Although I’ve spent much of my life trying to be somewhat of a nonconformist, I have to admit, I’m a big fan of traditions. I like doing many of the same things year after year that I have been doing as a boy. This past weekend was just another example.
I can remember traveling a long way on country two lane roads in a big hot, rough cloth seated 1950 Pontiac to visit my great grandparents. They lived on a farm located right at the Lancaster Bridge between Danville and Lancaster Kentucky. I have very few memories of them except for the glimpses I captured during one or two rare visits to the little frame house in which they lived where chickens pecked around in the yard.
But I do remember my great grandfather’s little bait store located just a few yards down the road from the house and the time I ran all the way down just to see him and busting into the front door to announce my arrival hearing the bubbling of the minnow tank, smelling the pipe smoke in the air and seeing a couple of old lanky men sitting around a checker board.
You see, my great grandfather’s farm was located along the Dix River and, as the stories were told, in years past as the White Bass would run up the river to spawn, Pa would rent spots along the bank behind the house for fishermen to stand and cast into the rapids for the huge school of spawning fish slowed by the current right there behind his bait shop.
My dad would tell us how he and his father would receive a phone call from Pa telling them that the bass had started running and how my dad and his father would gather up their fishing gear and head out for the country to take advantage of this yearly migration.
I could imagine them driving the long distance with great anticipation, in the days before Interstate highways, winding along country roads with little vehicle traffic, past farmers plowing their fields in the spring with mules and teams of horses back in the 30’s and 40’s before tractors were so common.
I heard the stories of the fish being so plentiful that you could catch one on every cast and how the fishermen would put down a deposit before leaving just to make sure they had a spot the next year when “the run” began.
It was a tradition in our family for father and son to travel to the Dix River and fish every spring, my dad with his father, fishing on his grandfather’s farm.
When my dad was just a boy my grandfather was lucky to get a job working on the construction crew that built the Dix River dam which impounded the flow of the river which went through his family farm. The result was Herrington Lake. A huge impoundment in Mercer, Boyle and Garrard counties built before the depression by private industry.
Over time the lake began to fill and the spring fishing trips took on a special kind of pride. Now my grandfather could take his son fishing on a lake he had himself helped to build. The tradition continued.
Eventually Pa passed away and fishing the “riffles” was a thing of the past and fishing the lake replaced it. Docks began to spring up around the lake and one in particular at Gwinn’s Island became the family favorite.
As a kid I can remember summer vacations in the little cabins on the Island, watching ski boats out on the water and skiers trying their skill at the floating “jump” directly out in front of the docks.
After my grandfather himself passed, dad would take us to the lake every summer to fish as a family, and as I grew older and eventually my brother’s grew older, he started taking us on a “father and son” fishing trip every spring. It was a very special event filled with tradition, with stories of days gone by, and a special connection to the waters under our rented wooden row boat with the creaking oars and the little leak that became our daytime home every spring.
As the years passed and we grew older our sisters steady boyfriends became brothers in law and we had to make a decision: should we include them in our family tradition or not?
We decided that they were now brothers too and so one by one as our family grew, we added to our numbers on this annual spring Pilgrimage to the Dix River, to Herrington Lake, to Gwinn’s Island.
It wasn’t long before we had children of our own and we had new decisions to make. At what age would we bring our own sons along on this springtime fishing trip? We were serious fishermen and though we wanted our kids to join the tradition, they needed to be old enough to bait their own hooks, mind when they were told, and not complain if it rained, got windy or a little cold. We decided that the boys could come once they had reached 13.
Year after year we dads left sad little boys at home to go away to fish until they were finally old enough to join us. One by one, my sons and my nephews each had their first year at the annual family fishing trip and it became a very special occasion to welcome a newcomer to such a long standing tradition.
Many of this new generation are now men in their 20’s and thirties, but a few are still in their teens and this year the youngest will turn 13 and so he joined us this past weekend for the first time, the fifth generation to come.
As usual, we fished hard for three days and had our annual fish fry Saturday night, eating our catch and telling the stories of the years gone by and the people who have passed on, how the tradition got started and why we continue to do it year after year.
It won’t be long before this family tradition will have lasted 100 years, going back to the days before the river through Pa’s farm was dammed up in 1923 and men stood shoulder to shoulder on the bank below his bait shop to catch the white bass running up the Dix River at the Lancaster Bridge.
And though in my daily life there is always much change and much to do, there is something special about the comfort zone of traditions and the connection they give me with the past.
And living this one tradition I get to catch a fish or two and cook them for my family, but out of the stories we get to tell, and the history I get to pass along, I give them a fish dinner and feed them for a day, but by teaching them about our family traditions, I feed their minds for a lifetime.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.