Sunday Column: Spontaneous Fishing

When you live on a ranch, your free time is pretty much mapped out for you. Meaning, you don’t really have it. There’s always something to be done, especially in the summer–fences to be fixed, cows to be checked, weeds to be sprayed, yard work to procrastinate, gardens to weed…you get the idea…

And it’s ok really, because if you choose to live on a ranch, most of the time most of us prefer to be out working the place than anything else.

Especially in the summer. Summer is why we stand strong through the winters here.

But when you live on this ranch there is a bit of a distraction, one thats swimming in the river about ten miles to the south, or the big lake that surrounds us.

And when your work in the yard or digging fence posts unearths dozens and dozens of worms just waiting to be collected for bait on a Sunday evening after you’ve tired of tinkering on the tractor or you’re on your seventeenth load to the dump grounds, a farmer or a rancher might take it as a sign to head to the river before dark and see if the catfish are biting.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes you just need to throw those homegrown worms in a coffee can, grab whatever tackle is leftover from last summer and maybe the new stuff you got for Christmas, trade your boots for your old tennies, grab some seeds and bug spray and head to the river.

Because it’s summer dammit. And sometimes you just need to go fishing.

Coming Home: Quick, hold on to summer traditions
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

You can find my columns weekly in the Fargo Forum (Sundays), Dickinson Press and the Grand Forks Herald. All columns are reposted on this blog.

Work and fishing

I woke up this morning with a little krink in my neck, my back stiff and sore, my arms reminding me of muscles that hadn’t been used in a while. The sun was shining through my bedroom window, backlighting the lush green leaves that have come to our world to stay for a while. The cool breeze through the screen prompted me to pull the sheets up to my neck and scootch in closer to Husband.

It’s Monday morning and it seems like the workweek has come in with sparkle and style. I appreciate it.

But the weekend? Well, judging by the dirt hanging out under my fingernails and the size of the laundry pile it seems it was one of the good ones.

No, we didn’t have anything extravagant on our schedules, no vacation on the beach, no road trip to the mountains, no concert or festival, just a couple days spent inside a simple life that we’re working to create here. I wouldn’t even have much to mention about it really, except for somewhere between chasing the cows that got out into the fields with husband, planting Pops’ tomatoes, catfishing on the river with Little Sister and sitting on the porch with a vodka tonic and my mother as the sun began to set at the end of Sunday, I found myself wishing there was more time in my life for chores…and I think I might have realized why ranchers don’t take many vacations….

Because when the sun is shining on my back and the cool breeze moves through the sweaty tendrils of hair that have escaped from my ponytail, it’s hard to be too upset that the cows got out. In fact, sitting on top of a good horse watching so the cows and their babies don’t miss the gate as Husband moves back and forth behind them, gently pushing the pairs along, I find I’m glad for the work.

And glad that I got to push my horse to a full-out run as I raced to stop the lead cow from finding her way to the brush. Grateful I had that chance to cowgirl up, feel that wind in my hair and power of the horse beneath me.

Proud the two of us turned the herd around on our own and happy to be working alongside a man who loves this work as much as I do.

Summer weekends like this remind me of what it was like to grow up out here, a ranch kid with three months off and no driver’s license. Sure, I had the occasional coveted trip to town to swim in the public pool, but for the most part we were out here riding in the fencing pickup with Pops, chasing cows on sunny mornings trying to beat the mid-day scorching heat, mowing the lawn and eating summer sausage sandwiches for lunch. The work with Pops was never stressful or hurried, just constant and quiet and he was glad for the company…it didn’t matter if the ten-year-old and fifteen-year-old in the seat next to him were too uncoordinated to run the wire stretcher.

I remember the heat, the sweat, the horseflies and wood ticks we would find as we rode through the thorny brush on our way to find a stray cow. I remember the country station coming through the static and speakers of the old fencing pickup as Pops climbed out to fix a wire and I leaned my head on the sill of the window and watched the grasshoppers fling themselves to the sky. I remember taking my little sister to climb up the clay buttes while we waited for Pops to emerge from the mud underneath the stock-tank he was fixing.

I remember taking a break from the sun under the shade of the tree line and the way the cool grass felt under the pockets of my jeans.

I remember the smell of the wet dirt as Little Sister and I dug in the ground below our house on the hunt for worms…because the work was going to have to wait…Pops was going to take us catfishing.

When I think of early summer I think of these things. And this weekend it seemed I had an instinct to recreate and live life the way summers here were meant to be lived. So after the cows were rounded up on Saturday, the flowers were in their pots and Husband had enough tinkering with the plumbing on the new house, I called up my Little Sister who has just moved back to town and told her to bring her cooler.

We were going catfishing at the river.

The process is always the same: pack a bag full of sunflower seeds, bug spray, long sleeve shirts and something chocolate. Fill a cooler full of beer. Hunt unsuccessfully for all remaining pieces of the fishing supplies you haven’t seen together in one place for months. Patch together a mis-mash of fishing line, hooks, reels and poles and say it’s good enough. Search high and low for the missing camp chairs. Put on your short shorts and get in the pickup, roll down the windows and head south toward the Little Missouri where the water runs low and slow through the slick clay banks of the badlands.

Each year we debate about the location of our favorite fishing spot, wonder if we’ve missed the turn and discuss how the moisture from the previous winter has changed the trail. And we are reminded once we arrive of why we come here, the seclusion and quiet of the untouched banks makes us feel free and wild and capable of catching our own supper.

We kick off our shoes as they grow heavy with the mud of the banks. Little Sister and I cast lines that have been prepared for us.

We talk.

And then we’re quiet, our attention turned toward the calm flow of the river and the beaver who is working on tearing branches from a willow branch on the other side.

Then my line tips. We hold our breath. Someone says ‘reel’ and everyone stands up as husband runs toward the banks to ensure a safe arrival of this strange looking fish emerging from the muddy water of the river.

We laugh and celebrate. We brag. We take a picture and re-worm our hooks.

And wait.

Open another beer.

Change locations.

Sit on a rock.

Watch the clouds roll in.

Spit seeds on the banks.

Declare 8:00 pm to be the witching hour.

Wait for another tip to bend.

Leap up when Husband starts reeling. I jump and holler in excitement but do nothing to help ensure the fish makes it safely to shore. Husband moves toward the deep mud at the bank as the fish flops and struggles and the fisherman leaps to grab it…

But it’s too late…it’s escaped to the mucky water, a worm in its belly leaving two fishermen stranded in mud up past their knees.

I say I can’t believe it got away.

Little Sister laughs hysterically as she watches me snap photos of my dearly beloved sinking deeper and deeper by the second into the slick mud of the riverbank while he tries to hand me his pole so he can escape.

The sun sinks toward the horizon and the thunderheads move in, reflecting blue and gray on the surface of the murky river water.  We declare it time to reel up.

We let my catfish go, deciding it’s not enough fish worth the work of cleaning it. And besides, I have steaks waiting for us at home.

Muddy and tired and full of mosquito bites and bug spray, we head for the trail that leads us to the highway and then the pink gravel road that meets up with the ranch house. Husband fires up the grill. I pour something over ice.

We open the windows and we are us. Dirty and hungry and smelling of horse hair and sweat and fish.

It’s summer at the ranch and the tomatoes need to be planted. There is a house to finish, plumbing and wiring to be done, and corrals to be patched. The cows found an open spot in the fence and are heading down the road. We will know this tomorrow and we will saddle up to bring them home after coffee and bacon in the morning.

The sun will be shining, the breeze will be cool, the cows will be willing to move…

…and we won’t mind the work.