Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Marshall Fry

There was a time when catching a lot of fish was important to me. A long ago day on Roaring River comes to mind. Roaring River was one of the Folger boy’s training grounds...close to home and the fish would usually bite... obviously, very important to budding young fly fishers. And if not biting, there were usually some girls around, bored to death, having been drug on yet another camping trip by their dorky dads.

I had challenged my dorky dad to a contest. We’d start at one of the lower holes and fish our way up to the lodge and see who could land the most trout. A small crowd of tourists (there were always tourists around getting in the way of our back-casts) followed us, and as I recall we each caught and released thirty-some trout. Yes, we were showing off. I can’t remember who won, but it was one of those magical days when the fish were especially active and my hook-set timing was perfect. We caught and released a lot of fish. On other days the fish weren’t so lucky.

Back then my brothers and I were under a lot of pressure to bring home the bacon. There was always a good crowd at camp and we were the designated providers for many campfire dinners – meaning we each had to lug a stringer from pool to pool. As no wading was allowed, we would secure our stringers to rocks along the river’s edge, fish the pool, move on, catch one three pools later and spend the next fifteen minutes backtracking to find our stringer among the dozens of others along the stream.  Five a day was the limit, so every day we’d each string four and keep fishing and releasing until we had a worthy specimen to fill out our quotas...always under the watchful eye of Marshall Fry.

Marshall Fry was the Game Warden. A wiry little bespectacled guy with binoculars, he was always in uniform and always on DEFCON 1 alert. Lucky for us, his investigative skills and sleuthing techniques were patterned after Barney Fife, so spotting him on the stream was rarely a problem. Fry’s duty in life was to enforce the catch limit and especially the “artificials only” rules of the stream.

Uncle George didn’t like him at all. Arguably one of the best fly-fisherman of his day, my uncle was always on the Marshall’s radar. Uncle George was old school in every way. If he was going to go fishing, he was going to bring home fish. Lots of fish. It was a source of pride, but before you condemn him, remember that this was back in the 50’s and early 60’s...long before catch and release became the norm and we were on a put-and-take stream.

My favorite uncle was an enigma. As the long-time Superintendent of Schools for a major Missouri school system, he was one of his cities more upstanding citizens...but there was a rebellious streak inside. Among his so called faults, he refused to put a nametag on his stringer and one day he got busted for it. The ever vigilant Marshall Fry arrested him on the spot and hauled him off to court in Cassville.

They met the magistrate and a fine was assessed. Always the gentleman, Uncle George agreed that it was a fair amount and that he would pay it...but only after he and the Marshall returned to the river and arrested each and every other criminal that was brazen enough to use a stringer sans nametag. Marshall Fry was furious. He knew that at least a fourth of the stringers would be without tags, and he knew that Uncle George had him. The charges were dropped and the trout dinner was especially good that night. But we knew that our nemesis would pull out every trick to get even.

We heard that he was offering bribes to other angles to rat out my brothers and I. He suspected that we were stringing four, returning to camp to unload them, then returning to fish for another four, then another four, etc.  At least that was his theory. Now, if we had been night fishing in the off-limits spring lake for the retired brood stock I would have understood his obsession...but we never had the nerve to do that.

On another occasion, one of our neighbors that had had about enough of the Marshall’s constant presence around the stream cooked up a plan to mess with him. Frank found an empty coffee can, filled it with dirt and then added a handful of worms to the mix. All that was needed was to be sure that our nemesis could see Frank’s plan unfold. Now, one of the Marshall’s favorite observation hideouts gave him a good view of the lower pools, and sure enough that’s where he was...surveying the fishermen with his binoculars. Frank sauntered to the selected pool, set the can down, rigged up his rod and reached into the can being careful to sling some of the dirt out as he dug for that perfect worm, all within view of the Marshall. With the worm secured to the hook, Frank slung it to the far bank, sat down and began a slow retrieve across the pool.

About the time the bait reached the middle of the pool a siren was heard. Looking towards the hideout, Frank saw the dust and gravel fly as Fry headed towards the stream. Coming to a stop behind our blatant law-breaker, he shut the siren down and exited the car in his normal self important fashion. Straightening his tie and hitching up his trousers, the little banty rooster pulled out his ticket book and walked towards Frank.

Nonchalantly reeling in his bait, Frank acted shocked that he was doing anything illegal. “All I’m doing sir is fishin’ with worms!” Well, Marshall Fry demanded to see Frank’s license...all in order. Then he picked up the worm can with a self-righteous grin on his face, certain that he had busted another of the more flagrant miscreants on his hallowed waters, plunged his hand into the mix and pulled out a fine example of the injection molder’s art. Yep, Frank had filled the can with plastic worms. Digging deeper into the can he found nothing but plastic. Marshall Fry lost it. Slinging the can down he retreated to his car and just sat there steaming. Stifling laughter, Frank continued fishing ‘til he finally drove away.

There are other stories to be told of our days with the good Marshall, but just know that he led a very frustrated existence for a few years there. But he gave my brothers and I a gift. That gift was the motivation to lift our eyes from the water now and be take in our surroundings and be aware.

With the passage of time it’s doubtful that Marshall Fry is still with us. Perhaps I’ll see him again someday hiding in the trees along that great trout stream in the sky. If so, he’ll be wasting his time (as usual) ‘cause that particular stream is bound to be free of all earthly rules and regulations.