Clayton: Summer 'back in the day'

Luke Clayton
Special to the E-T
Summer is a great time to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Luke’s son-in-law and grandson sharing some quality time together fishing in a remote pond.
Luke Clayton

I have often visited with my grandkids about how life was in country in rural Red River County back in the late 50s and early 60s when I was growing up. It was an entirely different world back then, one much simpler and I guess by today’s standards, somewhat harder.

When I tell them there was no air conditioning or telephone at our house, they stare in amazement. “How did yall stay cool, Gramps?” I explained we had what is called an attic fan that pulled in the "cooler" night air through windows that were left open a few inches. "What about during the day, wasn’t it hot in the house?” I explain to them that we spent a great deal of time outdoors in the summer months. There was always lots of work to do on a farm and even as a child, my love for the outdoors kept me busy.

I spent a great deal of my time, when I wasn’t gathering eggs, feeding chickens or working in the garden, fishing the nearby stock tanks for perch, bass and catfish. Pecan Bayou that traverses much of northern Red River County was a few hundred yards from our home in Dimple Community, within easy walking distance and the clear stream was loaded with channel catfish.

My Dad taught me how to cut bamboo poles from a "cane break" near our farm and rig them with fishing line, a hook and weight. With eight or 10 of these poles rigged, I would spend time fishing in our stock tank for small sunfish and use them to bait my set hooks in Pecan Bayou. When my mother assigned me the task of catching a fish dinner, I would eagerly accept the challenge and bait my poles the evening before.

I knew the productive spots along the creek to poke the butt end of the pole into the soft creek bank. I would set my baits close to some sort of structure such as fallen tree or brush pile but not too close, to avoid getting the lines tangled in the limbs. I would sometime be joined by my dad and we would spend the first couple hours after dark "running" the set hooks. This is when catfish bit the best. He had fashioned a fish box that held our catch until we were ready to dress them the next day before the fish fry.

Gigging bull frogs was another summertime activity that my Dad was exceptionally proficient at. He used a "grab gig" that was spring loaded and snapped shut on the frog. If you have never enjoyed a meal of freshly caught fried frog legs, you have missed a delicacy. I remember one evening we caught a burlap bag or "tow sack" full of frogs and placed them in the smoke house that had a dirt floor. The next morning the majority of frogs had somehow escaped the sack and gained freedom through cracks in the old structure.

Our family once owned the old Dimple Store (gone for many years) and Dad knew just everyone in the northern part of the county, thus he had "fishing rights" on just about every stock tank in the area. When we weren’t fishing in the bayou, we were dunking shiners under a cork floater in some prime bass fishing waters close to home.

Until I was a teenager, the only fish I had eaten — and I had enjoyed many fish meals — was bream, catfish and largemouth bass. Yes, back in the day before the lakes were constructed and bass tournaments, native largemouth bass were considered food and to this day, I love eating small "yearling" bass 10 to 12 inches in length. 

About every nine weeks, when the 14,000 fryer chickens were sold, we loaded up the old 1950 model International pickup truck with camping gear, a 12-foot wooden boat built by my uncle and trotlines and headed up to fish a lake near Idabel, Oklahoma. Long Log Lake, as we called it, was chock full of catfish and we camped, fished and ate catfish for two or three days.

It was a way of life back then and I can still remember eating the wild strawberries that grew in profusion around our camping area. My Dad didn’t know about filleting fish. No, he was all about skinning the catfish and then cutting it into chunks, including the bones before getting the lard hot in the cast iron skillet. Fin fish such as small bass and perch were scaled and fried whole.

Even back in those days, I was all about cooking outdoors. My friends and I would often gather sweet corn in the summer, build a fire and roast it, shucks and all. I remember the flavor of that sweet corn to that day, no salt, no butter, just tender sweet corn on the cob, very, fresh!

Dad would have some major summertime barbeques. This was way before the day of pellet grills or electric smokers. He would dig a pit in the ground, maybe 3 feet deep about 3 feet by 5 feet. He would then pile dry hickory wood in the pit and allow it to burn down to coals and over a grate of expanded metal, turn out some of the best BBQ chicken and pork I’ve ever eaten. He used what he called a "swab stick," in essence a piece of cheesecloth or clean rag tied on to a green stick to apply his homemade BBQ sauce.

Yes, this was summertime in the outdoors back 60 or so years ago. I forgot to mention purchasing the big blocks of ice, putting them in a burlap bag and beating them with a hammer to make chunks small enough to fit in our old wooden hand crank ice cream maker.

By the end of August, it was time to think about going back to school and the upcoming hunting seasons. Life was good and with such an upbringing, you might now better understand my love of sharing my outdoor lifestyle with all of you.  

Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website Watch the weekly video ‘A Sportman's Life” on YouTube that he does with Jeff Rice and Larry Weishuhn.