Doc Bertram and the 13-year-old boy


G. Sam Piatt



The late Dr. Herbert M. Bertram Jr. of Vanceburg slapped the bare bottoms of the majority of Lewis County’s 7,000 or so residents during his 60-some years of medical practice.

But he managed to find time for his great love: the pursuit of the fishes. He built himself a huge lodge and a 10-acre fishing lake located two miles up Scaff Lick, along the Lewis County-Greenup County line. It was at about the halfway point between the Portsmouth hospital, where he was the resident physician, and his office in Vanceburg.

The lake was loaded with bass and bluegill. As it aged, the bass grew bigger. The first time he landed the Kentucky bass it weighed 6 pounds, 2 ounces. When he caught it again two or three years later it was up to 6-9. Both times the fish was returned to the lake in good shape.

The state record Kentucky bass, caught in Nelson County 48 years ago now, weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces.

He was satisfied he had an eventual new record growing. He wouldn’t mind getting his name in the record books.

A couple of years passed. One late July evening, from his small boat with the electric trolling motor, he cast a minnow-type lure down near the dam. He felt the vicious strike all the way down to his toes. The first time the fish swirled, he saw enough of it to recognize it as his Kentucky.

Hold on.

After a boat-moving battle, he was looking at a Kentucky bass that appeared to be considerably heavier than it was the last time he caught it. He rushed ashore, got the fish into a tub of water, and headed for a nearby grocery store that had a set of electronic scales he knew state fisheries people would recognize as official.

Alas, to his disappointment the fish was six ounces short of the record.

He hurried to get it back in the lake. This time she didn’t make it. She turned belly-up. The big snappers that inhabit the lake enjoyed the meal.

FLY ROD TROUT

Each spring he had the lake stocked with some big brood rainbow trout from a hatchery down south. One day he called me and asked if I’d ever fished with a fly rod. I had never had one in my hands.

I eagerly accepted his invitation. When I arrived, he had me a fly rod all rigged up. A few casting instructions from shore with the eight-foot rod and loose loops of line and I was ready.

On my second or third cast I hooked and battled in a rainbow that would go close to five pounds!

I bought me a fly rod and reel. It was awhile before I returned to my casting reels. Doc and I formed a friendship that lasted through the years.

THE 13-YEAR-OLD

I went down to the lodge to interview him on his 89th birthday. He pulled a snapshot of a boy from his wallet, studied it for a moment, shook his head from side to side, and chuckled. The photo was worn and overlaid by some mysterious letters and numbers.

“I hope he’s forgiven me,” he said.

I didn’t get it.

Pray tell, good doctor, what happened here? And who is the boy?

“We all know that every picture tells a tale, and this photo of a 13-year-old boy speaks volumes,” Bertram said. “The overlying inscriptions are precisely what inspired this tale, and this will later hopefully become self-explanatory.”

The boy’s love of fishing began very early. He was nine when he battled and landed what was, for him, a monstrous muskie.

That experience took place where Laurel Creek runs into Kinniconick Creek, in the hills of Lewis County. The boy had cast a tandem spinner into the Round Hole, formed by the merging waters there, and hooked the mighty muskellunge, which was nearly three feet long and which he estimated would go at least 10 pounds. He battled it up onto the bank, then wrestled it into submission before he finally allowed it to flop back into the water.

At that age of development, the boy would accompany his father on fishing trips to Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.

As the boy grew, Doc went on, the next 75 years would see him enjoy fishing trips from Alaska and Canada to Mexico and South America.

His favorite streams were the St. Johns, the White, the Shark, the St. Croix, the Pigeon, the New, the Cumberland, the Rio Negro and the Rio Parismino.

He battled 23 species of fish, including smallmouth, salmon, brown and lake trout, peacock bass, mobara, grayling, redear, bream – even a piranha or two.

“Certainly, the world of fishing has been extremely kind to this boy. But I’m disturbed by these hieroglyphics that now overlie his countenance,” he said, looking again at the photo he’d pulled from his wallet.

Then came the confession: “His clumsy older counterpart recently fell overboard, wallet and all. I can only hope that after more than 70 years of residing in my billfolds he will see fit to forgive me.

“Look again – do you see forgiveness in his face?

“After all, I WAS FISHING!”

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G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.