Teddy Roosevelt Fished Here

My nephew and I amble slowly up to the creek bank. It’s early enough that the cold morning air causes a light fog to rise off the warm, black water, but does nothing to lift the low-lying cover fogging my brain. I yawn. I wish I’d had that second cup of coffee.

It’s hard to believe Teddy Roosevelt ever came here to fish, here at this nothing stream that runs along the backside of my property. As the story has it, an Indiana politician brought him here for no more than an hour or two. They got off the campaign train, took a break, and fished. But, of all places, why here?

Soon enough the morning sun awakens and colors the tips of the trees on the south bank a glowing yellow, as if someone turned on the kitchen lights. I sit down on a rock, one of those big ones, gray and smooth, jutting out from the edge of the bank. I look across a pool of still water, not studying or thinking, just staring, then I slip one leg into my waders, making sure to get my leg inside the suspenders. In goes the other leg and up and over my shoulders come the suspenders.

My nephew, bare-legged and anxious, has already broken the water and the ripples disrupt the deep blue reflection of the cloudless sky. He strips fly line off the reel and the sound of the drag gears zipping backwards hangs in the air like a fiddle solo in a gospel song on Sunday. A few small mayflies lift off the surface of the water, fluttering haphazardly to freedom.

I’ve long heard that Cicero Creek is a world-class smallmouth bass river, but it’s never been enough to motivate me. I’ve lived on the creek for eight years now and not once fished. I gave up my obsession with fly fishing when I left New York. I always fly fished for trout. Trout seem noble. I have two young daughters who take up my time now, and happily so. Besides, when you ask anyone if they eat the fish, they always say no, the river is polluted.

I watch my nephew back cast and hear the delayed whistle of the fly line as it whips forward. The tippet rolls out and drops the fly perfectly into the water on the upriver side of a sunken log with a forked branch sticking out.

It’s obvious by the force and violence with which the smallmouth bass breaks the surface that it is hungry. The sound grabs my attention, the fish grabs the fly, and Will’s rod doubles down.

It’s a beautiful smallmouth, a glistening seaweed-green on its back with a pearl-white belly. I feel a little of the old adrenaline coursing. It’s way more invigorating than that second cup of coffee would have been.

It suddenly dawns on me that something very similar probably happened, nearly a hundred years ago, maybe right in this spot, at this hole that’s holding some really big fish. I nod my head, understanding, and the vision is clear.

The train, an old wood-fired locomotive, leaving a campaign stop in Indianapolis and now headed to Chicago, stops in the small town nearby. Roosevelt and a few other men get off the train at the small station, and a young kid who knows the stream like the back of his hand, like my nephew does, is waiting to take them by carriage the short distance to this unremarkable little creek.

When they arrive creekside, the elder statesmen look at each other, shrug, and wonder what, if anything, they will catch. Maybe they even wonder why they got off the train, smiling at each other, knowing this kid has no idea of the amazing fishing they’ve done and the beautiful, rushing rivers they’ve seen.

The farmboy, kindly urged on by Roosevelt, goes first, casting under the branch line that hangs out over the water and up close to the embankment. The same thing that happened this morning happens then: BAM! A big smallmouth bass takes the hook and runs the line upstream. Now the two statesmen are really smiling, grateful for this moment of relief from their busy schedule, and they begin to fish.

It’s a banner day; they’re hooking them left and right, talking and fishing without a thought of politics or business. Their guide, the kid, can’t get the fish off the hooks quickly enough. He releases most of them, but some are the right size, perfect for eating, and he puts these on a stringer that is quickly getting full.

The flurry of activity only lasts an hour or two, the same length of time that all good fishing lasts. Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of these United States, and company pack up and head back to the Arcadia station.

My nephew and I are doing the same, heading to the car.

I ask, “You ever eat any of the fish you catch out of here?”

He replies, “No, the river’s polluted.”

Click here for the recipe:  Pan Fried Red Snapper with Tarragon Tartar Sauce

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The Whimsical Mistress

I am a flatlander.

You see in Indiana the northern two thirds of the state is flat, while the southern third becomes the foothills to the Appalachians. It all happened when the glaciers rolled through, which was sort of like pushing a sofa on a Persian rug. The rug in front of the sofa bunches up while everything behind becomes flat. The verity of this occurrence is the hills of southern Indiana are beautifully Rubenesque.


It’s an affair really. And not in a Victorian sense either, because it is more gaudy than that.
    
It is when I smell the musky fall dirt of the southern hills, corseted with orange and yellow leaves and the hickories and sycamores that once held them — now bare-shouldered — become the steel boning that holds the hollers to their unique hourglass shape, that  I become incorrigible. All because this voluptuous landscape is the Indiana home to the American persimmon, Eve’s apple to me, a temptress of pudding, pie, bread and fudge.

Oh the persimmon has her foreign counterparts, Hachiya and Fuyu, and of course they are succulent, trim, and have that hot little accent, but the American persimmon is one of a kind, sort of the saw blade painted with a kountry landscape, kitsch, and probably more closely related to running off with the circus than a fine dining car on the Orient Express.


It’s not like there aren’t persimmon trees in other parts of the state. My neighbor has a beauty, in fact I covet it. It is tall and gorgeous, maybe one of the largest I have seen,  but it isn’t the same. In southern Indiana it is the culture that goes along with the persimmon. It’s the paw paws, maple syrup, grits, ham and beans, and fried biscuits with apple butter. It’s possum and sweet potato dinners and wood-burning stoves. It’s all the things I hated about Indiana growing up but am intensely intrigued by now, albeit in a driving by a fatal crash sort of way.
    
All fatality aside, a good persimmon dessert will leave you in a drool sleep on the couch dreaming the dream of possum and raccoons. Of beating them to the little tannic and orange fires of Zeus, a rare true berry, pulpy and sweet when they finally become ripe enough to eat rather then their typical docket of pucker and gag.

The persimmon likes to flimflam you. It may look ripe and mushy, but when you bite into one it grabs you by the uvula and pulls. It doesn’t let go either, truthfully, it holds on like a spring leech after a bloodless winter. 
    
It is an accomplishment worthy of a diploma, this gathering of the ripe fruits,  because somehow the animals know too, just like they know the night the sweet corn is ready, and if you went out to that persimmon tree on that night, the night they know, you might find it is like a barrel full of monkeys. A tree full of nocturnal varmints having a hoedown, all drunk and giddy on your persimmons.
    
You are thinking of fighting them for it, a barroom brawl, but instead you turn and walk back home, you walk back home because you realize she is a good mistress, the persimmon, and is not exclusive but whimsical, indeed, the very trait that keeps you coming back to her.