These days, there does not seem to be much to distinguish young river rat types. Times have changed and young people have, for the most part, morphed into a homogenous and bewildering subculture. Yet, years ago, there was frequent debate on who qualified for the “River Rat “ moniker. I’m now old enough to know it is a personal and spiritual thing and a matter of degree….like,” are you a good Christian”.
It occurred to me that the faithful followers of these pages would enjoy some insights on how there used to be temporary and permanent river rat kids and what the differences were. The temporary river rat kid couldn’t do much about this status because, invariably, they were “Summer Kids “. Many did grow up to be fine, fully qualified adult permanent river rats. Still, when they were kids they were easy to spot even when they were hanging around with us less worldly, less traveled full time river rats.
These summer kids were usually to be seen in their parent’s boats, or in a boat designated as their own which glistened to excess with paint and varnish and had a motor that was too shiny and ran too well. They made do with what they had. I suppose their parents wouldn’t have allowed them to have a proper leaky, plank bottom sharpie sealed with roofing tar just so they could fit in better. To understand the big differences between these river rat factions would require an extended study of what they did rather than appearances.
Permanent river rat kids fished at every opportunity, starting as early as possible in the spring with bullheads. In fact, we often started when it was not possible….lured by an early thaw in Otter Creek and a mild day, we would set out before dark armed with long cane poles with hand carved wood bobbers. The temperatures would plummet at night. A kid could not swing a line and bobber out hard enough to break the forming ice ! We would endure the cold and indignities as long as we could and break ice to get home. Obviously, the summer kids missed all this.
When we caught fish, we cleaned them and they became part of the family larder. Most of us were like wolves at feeding time, so we got increasingly passionate and innovative about catching fish as we grew older. Bullheads were such a staple that we learned to imitate the creative procurement practices of adult river rats. We fashioned elaborate fish traps with purloined chicken wire and put them in well known bullhead travel corridors. This was probably our earliest not-legal river rat practice. The temporary river rat kids did not engage in such illegal procurement techniques.
By the early teen years, we had been subject to the tutorials of big river rats to the extent that we were capable of serious mayhem. Our forays on the river had to be adventures. Derricking in spring time bullheads with cane poles wasn’t enough anymore. Spear fishing, for example was sufficiently exciting. Underwater lights were concocted from sealed beam headlights and old car batteries. Anything other than an underwater light could be spotted and get you caught which would not be good. I suspect the local game warden would love to make an example out of any river rat, young or old, if he could catch them in the midst of these classical activities. Spear fishing at night was always exciting since one never knew what target would be revealed as we skulked the shallows. We took turns standing with spear poised, ready to be plunged into whatever hapless fish was transfixed by the light.
In the spirit of adventure, we regularly speared things for the fun of it. Carp were typical and we had no interest in eating them. They were big, powerful fish which struggled mightily and could wreck an inferior spear. One malicious practice we had was to keep a few of the prehistoric looking monster carp and deposit them in a boat of someone we didn’t like at the time. A few days of ripening would turn these things into a disgusting mess with a lingering smell. I shall assume that the summer kids never experienced the diabolical pleasure of such dastardly deeds.
Long Before the Light of Day
Long before the light of day
down the River, we were underway
Bumping along in a boat too small
to be out in the middle of a pre-dawn squall.
The old River Rat heard us drawing nigh,
He would want to see who was passing by.
There came a silhouette of him in his door,
The lantern within showed nothing more.
He could only guess who we were.
If we didn’t stop , he would never be sure.
The glow of his cigar would come and go
As the the door of his shack closed ever so slow…
Did he want us to stop and say hello ?
Time has passed ,and we’ll never know.
Now he has been gone for many years,
And I’m the old River Rat, or so it appears.
By Hunter Grimes III
Speaking of dastardly deeds, I am haunted by one source of amusement we discovered. As spring turned to summer, it became easy to dangle worms off the dock and catch the resident pan fish. We had been taught that rock bass were a scourge of the river and we never ate them. They were notorious bait stealers and we typically flung them off a hard enough surface to kill them once removed from a hook. Our little sister took to fishing off the dock for fun when she was five or six. We taught her to pry out one eye of her rock bass with a can opener and throw them back in the water. The one-eyed fish would swim in crazy circles which would make this little sister laugh hysterically, all of which we thought was hugely funny. Such behavior today would likely get us all institutionalized. I remember a couple of my temporary river rat type friends witnessing this spectacle. Surely, it made them realize full time river rat kids were different.
By the time we were “older” teenagers, we were competing in many ways with the accomplished, and even legendary adult river rats. A difficult and dangerous example is the spring time gillnetting. Highly illegal, this practice would never be engaged by summer kids. For several reasons, ice-out is the best time to do this.
A typical net would be three or four feet in depth and at least a hundred feet long. You set them in the dark, stretched with anchors at each end. Floats on the top line and weights on the bottom line would keep the net suspended vertically. It had to be set in fairly deep water so it could not be seen from the surface. They were set as quickly and furtively as possible and left to work for a day or two. Checking the net had to be done regardless of the weather and, of course, in the dark. You dragged for it with a small grapple hook which sometimes took several passes. Once hooked the net was pulled to the surface and you worked your way hand over hand to one end or the other. It had to be pulled up enough to spot any fish stuck in it. Often it would have many “suckers” in it. The shape of these fish made it impossible to pull them through the net. About the only way to get them out was to twist their heads off. The desired fish was the northern pike and the gill nets were very effective in collecting them. The water was still ice cold and their flesh was wonderfully firm and delicious. Gill netting was brutal work in dangerous circumstances. Wearing gloves didn’t work so hands would get paralyzed with the cold. A loaded net was very heavy to pull. Everything had to be done quickly while keeping an eye out against possible discovery. Of course, once the ice cold fish were home, they had to be cleaned…another hand-chilling chore in itself. I have fond memories of those grueling nights. It was a character building activity. Absurdly perhaps, I would often imagine myself to be one of those biblically famous fisherman as I forced my frozen hands to keep pulling the net.
I think, faithful reader, you have enough to ponder about the difference in young river rats. Many of these differences are nothing I am particularly proud of , but they are treasured memories and have much to do with the richness of my relationship with the River. I don’t need to use the gill net to put fish in the freezer any more.
The spiritual tug to do the gill net thing is still strong. One of those legendary river rats, who shall remain un-named, is in his nineties. I visit him occasionally. He has a complete gill net up in an attic that is ready to go. I always start our visits with, “let’s get the gill net out and set her someplace good “ and he always agrees we should and we talk about where the right place would be. I always leak a tear or two as I know that old river rat will never tend another net…nor will I, even though I think I could.
I don’t recall that I, or my fellow conspirators, ever agonized over the right or wrong of the classical river rat habits. We did worry about getting caught. I did learn a lot about the River environments and its critters. I learned early on how to test ones self in the face of danger and discomfort and how to rejoice in it. Sadly, ours may have been the last generation that grows up on the River following the boat wakes of the old fashioned river rats.
By Hunter Grimes III
Hunter Grimes served in the Navy from 1966-1970. In 1968-70 he was with UDT 21 and Navy Seals. He is currently owner of Diverse Construction Group, LLC. He attended SUNY Oswego, University of Alaska at Fairbanks and Syracuse School of Forestry. Hunter is certainly a genuine River Rat – a reliable term given for those who spend their lives on, in or under the River. In 1989 Canadian author, Shawn Thompson wrote his book, “River Rats: The People of the Thousand Islands.” Page 68 has the Hunter Grimes story. Hunter and his wife Martha have devoted their lives to their community, both being recognized for their volunteer efforts and leadership. To see other of Hunter’s essays in TI Life, click here.