happened to lean to the south). 

            Missouri during the Civil War was a hotbed of armed conflict and Chariton County was among the more contentious areas—most of it in the form of what today would be simple criminal activity not organized military action.  The bushwhackers may have claimed they were fighting for a cause, but mostly their fighting was the lure of mayhem for the sake of mayhem.

The Chariton County area was a maelstrom of divided loyalties.  Adjacent Howard County, where Vance’s Rangers would start and end their brief military career, was heavily Confederate.  Chariton County had many Union sympathizers, including the sheriff who paid for his allegiance to the Union with his life when Johnny Reb bushwhackers invaded the Courthouse and killed him.  Great Grandpa Bill’s granddaughter married a Finnell, a family that fought for the Confederacy.  And a John Vance fought with Quantrill’s notorious Confederate bushwhackers and was captured at Rocheport in 1863 (Rocheport was a Missouri River town that functioned as a headquarters for Quantrill).  Whether that John was kin to the Chariton County Vances is anyone’s guess—there are John Vances all over the family history.

            Many of the bushwhackers were just violent criminals.  Bloody Bill Anderson, nominally a Johnny Reb, said that he really didn’t owe allegiance to the Confederacy.  He just enjoyed killing.  Missouri ranks third among all states in the number of Civil War shootouts, behind Virginia and Tennessee (where the battles tended to be large and organized as opposed to Missouri’s skirmishes between small forces).

            On Sept. 27,1864,  Anderson, a psychopath, with about 80 heavily armed and murderous bushwhackers, some dressed in stolen Union Army uniforms, occupied  the town of Centralia, about 70 miles southeast of the Vance homestead, ostensibly to derail the North Missouri Railroad. The guerrillas were more interested in looting the town than in military tactics and reportedly drank whiskey from stolen boots to loosen their trigger fingers—a good indication of their degree of military discipline (not to mention disruption of their taste buds).  By the time the train hove in view, the guerillas were drunk and bloodthirsty.

 Anderson lined up 23 Union soldiers, heading home on leave, and his men killed all but one, sparing only Sgt. Thomas Goodman to, as Anderson said, tell the tale.   Later, Anderson added to his gory nickname when his gunmen slaughtered 127 Union soldiers sent in pursuit.  In retrospect it’s scary to think of this gory band of trigger-happy psychopaths roaming the central Missouri area so close to my kinfolks.

Among the Anderson shootists were two brothers destined for dubious legend, Frank and Jesse James, along with their equally vicious friend Cole Younger.  My grandfather, son of William Siebert, would be married by a minister named Younger, supposedly related to the infamous Cole, Jim and Bob, all three of whom would be shot up and captured after their abortive attempt to rob the Northfield, Minnesota, bank, along with Frank and Jesse who escaped back to Missouri.

            With the news of the Centralia slaughter fresh in their minds, Great-Grandpa and Great-Uncle traveled a few miles south less than three weeks later to help defend Glasgow from Gen. Sterling Price’s peripatetic Confederate army which had been wandering all over north Missouri looking for trouble.   It’s possible Great Grandpa Vance’s hogleg was intended for defense of the farmstead, rather than as a weapon of organized war, but he and his rowdy older brother embarked on their quasi-military mission to save Glasgow, a Missouri River town, probably motivated by one of Great Granduncle John’s Quixotic enthusiasms.  It was a Great Adventure, like the California gold rush, only with bullets. 

Gen. Price also was a Chariton County boy, with a plantation only a few miles from the Vance homestead as the crow flies.  You have to wonder if the Vance boys didn’t occasionally think of Price this is a hell of a way for a good ol’ Chariton County boy to act.  Price, a major general, was an overachiever, especially for a Dalton Bottoms product.  He was a brigadier general in the Mexican War and then was governor of Missouri from 1853-57.  An unreconstructed rebel, he fled to Mexico after the Civil War, failed to establish a Confederacy there, and returned to St. Louis where he died poor in 1867.  The Glasgow “battle,” such as it was, was at the apex of Price’s Civil War career.  It all went South from there—literally as his increasingly shredded army retreated to Arkansas and Texas.

Since John formed Vance’s Rangers it was logical that he would be the commanding officer and his little brother would be whatever rank the Cap chose for him which turned out to be corporal.  Was there sibling rivalry (“You got to be a captain and I was only a corporal!).  After Price captured the Rangers, he allowed the officers to keep their sidearms; else my Colt would not be here today.

Which makes me wonder if my Colt really is Great Grandpa Bill’s because he was an enlisted man and Price’s army confiscated the enlisted weaponry.  Grandpa Bill has a muzzle-loading rifle visible in his photograph, not a pistol.  Perhaps the Colt came later or perhaps it belonged to John or who knows?  It has traveled down the hereditary turnpike to me. 

            The Army Colt was new when the War started—it debuted in 1860, a $20 beefier version of the Navy .36 caliber Colt which dated to 1851.  The .44 was built on the same frame as its Navy cousin, and Union Army officers eagerly snapped up the new six-shooter as did their Confederate counterparts.  The gun was a vast improvement over earlier pistols.  Not that it was the ultimate in sidearms—that would come later with the introduction of cartridge pistols that could be reloaded far faster than cap-and-ball types.

            Loading it involved pouring powder into the chamber and seating a ball with a loading lever attached to the bottom of the barrel.  There always was the danger that firing one chamber would ignite adjacent ones as well, a dire incident called a “chain fire” which was as threatening to the shooter as the shootee. 

            Most used paper cartridges, with the ball and powder sealed inside a stiff paper wrapping which could be dropped into a chamber and seated with the ramming lever.  But it still was a cumbersome process and many who carried the guns, especially guerillas and bushwhackers, stashed several weapons around their body so when they shot out one loaded gun, they’d simply grab a fresh one and keep shooting.  James family photos show Jesse James with an Army Colt during his Civil War stint with Bloody Bill Anderson, although he favored other weapons in his later career as a criminal. 

            Before it became obsolete, sales of the .44 numbered 200,000, of which 127,000 were Army-issue.              Great Grandpa Bill lived until 1889 and as far as I know never fired his Colt in anger.  My grandfather used to load up the old .44 on July 4 and torch off a few rounds to celebrate the birth of the nation (and also the war that preserved it, so inefficiently fought by his daddy).  Grandpa Bill was lucky to have survived the Civil War unscathed, especially in a county where Southern sympathy was widespread and where guerilla raids were common.  It was murder on a daily basis.  Marauding bands of thugs would stop at a farmhouse and almost routinely kill the man of the house.

            The roving killers operated on both sides of the fence—some Union, some Confederate.  Some wore military uniforms; others didn’t.  But they shared a thirst for the most appalling murders, including hanging a 17-year old kid and leaving him still alive (he died).  Rebels captured the Chariton County sheriff in the courthouse at Keytesville (which later would burn, destroying countless irreplaceable records), shot him in the head and left his body in the middle of a county road. 

            Another Union sympathizer, William Young, died along with the sheriff.  He tried to run, but the bushwhackers cut him down.  It’s possible I was related to him—William Siebert married Hannah Young, but there are Youngs all over Chariton County to this day and I don’t know if the unfortunate William was close kin to my Great Grandmother or not.

            The bottom line is that my Great Grandfather was lucky to have escaped the Civil War alive and live another quarter century.  He died at 52 in 1889, not an old man.  But, given his ineffectual military career, likely he would have had a much shorter life had Bloody Bill Anderson and his bushwhackers come knocking at the door, even if he met them packing a Colt .44.


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  • July 6th, 2012

            Chances are Homer Circle had more nephews and nieces than any uncle who ever lived.  Some of them may actually have been blood relatives; the rest were those of us who knew him as Uncle Homer or Unc.   Homer Circle was a living legend for most of his 97 years and he mentored a generation or two of outdoor communicators who revered him, not just for his many accomplishments, but mostly because he was perhaps the nicest human being who ever lived. 

            His passing touches me on many levels.  Back when I was a kid outdoor writer at the annual Outdoor Writers of America conference, Homer urged me to send some material to Sports Afield, the magazine where he was the longtime fishing editor (34 years) and probably the most respected member of the staff.  He would, he said, lobby for me to get a column with SA.  And he did although it didn’t work out. 

            That he would single me out was honor enough.  Later when I was honored with OWAA’s third of three major honors, I realized that there were only three members in what now is 85 years of the organization’s existence to reach that exalted plateau.  Besides Homer and me was Grits Gresham and I still don’t believe I belong with that august pair.

            Both became television stars in addition to their written word output, which included books and countless magazine articles.  Now both of them are gone, leaving me as the lonely bull at the fringe of the elephant burying ground.  It’s a sobering thought.

            Uncle Homer loved largemouth bass above all other fish and his several books mostly are Bibles on how to catch them.  He moved to Florida because Florida bass are many and big.  In a 1965 book, he wrote, “God in His infinite wisdom meant that men should fish, and that fish should be caught—but not always.  The good days are made sweeter by contrast with the bad, and true to this breed of whom I speak, you will remember only the good days.”

            Every year at the OWAA conference there is an orientation for “green ribbons,” those young members attending their first conference, with a green ribbon on their name tag signifying their rookie status.  Home invariably went to the green ribbon orientation to welcome the newbies, even though it was not an assignment.  He just wanted to make them feel welcome and Uncle Homer was warm greeting personified.

            His invariable greeting was a corny joke or pun, designed to make you groan the way you do when someone whacks you upside the head with an outrageous gag.  He started phone conversations with a groaner before he told you who was calling.  But you didn’t have to ask—you knew it was Uncle Homer halfway through the kind of joke that would get you yanked offstage at a comedy club.

            Uncle Homer joined OWAA in 1946.  He became its president in 1967.  He joined the Circle of Chiefs (which honors conservation communicators) in 1965.  Excellence in Craft inevitably followed in 1975 and the Ham Brown Award for service to OWAA in 1979.  He was inducted into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in 1981, the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2001 and the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame in 2007.  He added the American Sportfishing Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

            He was barely out of high school when he became a salesman in an Ohio outdoor store.   “For the next eight years, he had the chance to see and use every new hook, line and sinker that was introduced to the market,” wrote Jay Cassell in an OWAA Legends piece.  Uncle Homer decided he knew as much about fishing as the fishing products people and devised a lure of his own and offered it to Heddon.  Heddon didn’t buy his lure, but they hired him as a vice-president of advertising and public relations.  In 1964, Circle began freelancing article for Sports Afield.

                Glenn Lau, among the top outdoor film producers, summed up Uncle Homer wonderfully well: For 30 years I have had the privilege of seeing people light up when they meet this man. Everyone, from all occupations, feels honored when Uncle Homer takes the time to listen to their stories and share some of his own. He is without a doubt the finest humanitarian that I’ve ever met. He is what many of us would like to be, open and receptive to everyone.”

            In 1996 he wrote me, “All goes well with the Circles…minor physical glitches but at 82 and 80 we are doubly blest and deeply thankful.  I’m on my 32nd year with Sports Afield, have lived through seven editors…blest there too.”  But SA went under a couple of times and finally resurfaced as a hunting magazine only.  No place for a fishing writer.  So Homer began writing for other publications.

            Aside from fishing, there was but one love in Uncle Homer’s life, his wife Gayle.  They were a devoted couple all the years he came to OWAA and she was as gracious and sweet as her husband.  When she died in 2007 they had been married for 70 years. They were as much in love on the last day of their marriage as they had been on the first.

            It makes me choke up to read what he wrote me in 2006: “Will hit 92 next month and the  most blest man I know.  Still writing for two mags, still fishing…still with my childbride in 68th year, still in love…been together 73 years, as I courted her five.  Alzheimer’s is taking its toll…but I’m with her to finale.” 

            Everyone who ever spent time with Uncle Homer will feel an empty spot in his or her life and even those who never knew him or heard one of his corny jokes will be lessened by losing the chance to have the Uncle Homer experience.  If there is a place—Heaven or Valhalla or whatever—where loved ones wait, Uncle Homer and his beloved Gayle will be together.  Regardless, the two of them always will live in the hearts and minds of all who knew them. 


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