The Mill Ditch, 2022 First Place

By Les Tanner

“Where’re we going Grampa?”

“I’ve already told you twice, Kiddo.  It’s a surprise.”

“I know, I know,” Kayla said.  “What kind of surprise?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?”

“I guess.  Just give me a hint.  Pleeeeaaase?  With sugar and cream on top?”

Boy, this kid was persistent.  Just like her grandmother.

“Okay, it’s about fishing.”

My ears are still ringing from her excited response.

  

Last weekend, at Louise’s insistence, Kayla and I had spent the afternoon on Badger Creek, one of the many small streams that flow into the Lochsa.  Kayla had fished some in the past, but only in a “kids only” pond back home in Kansas, so she’d been having trouble keeping her hook out of the creek-side bushes.  The few times she’d had a nibble, the end result was no fish but one more willow limb.  Still, she had a good time—and I got plenty of hook-retrieval related exercise, too.

We’d just turned into the driveway of our home on Lincoln Street when Kayla asked “Where did you learn to fish so good, Grampa?”

“Right over there.” I replied, pointing to the east.

“Way past those houses?”

“Nope.  Right where they are.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

 

The year that I turned seven—the particular year is irrelevant—my father was transferred from San Francisco to the Moscow office of his construction company.  We lived in a small rental house for the first few months, but Mom and Dad finally bought a house and a few acres of land.  The house stood right where our present one does, which was then the very outer edge of town.  There was nothing but open land in any direction beyond our property.

I was in the second grade, and was made to feel part of the gang almost right away.  I liked Moscow, too, and the area around.  Lots of places for kids to play and explore—and get into mischief.

One day Dad brought home a fish that one of his co-workers had given him.

“Let’s have this for dinner,” he said as he handed it to Mom.

“What is that?”

“A fish.”

“I can see that, Silly.  What kind of fish is it and what am I to do with it?”

“It’s a rainbow trout.  I’d like you to fix it for dinner.”

The only fish Mom had ever seen were the processed ones she’d bought at Fisherman’s Wharf.

“The head, too?”

“Of course not.”

“I’m surely glad about that.  But you’ll have to scale it for me,”

“No need to scale trout,” Dad replied.  “Just dip it in flour and fry it.”

So that’s what we had for dinner that night—but we had other things, too.  After all, a ten-inch fish isn’t much fish to begin with, but when you have to divide it among four people, you can have problems.  Being the youngest—my sister Beth is two years older than me—I got last pick.  And it really was the last pick, namely the tail section.  It was fried crisp, and tasted okay, but I never did know what the rest of a trout tasted like until the next spring.

When I told the kids at school the next day about our trout, they laughed at first, but then they began telling me about the large numbers of monstrous fish they had caught, and what great fishermen they were, and so on.

 

Moscow winters are a tad different than were the ones we had in California.  Cold, snow, more cold, and more snow.  Sledding and ice-skating are fun, but I still wished for summer.

Around the middle of February I began hearing talk of a special event that was to happen soon: ”The Day”.  It was said with such reverence and anticipation that I wondered if it had some religious significance.

“The Day” turned out to be the last Saturday in May, a very important day for us kids and many other Muscovites, including a lot of parents.  It not only followed the last day of school but was also the first day of fishing season.

Dad had grown up in northern California, so he’d done quite a bit of trout fishing.  He seemed to be as eager about “The Day” as my classmates were.

“Okay, who wants to go fishing with me next Saturday?” he asked at dinner that last week of school.

Both Mom and Beth said they had “more important” things to do, but in no way was I going to miss out. “I’ll go!  I’ll go!”

“Thought you might,” said Dad.

 

Dad had learned from some of his co-workers about some likely spots that would give us a chance to be by ourselves and to catch some trout as well.

The one we chose was a small creek northeast of Troy.  It was called Whiskey Creek.  It wasn’t very big, but there were plenty of fish there.  It was in Whiskey Creek that I caught my first—but certainly not my last—trout.

Dad had already caught a few when I finally got lucky. 

“Got one!” I hollered.  “I’ve got one, Dad!”

Sure enough, hanging from the end of my line, which was draped over the limb of a small pine tree behind me, was a wriggling fish.

“Looks like a keeper,” said Dad as he retrieved my line and fish.

As proof, he laid it on the palm of his hand.  Its head was resting on the end of Dad’s middle finger, and its tail was on his wrist.

“Yep, definitely a keeper.  Right on six inches, the legal size.”

Not intending to make a pun of it, but I was hooked!

Have been ever since.

 

From that moment on, my life was centered on fishing.  It was easy to talk Dad into taking me somewhere on weekends, and on long summer evenings, but there was really nowhere I could go by myself.

Then one day a neighbor mentioned the Mill Ditch.

Lumbering had been a big business in that area, and just north of our property there had once been a sawmill.  Some of the mill’s structures were still there, as was the pond in which logs were kept wet until they were ready to be sawn.  The pond had been kept full with water from a spring in the hills to the north, and the overflow water was channeled into a small natural drainage, eventually flowing into the South Fork of the Palouse.  Although the mill pond was no longer in use, the spring that fed it kept flowing, and the Mill Ditch continued to carry the runoff.

It was just a trickle, though, and whenever the Mill Ditch was mentioned in regard to fishing, the universal response was, “Never been any fish in there.”

It did have one attractive feature though: The Mill Ditch was on our property.  That made it both accessible and “mine” to do with it as I wanted.  And it was in the Mill Ditch that I taught myself to fish.  Dad had taught me the basics of trout fishing: Walk quietly; fish upstream; don’t let your shadow fall on the water.  He also showed me the natural baits that were everywhere: worms, grasshoppers, hellgrammites, sandbugs.

Every chance I got that summer, I’d grab my gear and go down to “the Ditch.”  There I practiced sneaking up on the few pools that were there, casting a baitless hook until I could place it just where a fish should be, had there been one there.

And then one day in the middle of August, the miracle happened.  I wasn’t being as careful as usual, and I stumbled just as I was sneaking up on my favorite pool.  I fell face down, landing so I was looking straight down into the water—and much to my surprise, and it, a fish—a real fish and not my imagination, darted up the stream and was gone in a flash.

There were fish in the Mill Ditch!

Needless to say, that put things in a whole new light.  Not only was I down at the Mill Ditch more than I had been, but I began catching fish.  Not many and not every day.  And the most I ever caught in a day was one.  That was me, conservationist from the very beginning.

As far as I know for sure, I was the only one who fished “my” Mill Ditch.  A time or two, I would find where the grass had been pressed down, but it was certainly done by the resident muskrats and the deer who came to drink in the mornings and evenings.

So that is my very long answer to my little granddaughter.  I learned to fish that summer on the Mill Ditch.

 

“Well, here we are,” I said to Kayla, as I pulled up in front of the Moscow Community Center.

“What’s here?”

“You’ll see in a minute.”  I parked and we got out.

“It’s a fishing show!” she exclaimed, as she read the sign above the main entyrance..

“Not just any old fishing show, but one for kids.  The Fish and Game people put it on every year.  The idea is to get kids interested in fishing.”

“But I’m already interested in fishing,” said Kayla.

“Do you know all about fishing?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, here you’ll have a chance to learn more—like how to cast a fly and to land a fish without throwing it back into the trees behind you.”

“I don’t do that,” she protested.

“Believe me, it will happen more often than you think.”

Once we were inside, it was impossible to keep up with her, so I wandered around to the various vendor booths, saw an elderly man teaching some kids how to tie some important knots, and watched a young woman demonstrating fly casting at the big inflatable pool that had been set up.

I’d been there for ten minutes or so before I felt a tug on my jacket.

It was Kayla, and with her was a boy about her age, and a man who may have been close to my age.

“Grampa, this is Billy and this is his grampa.”

“Hi, Billy,” I said.  “Having fun?”

“Yeah!” he replied.  “Me and Kayla were watching a guy tie flies and we each got a free fly and now we’re going to learn about fishing with spinners.”

With that, he and Kayla took off, laughing as they went.

“Nothing like fishing to mke friendships, is there?” I said to Billy’s grandfather.  “My name’s Dan.”

 As we shook hands, he said,  “I’m Ernest.  We came down from Spokane just for the show.  Used to live here when I was a kid.”

“When was that,” I asked.

“Back more years than I like to admit,” he replied.  “I really did like it here, but school wasn’t all that much fun.”

At my puzzled look he said, pointing to his face, “This isn’t a sun tan; it’s my natural skin.  I’m part Nez Perce, and back then we didn’t fit in really well.”

Frankly, I hadn’t noticed his skin coloration, but I did recall there were a couple of Indian kids in school, and they weren’t particularly popular.

“But this is where I learned to fish,” he continued.  “We lived in an old trailer north of town, and when I got a chance I’d walk down to a place where a little creek ran.  It was on somebody’s property, but I managed to sneak in.  Never got caught, but sometimes I’d see another kid fishing there.”

All of a sudden, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up.  “Any chance you remember the name of that little creek?  We had one on our land.  Did it happen to be…”

And before I could say another word we startled the folks standing nearby when we shouted in unison: “The Mill Ditch!!”