The urge to go fishing on a lazy summer afternoon is hard to ignore!
This was even truer in the past, when men and boys had less to choose from for entertainment. There was no television, radio, computer game or air conditioning to seduce a fellow from the age-old call of a cane pole and a shade tree by the creek.
In the past men in Trousdale County would fish, not just for the chance to get out of the house or off the farm for a few hours but because the taste of fried fish and hushpuppies was awfully tempting.
The baked or steamed fish found today on the menus of trendy restaurants would not have raised an eyebrow for a fellow in the past. But throw that fish in some cornmeal and deep fry it and you had a meal!
The lure of fried fish led many men to earn extra income by commercial fishing on the Cumberland River.
There were men in town who would go to the banks of the river or push a small boat out into the current, and would fish for something he could then sell in town.
We say men not to be sexist, since many women today love to fish, but because in the past this was more of a man’s sport.
Using nets or fish traps or trout lines, a good fisherman could catch a fair amount of fish. He then would take them into town to the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and people would line up to buy fresh fish to take home for supper.
We have the story of one old fishmonger who was asked by an older woman of Hartsville, “Are these fish clean?”
Confused by the question, he looked at her seriously and replied, “Ma’am, these here fish have been in the river all their life. Yes Ma’am, they are clean!”
This was before water pollution was a national problem.
Many a farm boy has had the same attitude when told by his mom to go take a bath. “Aw, Mom… I don’t need no bath. I was swimming all afternoon in the creek!”
In the old days the fish peddler would fish for several days, keeping his catch in a large tub in the yard, then tossing them into the back of his wagon and heading into town.
One such fisherman made the Nashville newspapers in April of 1914. Under the headline of “WAGON LOAD OF FISH”, this short article appeared in The Tennessean:
“Ben Dillon, a peddler, brought to Hartsville Thursday the largest load of fish probably ever brought here at one time. He states that the fish were caught in a net at the mouth of Second creek. The bottom of his wagon was several inches deep with different members of the finny tribe, such as trout, perch of various kinds, drum, yellow, forked tail and black cat. It is stated that there was nearly 800 pounds of fish in the wagon.”
Please note the variety of fish in Ben’s wagon!
Today we expect to find fried catfish at a local restaurant and I have certainly tasted some delicious fried catfish locally. But in the past we ate a whole slew of different fish.
There was a time when the only fish in a grocery store was found in a can — tuna and salmon were the meager choices. But if you fished you had a whole smorgasbord of finned creatures to choose from.
The article mentions trout, perch, drum, yellow (a type of bass), forked tail and black cat.
But if you have fished local lakes and streams you would also be familiar with short-nose gar, white sucker, black buffalo, crappie (pronounced ‘croppie’), gizzard shad, channel catfish, walleye and both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Tennessee has several world record fish that have been caught within our state lines, and Hartsville is a part of that!
Fishing in the wee hours on the night of August 3, 1960, Mabry Harper caught a large walleye at Cedar Bluff on the Cumberland River. He was fishing for catfish, but the walleye he pulled in after it hit his bait was the largest he had ever caught. He also knew they were delicious when deep-fried.
The monster fish would be weighted and measured and photographed before Harper cut it into fillets and shared it with the family for super. But it wasn’t until the next day when he was notified that it was a state record — and would later prove to be a world record!
We have written about the record fish before and our museum has a life-size photo of Harper’s wife Mary posing with that world-record walleye.
In the past, the local civic clubs would host annual fish frys and members of the club would have fish in their freezer to bring to the cast-iron skillets of melted lard. The side dishes would be cole slaw and white beans with a couple of hot hushpuppies.
A community-wide fish fry on the lawn of a rural school or someone’s home is just a memory of the past. Today fast food joints take our coins but leave us without the lawn chairs pulled up beside our neighbors as we pass a little light-hearted gossip back and forth. We no longer enjoy the homemade tartar sauce on the hot tasty fish, or the kids reaching into a large galvanized tub of ice water to pull out their grape soda and, of course, some watermelon dripping down our chins!
Maybe after this virus has been tamed, someone can host an old-fashioned fish fry like we used to have. Sounds good to me!