It may surprise some of you to learn there was a brief interval in my life during which I may have been accurately characterized as a ne’er-do-well.
No, seriously, it’s true.
Others among you (most of whom share a percentage of my DNA) might suggest there’s only been a brief interval in my life during which I might not be called such. Or worse.
Let’s not argue. Who’s telling this story anyway?
Where was I? Oh yeah – somewhere in the mid-70s when I was in my mid-20s.
The freelance writing thing wasn’t working out too well yet. I had a string of what we, back then, called “Joe” jobs, loosely defined as those which couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a career - or even the first tentative steps towards one.
Half the time I was out of work, and for two to four months a year collected “pogey” - unemployment insurance. It wasn’t enough to live at all well on.
Unless you were a river rat.
A river rat’s needs are simple: fishing tackle, tobacco, gas and booze. The rest we left up to Mother Nature and working spouses.
I blame my wife-at-the-time’s brother. I helped introduce him to fishing and darned if he didn’t take to it. He too, was out of work a fair bit. As were some of his buddies.
Darned if many of them didn’t take to fishing as well and begin to accompany us. Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I’m surprised when I come across folks who are immune to the charms of worms and fish slime.
So, a group of four to six of us tended to find ourselves among a larger group of 15-25 men (never met a ratette, though I’m sure at least a couple exist) who greeted most dawns and sunsets on the banks of one stream or another during various fishing seasons.
Our boots would crunch through frost-stiffened stalks of field grass and frozen puddles until we reached the stream bank. There, we’d wander up or down, heading to the next-best pool not already covered by a couple of anglers.
Somebody would build a fire after casting out his line and resting it on a forked stick - careful to leave the bail open so an interested fish could pull line out freely.
Somebody else would pass around a bottle of belly warmer. We’d either take a sip or add a splash to a thermos cup of coffee. We ate strips of beef jerky, chunks of cheese, hard-boiled eggs and slices of kielbasa.
We kept the car windows open a lot on the way home.
Each new arrival was greeted, by nod or by name. Eventually, everybody knew everybody else. Before long, I knew way too much about other men’s wives, girlfriends and bosses.
We became a community - a community of river rats.
There were weeks on end when we’d spend up to 20 hours a day along the banks of local streams and rivers. If we heard the walleye were staging at a particular dam 70 miles away, we’d be there from dusk to dawn. If the steelhead were running in Wilmot creek or the Ganaraska river, we’d be there three or four hours after the pub closed and stay until some necessity or another called us home.
We’d smoke, drink, tell lies and catch fish. It wasn’t a bad life – if you were single and independently wealthy.
A couple of us were single but none were wealthy. A couple more of us became single along the way. It may or may not surprise you how few spouses are content to support the lifestyle of a river rat.
Eventually, maturity reared its ugly head and I left the river rat life behind.
Memories of those days came back to me recently while out fishing for steelhead. I set up across the creek from a small group of young men in their late teens or early 20s. They had the look of young ratlings-in-progress. If I’d been downwind of them I might have been able to confirm my suspicion -- bathing not being a high priority among river rats.
As I stood there, enjoying the day and gnawing on a hunk of kielbasa, it occurred to me that I could probably afford to revisit that lifestyle again, should I wish. My responsibilities have diminished as the boys have gotten older. And on some level, the prospect appeals to me very much.
But I’m more of a loner these days. Plus I no longer smoke. And I won’t drink and drive. And, worst of all, I have too darn many aching body parts to withstand the rigors of full-time river ratting.
But I’m definitely going to be wetting my line much more frequently than I have the last 30 years or so.
Those nearest and dearest to me needn’t worry. I’ll need a hot shower or bath afterwards to soothe those creaky body parts.