As we passed by Cabela’s in Mitchell last week, I considered stopping to genuflect.
Cabela’s (now Bass Pro Shops) is a South Dakota mecca, part of the world’s largest hunting and fishing conglomerate. Sportspersons come to pay homage and big bucks for hooks, lines, sinkers and other gadgets to catch, shoot or trap various of nature’s wild creatures, or enjoy our outdoor wonders in other ways.
A few miles beyond Mitchell we drove by numerous reminders of my youth and the bullhead fishing adventures in the Wessington Springs-Plankinton area where shallow lakes and stock dams beckoned our family to treeless lakes, and mud beaches on warm Sunday afternoons.
The customers who stop at Cabela’s don’t fish for bullheads, but I cut my fishing teeth on them. I qualify as a mud-bottomed, yellow-bellied bullhead expert.
Next to carp, they are today the bottom feeders on a fishermen’s preference list, except in Nebraska, where Cornhuskers consider bullheads a top game fish and carp as something for supper.
Mitchell’s Cabela’s, when it opened its massive doors, said that about 1.5 million customers would visit each year. I think that number has been far exceeded. The two-acre store has more than 250,000 different items on its shelves, and that sure doesn’t bode well for bullheads or fish of any kind.
In the past, even if the yellow-bellied fish was a sandwich shy of a shoreline lunch, it could compete with lug-nut sinker fishermen like me.
Back then my tackle box was a one-pound Folgers coffee can rattling with rusty hooks, lug nuts for sinkers and bottle corks for bobbers.
We didn’t need fishing poles. We just cranked up our throw lines, weighted with a pound or two of rusty iron.
A fist-full of worms or grasshoppers on the end of that twirling, whirling throw-line plunked noisily into the water and set a herd of bullheads to licking their thin lips like mongrel dogs at a cat-lovers’ picnic.
We used a smelly old gunnysack as our creel. Our catch was cleaned the old-fashioned way, by nailing the critters through the head onto a board, incising the blue skin behind its sharp horns with a knife, using pliers to grip the skin and then pulling it head to tail before bothering with innards.
The more ostentatious bullhead fishermen back then, whose sons and grandsons would morph into today’s loyal Cabela’s customers, used a telescoping steel casting rod. They probably brought along a special long-necked pair of pliers for digging out deep-set fishhooks, and a fancy Swiss knife for those embedded even deeper.
To us bullhead purists, the use of specialized equipment like that seemed a tad unsportsmanlike, especially to catch a fish that has the brain of a barrel of hair.
I don’t imagine you can find a throw line, a gunnysack creel, or a set of lug nut sinkers at Mitchell’s Cabela’s store. Today’s fishermen need the latest in equipment wily entrepreneurs have dreamed up to catch what we caught in the old days with castaway iron.
Young, jog-with-your-dog, sweat-banded, bottled water and iPad fishermen of today say it isn’t the catch, but the challenge of the catch that counts.
If truth were known, today’s nimrods are in it for the numbers just as we were in the 1930s.
Why else would they invest faith and money in gimmicks like boats as big as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, LED-eyed robotic minnows that have bowel movements on demand, trained fish that herd others from isolated spots on the lake to where your line is cast, and motorized reels that plug into their SUV’s cigarette lighter?
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