There is a region of America where the mighty Mississippi River abandons her normal course of north to south and for some 20 miles runs almost west to east.
This stretch occurs after the Illinois River enters the big river’s flow and before the wide Missouri River completes a long journey to add her water a few miles upstream of St. Louis. The area is referred to as the great “River Bend” and those who waterfowl hunt, trap and fish this vast water system are affectionately labeled “River Rats” by the establishment.
Although many original members have passed on, there remains a core group of the “Royal Fraternity of River Rats” who continue to fuel the fire of the younger generations and accept them into the brotherhood. Some have gained membership through inheritance; some were chosen and others by mere desire and determination.
Without question the wonderful world of water fowling has gone full circle since the days of my youth and mentors of that day. The popular ‘fowling guns of the early days were the Winchester Model 12, the Remington Model 11, and the “Humpback” Browning A-5. A few still shot Grandpa’s Model 97 Winchester hammer pump gun and most youngsters were relegated to a single shot or dependable side-by-side, so they wouldn’t waste too much ammunition. Hunting shells consisted of “high brass” lead 2 ¾ inch No. 4, 5, or 6 shot and several killers shot the deadly No. 7 ½ shot load.
High-tech camo hunting clothing was years into the future, so the dress of that era usually consisted of long underwear, flannel shirt, wool sweater, bib overalls, a tan-colored canvas hunting coat, three pairs of socks, and uninsulated rubber hip boots that always seemed to spring a leak. Headwear for the ol’ timers was their traditional felt brim or the brown Jones-style hat; all were skeptical of the guy wearing the Elmer Fudd earflap bonnet. The ‘fowling attire was complete when the Olt D-2 duck call and the incomparable Olt A-50 goose call were strung around the neck.
Although “look-a-like” mallard fiber decoys had made the scene and were used by most, the veteran hunter had a tough time letting go of the wooden blocks that had faithfully served them over the years; thus, many sets included either hand-carved or manufactured wooden decoys that collectors of the 21st century crave and pay untold dollars to obtain.
Some may question the stories and success of my mentors of yesteryear, as they certainly did not look the part by today’s waterfowl standards void of camo clothing, camouflaged guns and boats, dependable motors, realistic decoys of every species including battery-powered enticements and high-quality acrylic calls. Somehow they endured. Perhaps it was their passion, purpose and commitment passed along to us that molded us into who we became.
Before the advent of modern-day materials used in boat manufacturing, water travel was accomplished in rigs made of wood. Those with pointed bows were called skiffs and those with the flat bottoms and square bows were labeled “river johns” or simply “johnboats.” Gas engine outboard motors were becoming popular for those who could afford them but many ol’ timers still powered their vessels by oar, poles and paddles.
Occasional small riverside towns were home to those who built and sold the boats of that era, and some, due to their craftsmanship and product, became legend. An example was the Freiman family clan living in Grafton, where the Illinois River completes her journey through America’s heartland and joins the mighty Mississippi. The “Freiman Skiff,” painstakingly and skillfully crafted of seasoned cypress, became the trademark of the builder and a symbol of Grafton. Rivermen were proud to own one, as the skiffs were spotted from Minnesota to Louisiana and in between.
The Freimans built more than 1,000 boats during their tenure. My father purchased our boat for less than $100. It was a secondhand 20-foot Freiman skiff originally built for the U. S. Coast Guard assigned for river patrol, search and rescue. Our heavy cypress skiff was powered by a used Brooklure 10-horsepower outboard that required tender love and care and seemed to shear a drive pin on every outing.
Due to size, weight and lack of trailers, rivermen either permanently moored their boats in harbors or stored them upside down near the water. Floods, weather, neglect and age were all detriments to wooden craft and without yearly maintenance owners were asking for trouble. For the most part cypress boats were safe, durable and dependable but all had one common flaw; they leaked. Thus, the rigs came equipped with hands-on boat bailers referred to in river language as “scoops.”
“Get the scoop, Shorty,” was a common command given by the adults prior to heading on the hunt as most “young bucks” were assigned the task of bailing the boat. One would sit on the side of the boat and scoop until the craft passed inspection. In the 1960s, aluminum and fiberglass boats came upon the scene and rapidly replaced the water travel of my youth. Suddenly, the old wooden cypress skiffs and johnboats were gone. The fraternity traveled in high style.
Yes, those days are gone but the memories are forever etched in minds of the aged river rats that remain. Thanks to a few ol’ wooden decoys, vintage photos and a couple of hand-crafted bailers, I’ll forever remember the command, “Get the scoop, Shorty.”
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid” which airs Sundays at noon on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.