by April Heath Pastis
Maybe there’s something to the Scottish stereotype of being thrifty, because my mother has always appreciated a good deal. And this was a great deal. When I was about 10 years old, my mother had saved enough Blue Chip stamp books to buy my brothers, my sister and me each a fishing pole of our own. Now, I don’t know how many stamps or how long it took her to save up but I do remember that every time she went to the grocery store, she got Blue Chip stamps. After putting the groceries away, we’d all sit at the kitchen table and lick stamps and stick them in the empty pages in her stamp books. She hadn’t told us why we were doing this and we never asked because back then, kids just did as they were told.
One day, our mailman, whose name escapes me just now, stopped by for his normal cup of coffee and chat. Next to him was a bundle of long skinny boxes and to our delight, he left them when he departed. We badgered and badgered Mom about their contents until finally she let on that they were fishing poles. When Dad got home from work, he pulled one open to an audience of oohing and awing youngsters. Dad told us all about the ol’ days when he was a kid and he’d go fishing in Flint (Michigan). He said that his great-grandfather Walter Gray Sullivan taught him how to fish. They were all expert fishermen back then, Dad said. “My Granddad Sullivan was … and his Granddad Sullivan was … and his Granddad Sullivan was… all the way back to old Granddad Noah Sullivan. What? Didn’t you know we were related to Noah?”
Dad didn’t need any prodding when it came to telling stories. We sat on the floor around him as he regaled us with adventures lived by hardened characters with names like Donny Doogie and “your Uncle Darrel (Darold).”
So we all couldn’t wait to become expert fishermen ourselves. We’d show ’em that we were better fishers than any of them. Heck we were naturals. It was in our genes.
The fishing poles were very high quality, Dad said. All we knew was that we had to wait until Saturday to try them out. I don’t remember how many days it was, but it sure seemed like a lifetime to us before Saturday rolled around.
Finally, on a particularly hot Saturday, the seven of us piled into Dad’s wood-sided station wagon and headed up into the Azusa Foothills. From the back seat, my brothers and sister and I bet who would get the biggest fish. We wondered how it would be to eat a fish dinner made from something we had caught ourselves. Dad said he hadn’t had a good fried catfish dinner in years. Mom replied she’d never really liked fish and she was more concerned about who was going to cook the dinner. I wondered why she got us all poles then. Go figure.
At the base of the San Gabriel Mountains there was a small shack with an old sign with paint so worn you could barely read the word “Bait.” We stopped there and my Dad returned with a bucket. I didn’t know what was in it. I probably would have squealed if he had said it was full of worms.
Winding up the steep cliffs off Azusa Highway was always exciting to me as a kid. We came into California that way and the sight had been awesome. This was the “purple mountains majesty” sung about in “God Bless America.” It was breathtaking to a little kid. Looking down from inside the car, it seemed as if the road just dropped dead away into nothing. One wrong turn and the car would plunge thousands of feet. It didn’t matter though. I never thought that anyone actually had accidents back then and besides the cars followed each other at a snail’s pace. The two-lane highway forced cars to travel in long lines behind a slow moving vehicle until finally a turn off would appear so that the slow car could let the rest of us by. Every car would then speed up for one or two curves til they were stopped by another slow-moving car until the next mile would bring up the next turn-off.
Finally, we turned off the road ourselves and we all burst out of the hot humid car, pulling our legs off the hot sticky vinyl seats. My father had found a great stream. My mother waited under a tree by the cars and the Fishing Heaths were off to discover our heritage as wise ol’ fishermen. We all made our way across the rocks, slipping here and there and scraping a knee or two. I carried Paul, who was five, across the rocks that were too big for him to jump across.
Finally, Dad said, “This is good,” with the authority of one who knew about these things. He settled down and attempted to teach us how to stick our hooks into a squirming worm. Of course, I wouldn’t let it show that it bugged me and laughed at loud at my kid sister, Beth, who refused to touch one of the gushy crawlers. Finally, Dad got all of our hooks loaded with worms, noticing that the ones he had done first had already dried out because of the heat of the day which must’ve been well into the 100s.
He taught us how to throw the line out so that we didn’t catch onto somebody behind us. He warned that it would hurt like mad or put somebody’s eye out if we got careless. We managed to throw out our lines and were told to wait ’til the fish bit. We waited and we waited. I looked deep into the stream and saw nothing but water down to the rocks in the shallow bed. I looked at my brother Curt who had done the same thing. He had a “There aren’t any fish here” expression. I nodded in agreement. We didn’t dare say anything to Dad who was quickly losing his patience with the younger kids, Beth, Shane and Paul, who fought with him all the harder as he tried to help. Although we tried to wait patiently, the blazing sun was making it difficult to concentrate on our task.
I managed to slip off my shoes and dipped my feet into the cool pool. Little by little, we’d slip a little further into the refreshing water until we were no longer fishing; we were wading. Curtis showed me that if you piled rocks you could dam an area and make a nice wading area. Finally, Dad threw up his hands in disgust and ordered us back to the car.We all piled in and headed home. No one spoke on the way home. We were all disappointed that our new career as expert fishermen had come to an end so quickly.
The next week, however, Dad announced that someone at his work told him about a better place to fish in San Dimas. This news was met with a bit less excitement (to say the least) than the previous week. In fact, we had to be ordered out of bed on next Saturday. Once again, we piled back into the station wagon for our next attempt. Mom, as if to cheer us up, packed a picnic. The promise of sodas did spark us up and in no time we were all willing to give it another go. Finally, we pulled into a nice area that had a manmade pond in it called Puddingstone. My brothers and I would come to call it Puddlestone. It was a muddy rocky lake that doesn’t exist today. Now it is a water park with slides and beaches which draws a lot more of a crowd than it did then. During those early fishing days, it was unusual to see another person on the lake, er um, pond. But, I have to admit that we did spend many fun hours there.
On our first time out, we waded out as far as we could until the water came up to the edge of the shore. The feeling of mud squishing between my toes was cool and soothing so I didn’t mind much the discomfort and long waiting yet to be endured. I don’t know when it occurred for the others, but when I felt that first tug on my line — pardon the pun, but — I was hooked. I loved to fish. Too bad the fish were the size of sardines and Dad made us throw them all back. It was just the same as when he went hunting, rather tried to go hunting, Dad moaned. He heard guys tell about the deer hunting in the mountains in California and so he went too. But, when he finally spotted a buck, it was so tiny and weak he nearly cried with pity. It was nothing like hunting in Michigan he said and he never went again. But fishing was different. Despite the size of the fish, Dad insisted that he’d heard there were big fish in this lake, er um, pond, and “he” was going to find them even if “we” had to stay there all summer.
So we spent the summer at Puddingstone, sometimes staying out ’til it was dark. My brothers and I were always bragging about how we had caught the biggest fish and yet none of ours amounted to more than four inches long. Beth had lost interest by then, preferring the company of my mother at the picnic table or the slides and swings in the sandbox area up by the cars. We came to really enjoy fishing but never did get our fish dinner.
Finally one day, my Dad said that he heard of a place where the fish were huge and you were guaranteed to catch one!
“Sure Dad, sure,” we nodded trying to humor the poor old man. He swore up and down that he was telling the truth. We all replied with sarcasm-a-plenty. Now, you know that Dad would never ever, never ever say anything that wasn’t true. Sure his stories were a bit wild, but he was an “honest injun,” so we had to give it another try. Once again, we piled back into the hot station wagon and set off for the “best fishing hole, guar-un-teeed.”
That led us back to the Azusa foothills to a place called “Happy Jack’s.” Naive child as I was back then, I was not at all tipped off when we drove into a parking lot past a 12-foot tall sign of a shoeless hillbilly touting the best time to be had at Happy Jack’s Fish Farm. My brothers and I couldn’t believe our outstanding skills. Every time we dipped the line in, we came out with a fish. Huge fish. They were big! Well at least a foot long which was an incredible difference to what we were used to. We were catching fish left and right when my Dad said, “Stop. This is gonna cost me a fortune.” What? “What are you talking about?” We prodded Dad. Apparently, you have to pay for everything that you catch by the pound.
With the leftover time, we took a walk around the grounds of Happy Jack’s. There were different ponds full of different kinds of fish. It was here that we saw our first koi pond and Dad would eventually take up raising these beautiful fish (that actually look like large gold fish) as a hobby.
They also had a petting zoo, which is where my Mom and Paul had a run in with a goat. Every time we got to Happy Jack’s, as soon as we got out of the car, Paul would go on about wanting a quarter for feed for the animals. One day, he was feeding a baby goat. Just as mom was taking his picture, the mommy goat couldn’t resist butting Paul’s head and knocking him on his arse.
I’ve never been fishing since those summers with my Dad and brothers, and probably will never go again. But those were happy times searching for the perfect fishing hole.
Addendum: I’ve heard from a number of people who also grew up fishing at Puddingstone, Happy Jacks and the area who tell me that this brought back a lot of memories. If you also remember this, I’d love to hear from you, even if we’re not related…