The plastic bucket full of old fishing reels arrived via a circuitous route of family ownership and gifting, but it always was meant for my brother and me.
My recollections don’t include the “dead reel” collection bequeathed to us by the men who taught us to fish. Neither does my younger sibling’s memories. This is strange because we were the pair who fished most often with Dad and Uncle Doug.
You could blindfold me and I could still find their favorite crappie-fishing backwaters, sniff out the deep Tennessee River channel where they suspended cut bait for Mississippi blue catfish or make a beeline to the beaver dam lake where they plugged around bald cypress trees for mossy largemouth bass.
We made a foursome: two old men who were slowing down but still hale and hearty enough to out-fish us most of the time; me, the middle-aged career man who found it increasingly hard to make time for fishing; and the skinny kid who never let us out of his sight when he thought a trip to the river was possible.
Our late father and uncle apparently couldn’t think of anyone better suited to accept their cracked five-gallon container full of busted, rotting fishing equipment.
The treasure bucket included reels from the 1960s and ‘70s; old lures bleached white by exposure to the sun and elements; rat nests of monofilament line; rusty hooks still wrapped in rock-like petrified earthworms or mummified minnows; homemade floats whittled from wine bottle corks—stuff that to them, being Appalachian children of the Great Depression, was worth saving because it might have use later.
This wasn’t an array of carefully maintained and organized equipment, like the circa-1950s blue steel tackle box I inherited from my father-in-law. Its interior was neat as the former FBI agent’s desk.
Like-new lures (I think he cleaned them with soap and water after each fishing trip) rested in the original cardboard boxes; hooks, sinkers and other terminal tackle were segregated by tray. He had a separate section for his fish knife and handy tools for reel repair. The bottom held spools of new line, along with neatly coiled fish stringers, a wooden hook extractor, church key opener for his beer cans and box of cotter pins for his five-horsepower outboard motor.
Dad and Uncle Doug were not scrupulous about taking care of their rods, reels and fishing paraphernalia. When fall arrived and hunting season kicked off, their angling gear lay forgotten in the back of the truck (to be crushed by feed sacks or firewood), in the bottom of a boat that filled with rainwater over the winter, even someplace where a lawnmower was destined to crumple and chew up a forgotten casting outfit come spring.
My brother, knowing their seasonal absentmindedness, stocked his kid’s plastic tackle box with stuff they’d abandoned and left to rust. We still laugh about the nice lures he rescued before the treble hooks corroded.
Our father and uncle were partial to spin-casting reels, Zebco 33’s being their favorite. The bucket contained more than a dozen Zebco 33 housings, along with a couple 404s and 202s, the company’s plastic economy models. Also included were a few Johnsons, a Shakespeare reel and a Western Auto brand.
The old men’s habit was to fish with a reel until it ceased to function. This usually meant two or three years of hard use. They truly were rough on rods and reels, and would have gladly failure-tested equipment for the tackle companies. When the gears started to grind or the handle broke, the reel went into the bucket and they bought a replacement.
I was ignorant of what happened to the dead reels, and so was my brother. He came home on leave from the Navy several years ago, looking forward to a fishing trip with his elderly angling heroes. Helping our uncle stow gear after a foray on the river, he saw the bucket in a corner of the shed and asked about it.
“Ain’t gonna give that stuff to you and Steve yet, ‘cause Arthur [our father] and me might need a reel handle or a part to fix what we got now. Don’t think either of us needs to be investing in new fishin’ stuff at our age, though.”
My brother returned to Norfolk and didn’t think about the bucket of busted reels until our aunt reminded him of it after Uncle Doug’s passing. Neither of us was able to visit for a year or two. The bucket remained in a corner of the tractor shed and probably came close to being trashed. It filled with dried leaves, dead bugs and mice droppings.
Finally, someone noticed it and remembered. From southern Appalachia to Norfolk and back again, the reel bucket came into my possession. I consigned it to the basement, and there it moldered for several years—until this spring when things had to be straightened to make room for a fishing boat. Yesterday, I respectfully delved into the bucket and discovered rich memories of the two role models my brother and I loved.
Several hours later, I proudly showed my wife a rebuilt and shiny Zebco 33. I think there might be enough housings and parts to restore two or three more reels. One for my brother, another for my sons and one for me, all in memory of the old men who taught us to fish and recycle.