Andy rocked back in his chair, so far back that he nearly tipped over.
He could not contain his laughter.
One of the older boys who worked at the service station had walked into the bait shop excitedly claiming it would soon be cold enough to freeze up four inches of ice and allow them to fish the South Wattuppa pond.
Andy’s not so polite reply was, “Let me get this straight. We are sitting here, freezing our fingers and toes off, sitting so close to the wood stove that our hair is getting singed, and you want it to get colder? Did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby?”
One look at Andy and I can assure that you would not respond to that inquiry with any manner of sassing.
The poor boy paid for his earthworms and scurried out the door without a word.
Most of the occupants in that chilly cinder block building were watermen, farmers and factory workers who had spent most of their lives eking out a living along the shores of the Taunton River. None of them had ever expressed a desire to chop holes on a lake or pond to fish for freshwater fish.
At the time, I had only tasted a few tiny fillets of calico bass and yellow perch, both common freshwater species, and I was not at all impressed with their lack of taste.
Back then we ate fish because it was almost free if you knew how to go about getting a bite.
In my opinion, being a big fan of hamburger in almost any form it was served, I saved money eating fish at home so I could buy a thick, greasy hamburger with fried onions on a Gold Medal bun at the Bridge Diner. If Dick was at work as the short order cook, that plate usually had a few pickles and some home fries for the kid who ran to Vogels Pharmacy for his Lucky Strike cigarettes.
There were quite a few more men fishing on local ponds through the winter ice in those days, many because they lived close to those bodies of freshwater. But I never had the urge to stand on ice and wait for fish to swim under my tiny six-inch opening.
Although the Taunton River and the upper Assonet Bay area were almost devoid of fin fish, there was an abundant population of eels that wintered in the thick mud, and they were a target even when those areas were free of ice.
I recall walking the shoreline of what was known as Bessie’s Beach, in the general area of what was identified as the Steep Brook section of Fall River's north end. I believe it ran north of the former St. Vincent’s Home to the shoreline under the Fall River Country club.
There were a few summer shanties on the upper levels and several boats from small skiffs up to Henry Codega’s classic 35-foot Nova Scotia hull. Henry and his brother Abe owned and operated the Codega service station and variety store at the corner of Wilson Road and North Main Street.
From the railroad trestle, under which vehicles gained entrance to Bessie’s, I could see two skiffs anchored fairly close together with two men standing in them, prodding the mud bottom with long eel spears.
My companion that day was Billie Kerrigan, who lived nearby. He was the only kid I knew that slept in a bed covered with original Hudson Bay, heavy wool blankets. That outdoor-oriented fellow also owned an LL Bean pack basket and a nifty Marlin model 39A lever action 22 caliber long rifle. His dad worked at an upper level management position at the Social Security office on North Main street, a location that my mentors at the boat house referred to as the Unemployment office, which many of them knew quite well during those difficult financial times. My friend also wore LL Bean pack boots and Pendleton Mills woolen shirts.
If my recollection of his personal effects sounds envious, that’s because they were. He was a fine and generous friend who looked at my old, rusted buckle-type overshoes and went into his dresser drawer and gave me a new pair of Wig Warm woolen stockings, label still attached, to keep my feet warm.
Billy and his dad were highly regarded and knew everyone in Steep Brook.
He was the one who informed me that the two men in the skiffs were eeling. Eeeling was a verb used to describe the practice of using hand-formed eel spears to probe the mud bottoms to snare the hibernating eels.
Many of the high-liners, such as the two we were watching that day, returned with burlap bags filled with their still-lively quarry.
When they worked from the skiffs, they seldom made the catches they were capable of when standing on thick salt ice.
One of the men Billy introduced me to had a bad leg and he offered me a job. He had a deft feel and the best hand-tuned eel spears available anywhere, crafted by a blacksmith from Cape Cod.
On our first trip, we sat on the banking waiting for two men to leave the long trench they had opened up with great exertion. They pulled quite a few eels from that slot before leaving.
My employer urged me to run down with a spear and claim what I assumed to be a cleaned-out hole; however, I did what I was told.
He limped down to me and added a section to his already long spear and began thrusting his spear into the ice.
I could not believe the number of eels he pulled from that trough.
He was able to work much longer and deeper under the cut than the previous men and we had almost three dozen eels from that first hole alone. He sat on the wooden keg that held our burlap bags, a blanket and his lunch, as it was my duty to catch the eels before they wriggled back into the holes. Once they were on the ice for a few minutes they froze as hard as cable.
That first day with Victor I learned a lot about eeling and leaving a spot some believed had been fished out.
He gave me five thick eels for my labor, two of which I sold to Tommy, who in turn gave them to the Italian woman who lived next to him. She provided that Irishman with a previously bland palette with what he described as some of the most delicious food on God’s Green Earth.
In the last 20 years, I have not seen a single person spearing for eels on any of the bodies of water that were previously heavily fished.
Many activities have gone by the wayside and spearing eels in the Taunton River is one of them.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Charley Soares Outdoors Eeling ice fishing Taunton River eel spearing