Fishing with the Professor

If you can’t be Izaak Walton, you can at least become one.

[by Ron McFarland]

Memorable details of my two years as a neophyte English instructor at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas:

– Squirrel hunting in the nearby Sam Houston National Forest

– Turning a fan directly on the bed and employing the services of a sweat towel

– Fishing for largemouth bass on a stream that fed into the Trinity River

– Being accidentally shot at while approaching that river one afternoon, and the good ol’ boys handing me a conciliatory Lone Star longneck

– Catching fat crappies with minnows on a pond not far from town

– Fishing Sam Rayburn Reservoir with a colleague who owned a boat

– Catching a pair of nice sand trout down in Galveston

– Visiting Sam Houston’s home (Steamboat House) across the street from the college with my students one warm spring day, and watching as a couple of the guys produced a hand line from nowhere and hooked a couple of small bream in the Texas-shaped pond.

But I was leaving all that behind for the Central Illinois countryside, which in my mind’s myopic eye meant clear-running creeks (pronounced cricks) meandering down hardwood-covered hills toward the mighty Ohio. I was seven when my family left eastern Ohio for Florida, so my naïve faith in sleek rainbow trout inhabiting those streams owes something to my youth.

In Florida, I grew up fishing the Indian and Banana Rivers (actually lagoons), salty adjoining Sykes Creek, and the Canaveral turning basin, port of call back then for shrimp boats and deep-sea fishing vessels, not for nuclear subs and NASA launch ships and Disney World cruise liners.

Back then you could count on hauling in five or six different species on an average day, from so-called trash fish like the saltwater cat and blowfish to an array of whiting, mangrove snapper, drum, sheepshead, grunts, occasional blues, redfish, and the much-prized saltwater trout. (Cocoa then called itself the “Saltwater Trout Capital of the World.”) In an old black-and-white snapshot, my brother Tom and I, ages 8 and 10, wince into the sun and hold up a stringer of 20-some stiff-looking fish that Dad would have to clean, as we weren’t yet trusted with knives.

“For angling may be said to be so like mathematics that it can never be fully learnt.” – Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler

As anglers’ paradises go, the Champaign–Urbana area of Central Illinois compared neither to the Atlantic coast of Florida nor to piney woods of Texas, let alone the bubbling trout streams of my imaginary Ohio. My first day, the area’s bold and uncompromising flatness sank my heart like two ounces of lead in a still pond. It was great country for soybeans and corn, though. Folks said you could hear it grow, and you could surely smell it.

My as-yet uneducated eyes could detect no fishable waters, although I assumed there’d be a reservoir somewhere or another, like Senecaville Lake, about a dozen miles from Barnesville, Ohio, where I attended school for first and second grade and where I first encountered the wily bluegill. As it turned out, there was a lovely spot called Lake of the Woods about five miles from town. A glittering trout stream, however, it was not.

To my rescue came Mary Kay Peer, Grand Secretary of the UI English department, who lined me up with a 74-year-old emeritus professor named Marcus Selden Goldman, a veteran of both world wars and an inveterate angler of the slow, muddy rivers of central Illinois.

I always called him Dr. Goldman, and he always called me Roland, even though his wife, Olive, kept reminding him my name was “Ronald.” By that stage of my life I had whittled myself down to a modest monosyllable, from Ronald as a boy and Ronnie in high school. But given the gravity of fishing with a local legend, being Ronald—or Roland—seemed appropriate.

Like me, Dr. Goldman was a small man, and he sported a white mustache that likely inspired the one that bedecked my face for the next 30 or so years. He had suffered a slightly debilitating stroke and sometimes walked with a cane, and I suppose Mrs. Goldman (I could no more call her Olive than I could call my grandmother Mary) was concerned about releasing him into my unfamiliar custody. She was a few years younger than Dr. Goldman, and like him had taken a graduate degree at the University of Illinois. She always made sandwiches for us both, deposited in a small cooler along with a bottle of beer each.

We would be doing good old bait-fishing from the bank, and the bait would be good old nightcrawlers rounded up by Dr. Goldman from his compost heap and housed in a dovetailed wooden box, smooth and darkened with age. I remember nurturing a vague wish that he might bequeath that bait box to me. He kept the worms cool and contented in a crumbled gray sphagnum moss mixture called Buss Bedding. It was darned good stuff, and still is, I guess.

Which of the myriad streams in the vicinity, hidden to the untutored eye, did we fish that first time out? I don’t recall. Over the several years we fished together, we hit some more than once: the Kaskaskia, the Vermillion, the Embarras (pronounced em-ber-ah), the Sangamon, the Wabash, and tributary streams like Sugar Creek, where I clearly recall an Amish buggy rattling past one sultry afternoon.

On the drive, I would ask Dr. Goldman about his life, trying to make it sound like I wasn’t interrogating him. He’d been gassed during the Great War, serving in France with the American Field Service Ambulance Unit—the same outfit as the youthful Ernest Hemingway. I was not then “into” Hemingway, as I have been for the past 20-odd years, so I didn’t push him for stories about his years at the University of Paris after the war and his encounters with writers like Ford Madox Ford and James Joyce. What I was “into” was 17th-century British poetry, and that pleased Dr. Goldman, as he was a 16th-century man, as we called them back then, and maybe some still do. His specialty was Sir Philip Sidney and the Arcadia, a product of the late 1570s and early 1580s.

When I wasn’t working toward my doctorate, or playing rugby, or listening on radio as the Cubs fell into their infamous September Swoon of ’69, I devoted my energies to fishing the murky streams of east-central Illinois. Dr. Goldman was a pleasant, collegial man, a gentleman and scholar of the old school who had completed his master’s at Illinois in 1917 before he went off to war and then didn’t wrap up his doctorate until 1931.

In those days, you might be hired by the same institution that awarded your doctorate, if you were an exceptional or very promising scholar, which Dr. Goldman was. Nowadays, in most respectable universities you’d better not earn your PhD where you hope to teach, at least not until after you secure your Nobel Prize. Dr. Goldman had retired in 1962, after a distinguished teaching career, and I think he supposed I might stay right there in Urbana if I wished, but times had changed, and I knew I’d have to cast myself out onto the choppy waters of Academia Incognita if I were to find a job.

We talked idly of one thing or another—he was somewhat deaf—and sometimes I wondered what I’d do if he fell or suffered a heart attack or another stroke. But I was easy in my boyish naïvety; after all, hadn’t I been an Eagle Scout?