Whitmeyer’s Bass

The bucket sloshed at my legs, spilling water down my shorts and into the rubber boots as I used all my strength to complete the 200 yard dash from our neighbor’s farm pond to the newly anointed ‘lake’ in our backyard of Ear Acres. These fish didn’t have long in that bucket since a few had been in there now for over 30 minutes while I desperately tried to increase my quota. When there were enough to keep each other company I would drop my rod and strain at the handle, lugging it uphill over the first 100 yards to the property boundary, secretly hoping no one would catch me in the act. Getting that bucket over the fence was the real challenge, spilling the water was not an option since I still had a massive field to cross before these fish would breathe sweet, fresh water again. Even at the ripe age of seven I knew they didn’t have long in that bucket.

Once I had crossed the fence and crested the hill where our driveway made its terminal roundabout I was home free. No one but a Morrill could see my progress now, and it never seemed like anyone was really watching what we were doing on our property anyways. The final 80 yards was all downhill and I used the momentum to my advantage, running and skimming the bottom of the bucket along the patches of grass and dirt of our newly planted yard. A small stream entered the south end of the pond, and I chose that spot to dump the bucket and release my captives to their new home. As they eagerly disappeared to explore the murky depths I was already running back up the hill with the bucket, swinging it vigorously as I ran, imagining how big those fish would be someday. I would launch it over the fence and vault myself into the tall grass, careful to skirt the asparagus patch that old Mrs. Whitmeyer tended to daily. Occasionally I would see old Mr. Whitmeyer or his son driving a tractor or pickup around their farm, taking very little care to notice what I was up to, or choosing work over conversation with this new neighbor kid. Whatever the outcome of those encounters they weren’t enough to deter me from mining their stock of bass and transplanting dozens if not a hundred or more into our home water. It was a much different scenario from my fishing excursions in Wichita, where my mom lived on a golf course. Those ponds were just as stuffed with fish but they came with unwanted baggage – snotty golfers who couldn’t stand to see a kid fishing on their pristine course. I remember being chased out of those ponds when I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 – and if any of those people are still alive today and happen to read this – you can go F*** yourselves. I still hate golf to this day because of those shitheads.

Ear Acres matured as we manicured the woods, fields and trails. We dug new ponds but were remiss not to line them with fly ash like we did the first pond – and consequently they never held full volume, making tough conditions for most fish. But the first pond held water even during the worst droughts – and there were some bad ones in those days. We enlisted the help of the Missouri Department of Conservation to create a ‘responsible’ stocking program in that pond, unfortunately after we made the egregious error of transplanting crappies from Truman Reservoir that first fall. Fortunately for the pond’s ecosystem we endured a severe freeze that winter and the promiscuous little devils froze to death near the surface, hundreds of small crappies wearing the look of shock from asphyxia in their eyes. The bass, bluegill and sunfish survived – so did the six grass carp who held the honorable distinction of the pond’s first inhabitants.

The DoC suggested catfish – which seemed odd considering they weren’t usually a target specimen during our fishing forays, but we watched the first twenty five slide into the lake the next spring, curious what might come of these whiskered ancients. I must admit I was sorely disappointed to see so few of any species going into that pond, especially after the herculean efforts I had undergone robbing the neighbors’ pond. But wiser minds prevailed and those catfish grew to epic size and numbers, making for a wholly unique fishing experience for even the lamest of rod handlers. Dad stationed a 50-gallon trash barrel by the lake just above the foot of the dock and filled it with ‘catfish food.’ One heave of the 6-cup scoop would summons hundreds of sucking lips to the surface, methodically removing any trace of a free meal for the less than fortunate species below. Any fly pattern that resembled a piece of dog food was guaranteed to provide five + minutes of sheer joy on a 5 wt. rod.

The catfish were easy to catch, as described above – but the bass were typical bass – leery and cautious. There wasn’t great visibility in that water so you didn’t exactly have to stalk them, but they weren’t offering up free rides like the catfish. Barb had one she called ‘Walter’ – he lived among the Christmas trees we sunk every year just west of the goose tub. It might have been about 10-15′ deep over there, and I remember Dad and Barb always paddled the canoe over in that direction. Barb would let out a yelp whenever she hooked a big one – which was often because Barb is the best fisherwoman I’ve ever known – and they’d get pulled around the pond by Walter or one of his kin, undoubtedly trying to find the portal back to the home water they came from.

We grew up swimming in that pond, always stroking for the middle so we didn’t have to feel the mucky bottom with our toes. We’d push the canoe out there and flip it, resurfacing under the gunnels always amazed that it didn’t sink. We knew there were snakes in that pond but the real menace were those damned channel and flathead cats. They’d come up and nibble our toes thinking the commotion above must be delivering their daily feeding. We’d squeal and kick and thrash to get that canoe turned right side up to escape their sandpaper-lined mouths. Then we’d do it all over again until Barb would ring the iron dinner bell from the house up the hill.

Toward the end of our tenure at Ear Acres we allowed some interlopers to fish the fabled waters of that pond. ‘Boss’ from the local (and only) Chinese restaurant would lounge on the shore like a giant Buddha statue, always expressing gratitude with some free appetizer or maybe a Tsingtao for Dad. The neighbors who bought a farmhouse from us eventually schmoozed on in once Dad and Barb were only temporary residents and Nick and I were off to college – and from what I gather that pond got stripped clean by less than scrupulous visitors. My last fish from that pond was a #8 or #9 bass – or at least it’s the last one I remember. At the time I was hell bent for destruction, staying up all night partying with anyone who could keep the stamina. Watching the sun come up is always a lonely feeling, but one that feels right with a fishing rod in hand. The picture of me holding that fish is gross – I have long hair and a thin, strung out face. I am beaming from ear to ear but I look all wrong. I’m holding the giant awkwardly, pointing my elbow up and to the side to bring the massive fish into the frame, perhaps instinctively trying to hide my face in the prematurely morning light. That phase of my life eventually passed, but the memory of that fish has never left.

A few weeks after I graduated from college in December 2000 we finally sold Ear Acres. I was there to show the realtors around when they came with ‘interested’ parties, but for the most part no one had the vision it took to maintain that property. We mowed over 60 acres of grass between the yard and the runway. The trails needed mowing and the fields needed bailing. Most people ventured down that mile-long driveway looking for an oasis that would take care of itself. Eventually a church from the inner-city picked it up for a bargain, planning to provide a safe and unique outlet for the kids they were trying to save. The neighbors were not thrilled with how ‘dark’ we’d made the town with that sale but our time was up – the Morrill Family was gone for good, dispersed to Minnesota and Washington State and Alaska. Our name was tarnished with some of the locals but personally I felt good knowing those kids from Kansas City were going to experience what I had known most of my life.

As the years passed we always reminisced about Ear Acres and the paradise we created there. I spent the first decade after college refusing to go back to Missouri, somehow equating failure with going home. At my 10-year high school reunion I finally flew back to MCI, crossing the Platte County water tower that sat just off the south end of our grass runway – I could see the entire property as we crossed the middle and inner marker to finally touchdown. My dear friend Josh Hulett was back home too and we raised hell like always. Not caring for the new property owners’ rights, I invited my classmates to the ‘top of the runway’ for an evening tailgate. We parked our trucks up there and listened to I-29 hum nearby while our little town kept growing – telling stories of our childhood, laughing at all those lights in the water tower we used to shoot out with our .22’s. It was fitting – one last party on the runway that had grown too tall for a safe takeoff or landing.

A few years later Josh and I snuck back out there and got really brave after a case or more of Miller Lite. The runway had become a cul-de-sac by this point and I was incensed. I wanted to see that log house for myself, so we slowly crept down the gravel drive with our lights off and parked at the bend in the road just before it turned east for the house. This was tricky business when we occupied the house, not only because my Dad was known to greet unwanted guests with a .357 but because our ‘alarm’ was 5-7 dogs who were kenneled near the house. If Nick and I ever wanted to sneak home after hours the first line of defense was to sprint through the woods and encounter the dogs before they sounded the alarm. We got pretty good at this and rarely got caught, but I knew none of this would stand in our way on this inky night. We pushed the iron gate open, knowing damn well no one would be home with that gate shut – the place was ours to survey. The gravel drive gave way to concrete at that gate, an improvement Dad made a few years after we moved in, probably about the time he finally put railings along the deck that surrounded the house. The driveway looked deserted and the home looked worn. The logs hadn’t been treated in years and the decks hadn’t been pressure washed since we had left, no doubt. I stuck my face to the double glass front doors, peering into someone else’s house. I didn’t care about being caught because I felt I had a right to be there. Josh sheepishly stayed behind as I circumnavigated the house on both levels – not daring to enter but just barely. As I rounded the back of the house I couldn’t believe it was still there- hanging where we had left it nearly 15 years ago was the iron triangle dinner bell. I snatched that rusty treasure and bolted for the woods. Josh wasn’t far behind and we made haste for our truck up the hill. No dogs barked, no lights came on and we had a clean getaway. I just wish we would have spent the rest of that night trying to catch Walter.

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