It was late in April 1936, close to my 20th birthday. My dad, who lived only twenty miles away, called up one day midweek and asked if I would like to go on a fishing outing to celebrate my birthday. The weather was warming, the tulips were blooming, and it sounded like a good idea. Dad suggested my roommate, Smitty, might like to go along.
Smitty’s name was Maurice J. Smith, and he came from a long line of Smiths, who founded the town of Smithville, just north of Kansas City. In fact, I had heard the history of his family several times and how proud he was of having a town named after his ancestors. After the third time I heard the story, I reminded him that there were three little towns named after my ancestors, where I grew up. After that, I didn’t hear much about Smithville any more. But Smitty was a good Joe. He was tall, handsome and shy. He played on the Park College basketball team and they won more games than they lost that year.
But back to the fish story. Dad and my stepmother picked us up fairly early on Sunday and we drove north along the Missouri River. There were several picnic areas and some fishing camps along the old river bed, then called Rainbow Bend. We selected a spot and broke out some fishing tackle. Dad, meanwhile, rented a rowboat from one of the fish camps and told Smitty and me to have at it. He would let us do all the fishing and promised to clean all the fish we caught. So we took off, rowing along the willows and reeds until we found a likely spot. Neither of us was very knowledgeable about catching fish. We thought we would catch some catfish, but instead we garnered several small bluegill that persisted in stealing the worms we were using for bait. By midmorning, we had about a dozen little fish that averaged a half pound each. The sun was getting higher and hotter, and we were thirsty. So we rowed back to one of the fish camps for a cool drink and some R and R. In those days, there were numerous fish camps along the Missouri, operated by old-time fishermen who made a small living catching catfish from the river and selling them once a week at the public market in town. They all had wire-covered fish boxes full of catfish.
Smitty and I went to another spot and had about the same luck, catching more small fish. By midafternoon we were ready to quit and call it a day. Rowing back to the picnic area past the fish camp, and spotting again the box full of live fish, we had an idea. We pooled our meager resources and purchased six nice-sized channel cats for $2.00. We strung them on a stringer and rowed on to the picnic area. Needless to say, Dad was not just surprised, he was elated. We reminded him that he had promised to clean them for a fish dinner. We put the fish on ice, ate our picnic dinner and headed home. Dad kept bragging what good fishermen we were and set up all the plans for a fish fry the next Sunday.
The fish fry was a success, a fine way to celebrate my 20th birthday. However, Smitty and I had a twinge of guilt. Stepmother Edith reported that he had been bragging all over the neighborhood about our fishing skills, so we didn't have the heart to spoil his fun. When we finally confided in her, she just smiled and said, "I knew that all the time." She had seen us buy the fish. Every time Dad told the story the fish got bigger and more plentiful.
Then it was back to school for us. That spring an epidemic of mumps broke out among the students. Smitty came down with them the week before finals, and went home to Smithville and was scheduled to take his finals later in the summer. I went home and a week later, I also had the mumps. I never heard from Smitty again. I hope he survived the mumps and enjoyed our fishing trip as much as I did. In retrospect, I suppose we should have told Dad. But that would have punctured his balloon and deflated his ego to the point of humiliation. After all, what are fishing trips for?
The Prairie Prophet says: "Fish grow much faster after they are caught than they do before."