Guest columnist Tom Cappell shares one of his best outdoor columns from a lifetime of hunting and fishing stories. The age-old lesson of…what goes around comes around, in his latest Press Pros feature.
(Ed. Note: We’re always privileged to have free-lance outdoors writer Tom Cappell contribute one of his stories of adventure growing up on the prairies of the Midwest. A dedicated conservationist, his perspectives on the outdoors are both respectful of the American tradition of hunting and fishing, and modern question over why we do it. His short stories of how it came to be are among the best.)
By Tom Cappell (March, 2018)
In all my years around him – of all the stories I can remember about him – there is one about my Uncle Mel that tops them all.
You see, I learned a lot from the man – my Uncle Mel – my mother’s oldest brother, who lived on two hundred fifty eight acres outside of Amlin. I spent summers with him. Learned how to shoot tin cans in the creek bed from him. When I was old enough to be responsible and trusted with a firearm on my own he taught me not only how to hunt, but the consequences of hunting – harvesting one living being so that another could eat. Or, to hear him put it, never shoot something you don’t intend to use. Caution was always his byword.
That two hundred fifty eight acres of his was literally my laboratory for life training as a twelve, thirteen, and fourteen-year-old. It’s where I learned to drive – his old Chevy pickup – and how he would remind me that there’s nothing more dangerous than a two thousand pound object on wheels running fifty miles per hour with a teenager’s hands on the steering wheel. Keep that in mind, he’d tell me, when you start the engine and put it in gear.
And it’s where he taught me respect for others, and others’ property – and respect for authority, and how respect for authority goes both ways.
In the spring of my sixth grade school year Uncle Mel came to the city to get me for Easter break. That’s what I wanted for a short vacation, and nothing better to hang out on his farm doing things outdoors that I couldn’t do at home. And besides, Uncle Mel and Aunt Floy’s house felt like home, so strong was the family influence. As we drove down route 12 at sunset to take the turnoff to the farm, he asked, “How would you like to catch a mess of frog legs for supper? I’ve got the gigs and boots in the back of the truck.”
I quickly agreed, having done it before, and nothing was better than a supper of Aunt Floy’s fried frog legs – fun, and a feast afterwards! When we got to the turnoff we stopped a mile down the dirt road to open a cattle gate and drove across the pasture field located on the southeast corner of Uncle Mel’s farm. At the bottom of that field, down a long hill and winding back and forth for nearly two miles, was Shaner’s Creek, a tributary that pretty much ran the breadth of Boone County. At the sharpest bend of Shaner’s Creek it formed a deep pool of nearly a quarter acre that held the biggest smallmouth bass and shellcrackers to be found anywhere in the state. Shellcrackers, by the way, are a fish that look like bluegills, only bigger. Some people call them bream, or red-ear sunfish, but there’s no fish caught that’s better eatin’, and Uncle Mel had the best shellcracker fishing anywhere, right there in his own private pool.
Plus, along the banks of Shaner Creek you could gig a dozen bullfrogs that weighed as much as a half pound in no time at all – another lesson learned from Uncle Mel. Giggin’ was better than plinkin’ ’em with a .22 rifle because the crack of the rifle scared ’em back into the water. Then you had to wait for them to reappear. Giggin’ was quiet, and quick, and I had learned the craft well. We quickly had a small burlap bag full that evening and threw it into the back of Uncle Mel’s pickup.
“Let’s stop at the store and get some supplies on the way home,” he said as we pulled back on highway 12. I knew that it meant some Budweisers for him, and RC Colas for me. Two miles down the road we pulled into Humphrey’s gas station and general store. Uncle Mel went in while I put gas in the truck, and as he came out to get in the truck a neighbor came up to ask him for permission to fish in the deep pool on Shaner’s Creek. Uncle Mel usually let anyone fish that had the courtesy to ask, and while they talked he opened the bag and showed him the frogs we’d just caught. Just then, a county vehicle pulled alongside and an officer stepped out.
Beaumont “Pug” Marshall was the game warden in Boone County, a big red-faced man with a bulbous nose and teeth stained from years and a lot of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco. He was not the most popular person on the roads because there were a lot of hunters and fishermen around, and most of them believed that “Pug” Marshall administered the law according to what it brought him in return. He was known not to be above a bribe.
“Nice sack of frogs,” he said with a sneer to Uncle Mel. “You got your license so I can check it?”
“You know I do,” said Uncle Mel. “I bought it from you.”
“Better let me see it then,” said Marshall.
Uncle Mel’s face reddened as suddenly he realized that he didn’t have the license in his possession.
“I changed pants when I went to pick up Tommy,” he said to Marshall. “I’ll have to run over to the house and get it for you.”
“But you’re supposed to have it in your possession if you’re huntin’ or fishin’,” said Marshall, sensing his advantage. “Otherwise, I’m going to have to cite you for huntin’ without a license. That’ll be $50, and I’ll have to confiscate those frogs you got there.”
A crowd of ten or so had gathered to hear what was being said, and Uncle Mel, knowing that he had no choice, nodded and said, “Do what you have to do, Pug. But you know I have a hunting license, and you also know that I got these on my own property.”
“But I don’t have any proof of that,” Marshall guffawed, as he wrote out the ticket. “Besides, you oughta’ be setting a better example for this young boy you got with you. You don’t want him to grow up being a law-breaker, too, do you?”
Uncle Mel was steaming as he handed Marshall the $50 dollars and stuck the ticket in his pocket. “Out $50 and our supper,” he said as we pulled away, “Odds are the county will never see the $50,” as we headed west for home.
Spring passed into summer and summer into fall, and during Labor Day weekend Mom drove me down to Uncle Mel’s for opening day of squirrel season. We were in the woods early that morning, but rain made for a miserable and unsuccessful hunt. But by mid-afternoon the sun had popped out and along with it, a bounty of big fox squirrels in the hickories and oaks at the upper end of Uncle Mel’s 10 acre woodlot.
We quickly shot a limit of four and headed for the truck, but while driving back to the house on the road that ran by the pasture field and Shaner’s Creek, we noticed that the cattle gate was open. Uncle Mel stopped the truck and pulled out a pair of old binoculars that he kept in the glove box. Scanning the bend in the creek below he spotted a white pickup truck, nearly a mile distant.
“Well, what do you know?” he chuckled. “We got a trespasser fishin’ in the big hole without permission. And I think I know that truck.”
The gate to the pasture was hardly ever locked. You just pulled it shut and closed the latch as you came and went. But on this day Uncle Mel reached behind the seat of the truck and brought out a padlock. Whereupon, he closed the gate and snapped the lock shut.
There was no way out of the field for a vehicle of any kind without going through the gate or tearing down the fence. And on the off chance that someone would do the latter when he got to the house he called the highway patrol station up on highway 12.
“Might want to meet me at the gate,” Uncle Mel said to the person on the other end. “I don’t want any trouble, but just in case I want to make sure everything’s legal. I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes.”
We waited together, me, Uncle Mel, and the patrolman, for about half and hour. Finally, we heard the engine of the white truck straining to pull the hill and up to the gate. Sitting behind the wheel was none other than “Pug” Marshall, the game warden.
“That’s dirty pool, locking the gate,” fumed Marshall to the officer and Uncle Mel. His face was a red as the sunset with rage and embarrassment. “I was doing official business down on the creek, checking licenses.”
“Guess that’s how you got that bucket a’ big shellcrackers,” said Uncle Mel, pulling them out of the bed of the truck to show the officer.
“Uh, there were a couple of kids fishin’, yessir, and they didn’t have a license. I was doin’ my duty,” said Marshall, nervously looking at the fishing pole hanging behind the seat of his truck, still wet.
“Guess I don’t have any proof of that, “Pug”, ” said Uncle Mel. “And you don’t have permission to fish on my property.” Turning to the state patrolman, he added, “I guess the law’s the law, and since those fish were caught on my property I have rights to take them with me, unless you need them for evidence in court.”
The patrolman turned to Marshall and asked, “You want to pay the fine, Pug, or state your case in court? You’re not driving an official vehicle and you have no permission to fish on his land. The choice is yours.”
He took the ticket and stuffed in his pocket. “You still got the red-ass about them frogs last spring, don’t you Mel?” he glared at Uncle Mel and me. “Better have your license on you from now on, just so we understand each other.”
He managed a phony smile and got back in his truck, caught red-handed, embarrassed in front of the authorities, and leaving without his afternoon’s catch of fish.
And supper never tasted as good as it did that night – fresh-fried shellcracker, hush-puppies, and Aunt Floy’s apple pie. Courtesy of, according to Uncle Mel…what goes around, comes around.
“It giveth, and it taketh away,” he said.