The Year the Pickerel Came to Town

"What I saw then almost sent my eyes popping out of my head. And my heart began to sink with foreboding. Downing's Creek was literally alive with pickerel"

THE TOWN I came from was a wide spot in a narrow road in north-central North Dakota. The only relief from the monotonous prairie around it was a muddy, meandering stream known locally as the Mouse River, a translation from the French of its map name—the Souris. The Souris starts in Canada, loops lazily down into Dakota for a hundred miles or so, then turns and goes back into Canada as if it doesn’t like the looks of what it’s seen. The river and the mile-wide valley through which it runs is a cool green ribbon in the dusty prairie. 

Our little village was located at the southernmost point of the river’s loop, and my father was the village blacksmith—a native of Wisconsin who’d been raised with a fishing pole rather than a hickory cane. 

About a mile east of town was Downing’s Creek, which started at some springs six miles out on the prairie and came down into the valley through a swampy coulee overgrown with diamond willow and cat-tails, which we kids used to collect for torches. At the railroad bridge over the creek the town had built a dam to maintain the water table in the municipal wells near by. The pond, two or three acres in extent, teemed with pike, pickerel, and perch. There were big ones in it, too; you could see them by lying on the floor of an abandoned icehouse and peering through its cracks into the clear, sunlit water. There were even a few muskellunge in the pond—one of them a giant lunker called “Krouse’s Folly” after an old bachelor who once hooked him and nearly got drowned for it. 

Below the spillway, the creek meandered another half mile to the river, passing through a farmyard, a cow pasture, and and into the elm-and-oak woods along the main stream. But below the dam the fishing wasn’t very good. The creek was just a trickle of water with a pool here and there beneath the low-hanging willow limbs. You could catch a few small suckers and perch but I’d never known it to contain enough water to support anything worth taking home to the cook except frogs, whose legs made the most succulent dish anyone could imagine. 

After teaching me the rudiments, spending a great deal of time impressing upon me the principles of sportsmanship, and cautioning me against wasteful “meat” fishing, my father wisely left me to discover for myself the joys of learning to outsmart fish.

That summer of 1925, when I was a lanky, sensitive kid of seven or eight, with crooked teeth and hair the color and texture of dried corn husks, I had grown tired of most children’s games, and was getting restless. Then one day in midsummer my father promised to take me fishing. 

The rest of the week I helped him around the blacksmith shop, carrying water for the quench barrel and sweeping up horse droppings. By Saturday I had earned a quarter-enough to buy a bamboo pole, some fishline, and hooks at the general store. 

Sunday afternoon, after my father had rested a bit from his seventy-hour week over the forge—a work week in those days lived up to the name—he took me out to Downing’s Creek and showed me how to rig up my gear and where the fish were likely to hang out at different times of the day. 

Everything was much simpler in those days. For bait we used worms, grasshoppers, crawfish, or frogs on No. 6 (or larger) long-shank hooks. We had no leaders and no reels—one merely tied the line securely to the end of the cane pole. Sometimes we used an artificial lure purchased at the hardware store; we called it a “spoon hook,” and it was simply a treble hook equipped with red feathers and a red-and-black spoon-shaped spinner. We fished it by holding it in the current, when there was one, or by casting it out as far as the line would go and dragging it back just fast enough to turn the spinner. Sometimes we even jigged with the spoon hook, and you’d be surprised what a fish getter it was.

After teaching me the rudiments, spending a great deal of time impressing upon me the principles of sportsmanship, and cautioning me against wasteful “meat” fishing, my father wisely left me to discover for myself the joys of learning to outsmart fish. For the rest of the summer, up until the dog days, I spent every day out at Downing’s Creek. But when the water turned bad and the leaves began to crisp up and change color the fishing was over for the year. It was like losing candy to have to put up the cane pole until the next spring. 

That summer, I remember, was unusually hot and dry, and even before harvest time it was apparent that most of the crops were doomed. Rust had got into the wheat, and after that a plague of grasshoppers had gone through the country. And as if that weren’t enough, the first snow came early, preventing threshing operations on a lot of the crops that were left. 

My father’s income was like an economic barometer of the immediate area. When the township prospered, he prospered; when the township was hard up, he was poverty-stricken. His income was entirely dependent upon the farmers’ prosperity. Most of his work was done on credit, to be paid off when the crops were sold in the fall. That year few farmers paid their debts to the village blacksmith, and the other townspeople fared little better. 

By Thanksgiving Day the snow lay two feet deep and the thermometer was 10 below. The town’s normal activities had slowed to a crawl and already people were beginning to feel the pinch. A few, of course, were better fixed than others and able to tide themselves over, but most of the citizens had no reserves. Especially the village blacksmith. Austerity was a guest at our Thanksgiving table that year. 

The usual Yuletide preparations did not start until less than a week before Christmas, and with holiday buying at a bare minimum merchants suffered even more. I remember we had a tree with candles on it and a few gifts charged at the store at the last minute. One of the gifts was a new, shiny casting reel. Naturally, I adored it, but I almost wished I hadn’t been given it, for now my impatience for spring to come was almost painful.

Then, just after New Year’s, the weather went berserk. First it snowed steadily for several days, piling up waist-deep. Then the mercury thumped to the bottom and for the rest of the month never got above 30 below; sometimes it went to 40 and 45 below. About the middle of January a blizzard hit us. For days the wind swirled and howled around the house, whipping the snow into a blinding fog. With visibility less than twenty-five yards, it was practically suicide to get out of sight of a shelter. My father had to string a rope between the back stoop and the coal shed so we could tote in buckets of coal without getting lost. 

THE TOWN WAS completely cut off from the outside world. For a week or more even the trains quit running. The schools shut down, and so did the churches, the movie house, and every other public establishment. The food situation became critical. Cattle caught outside shelters died in herds. People who kept cows in sheds were generally assured of milk and butter for the children, and those who didn’t need the milk butchered the cows for their meat. 

I don’t remember many meals of beef, but I can still taste the breakfast cereal we ate daily. It consisted of raw wheat that Mr. Sears let me scrape from the empty bins at the near-by grain elevator. Even with cream and sugar, raw wheat still tastes just the way it sounds. Then there was the split-pea soup. This was the mainstay of every meal, and often the only dish. To this day I can’t stand even the sight of pea soup.

I don’t mean to say that people actually starved, but plenty of ribs would have shown if winter flannels had been removed. The thing that really affected everybody was a sense of dismal failure. A layer of black despair lay over the town as thick as the snowbanks. 

But, like a child, I was not frightened or discouraged. In fact I scarcely noticed any hardship, except for our diet and having to stay in the house day after dreary day. The only thing I hated was the waiting; my impatience for spring to come and the ice to leave the rivers and creeks was nearly unbearable. 

In the middle of February the temperature rose to 10 below—practically a heat wave—and life began to stir a little. But instead of feeling elated at having broken the back of winter, people acted as if each effort was the last surge of life before the spark flickered out. The winter had exhausted them spiritually as well as physically. 

Farms were being offered for sale. Several town families were rumored to be getting ready to move to less rigorous parts. A number of bankruptcy petitions were filed. The atmosphere was one of hopelessness. None of this, of course, meant anything to me then. It was only in later years, looking back, that I fully understood. All I longed for then was spring and my first trip to Downing’s Creek. 

MY WISH CAME TRUE shortly afterward, but not as I had anticipated. As though by a miracle, the temperature rose suddenly during the first week in March. The sun came out bright and hot each day, and the snow began to melt. Within a week the entire countryside was a swamp of dirty slush. Every hollow was a pond and water overran the gutters, clogging sewers and flooding basements. Citizens who had been bundled in mackinaws the week before now sweated outdoors in shirt sleeves. A warm, unseasonable chinook wind came up and whittled away at the snow on the hills, and still the temperature rose. The ice in the river began to crack and swell and the weekly paper carried an item about a farm lad who had broken through it and drowned in a creek. 

Then it happened. One day my father came rushing home in midafternoon, his eyes alive with excitement. 

“Fish! Pickerel!” he cried. “Thousands of them! Millions of them—running in Downing’s Creek! Quick, get the wash tubs—pails—some gunny sacks!” 

Almost incoherent in his eagerness, he managed to round up the family and the neighbors, and we hurried off with every container we could carry. The road toward Downing’s Creek was already jammed with traffic: buggies, sleighs, wagons, even a couple of Model T’s that had been stored for the winter. Everybody was as excited as we, and everybody was lugging pans, pails, sacks, and tubs. 

What I saw then almost sent my eyes popping out of my head. And my heart began to sink with foreboding. Downing’s Creek was literally alive with pickerel.

When we reached Downing’s Creek I saw that the ice had gone out and the lower creek, usually a trickle of water, was now a milky river held within its banks only by a thick jagged border of ice along each shore. Where the road crossed the creek I could look both ways and see people lining the banks or rushing toward the water. My father hastily staked a claim to a vacant spot above the bridge. 

What I saw then almost sent my eyes popping out of my head. And my heart began to sink with foreboding. 

Downing’s Creek was literally alive with pickerel. As far as I could see in both directions the creek from bank to bank was jammed with frantic fish fighting their way upstream. They boiled and leaped and fought as if possessed by devils. The water rose and fell as they surged forward, and its surface seemed crowned from the pressure of their bodies. Hundreds were crushed before our eyes; others leaped high in death struggles and landed on the banks. The pickerel were so thick you could have laid a board on them and walked across. I was speechless with astonishment—and anxiety. 

My family and our friends began dipping the pickerel out with milk pails and pouring them into tubs and sacks. By now the banks were lined solid with eager citizens, while others still swarmed toward the creek. Everybody had turned out—the banker, the teachers, the ministers, the merchants, the town marshal, the barber, the doctor, Mr. Sears who owned the grain elevator, farmers, the local fille de joie. And, for the first time in months, the pool halls disgorged their mob of palefaced idlers. 

Some citizens used nets and spears, others dipped with pails and wash tubs, or rigged up seines of grain sacking. Still others used pitchforks, rakes, hoes, or shovels, and a few waded right out into the icy water and scooped the pickerel up with their bare hands. There was even one blithe creature who stood silently on the bank dangling a baited hook and line. He was the only one who got skunked. 

Aghast at such obscene, wasteful, drunken behavior by otherwise normal people, I hung back, refusing to take part in the carnage on my private fishing grounds. 

For, frantic as the migrating pickerel were, the citizens were even more frantic in trying to hog the fish. Excitement rose to a fever pitch; a couple of fist fights broke out over squatters’ rights, space on the bankside was being sold like footage at a gold strike, people who had already caught more fish than they could eat in a lifetime dickered with late comers, and containers were almost beyond price. 

Once my father motioned me impatiently to get to work, but I clamped my lips tight and shook my head. He paused, looked up at me with a puzzled expression for a moment, then went back to work. 

WHEN MY FOLKS had filled half a dozen tubs and pails and the gunny sacks we’d brought, they began piling fish on the bare ground. They gave up only when sheer exhaustion forced them to. While we waited for transportation back to town my father took my hand and we walked up to the dam. Here the slaughter was even worse. The pickerel had piled up at the spillway three feet deep and men with wagons were shoveling them up by the hundredweight. Water was running over the top of the dam in a mad flood, and this depressed me even more. I was sure the landlocked fish in the pond—my favorite fishing spot—were also being destroyed. 

The pickerel run lasted all that day, all night, and part of the next day, with people dipping for fish around the clock. Torches and lanterns illuminated the entire length of the creek that night, and during the day wagonloads of fish lumbered to town. 

Then the run was over. The freak warm spell broke and the temperature dropped to freezing. But strangely enough a change came over the townspeople. Their spirits were up, they forgot the despair of the past months, and they waited impatiently for spring and the planting of new crops. For the first time in months there was hope and optimism. 

And there was fish to eat. Indeed, we had fish running out of our ears for weeks. We preserved our supply simply by stacking the pickerel on the back stoop in the freezing weather. When meat was needed it was convenient to step outside and chop off several pounds. Pickerel were sold over the counter at all the stores, and peddled from door to door—which was like carrying coals to Newcastle. The going price at the butcher shop was something like a penny a fish. But in spite of this bounty I stuck to pea soup. 

THERE MUST HAVE BEEN game laws then, but we were an isolated backwoods community, and fish and game were always so plentiful that nobody paid much attention to licenses or seasons or daily limits. I suppose the pickerel run would have been classified as some sort of salvation anyway. At the time it certainly seemed like a miracle to the people who lived there, if not to me. 

Along about April or May, when spring came to stay and the pickerel run was a sober memory, prospects for a good crop became so bright that people had almost forgotten the last year’s failures and the rigors of the winter. 

But they were saying that the fishing had been ruined forever in Downing’s Creek by nature’s wild spree. My father sadly agreed, and even Mr. Sears told me one day that all the fish in the pond above the dam, including Krouse’s Folly, had escaped over the spillway. 

July 1952 cover of Outdoor Life magazine
The July 1952 cover featured artwork by Jack Hogg. Outdoor Life

I was heartbroken. By the time I was finally able to take my fishing gear—now equipped with a shiny casting reel—and hike out to the dam pond, I was about as sad as a boy can be—and with a well-developed grudge against human despoilers. 

That first day’s fishing confirmed all my fears. The water was back to normal, but dirty and stale-looking. I saw no fish jumping or ringing the surface, as I had so often during the summer before. And though I fished all day I got not even a nibble. Toward evening I trudged home, convinced that the townspeople were somehow responsible for my woe. I think I even blamed my father. 

At the front gate I met the minister who lived next door. He was one of the few grown people I knew who seemed to remember what it was like to be a boy. Now he stopped me and asked how the fishing had been. I couldn’t talk about it at first, but in his patient way he drew the story out of me and listened intently while I poured out my feelings on what was to me the most important thing in the world. 

When I’d finished he didn’t say anything at first but I could see he understood. Then he began to talk, not like a preacher, but as man to man. Nature, he said, sometimes acted in mysterious ways we did not understand, but there was always a reason for them. “It’s natural and right for you to want to save your fishing pond,” he said. “But it’s even more natural and right for your father and me and other men to want to get food for our families. Some of the people acted foolish and greedy, but I imagine their consciences gave them a bad time afterward.” 

As for the pickerel run, he went on, the fish were destined to die, and it was providence that had sent them up Downing’s Creek at a time when our people needed even a small miracle. 

“And don’t be discouraged about Downing’s Creek,” he said. “There were fish there before there was a town here, and there always will be. While the Lord taketh, He also giveth.” 

Those weren’t his exact words, but I remember that suddenly I was immensely relieved and I went home with a new and wonderful feeling. 

It turned out that the minister was right, too. The fishing wasn’t ruined in my pond, nor had the fish escaped during the flood. When the water cleared up, later on that month, I had even better luck than I’d had the summer before. Maybe it was that shiny new reel. And along in July, when I was fishing through a hole in the icehouse, I became the second person in history to catch Krouse’s Folly. I, too, lost him when the line caught in a wood sliver and broke. I hauled water for the quench barrel for a week to get money to buy a new spoon hook. 

And that fall the farmers harvested the biggest bumper crop of hard spring wheat in years.

Read more OL+ stories.