Stinkbait Cider

Fruit season is upon us along with the Full Sturgeon Moon, said to be a blue moon despite being the only full moon we’ll see this month. Why? Well, occasionally we have an extra, fourth moon during a three-month season and it and the one that follows are considered blue. That’s the situation this summer. So, yes, you can call that warm, bright, waning moon in the southern midnight sky blue, even though to me it appears joyous.

Something interesting about Indian moon names that correspond with important seasonal plants, crops, fish, animals and activities is that they were of a regional flavor, with slight variations even among tribal brothers right here in the Pioneer Valley. For example, unlike their northern kin the Pocumtuck and Norwottuck here in Franklin/Hampshire, the Agawams of Hampden County were below the sugar-maple line of demarcation, thus had no moon associated with the gathering of maple syrup like their abutting northern brothers. The same held true across the continent, where north, south, east and western tribes depended on different plants, animals, nuts, berries, fruits and roots for sustenance, thus their moons carried many different but related names. But enough on moons — back to fruit, which, judging from the two apple trees with which I am most familiar, seems to be bountiful this year. Worth noting is the fact that neither of my most familiar trees, one reaching out over to the road passing my front yard, receives any human assistance and are thus in my mind “wild,” mine sporting red apples, the other green, both carrying heavy fruit that’s straining their limbs after a barren 2012.

I must admit I was interested indeed to discover while patrolling the Heath Fair Saturday afternoon that I’m not the only one monitoring my roadside apple tree, which in my memory has never held so many apples. Old cider distiller and softball pal Steve Coutu of Colrain’s been watching it, too, and told me so. He also said that back in his distilling days, apples like those stressing out my tree’s limbs were his favorite. When I invited him to come on down and take all he wanted, then bring me back a couple of jugs of hard stuff to squirrel away in my damp, dusty cellar wine-and-preserve closet at the base of an eight-foot-square brick chimney, he chuckled and admitted he no longer dabbles. Oh well, I guess times change as gray hair blooms. What a shame. I’ve sampled old “Whack-Whack’s” hard cider and would love to have a couple of glass gallon jugs — you know, the ones with those little thumb handles on their short necks — in reserve for special occasions with old friends or special guests, likely enjoying the home-brew in front of a warm, crackling taproom fire as mischievous tavern spirits dance to finger-picking Mississippi John Hurt’s “Hot Time in the Old Town,” “Nobody’s Dirty Business” or “Candy Man” on Pres Speakers. Ah yes, they say fantasy is healthy for the sick mind. I would guess I qualify. Then again, I suppose some would call me sick in the head while others view me quite normal. It’s all relative, but way too late to change now. So why even attempt to smooth off those corners to squeeze myself into that tidy round hole bored into red sandstone ledge years ago by industrious “good boys” from old Troop Wequamps or whatever it was called? All I know is it wasn’t for me. We all make choices in life and, like them, I have no regrets about the path I selected and still prefer to travel. Different strokes for different folks. But wouldn’t it be nice if conventional folks would accept autonomy? Don’t worry, I won’t hold my breath waiting. Such straight and narrows view autonomy as a dangerous form of anarchy and are not hesitant to lather up evangelical mobs to a boisterous, rising crescendo of worship in the Sunday chapel during frothy tirades against acts of individual sovereignty, a concept oh so threatening to those shepherding obedient flocks.

Oooops! There I go again. How’d we get onto that topic? Time to leap back into placid waters — far, far away from those troubling images of racks, gallows, scaffolds, faggot-ringed wooden stakes and shallow stoning pits of Christian infamy. How about catfish derbies? Is that benign enough for the pale, timid and compliant? Yes sir, so let’s go there.

It’s funny how these tales get started. You see, last week when I couldn’t squeeze into this weekly space a quick, last-minute reminder of last weekend’s fourth-annual Last-Cast Catfish Derby — founded and run by brothers Gary and Eric Hallowell and headquartered at the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club on the northern shores of Barton Cove — I was feeling guilty and didn’t have enough material for a full second column inside. Puzzled by the dilemma, I brought the information to work, handed it to a hard-working colleague I call the “Big Boiczyk” and asked him to post it in the Bulletin Board on our sport pages. A first for him, a native no less, he studied the poster and press release and was immediately intrigued; so much so that he quickly engaged a news scribe from the other end of the newsroom and me in lively conversation about the fine art of catfishing. When he had formed a clear picture of what such extravaganzas are about — the lanterns, stinkbait, coolers and wee-hour campfire conversation — he proposed to the news scribe that they gather a last-minute gang and enter, said it sounded like a splendid way to spend a Saturday night off with the fellas; yes, right up his alley. The newsroom discussion appeared to have potential and even sprouted temporary legs that were promising before petering out and never making it out of the workplace. No, predictably, the fanciful adventure never materialized, but I wouldn’t count it out for next year. Trust me. Just a hunch.

What would lead me to such a conclusion, you ask? Well, upon arriving for my shift Monday evening, the weekend in the rear-view, there on my desk chair sat a couple of sheets of face-down paper the Big Boiczyk had somehow missed. I picked them up, read them over, uttered a little chuckle and handed them to him, tanned to a deep workingman’s red. What I had was a list of Last-Cast winners, a quick little press release and a photo (above) of grand-prize winner ($100) Leonard Lenois of Erving proudly displaying his lunker, 18.49-pound channel cat and wearing that twilight twinkle in his eyes that any night creature worth his salt has seen many times. Or would you call it a glaze? Ahhh, why quibble over irrelevant semantics? Call it what you want to, but my guess is that with a year to float the idea and solidify plans, the Big Boiczyk may yet assemble a catfishing crew for a “Life & Times” or “Outdoors” feature that could develop into something borderline acceptable for a family newspaper. No, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he assembles a capable and incorrigible crew. He’s shown what I interpret as genuine enthusiasm for the concept, even though he works the family farm and the derby happens to fall during the peak of the season. Hey, that’s o excuse. He used to take time off to attend NASCAR in New Hampshire in a happy-hour Winnebego.

The clincher may be that he asked his dad if he had ever been catfishing, the answer was yes and he even remembered using salt pork for bait. I told him that grizzled veterans would admit salt pork works but not nearly as good as ripe, rancid meat stored in a covered galvanized pail left hanging in the sun for a few days off a clothesline post. As you can imagine, one whiff of the contents of such a pail opened on the convivial riverbank for the first time is apt to water your eyes, gag you and much worse upon pulling off the squeaky-tight cover. That’s why they call it “stinkbait,” the real deal, the type crusty old trappers used to store double- and triple-bagged out in the old, rusty freezer in the barn, right next to the buttery, itself most often ripe indeed.

As for Lenois’ derby-winning 18.49-pound catfish, it seems to me that it’s a big Channel Cat, significantly larger than others I recall winning derbies over the past 30-some years. But I’m no expert and have not myself caught a catfish since fishing the Mississippi River as a schoolboy with my mother’s cousin, John Berg, who owned a Stockton, Ill., gun and tackle shop. Although my memory has at times proven to be not quite as reliable as I believe it to be, and there’s no easy way to check records from previous derbies, my sense is that this could be the biggest catfish I’ve ever reported. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that previous winners have ranged between 13 and 15 pounds, so 18½ is big, as the photo displays.

As much as I’d like to jump into recent reading that’s troubling indeed, and/or adventures with the grandsons, who have been with me a week now, I’m outta time and space. Off I go, probably to the Green River with dogs and kids. I’ll splash around with them, admire the kids’ youthful energy and know full well that their teenage years will soon be upon us, dramatically changing riverside and other dynamics.

Afraid? Worried?

Hell no! I can’t wait to give them a little grandfatherly advice; you know, the type guardians of freedom would vociferously object to.

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