In March, the Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Commission dumped thousands of farm-raised trout into the creek that trickled through my hometown. Following the collapse of the sandstone mining industry in the 1940’s, fishing was practically the only occupation in Three Springs.
The borough used tax dollars to keep the largest of its streams well stocked with trout. The once blue-collar town, through hard economic times, blossomed into a rainbow-neckband of leisure life by 1976. Most of the town was on some form of public assistance thanks to government subsidies. Not only was there free cheese and butter– but fresh trout to eat.
Fishing and hunting became the favored recreational hobbies and a means of survival for the decedents of miners who continued to live in Three Springs, long after the quarry had closed and a means of making a living there trickled away.
The population of Three Springs was only several hundred in 1976, and the ratio of fish to men was nearly 1 to 500.
Three Springs was known for excellent fishing holes. With a pair of hip-boots and the right bait, one was likely to catch the daily limit of seven, or at least have a few stories to tell after a day of roaming the crystal clear waters, drinking food-stamped beer.
The best fishing holes in Three Springs were accessible only by foot and sportsmen desiring seclusion while fishing could walk along the abandoned East Broadtop Railroad tracks, avoiding the swamps filled with patches of skunk weed, and cast their lines into a mountain stream without having to fight for the best currents or sit shoulder to shoulder with other fishermen with lines in the water.
Trout were dumped by schools from a bridge near Spencer’s gas station in downtown Three Springs. Most fishermen cast their rods under that bridge, knowing that was where the fish commission populated the waterways. Spencer’s convenience store was nearby, just up the muddy bank. Fishing in the hole under the bridge was easy. Men parked at Spencer’s, purchased cigarettes, expensive salmon eggs, beer and newspapers and spent their afternoons in relative peace under the shade of the bridge, but rarely did the fish bite upon their lines. The trout had their fill of the fluorescent eggs and mostly just sun fish were caught near Spencer’s Arco.
Very few men waded upstream where the big fish lived despite the crowded banks near the gas station. Women in Three Springs never fished. The briars were thick along the riverbanks and if wading, one certainly could slip upon the large stones that lined the riverbed.
My brother Bill and I were often the only two who wadded and fished the waters, way upstream. Our home was atop the hill in Three Springs. We followed a deer trail down the mountainside to the same stream that runs past Spencer’s. We knew that most of the stocked trout migrated to cooler waters upstream where very few rods were ever cast. Getting to the best fishing spots in Three Springs was easy for kids like Bill and me who lived on the hill. We tumbled down the mountainside with our fishing poles in one hand and fresh bait in the other. Getting home with an armload of trout was difficult. The river there was untouched and its banks unpolluted by beer cans and cigarette wrappers. Only we were rambunctious enough to traipse down the hill behind Miller’s Diner and make our way through the thorns.
Bill had a fishing bait business. He sold live minnows and nightcrawler worms. A small stream behind our trailer– one for which the town of Three Springs is named– was the perfect spot for keeping inventory. Fishermen driving by or having breakfast at Miller’s diner across the street, spotted a sign in our front yard–
Bill netted his stash of minnows from the creek below Miller’s Diner. He used sweet corn from a can and a wire-mesh cylinder contraption for harvesting the fish. He tied the wire tube to a rotted tree that fell over a portion of the stream showered in heavy currents. He knew that rarely did anyone fish that part of the crick, nor would they ever dare to crawl out on the log like a monkey, as Bill could do with his eyes closed, to steal the device and the captured minnow bait within.
Minnows entered the trap by swimming through small holes at the end of each side. The apparatus was designed with funnel-like entrance ways. The minnows filtered in effortlessly, lured by the scent of sweet corn that bill dumped inside. Unable to recognize the two exit holes among the mesh of wire, the tiny fish were stuck, for now the way out was no longer a funnel-like passageway, but a mere point on a cone and fish are color-blind, to a point.
Bill emptied his trap each morning before going to school. He hauled the minnows in a tin bucket, up that steep hill, dumping his catch into the small stream just behind our home where I had constructed a dam. A partially-submerged plastic bucket with holes on the sides and bottom hung by a chain from a tree limb into the water behind my dam. When a customer stopped by, Bill simply lifted the bucket and took out each $1.00 purchase.
Nightcrawlers were captured from our front yard. We used flashlights at dark to find the worms that came to the surface of the soil to get air following rains or sprinklings from the garden hose. Steady hands were necessary for extracting the nightcrawlers from their holes in the ground. Pulling too fast caused them to snap in half. One first pinned the long worms with his finger, preventing it from disappearing like lightening beneath the green grass. We then slowly tugged the slimy creatures until they tired of trying to escape our grasp. After each nightcrawler was pulled alive and intact from the ground, they were tossed into plastic tackle boxes that fastened to our belts. We moved slowly across the lawn, often shaking our flashlights to regenerate fading batteries, pulling what was on business standards ten-cents a pick. Nightcrawler inventory was maintained in the tractor shed inside a large wooden box filled with topsoil, dead leaves and used coffee grinds.
We had a steady stream of customers. Fred Parks, an avid fisherman who was rich on Three Springs standards, made a purchase almost every Saturday morning.
“Do you got any of those stick worms today,” Fred often asked. Stick worms were taken from atop Jack’s Mountain, near the abandoned sandstone quarry, where a spring bubbled from the ground and formed an ice-cold pond. An unusual worm that covered itself with a camouflaged shell of decayed leaves and sticks lived in those waters. Fishermen could strip away the shell and find inside, the juiciest of white worms that no fish in the world could swim by. Fred paid $3 a piece for stick worms, but like wild raspberries along fishing spots in a creek, finding stickworms was not easy and the walk up Jack’s Mountain to that icy pond, took almost an hour.
For every dollar we made, Bill pocked seventy-five cents because he caught most of the bait. I was often disgusted by smell of worms on my fingers and never would I crawl across the crick on a log to pull up the minnow trap. I maintained the dam mostly and was content with my quarter.
Our uncle Frank Brown fished the Auwick Creek in Orbisonia almost every Saturday in summer. He bought a minimum of forty fresh nightcrawlers every time he took his canoe out on those muddy waters. We knew almost all our customers, but one morning in 1976, a stranger knocked on the trailer door at 4 a.m. to buy bait.
“You got a customer,” Mom said, turning on the light in our bedroom. Bill crawled from the top bunk, stepping on my arm that dangled from the side of my lower mattress. Barron, sharing the bottom bunk with me had peed on my back.
“Get up, Charlie,” Bill yelled. “If you want your quarter, you gotta get- up and help me.”
“Who do you think it is at this hour?” I asked.
“Probably Max Parks. He’s always up early.”
A stranger dressed in a suit was standing on the front porch.
“Good morning. I’d like forty dollars worth of bait.”
“Forty dollars?” I asked, rubbing bird shit from my sleepy eyes. “That’s almost everything we got.”
“Do you have a bucket?” Bill asked. The man in the suit indicated that he did not.
“We have an old one you can have,” I said. “You’ll need something to put your minnies in. Do you want any stick worms? They are five dollars a piece.”
“I guess so,” the man in sunglasses ordered. The sun wasn’t up yet. “What else to you sell?”
“Nightcrawlers, minnies and stickworms. That’s it,” Bill informed.
“I’ll take twenty in nightcrawlers, twenty in minnows and ten in stick worms.”
“That’s just two stick worms,” I reminded.
“I tell you what. Make it thirty-five dollars worth of those stick worms for a total of seventy-five dollars,” the man said while smiling at me. He was acting as if it were not his money he was spending.
I considered giving up my paper route that morning. Riding the hills of Three Springs on a bicycle, delivering newspapers for less than five cents a piece, was hard work. It felt like I was a miner. After selling our entire live bait inventory in just one day in one simple delivery, I was convinced that life as a fisherman was easier than that of a writer.
A shipment of 250 Huntingdon Daily News newspapers arrived on our front porch on Monday evening. I cut the bundle open with a pair of scissors and sat on the front step to wrap seventy-five copies with red rubber bands realizing I should be hunting nightcrawlers. On the front page of the paper was our President, Jimmy Carter who stopped in Huntingdon County to fish again.
According to headlines, President Carter went fishing in an undisclosed region of Southern Huntingdon and managed to catch seven fish that day. My hands, covered in black ink trembled as I folded the papers– knowing that I had somehow made the news that day and would one day write a story about it and get rich.