December 4th, 2000

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

The Little Munoscong Academy

By Joseph Heywood, Portage, Michigan

My first fish was a huge brass-yellow carp (whistle trout) with scales the size of quarters. I was five or six at the time and we were fishing in Cole's Pond (which hometown Rhinecliff, NY relatives and locals called Coley's). I still remember the tug on the line and weighty but lethargic resistance against the rod tip. I don't remember landing the fish, but somewhere in the family photo graveyard there's a faded Brownie snapshot of a bug-eyed kid tailing a fish as long as his ectomorphic leg. My uncles were the pathfinders on this outing; my father was not an outdoorsman, but this single carp taken from the still waters of a pond a quarter-mile above the Hudson River lit the fire for fishing for the rest of my life.

Though I did not know this until later in life, a great deal of my interest in fish descended through my mother from my grandfather Atley Hegwood; that surname is not a typo. My mom, having been raised in Mize, Mississippi, had only to change one letter of her name when she married my father of Rhinecliff. New York. I have always taken this as a sign that the genes on both sides of the blood line were similar in composition.

Mize is a tiny southern Mississippi town named after a county sheriff. It was for a long-time, a racist and misanthropic place populated by hard-nose Scotch-Irish who emigrated from the Carolinas and settled into a series of hills and gullies south of town, the area formed by the drainages of Okatona and Cohay Creeks. The hills are covered with long-straw pine and are home to deer, turkeys and black bear. This hill region is called Sullivan's Hollow and is known all over Mississippi for its lawlessness during and after the Civil War. Outsiders have rarely been welcome and locals have always done their own thinking, right or wrong.

Few know this, but during the Civil War, this area of Mississippi did not melt into automatic lockstep with the leaders of the Confederacy. Some locals, in fact, seceded from the secessionists and established their own short-lived republic. They had their own army and raided Confederate stores, generally and specifically disobeying all offensive government orders, much less calls for order. Sullivan's Hollow was a well known zone for men hiding from the Confederate Conscription Act. A great part of the opposition stemmed from the fact that in Mississippi, men who owned twenty or more slaves were exempt from involuntary military service. The folks in Sullivan's Hollow generally couldn't afford any slaves and though there is no historical evidence to suggest they were philosophically or morally opposed to slavery; they simply resented the fact that landed people with money got an out while they would have risk getting their brains blown out. It was not terribly different during the Vietnam war. Some threads of history repeat. A lot of them just flat didn't go. They didn't run to Canada. There was no need. They hid in the Hollow.

Denizens of Mize and Sullivan's Hollow did not look to outside authorities to settle disputes; they tended to take care of such things themselves. Shootings and knifings were common. Like many others, my grandfather Atley's family had trekked west from the Carolinas. My grandfather had seven brothers, half of them towering six three or more, which was pituitary disorder-class in those days; the other half of the litter was of average height. Atley was in the taller half.

I have no memories of my maternal grandfather and few photographs other than a washed-out sepia print of him holding a mule off the ground. He was a physically huge man, both strong and respected. When trouble brewed, neighbors often turned to him for help before they called the authorities.

He was, by my mother's accounts, a ruggedly handsome and garrulous man, generally easy going, but with a "temper like a wildcat," which would flare fast and recede just as quickly. He carried no grudges. Atley farmed some and hunted and fished a lot, especially for catfish and "trout" (which in those days meant a black bass that lived in a local streams or creeks). When he fished, he sometimes took my mother, aunt and uncles with him. My mother was often his companion until one day she violated two of his codes.

It was morning and early and Atley settled my mother into a spot on the bank of the creek and then went on up to find his own hole. This was cottonmouth country and he had always harped on the kids to look closely before they sat down.

My mom was getting no bites and decided she needed to find a fishier place. The rule, however, was that she could not move unless she first cleared this with her father. But she moved first to a better looking place and then decided she'd better let him know She got up to yell to him and as she stood, noticed a cottonmouth in the bush directly behind her. She dropped the cane pole into the drink and began shrieking.

Atley came running.

"What the hell's wrong?"

She told him about the snake and he said, "Dammit, I told you kids to look!"

"I did look," she said defiantly. Never one to cower, she added, "It wasn't here when I got here."

He said, "Well, it'll crawl off, it's not bothering nobody. Where's your pole?"

She pointed meekly at the creek. He was flabbergasted. Losing a cane pole was a serious sin.

"You lost your pole over a damn snake?" It was unthinkable.

He took her home then, unhappy that his fishing had been ruined.

My grandmother Catherine died when my mom was twelve or so and being the eldest, it fell to mom to take care of her sister and three brothers. My grandfather never struck his children, but he laid down laws and expected obedience. He would also listen to them, meaning he treated his kids like people, not objects, which made him somewhat of a modern man.

As a tall, friendly and handsome widower, Atley also liked to socialize. In those days Saturday night parties meant square dances at somebody's home, open to all comers. A room would be cleared of furniture, young kids would be tucked into a back bedroom, and older kids and adults would dance all night to the tunes of jug band. It was a lot like a fais do do in Cajun country. The area was nominally Baptist with a fair percentage of Holy Rollers, but on Saturday nights, dances got danced, likker got drunk and most preachers had the good sense to stay out of the way.

It was a Saturday night when Atley came home, covered in blood. He'd been to a dance at a local house, where the wife had "somewhat of a reputation for fooling around on her husband," who had "somewhat of a reputation for being a jealous sort." Atley was dancing with the flirty wife when the very drunk husband appeared with a pistol in hand, declared he had "had enough" and squeezed off a round, the bullet grazing Atley's forehead, over his eye, producing prodigious blood flow but neither permanent nor major damage. My mother, as the eldest, ministered first aid and demanded to know "What the hell" he was doing at "that place!"

Always calm in a storm, Mom also sent my Uncle Joe to town to fetch the local doctor who soon arrived and joined moral and audio forces with my mother. What the hell was he doing there, especially at that damned house?"

"Hell," Atley said feebly, "we were all dancing with her."

"Yeah," my mother said, "but you were the only one that got shot."

She said he stayed home most Saturday nights after that. Atley loved to hunt and fish and roam outdoors, work with his hands, dance and drink and he was nonplused about being sniped. Not a few of my genes flow from Atley. I said to my mom one morning not long ago, if Atley was hit in the head, Toni's husband was trying to kill him. She said, "He was just mad. He didn't know where the bullet was going." Talk about sanguine.

One morning my mother and her sister and brothers set out for school. It was a two or three-mile walk (she insists) to a one-room schoolhouse where in fall and winter one of the older students arrived first to stoke the wood stove.

At the last farm they cut through a field and crossed a creek on a footlog. As they entered the field, a kid called "Skinner" came running in a dither. My grandfather was needed "fast."

The kids naturally backtracked en masse to fetch Atley and then followed him back, but this time when they reached the footlog, there was a crowd gathered and not far away was the body of a local farmer, who had been beaten to death with a heavy stick, which lay near the body. The call for my grandfather had gone out before the call to the sheriff. Atley didn't rattle in a crisis and the family of the dead farmer wanted him there to help out.

The day before the body was found, the farmer had sold a bale of cotton and been paid $100. Later that day his horses got loose and a local boy, whose parents were friends of the dead man, went along to help the farmer search for the runaway animals. The farmer didn't come home that night but the boy showed up at his own family's house, reporting that all was well. The money was never found, but the sheriff arrested the boy. The first trial ended in a hung jury. A second jury found him innocent and the murder went officially unsolved, but my mother insists everyone knew who murdered the farmer. Small towns don't have a lot of unsolved mysteries, which probably accounts for how cities grow.

My paternal grandfather, Harry Heywood was a diminutive plumber in Poughkeepsie, New York, and my grandmother Mary worked many years at Cardinal Farley Military Academy near Rhinecliff. My dad had an older sister, Clara, who died from pneumonia and a younger brother who was struck and killed by a train as my dad and one of his brothers looked on helplessly from their surreptitious swim in the Hudson River. My dad, aunt Marian and uncles Harry and Roger survived and around the Hudson River and throughout Dutchess County, from Red Hook down to Poughkeepsie they were known as scrappers. Like the Hegwoods of Sullivan's Hollow, the river rat Heywoods also had hair-trigger tempers. My dad was invited to leave high school and enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he was later picked for OCS and made a fine career as a respected officer. He served in India and Burma during World War I and was technically a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His youth was wayward; his adulthood was not. When he retired from the Air Force, the two of us entered Michigan State, though I avoided classes with him because he singlehandedly tended to lift the graded curve beyond my comfort level. Other students used to ask rhetorically who the old fart was, the old fart frigging up the grading curve? I could never admit the old fart was my dad.

There were always books in our home and a premium put on reading. There was also no censorship; we were expected to decide for ourselves what to read, though there were occasional not-so-subtle pressure to read "the classics."

I have always taken pride in the fiercely independent and scrappy ways of both sides of my family and I tried to raise my children to question authority in everything. It's a hard road that way, but you can walk with your head up, which is finally about the best any of us can hope for in life.

When I was fifteen (before I had a driver's license and a cute blonde girlfriend with my class ring on a chain around her neck) I used to ride my black English racer several miles over to the Little Munoscong River, which is in the easternmost extreme of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Little M empties into Munoscong Bay of the St. Mary's River, which connects Lakes Superior and Huron. Munoscong is an Ojibwa word that means something like "place of the reeds." If you do much reading about the Ojibwas (whom we now erroneously know as Chippewas; the ojibwas prefer to call themselves anishnabe. You'll find a fair amount of waffling on meanings of the Ojibwa language, even among those dwindling few who still purport to speak it. Few actually do. [The most authoritative source on the language is A Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, by RR Bishop Frederic Baraga, a Slovenian priest of noble birth who came to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and became a legend. His work was published in 1878.]

Munoscong Bay itself is a low, reedy mess that did and does serve as a northern pike spawning ground, so "place of the reeds" is probably as close a translation as we are likely to get.

The upper reaches of the Little M back then had a sand and gravel bottom and relatively clear tea-colored water, lots of fallen logs, a few rocks, high banks overgrown with tag alder and ironwood thickets, deer runs, bear trails with hairy curls of ursine scat and the scent of pines and hemlock. There were trout in the Little M, but in those days and with nobody to teach me I had no inkling that there were different kinds of trout. What I knew was that when I crept along the tangled banks, I saw smoky ghosts finning gracefully in the edges of the current and I wanted nothing more than to feel the rod vibrating under their resistance . . . I had no idea that there were things called waders or flyrods, or that weather fronts, light, water temperature and Ph affected the fish. I knew only that I never seen another trouter along my stretch of the Little M and that the graceful smoke-colored shadows below were all mine.

My gear consisted of a six-foot, one-piece, no-name metal rod with a bait-casting reel with what must had been a 1:1 crank and 6:1 backlash to clean-cast ratio. I usually carried two or three small red and white Daredevles; DayGlo colors hadn't yet been invented, much less applied to the presumed interests of fish or hunter safety. I had never heard of a swivel or a clinch knot or fisherman's knot or any other kind of knot, so I improvised, choosing sheer volume over technique. If one square or granny knot was good, several must be better. Knots had been my downfall during my failed scouting career. They remain problematic.

Thinking back, it seems to me that the banks must have been undercut, but this is hindsight and most of the time I did well just to get the spoon into the water, much less into anything I thought of as a hole or a run. Wet was enough, free-running and unsnagged a great bonus. This was OJT trouting at its most basic and it was as good an outlet for teenage hormones as could be found until the true function asserted itself.

I rarely caught fish at the start of my self-education, but this wasn't really an issue. All that mattered was the chance to try and, in any event, I almost always saw them, usually behind rocks or in little scallops in the sand under sweepers and jams. Once I saw and counted more than two dozen seven- and eight-inch trout near a nice dark hole; they were on the shallow edges of deeper water, finning gracefully in the bright sun, all of them facing upstream like charcoal gray torpedoes. I spent an entire afternoon trying to inveigle a strike and got only a half-baked sunburn, which in its own right was an unusual feat at that latitude. This see-um good, no-catch-um pattern has often repeated itself since that day, but now as then, not catching fish is still not a deterrent to spending a few (or many) hours in or near the moving water.

The Little M was my trouting school and I was its faculty and class of one, it's worst and best teacher and student all rolled into a single package and the lessons were hard-learned, but enduring.

I learned the true meaning of trial-and-error and more than a little about how to actually see and understand what I was looking at, which is maybe the hardest thing any human ever has to learn in any context. Most of us tend to see only what we want to see. I learned not to repeat my mistakes, to stay focused on the job and to be persistent no matter what happened. Probably you can learn these same things in classrooms, but seldom with the same dramatic impact and never with the same scenery. I was not much of a student in the traditional sense, and after having once tried to change an F in Latin to a B, and failed, I more or less accepted whatever grades my efforts brought during the remainder of my education.

My most vivid memory of School Along the Little M is still with me. I had spotted a single fish at the tail of a small run and was dapping a spoon into a small opening in the foliage. By then I had done a fair amount of experimentation and had learned to let the spoon flutter and spiral down the dropoffs like a maple wing to where the fish were, but this one had a good spot just beyond my drop-and-dap range so I found a good thick white cedar that angled out over the creek bed, balanced my chest against it and made a sort of swinging, underhanded, circus move under the trunk while I watched the lure's arc increase. When I liked what I saw, I let her go, waited for the spoon to sink and started slowly reeling with my arms around the tree and the rod and reel underneath. The strike surprised me because I could still see my fish finning quietly where I had first seen it. When I jerked the rod tip, the fish jerked back and scooted upstream. I knew right off that this was not one of my usual small fish and I pulled hard to bring him back so that I could slide to one side or the other of my tree, but just as the fished turned and started back it did a sharp one-eighty and I threw myself firmly and chest-first against the tree trunk for purchase. Which was when I felt a pain in my chest such as I had never before experienced. No doubt I let loose of blood-curdling yelp as well.

If this story was being told by one of the old boys or girls of the August Anglers Roundtable you would no doubt hear how they ignored their pain and concentrated on reeling in the fish. What I did was fling the rod and pitch myself backward, away from the pain.

To no avail.

From a rough cushion of tag alders I gingerly examined my left pectoral (I had them back then) and saw fresh blood from two of the three points of the treble hook of one of the spare spoons. Jamming myself against the tree had impaled me on one of my spares, which I always carried loose in my shirt pocket. I had hooked me and hooked me good, pushing the hook points deep into my flesh. The blood was warm and sticky. Bluebottle flies buzzed in anticipation of a summer snack.

All sorts of decisions were pending and pressing and I could still hear my fish flopping and splashing downstream, which I noted was the exact opposite of where it had been headed when fate intervened. I needed the hook out, which meant I had to look at the wound, and I was not sure I wanted to. Had anybody ever died of a treblehook to the heart? Did I dare go home with a hook in my chest when my mom didn't know I had gone off alone to fish? Not a capital idea. What if a wolverine, the dreaded loup garou, smelled my blood and came to finish me off? It was years later that I discovered there are no wolverines in Michigan and probably never were -- save a few thousand puff-headed, inflated-ego, inebriated two-legged specimens in Ann Arbor on some Saturdays in autumn. What I did was to use my pocket knife to slit the shirt; once I got the wound exposed I simply ripped the hooks loose and got into the cold water to cool the damage. My chest hurt far less than my pride.

Having gotten into the stream, it was relatively easy to retrieve my rod. The Daredevle was still connected, but the fish was long gone. It occurred to me, however, that since I was in the water and already wet, that there was no sense in getting out; besides I found that down in the stream I could see better and that there was a lot more room to cast, so I resumed fishing upstream.

I had learned early on that the fish seemed to face the current so it made sense that now that I was down in the water with them coming at them from their rear would make me less likely to spook them. Over the next couple of hours I caught and released several small trout with white edges on their fins. Brookies, I know now, and not even trout to an ichthyologist's narrow way of thinking, brook trout being char rather than trout on the scientific charts, but back then they were just trout and that was fine with me. We'll deal with the name thing later.

I don't remember the story I concocted to cover the torn shirt and I don't recall any abnormal fuss over it, but I recall that day because there is a nice little scar as a reminder and it sat clear in my mind then as it does now that I had taken a not-so-great moment and turned it into something positive. The implications beyond fishing were self-evident even then. ~ Joseph Heywood


About Joseph:

Joseph Heywood "Born in Rhinebeck New York, grew up in a USAF family, living all over U.S. and in Italy as well. First year of high school in Norman, Oklahoma and final three in Rudyard, Michigan in the eastern Upper Peninsula. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1965 with BA in journalism. There I played lacrosse on the univesity club team and was one of the tri-captains in my senior year. After five years in the AF where I was a navigator in a KC-135 tanker. Vietnam vet. After the AF I joined The Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo in 1970; I retired in 1999 as Vice President of Worldwide Public Relations. I have fished in Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming, but in none of the hallowed places in those states. Most of my trouting has been confined to Michigan, where there is ample opportunity and plenty of stubborn and wily fish. I wrote and published three novels while working in the corporate world and now write fiction full time. My fourth novel was published earlier this month by Lyons Press and my next novel will also be published by Lyons sometime next spring. I am not a great fisherman, but I continue to learn, which makes it a wonderful passion. My other passion is ice hockey, namely the Detroit Red Wings."

His latest novel is The Snowfly. He lives in Portage, Michigan, and claims the Pere Marquette as his 'home water.' You may find him in the Chat Room as 'Joe' or 'Joe H'.


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