The Old Man and the Little Boy
If the title sounds a bit like Robert Ruarke’s magnificent book, The Old Man and the Boy, it is intended to. This story, like Ruarke’s, is true and will quite possibly bring back fond memories to all who read it.
More than half a century ago, a young boy was fishing for smallmouth bass off the breakwater of Lake Erie in the early spring. He was having no luck, while an old man a few yards away was hauling in the smallmouth at regular intervals. When he paused to pour a cup of coffee from his thermos, the old man motioned to the little boy to come over. He introduced himself as Roy Krebs and the boy responded by sticking out his hand to shake. In the conversation that followed, Mr. Krebs told the boy that he was a retired steelworker from Zanesville, Ohio, now widowed, and fishing and hunting rabbits were his only past-times. He told the boy that to entice bass to bite; you had to provide them with dessert, rather than a main course. Dessert? Why? asked the boy. The old man responded that fish can usually find a good meal in the lake, but dessert is more difficult and his dessert was soft-shelled crawfish. With that, he opened his bait bucket to reveal a mass of soft craws moving around in wet peat moss.
He offered one to the boy and within minutes, a nice smallmouth was flopping on the rocks. The kid was hooked. Mr. Krebs asked if the boy would like to fish some more with him, but only if he could introduce himself to his parents and assure them that he was an honorable man with no bad intentions. So, the boy gave Mr. Krebs directions to his house and the next morning, he showed up and introduced himself to the boy’s parents, literally telling them his life story. He wanted them to know that having no children of his own he had no one to give his knowledge to, and would like to share his knowledge of hunting and fishing with the boy. Long story short, after several cups of coffee and some pie, his parents agreed that Mr. Roy Krebs would be an awesome teacher, and gave their blessing to a series of adventures that would span the next decade. What an amazing gift!
As the boy grew through his teenage years, Roy showed him how to track rabbits with the help of his beagle, Sarge. During the winter snows, Roy, who was well into his seventies, tramped the fields and brush piles with the boy and Sarge, taking enough cottontails to feed them both until spring. Of all the joys associated with rabbit hunting, the song of a beagle on a rabbit’s trail is the most memorable. However, just after his eighteenth birthday, when the boy showed up for a visit, Sarge was nowhere to be found. Roy told him that old-age had caught up to Sarge. His arthritis was so bad that he could hardly move, so with a heavy heart, Roy had him put to sleep. Rabbit hunting was never the same for the boy after that. Roy decided to “hang up” his shotgun for good. He remarked that there would never be another dog like Sarge and he didn’t have the time or energy to train another. It was then, that was the boy realized that all things end.
When the warm spring rains arrived, Roy and the boy began cleaning their tackle and making plans for the upcoming trips. They fished the rivers and breakwaters around the lake in the early spring, and as summer approached, they hauled out Roy’s flat-bottomed Jon boat, complete with 5 hp motor, and fished the shoreline of Lake Erie. Of course, before each trip, they had to hit Rocky River for soft-shell crawfish and hellgrammites. Roy showed the boy how to work the riffles to break loose hellgrammites so that they would float into the net below and walk the shallows and slowly lifting the rocks to find soft-shelled crawdads. The boy soon learned to spot the “butterballs” by their white brain spot, as their new shell hadn’t grown hard or turned dark brown. After collecting a sufficient number for the day’s outing, they would head out to fish.
It is impossible to recount how many fish they caught and released in the following years, although the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a story on the master fisherman named Roy Krebs who could catch smallmouth when no one else could. As far as I know, Roy never shared his secret bass dessert with anyone except the little boy.
The little boy grew into a young man and went off to college. As one might expect, he majored in fisheries and wildlife biology. However, he always returned in the summer to fish with Roy and never missed a Christmas or the hot chocolate that Roy always served. In his junior year of college, the boy came home for Christmas and, as always, went by to see his buddy, Roy. The old man looked old and very tired. It was a strange feeling, because in all the years that they had hunted and fished together, the boy never thought of Roy as being old. Roy informed his buddy that he would soon have to find a new partner, as he had sold the boat because his arthritis was making it difficult to walk. He knew that he couldn’t wade the river shallows for crawfish anymore.
Stunned, the boy told him that he’d wade the river and catch crawdads enough for both of them, as there were still a lot of bass that needed catching. However, Roy, now in his 80’s, told him that since he couldn’t hunt rabbits with Sarge, or fish for bass with his partner, there wasn’t much reason for playing any more and besides, he missed his bride of 50 years more than ever.
The boy (now a young man) didn’t realize that Roy was telling him that he was preparing to die. The boy shook hands with his mentor of over ten years and wished him a Happy New Year AND informed him that he’d be there when the warm spring rains came. He told Roy that he’d figure a way that they could once again catch a mess of bass.
Roy died peacefully in his sleep that winter. I received the news from my parents while at college and cried like a baby. I had lost one of the best friends a man could ever have. Mr. Roy Krebs, a true outdoorsman was gone forever. However, the memories, experiences and knowledge that he imparted to me will remain forever etched in my mind. I tried going back to the rivers that we fished on so many occasions, but without Roy, it wasn’t the same. I haven’t hunted cottontails since Sarge died, nor have I walked the river shallows looking for butterballs. I still hunt and fish, but it has never been the quite the same without the Old Man.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love fishing and hunting and my bride of these past two decades is my new partner and I wouldn’t trade her for the world. Roy would have loved her and I just know that if he were still alive, all three of us would be chasing bunnies, catching butterballs and serving up dessert to smallmouth bass.
Now, over 70, I am the Old Man and I finally understand what Roy was talking about on our last visit. For the outdoorsman, if you can’t climb the mountains, hunt the cornfields, kick the brush piles, or walk the rivers, you don’t want to play the game any more. Because, in the outdoors, you are truly alive and you appreciate the beauty of nature that is around you.
Fortunately, I can still climb the mountains and wade the rivers (albeit a bit slower). However, I am keenly aware that the time will come when it will no longer be possible. The mountains get higher every year and the rivers seem to run faster. Until then, I’ll never quit. Don’t ever stop because someone questions whether you should be out there “at your age.” I know that if Roy hadn’t passed in the winter of ’59 that I would have been able to figure a way for us to fish the river, one more time. Remember that when you consider hanging up your guns or fishing poles. Go out one more time and then one more time again, and again!
Copyright 2011 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.