Ramblins’ from the Hills & Hollers: Growing up with weird Appalachian water critters

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Steve Oden

By Steve Oden

Fiddling in one of my tackle boxes the other day, I came across a lifelike plastic lure a friend had made for me. I can’t remember the time I last fished with him but recalled he was a proponent of matching the artificial bait to the habitat.
The soft lure he created was about six inches long, had a bulbous head and black eyes, four stubby legs and a frill of rubbery gills on its stocky neck.
It was a “mudpuppy,” an imitation of the salamander found in Appalachian creeks. Largemouth bass preyed on the aquatic amphibians and seemed to have quite the appetite for them.
This set me to thinking about the last time I’d seen a mudpuppy, a waterdog or, for that matter, an eel. I wondered if these peculiar-looking critters were in decline. Maybe environmental changes had taken a toll, or perhaps it was simply because my fishing habits changed sixty years ago.
During my boyhood, my tackle consisted of cane poles and cast-me-down rods and reels. I was learning and had no need for fancy equipment. My angling skills were whetted in ditches, small streams, ponds and rivers. I always fished from the bank, usually with a gaggle of other boys, and frequently in the evening or at night when our lust for catching fish exceeded fear of wild animals and monsters of the imagination.
Whatever lurked in the shadows would have to contend with choking smoke from a smoldering tire, bullfrog gigs and a plentiful supply of firecrackers. Stinking melted rubber helped keep mosquitoes at bay and illuminated the area. My friends and I were never attacked by a black bear, wildcat or werewolf, but we were always on guard.
During these campouts we casted lines baited with worms, nightcrawlers or chicken liver, then sat back to roast wieners on sticks, guzzle Dr. Peppers and soda in vivid grape, orange and strawberry flavors, told ghost stories and jumped out of our skin whenever an owl hooted nearby.
We sometimes caught fish, too. Bullheads, the occasional yearling channel catfish, small carp and buffalo fish (mature ones broke our lines and wrecked our junky reels), drum, skinny suckers and sharp-toothed vicious scaly cats (bowfin). Hooking into a bluegill, bass or crappie was reason to rejoice. So was reeling in something truly odd.
Almost seven decades ago, adult bank fishermen using live bait—worms, crayfish tails, minnows—often attracted what they called “trash.” These aquatic species caused them to curse, stomp the offending creatures and usually relocate to a different fishing spot.
Boys, however, relished reeling in a waterdog, mudpuppy, snapping or stinkpot turtle, water snake or fish with a lamprey attached. You couldn’t eat most of these bait stealers, but it gave you bragging rights.
The only freshwater eel I ever caught in my life was under a bridge after midnight, when the fire had burned down to embers and several of my companions had fallen asleep under their quilts. I swung the two-foot long snaky fish out of the water and inadvertently into their midst. They thought it was a cottonmouth and ran screaming into the night.
Hellbenders were an unusual but not uncommon catch. The large salamanders relished worms and put up quite a fight. No one tried to skin and eat them, and most were returned to the water. Local lore held that their bite was venomous, but our experience was that a catfish spine was worse. My father called them waterdogs.
My ruminations about these critters brought back memories of hand-and-line fishing for crayfish. We called them CRAWfish, of course, and were ignorant of their value as an exotic food. Rather, we fished for them to use as bait or set up clawed gladiatorial contests in rusty wash tubs. We wagered penny candy on the outcome, of course.
We didn’t use hooks for catching crayfish. Our technique was simply to tie half a bloody chicken gizzard or rank piece of raw fish on the line and lower it into the creek. It usually didn’t take long to attract the spiky freshwater crustaceans. Once they’d latched on and were greedily tearing at the bait, you carefully and slowly pulled them to the bank and used a bucket to scoop them out of the water.
Every fish that swims loves crayfish tails. We peeled off the shells and threaded the glistening raw meat on hooks. You didn’t have to wait long for a bite. It never dawned on us that crayfish would be delectable to humans too.