April 16th, 2001

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

Red Willows
By: Ron Eagle Elk

I was sitting at the dinning room table yesterday reading the local paper. Stuck back in small print columns was an article on the Red River of the North getting ready to flood its banks again. Later last night someone in a chat room asked me about my favorite fishing partner. My mind sort of put the two together.

I used to live near the banks of the Red River in Pembina County, North Dakota. The town doesn't exist anymore. The big farming corporations bought out all the family farms, and the last big flood of the Red River destroyed most of the buildings. Most of the buildings, that is, except for the neat stone work of the Methodist Church and the sleazy town beer parlor. Yup, that's what we used to call a bar back then in the 1940s.

When my parents moved there, they made a mistake. They got married. Back then a woman of European descent wouldn't be seen with, much less marry a Sioux Indian. Because of my parents mistake I didn't have too many friends my age to go fishing or hunting with. None, in fact. That's when I started heading to the Red River with my favorite fishing partner, my Dad.

Long before a flyrod ever even crossed my mind, my Dad and I would head for the steep muddy banks of the Red River in whatever old car he happened to have at the time. The ride was a jolting excursion of pain when you were a 6-year-old who had just consumed a large Coca-Cola before getting in the car. When we reached the Red, old oak trees, spreading their heavy limbs out to shade us broke the flat prairie. Then there were the cotton woods, my personal favorites, especially in the fall when the cotton flew on the winds. I liked the little Tipi the leaves made when they fell from the trees and dried. According to my Grampa, that's where the idea for that versatile shelter came from.

Down close to the river were the red willows. They didn't seem that important to me then, but in retrospect those willows made the trip worthwhile.

It was usually near dusk by the time the car rattled to a stop. I knew what the priorities were for me. Visit the bushes, gather firewood, and not stray very far from Dad. The Red is a deep, fairly swift, muddy river most of the time. A six-year-old who couldn't swim wouldn't last long.

By the time I got the wood collected, Dad would have uncoiled his fishing line. Some of you old enough will remember the stuff. Some sort of braided line with multi-colored bands for camouflage. He usually carried it wound up on some hefty sticks. He'd tie on the sinker, usually an old spark plug, tie on a hook and bait up. He never told me what he used for bait, but I knew it was something rotten just by the smell. All the better for Red River catfish. A few twirls around his head and the whole mess arced out over the water to land with a noisy splash in the river.

Dad put together a small fire about the time it got dark and scary on the riverbank. As we sat there waiting for some denizen of the deep to take our stinking bait he would produce a carefully selected stick from his pocket. A few deft stroke of his trusty pocketknife produced a genuine Sioux Indian fish whistle. No one outside the tribe knew about this secret of catching fish to feed your family.

As the fire blazed Dad would tell me stories about his people. Stories that had been passed from father to son for untold generations. If my attention started to flag or my eyelids grew heavy he'd tell me to blow on that fish whistle. We'd never catch anything if I didn't do that.

As I grew older we moved to California. Dad and I fished with rods and reels for trout, bass, and even bluegill. It wasn't the same though. There was no fire, no stories, and no fish whistle. He did finally tell me that the whistle was made from those red willows with their slippery bark.

One night while I was between Viet Nam tours my first fishing partner went to sleep and didn't wake up.

Now I'm 54 with a daughter who just turned 18. She loves to fish, but she lives in Maine with her Mom, and I live in Washington State. I never got to tell her the stories. Maybe I can find a neighbor kid to take fishing. The stories would probably bore a kid raised on TV and video games, but with all the red willow growing nearby I can produce a genuine Sioux fish whistle. ~ Ron Eagle Elk (aka NoahsBoyz)



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