At last, for the first time this year, the Ohio River has returned to summer pool – 19 feet at Portsmouth below the Greenup Dam, and 34 feet at Ashland, upriver from the dam – and the water is starting to clear up.
And with school letting out for the summer, these were the conditions we boys loved, for it was the time to set trotlines, clean our catch of catfish and make some spending money by selling them to Mr. Herman’s meat market on Market Street in Portsmouth.
I’m thinking now of one incident from the days of my youth involving a trotline:
I sat in the rear of the old wooden johnboat and used an oar to hold it steady in the light current. In the bow, Delbert Fultz moved us along the trotline and baited each hook with four-inch chubs we had trapped from the river.
Twilight was gathering itself into the valley as we noticed dimples dancing on the surface all around us.
“Hello scissors, look how the minnows are working,” Delbert said.
Then we felt the fat raindrops splattering on our heads and arms and knew it wasn’t minnows. He dropped the line back to the bottom, moved to the middle seat and rowed for shore, 40 yards away. Before we covered the distance, the heavens opened and rain came down with a fury.
Rainwater was sloshing in the bottom of the boat as we leaped out and pulled the boat up. The bank was mostly clay, and we boys had cut “steps” in it for the path leading from the village of Beattyville down to the landing. Water was pouring down over those steps like miniature waterfalls.
We were about halfway up — Delbert in the lead — when he went down. He shot by me on his back, arms and legs extended. I tried to grab him, and down I went. Delbert crashed into the boat and I crashed into him.
“Hello scissors,” he said.
Up the bank we started again, and down we went again, once more winding up on our backs back at the boat. We finally made it into the village by going downstream, slashing through a grove of willows and plowing through a narrow field of corn.
Events like that night of the summer rainstorm become cherished memories that stick in our minds through the years. I was 11 or 12 at the time. Delbert, long gone now, was the leader of our Boy Scout troop. He taught us outdoor skills and love of God and country, and took time to teach me how to set an Ohio River trotline.
How it’s done
We tied one end of the line to a flat rock weighing 30 to 40 pounds, then rowed out into the river for 30 or 40 yards before pushing it overboard. We played out enough line to tie on a cork float, the line long enough to allow the marker to float on the surface with the trotline on the bottom.
Then, rowing on a slight upstream angle to combat the current, we played out a hundred yards or more of line, which was coiled on the bottom of the boat. The other end of the line was tied to another large rock. When the line was taut, we pushed that anchor overboard.
We rowed back and picked up the cork, pulled the line off the bottom, and began tying on as many as 50 hooks at about three-foot intervals, adding two or three additional, smaller weights to keep the line down where the big ones swam.
The hooks were baited on the way back, with the baiter moving the boat along by playing the line over the bow.
Five or six hours later came the thrill of rowing out, grabbing the float and “looking” the line, feeling the surge and tug of a dozen or more cats waiting to be taken off.
We made enough money from our Beattyville Trotline Co. to buy most of our school clothes for when classes resumed in early September.
Reach G. Sam Piatt at email@example.com or 606-932-3619.