I was having lunch with a friend of mine recently, and we were comparing early childhoods, when he suddenly asked me if I had ever played with any horned toads growing up on our ranch on the westside of the Valley. Wow, that one question triggered a vivid mental parade of all of my most beloved critters – the ones I cherished and pursued back then. These creatures were secret treasures for me growing up, especially since I pretty much explored alone.
As my buddy talked about his childhood in Porterville, I realized that we had similar experiences as youths. One of the top memorable critters for both of us were the many crawdads that walked along the mud bottom in the canals and sloughs, usually just out of reach. If the fishing wasn’t too good, enticing the biggest crawdads with worms or a prior caught ’dads sacrificed tail meat was an exciting pastime. Getting the darn things to hang on long enough to swing them into your bucket was a fine art for a young boy – one that was perfected by many attempts.
Keeping them in the small bucket was the next challenge, since I would usually turn around just in time to find one of the heavily carapaced beasts lumbering back into the water. They would plop in just as I got there! Oh well, I was just going to let them go anyway.
The next rite of passage was the “Red top Bobber and Bluegill setup.” Is there anything more dramatic than waiting for something to hit the worms dangling below a bobber? Many times, a cautious bluegill would just make the bobber quiver and shake, just before the bobber slowly scooted sideways, towed along by the baby hungry ’gill. If he wasn’t big enough to pull the bobber under, you could pull the bobber away from the little fish hoping a bigger one took up the cause and ate it before another one nibbled your bait off. If you didn’t have any bobber motion for a minute or more you knew the voracious little suckers had eaten everything. Seeing a bobber bounce up and down once before the bright red top disappeared into the depths is still an exciting event!
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I’m also still enthralled by all the different dragonflies that work the shore weeds and tules, flitting around all over. We used to call them “witchdoctors” for some reason back then, but I haven’t heard that term for a long time. I love it when we’re out fishing and a single dragonfly will perch out on the tip of my pole; sometimes there would be four or five of them sitting there as we floated along. Once in awhile one would land on my sleeve and I would hold still to see how long it would stay. As a young boy, I almost thought of the magical critters as some type of “fairy” as they effortlessly darted about. If I caught one, I always let it go, careful not to crush the delicate and translucent multicolored wings . Somehow, I felt deeply that it just wouldn’t be right to destroy such a pretty and wonderful creature.
Polliwogs were another mysterious creature, coming in many sizes. Finding an area filled with recently hatched polliwogs was to discover a microcosm of bustling life – hanging onto the shallow weeds, swimming all over, and popping up to the surface to get a gulp of air every so often. I would look for the biggest ones to catch and hold in my water-filled hand. I considered it amazing because you could almost see all of their internal organs working through their translucent skin. I would also find groups that were changing into frogs, with tiny legs but a frog body! Pretty amazing it seemed to me.
After our conversation about these “treasures of our youth,” we agreed that something vital is missing for many of our tech-dominated youngsters today. What’s wrong with being a kid, able to dream, fish and explore our world? Believing that life is a magical thing is a special gift. You know, upon reflection, I wouldn’t trade even one of my lifelong “treasures” for all the computers in China! Never give up!