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Deja Vu All Over Again

That which follows is for Kentuckians. It’s a piece I did for the summer 2010 issue of Kentucky Afield, the magazine of the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, which is just now in circulation. I’m posting it here because I wanted to get a little wider attention to the names mentioned in the story. They deserve it. The piece explains why.

“I thought it would be déjà vu all over again. There I was, casting for bass on one of the state’s best lakes in the company of one of the state’s best fishermen.I hadn’t been bass fishing in over thirty years. My career had taken me West to California and out there it’s mostly about chasing trout and steelhead. These are noble fish –elegant and aristocratic, big and strong and beautifully colored and I loved every minute of it. But they ain’t bass. They ain’t the rowdy, smash your lure, walk on water, fight like hell battlers our Kentucky largemouth and smallmouth are.

And there I was again, standing in the bow of a bass boat looping casts into Kentucky Lake and thinking back to what it was like when I was a young man and the world was just getting started.

I was in the last semester of my junior year at UK, working part time as a sports writer at the Frankfort State Journal and doing high-school football and basketball play- by-play at the local radio station to help pay my way through school when Harry Towles, then director of Fish and Wildlife’s communications division, hired me to come write for the Happy Hunting Ground Magazine and to start a weekly radio and television show on Kentucky hunting and fishing.

The show is still running. It’s called Kentucky Afield. Proves what staying power a good idea in the hands of talented and dedicated people has.

That job was the best job I ever had. I got to hunt and fish all over the state in some of the best places and with the best outdoorsmen the state had on offer. Better than that, though, I got to work with the men and women who made up the Fish & Wildlife department.

Sculling Paddles & Nightcrawlers

 

This would be in the mid-fifties, back when we used sculling paddles to work down a bank and dedicated fishermen like Buddy Benassi of Frankfort kept nightcrawlers from freezing on winter jigging trips by cradling them in their mouth.

There was no striper fishing in Kentucky then. Charlie Bowers and the fisheries boys were just beginning to bring fry up from Santee-Cooper in South Carolina to see if they could establish a fishery. There was no statewide deer season either. The herd wasn’t large enough. But Fred Hardy and the game biologists were getting one established in the Cumberland National Forest. Or a turkey season. About the only wild turkey were in Blenheim Forest or down in the woods around Golden Pond in the area now called The Land Between The Lakes.

There was bass water. Kentucky has always been blest with fine bass waters, but nothing like the choices today. The lakes were Kentucky, Cumberland, Dale Hollow, Herrington, and up on the eastern border, Dewey. Today, the list of possibilities is too long to squeeze in this short report.

The point all this drove home to me was how remarkably successful the Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources has been in creating for Kentucky sportsmen and women such a rich and diverse treasure during the years I’d been wandering around elsewhere.

The men and women I worked with during those days must be smiling.You won’t recognize the names, or at least most of the people reading this won’t, but their names deserve to be heard again. They made a difference.

Through Hell & High Water

 

Earl Wallace was the commissioner when I signed on, then Minor Clark.  Combative and hard charging, the “Boss” as everyone called Earl Wallace, had no patience for the “pointy-headed pea-brains” who stood in the way of the changes he wanted to make and forged ahead through hell and high water. Minor Clark, a fisheries biologist with the charm and grace of the true Kentucky gentleman he was, pushed for the scientific management of the state’s fish and wildlife resources that has meant so much to the success of the program over the years.

Frank Phipps was head of the law enforcement division then. Big, burly, always laughing, a UK football star who loved hunting and fishing. Ed Adams ran the conservation education program which was then, and is now, one of the best and most progressive in the nation. Jimmy Gilpin carried the story into the schools.

J.T. Cox was the assistant director of Fisheries under Minor Clark, and later was assistant commissioner of the department.  No finer man walked than J. T., with the exception of Harry Towles.  Kentucky Afield was Harry’s idea. He was one of the first, if not the first, of the country’s fish and game executives to realize how effective the use of radio and television could be in carrying the conservation story to the public and to do something about it. He believed we could do anything we set our minds to, and proved it.  Harry’s favorite benediction for the sternest critic was “Bless his heart.”

Earl Ruby at the Louisville Courier-Journal and John Murphy at the Kentucky Post helped fight the department’s battles in the public media and advocated for strong and effective conservation laws.

And conservation officers like Carl Thomas, who later came to work with us on the magazine and on Kentucky Afield. Carl was my idea of what a true Kentucky outdoorsman ought to be. Rugged, self-confident, unpretentious, he always knew what to do and how to do.  Carl fought with the Marines at Guadalcanal in World War II …something he never mentioned. Though we worked should to shoulder for several years, I never knew anything about it until I read it in his obituary. And Hope Carleton, who took over Kentucky Afield when I left. Nobody knew more about hunting and fishing than Hope or was more willing to help the uninitiated learn.

Beholden

 

These are not all the names that bear remembering, only the ones that jump into my mind as I write this. I call your attention to them because if you hunt or fish in Kentucky, you owe them — them and all the others, past and present, who have made, and are making, the Commonwealth the treasure it is.

Oh, the fishing. That’s where I started.

It was a great trip—one of the best I’ve ever had. I fished with Jeff Beach, a guide out of Paducah. A former firefighter and bass tournament competitor with some eighteen years experience on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, Jeff is what everyone hopes for when they hook up with a guide– a man who knows where the fish are, puts you on them, and knows the technique to use to get them…and tops it off by being excellent company.

We fished a “Carolina Rig” something I’d never seen, and used his “offshore” method. “Offshore” to me meant salt-water fishing, but to Jeff it meant working well of the banks in water eight to twelve feet deep, probing channels and rocks and unseen cover, rather than casting the banks and the points. It was deadly. We hung sixteen, boated (and released) twelve – two in the five-pound plus category. A glorious day.

Not déjà vu all over again. Some things are so good they can’t to be repeated. But good enough to bring me back… and to cause me thank once more the men and women who made it possible.”

2 Responses so far.

  1. Ron Rhody says:

    Hi Ron,
    Glad things are working out for you. This is only a test comment. Let me know if you get notification on your email.
    Thanks.
    Anthony

  2. Bonnie Taylor-Blake says:

    Hi, Ron.

    Greetings from Chapel Hill!

    Wonder if I might ask you a few questions about your time at Kentucky Happy Hunting Grounds. Would you mind emailing me? Thanks in advance!

    – Bonnie


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