By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
I remember from a very early age the times I spent with my grandfather on the riverbanks of western North Carolina. He showed me how to bait a hook with corn, worms, and crickets. Sometimes, we would make up dough balls from bread and commodity cheese. A little cotton could be mixed in to make the dough stay on the hook long enough for the fish to bite.
From learning to tie a good knot through the hook with my fishing line to pin-point casting, my grandfather patiently provided me the skillset needed to land a fish. He celebrated with me when we would catch one. Many times, he would get one on the line and then hand his pole to me so that I could “catch” the fish. I didn’t think so much about it at the time, but my grandfather was teaching me skills I would need when I would become a man.
While sitting on those river banks, he would share his wisdom; the wisdom attained from nearly three quarters of a century living in the mountains. He taught me patience, although that is one I must relearn every day. He taught me that sometimes it is more important to “hand the pole” to someone else and give them the glory than to keep it for ourselves; that there is more joy and worth in giving than there is receiving. My grandfather was crippled due to losing his toes to frostbite when he was a younger man and had to get around on his knees. I know that “crippled” is not the politically correct word to use, but that is the one he chose to use and so I will honor his memory in using it. He certainly was not debilitated when it came to being my defender and hero. He was never too busy grab up a pole and take his boy to the river. I wouldn’t trade those days with my grandfather for gold or silver. Even a half century later, his love and teachings continue to guide me. Never underestimate the power of an old man with a fishing pole.
As a teenager, my uncle would join me on fishing excursions to the river. He was a traveler; never stayed in one place too long. He would always have interesting stories to tell while we “drowned worms” – places that he had gone and things that he had done. He was also a bit of a drinker, so most stories involved women, fighting, or some other colorful situation he would find himself in. The thing was, he didn’t brag about those times. It was just the opposite. He was helping me understand how valuable it is to be responsible in life and think of other people above myself. He would always tell me not to be like him; to be better.
On one outing, I hooked into the biggest brown trout I ever caught…well, me and my uncle, caught. You see, when I had the big brown reeled in to the bank, he slipped off the hook and started to flop back toward the river. I froze like I had been spotlighted. My uncle, on the other hand, quickly jumped into the river behind the trout and scooped him up onto the bank. I got my picture made with that big brown for the newspaper. My uncle’s name is not there, just mine, at his insistence. Sometimes, it is more important to hand the pole to someone else.
Fishing outings are a normal part of life on the Boundary and in the mountains. For many, it was a way to sustain a family. Wild caught fish were a regular part of our diets. It was also a time of recreation; family time when we reveled in the joy of each other’s company. We kept up with each other. We loved on each other during those fishing trips. Whether it was a couple of us, like me and my brother boating around Fontana Lake in search of a single bass or catfish (just one would have been nice after a full day on the lake), or our entire family on the banks at Ela, trying to best each other’s catch and sharing the “going’s on” in our lives. You know, those things that become family treasures…or secrets.
One of the first events I was involved with when I came to work for the Tribe was the Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby. The idea for the Derby came from Dave Ensley, who used to head our tribal fish and wildlife program. There were several other tribal leaders involved. Principal Chief Jones was in office when I was hired to coordinate media for the tourism program. Well, it turned out that the Derby was an “all hands-on deck” type of event, which meant everyone was needed to ensure a fun and safe experience for the nearly 1,800 children and their parents that came to Cherokee for the inaugural event. The two-day event required staff and volunteers to work well into the evening on Friday and then be on the Oconaluftee Island Park at 4am Saturday morning, well before daylight, to prepare for the onslaught of little fishermen and fisherwomen.
As I walked the Island Park that day, and the 14 subsequent derbies that the Tribe has hosted, I saw grandparents helping young ones fish and heard them sharing their life’s wisdom with their grandchildren. I have watched dads and moms scoop their child’s catch onto the bank so as not to lose it. After 15 years of the Trout Derby, the same young ones who came to that initial derby are bringing their children to share the unique experience of fishing, fun, and family time…making memories more precious than gold or silver.
You’ll get another chance to make those memories with your children next weekend (Aug. 4 and 5) at the Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby. They are in their 16th year. It is free for all children up to 11 years of age. There is nothing more valuable for a parent and child than quality time together. In a world where most of us are staring into a smartphone screen for most of our day, it is more important than ever that youth understand the value of personal interaction. Many of the societal ills we face today are a result of neglecting to communicate, educate, and socialize our children.
Whether you take the opportunity next week or next month, make spending quality time with your children a priority. Fishing is just one of many activities that you may share with your kids. Those days in my memory that have lasted 50 years are the days I spent in personal contact with my family. Hopefully, your children will remember the things they did and the wisdom shared during your time together.