By Otha Barham / Outdoors Editor
The Meridian Star
We hear it often: “My how times have changed.” We read and hear about the evolution of our behaviors and technology and economics and all the rest, but we oldsters have firsthand knowledge of these changes. Fathers Day brings memories of how things were in the hunting woods and the fishing holes way back then. And it ain’t like that today.
I measure the transitions, weighing the good and the bad and the things that are simply different. We should pass on these life changes to the young so they too can have a wider view. Generation to generation; parent to child.
My father had little to tell from his youth. But that little speaks volumes. Being the oldest boy in a poor family of nine with a disabled father and coming of age during the Great Depression, he found little time to hunt and fish. If he did either, it was to find food.
Daddy had no rifle, no shotgun, no fishing tackle. And if he had owned those things, they would not have been used for sport.
He spent years during the Great Depression hungry, actually searching for food or a job that would earn him and his family food. His efforts yielded hopeless failure. That experience sticks in one’s memory and molds one’s convictions.
He would be married and pushing 30 when he bought his first .22 rifle. He was so impressed with the newfound power to gather food that little bolt action rifle gave him that he would shoot a .22 the rest of his life. I’m sure he wished later that he could have owned a .22 in his youth, during the lean years when his family was hungry for meat.
I naturally absorbed his view of hunting, beginning even before that October day in the woods when at age seven I got to tag along on my first squirrel hunt with him. You hunted to gather food. If it was fun, that was simply a bonus. Later, when deer came to East Mississippi, his talk upon harvesting a deer was as much about the venison as about the hunt. Every deer was butchered carefully, every scrap salvaged. We ate the rib meat and the flank and the brains.
I look here into my father’s mind, how he became who he was as a hunter and how that influenced me, to explain my own early attitude toward the sport.
As an enterprising kid of 11, I built a trap with a figure 4 trigger. I baited it with corn and caught animals that we ate. One day my trap held half a dozen quail. Today, 68 years later, keeping the birds for food would be unthinkable considering the unknown fate in store for the formerly plentiful quail populations. But consider the times and our family history. We were just a couple years over one decade from the days my father spent near starvation.
Daddy met me at the back door and I will never forget the surprised and pleased look in his eyes and his exciting chatter as he reached for the birds that were spilling from my cradling arms. His stubby fingers trembled as he gently held each one. He was once again a hungry man sitting along a railroad track far from home, reaching for a tin of beans that by some miracle had come into the possession of a companion. No father ever communicated to a son more clearly that he had done well.
He plucked each quail and Mamma fried them to perfection. That night our family of six ate like kings. In later years, as quail numbers plummeted, my trapping the quail would trouble me, but considering the underlying influences of that moment, I have been able to forgive myself. Changed times? I should say!
Catch and release was not on the lips or the minds of young anglers during World War II. Learning from fathers who had barely survived the Depression, we fished for food, even though by then my dad had a good job and by his working two shifts a day, we had plenty to eat. He caught lots of fish in his few hours off from work. And I’m certain he never threw one back that was edible. If we had an abundance, we shared with neighbors.
You got food when it was there to get, and you didn’t throw it away. I learned well. To this day when I release a fish, something subtle inside shudders ever so slightly. Perhaps it’s a subconscious wish that I could hand that fish to my grandmother to cook in 1933 when she and Grandpa and their two young boys who remained at home would have divided it carefully and gathered the crumbs.
Thankfully my father found that job he so wished for in the ‘30s and lived a long life of relative plenty. He learned to hunt and fish for sport, even enjoying it immensely. Yet in his final years he still gleaned every ounce of venison from a deer and gave fish to friends rather than release them. He was no longer that thin and hungry man who dreamed of a steaming tin of chili. Thank God for change.