Tennessee Mountain Stories

Old School Angling

Hunting and fishing are great sports and are widely enjoyed around the world today.  Yet we know that in days gone by hunting and fishing were much more about feeding a family and the forests and waterways have well provided for the people of Tennessee through the years. 

Fishery biologist Justin Spaulding wrote an article for the Tennessee Wildlife Magazine (Spring 2019, pp12-15) that talked about Old School Angling and I found the practices so fascinating that I wanted to share some of the article with you. 

The following is quoted by permission of the author and I thank him sincerely for sharing it with us.

Tennessee has a long history of fishing and not all of it involves traditional bait and tackle.  We often imagine the modern angler with an expensive boat or hundreds of dollars invested in waders, not to mention the garage full of gear.  However, when times were simpler, anglers fished to put food on the table using whatever means they could.

Many of these methods were developed before reservoirs altered Tennessee’s landscape.  River fishing was all that was available, and anglers pursued abundant fish like suckers, buffalo and catfish.  Some of the more notorious methods – explosives, poisons, electricity and firearms – have since been banned to protect fish populations the public and fishermen.  In recent years, some primitive approaches like archery and hand grabbling have returned to popularity   Many legal methods are still available for the Tennessee sportsmen wanting to broaden their tackle box.  Since these techniques enable the angler to harvest large quantities of fish in a single trip, the use of these devices are more strictly regulated than typical fishing gear…

Fish traps are perhaps the oldest method of fishing, while ancient cultures used several types of fish traps, the slat basket (or slat trap) is one still used in Tennessee and that remains commercially available.

Slat baskets can be constructed from wood, cane, or modern plastic materials.  The design is fairly simple, with one end acting as a throat to funnel fish into the other end called the catch area….Instructions for making baskets can readily be found online, or they can be purchased from tackle shops for under $100.  Slat baskets cannot be used within 100 yards of the mouth of a river, creek or slough…

Most slat baskets are used to catch catfish, but will catch redhorse and other suckers as well….There are a variety of options and homebrews for bait, but the most common are waste cheese, cut-bait, dog food, and soybean meal…A well placed and well-baited slat basket will easily pack a cooler.

In a song, Hank Williams, Jr. once immortalized running a trotline as a rite of passage for rural culture…Trotlines are pretty simple, consisting of a mainline attached to the bank or a float with baited droppers every few feet.  Trotlines are chiefly used to catch catfish, but anglers should be prepared for a little bit of everything.  Trotlining is one of the few methods other than where gamefish maybe kept according to local limits.

Trotlines must be checked at least once per day, but a good spot will yield buckets full of catfish in a morning or afternoon if you don’t have time to run a trotline camp like they did in the old days.

Each year, massive schools of fish congregate on the swift and clean river shoals in an effort to produce another generation of offspring.  Spawning runs normally start with the first big rain event in February and can last until early May.  Most rivers produce a healthy run of native redhorse, suckers, and buffalo, but the best will be so plentiful you would think it possible to walk across their backs to the other side.

Snagging, the process by which fish are taken by a hook (most commonly a large treble) with a swift jerking motion, is often employed during spawning runs.  Historically, snagging large river shoals or creek pools for redhorse, buffalo, and suckers was very common.  This tactic may appear distasteful to some at first glance.  However, it is a long practiced tradition in many communities and most fish caught using this tactic are eaten and not wasted…

Back in the 1940s, TWRA (then the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission) even operated a redhorse hatchery in Shelbyville to support a local shoal fishermen association. Most shoals are clear enough that anglers can identify the individual species from the bank, and will cast to a particular fish.  Fishing too soon after a heavy rain may be difficult because of muddy and swift waters.  IN the past, some nimble anglers would dangle from trees and merely lift the hook into the rooter (mouth) as a fish would pass by.  Typically, few non-gamefish are inadvertently snagged, but if caught, they must be released…

Regardless which style you try, if done correctly, a skilled angler will likely be able to catch more fish than can be eaten at once.  While old time anglers certainly enjoyed running a trotline or snagging a shoal for redhorse, at the end of the day they were working to feed their families.  Most anglers today are picky and eat only a few species of fish because they are easier to clean and require less preparation (i.e., crappie and walleye).  However, with a little practice and work, many of the less desirable non-game species can still be quite delicious.  Redhorse, white sucker, freshwater drum, and buffalo have thick scales and Y bones that need to be removed, but proper cleaning will make it worth your while.  A fish can be scaled in seconds and working around the bones requires a little elbow grease and a bit more time.

Treating the Sick


Here’s a major spoiler for my upcoming book:  Someone will suffer from a life changing illness.  So I have to research such a thing and try to understand not how it would be treated in the 21st century, but what medicines and procedures would have been employed in 1890.  That leads me to making some pretty strange internet searches and if you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks the government is looking at my searches, well you won’t be surprised if spooks show up at my door one day.

Most of us don’t have Arsenic on a pantry shelf; if you’d lived 100 years ago, you might’ve.  Historically this naturally occurring mineral has been used for everything from cosmetics to wall paper and even medicine.  So if you were a patient in 1890 and the doctor pulled out a bottle marked As (the elemental symbol for arsenic) he really has your best interests at heart and no intention to do you harm.  Today we’d just be petrified to even see that bottle in the doctor’s office.

I have an excerpt from an old medical book (and I’m sorry I can’t properly cite it for you but the title is not included) which describes Progressive Muscular Atrophy which is still a recognized, albeit rare, neurological condition.  In years past it was commonly known as Wasting Palsy.

While this old book recognizes that internal medications will do little to treat the condition, it still offers the following advice: “a generous diet along with the administration of drugs such as arsenic, strychnine sulphate and cod-liver oil is indicated in all cases”.

Of course there were a number of medicines that seem strange to us today and our forefathers (or more likely our fore-mothers) treated many diseases with medicines provided by the land.  That’s something I would dearly love to learn more about!  When you read about doctors prescribing something we now consider poison it’s not hard to wonder why Appalachian women preferred to collect their medicines in the woods and creekbeds.


Plowing the Corn

I can’t see a crop growing here but this appears to be a cultivator that Uncle Lester Key is using.

I can’t see a crop growing here but this appears to be a cultivator that Uncle Lester Key is using.

I sent my daddy a note that I needed to talk to him to learn how to raise corn.  Now when I send out a request like that I often get chastised with, “Ain’t I taught you nothing?”

Well I have been listening and watching – I’ve even written down some notes on how best to plant a garden and when things ought to be planted or harvested.  However, I’ve seen only demonstrations of horse-drawn-farming and when I’m putting together a book I want the details to be right.

How many times do you hoe corn?  So that’s not a question a modern farmer can answer – they wouldn’t know how to handle a hoe.  Yet for generations on the mountain, where corn was the primary staple for both man and beast, hoeing corn was a ritual enjoyed by every member of the family.  Of course we had plows – I mean we weren’t Neanderthals, right?  So I’ve certainly seen a corn crop cultivated (I’m trying to carefully differentiate the terminology here because we call it all plowing but there’s plowing to turn the ground and then there’s plowing to cultivate a crop).  If a farmer today hooks up a cultivator to his tractor, he will pull into a field and put his wheels between two rows then set that implement down over 2 or 4 rows (I think they have some big ole’ 8 or 10 row cultivators but I’ve never seen one).  However, the horse drawn setup puts all three parties - horse, plow and man – in the middle of two rows of the crop. 

There is an obvious advantage here despite the many difficulties of working with a horse or mule.  The crop can be cultivated even when it’s quite high.  Daddy says he’s seen farmers plow corn as tall as a horse’s back.  You just couldn’t do that with a tractor.  In the modern era crops are planted and weed control often sprayed over the soil.  This is supposed to eliminate the need to cultivate.  It doesn’t always work.  While it’s a little intimidating to imagine following a horse through the size of some of our fields today, if you’re looking at a crop overtaken by weeds, setting down a cultivator in those rows begins to sound like a pretty good idea.

I feel compelled to mention that in recent years the use of herbicides is becoming taboo.  The more we want to go organic the popularity of cultivators will again increase.  We may even need those hoes again, have you still got one?

Cleanliness is next to Godliness


Did your Mama or Grandma ever use that phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” to guilt you into taking the bath that children universally balk at?  Well let me just start off by saying that while that phrase is not in the Bible, the essence of it surely is.  Ritual washing is part of the Mosaic law and bathing is often mentioned as a common practice – remember Pharoah’s daughter found baby Moses while visiting the river to bathe.

There are things we take for granted these days and I guess bathing is one of them.  Well you know that when I’m writing a novel my characters are always going through the motions of everyday life and that drives me to research things like what kind of dish soap was available in 1900?  And I learn the most interesting facts that way.

lye soap.jpg

So we’ve all heard talk about the chore of making soap.  And maybe some of you have even seen folks doing it.  Generally soap on the mountain required a good store of hardwood ashes that would be placed in a hopper with cold water run over them to leach out the lye.  Once separated (and I suppose strained because I would’ve got a lot of trash in that water) the lye can be combined with lard to create soap. 

Most everybody used to have a big old soap pot – and since that was cast iron and therefore porous I’m not at all sure you could use the same kettle for anything else.  And since the lye is caustic, cooking it out in the back yard is a really good idea.  So you’d have to build a fire under the kettle and cook the lye, water and fat for an hour or more.  Then you’ll get the soap out into molds you’ve got ready and waiting where it will cool for another 24 hours.  I was taught they have to cure for some time after that although the online directions say it’s okay to use it right away.  Whew, it made me tired just telling you how to make it – do you see how we take that Dove bar for granted?

The American Cleaning Institute has a great article about soap’s history and it reminds us that those years of terrible plagues were directly related to poor hygiene.  And not much wonder because soap was considered a luxury item and taxed as such until the mid-1800’s!  When officials lifted that tax the people started keeping cleaner and therefore healthier.  Don’t you suppose that folks put two and two together and realized there was less sickness when they washed a little more often?  John Wesley said here in 1791, “Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness" so we know that phrase was common well before 1800.

I’m so often reminded how hard it is to really put myself in the shoes of my ancestors because it’s easy to assume they always had plenty of hogs to kill and therefore plenty of lard for soap.  But then I have to remember that lard was a staple of their cooking as well.  Remember there was no Crisco to soften biscuits or vegetable oil to give that crispy crust to cornbread not to mention how you would fry chicken or side meat without some kind of fat.  And if you’re raising ten children the amount of lard needed for cooking boggles the mind, not to mention how much soap that family could use.

I tried to do a little research on this and while lots of people are still making fancy soaps as a cottage industry, there don’t seem to be many people using hog lard.  It seems like the ration is something like 3 pounds fat yields 4.5 pounds soap.  That sounds like a lot of soap since I bring home bath soap in 4 ounce bars.  But then there’s the dish soap and the laundry soap.  How long do you think four and a half pounds of soap would last for all of your cleaning needs?


Songs of the Mountain by a man from the Mountain

A couple of weeks ago I set out exploring what we can learn from musical lyrics.  Well you  might not think the culture and history of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau has been set to music but I’m here to tell you it has indeed. 

Mr. Leonard Anderson is native to Jamestown, Tennessee and has written numerous songs about subjects close to our hearts, he writes about regional issues and concerns and if you are from the mountain or descended from the mountain you will identify with much of his music. 

I got the chance to speak with him at the Bluegrass Saturday Night Labor Day event.  Not surprisingly he asked as many questions as I did – but then I suppose were kind of in the same business, collecting stories and interesting facts and finding a way to use them in our songs or stories.  So after I explained that roots are in Martha Washington and I’m passionate about preserving the history and culture of our plateau people he began to tell me how he has been writing songs for more than 40 years with one of his first songs being about the people of Sharp’s Place where he came from. 

His favorite way to play his music is on the porch with just a few people gathered around.  Here’s a video on You Tube that shows just that type of gathering.

I really started planning to share this lyrical historian with you during the 127 Yard Sale because he has a song about that event which perfectly describes how the world’s longest yard sale got started in the mid-80’s in an attempt to draw tourist dollars to Fentress County.  Today it’s grown far beyond the original scope with more outside vendors than local and the residents seem to profit more by renting their yards to the outsiders.  

Even that 127 Yard Sale song is best heard with a little mountain-knowledge as he tells about falling into a pile of junk from an old barn and coming out “wearin’ a full set of harness”.  You even have to understand our accent a little bit as he has mentions to a neighbor how he’s checking dolls for the manufacturers name “Mattell” which of course we pronounce more like ‘my-tail’… and the neighbor advises him to look behind him where a tail my likely be located.

The particular disc I was listening to, Around Home ends with “Who Am I” and this particular author can certainly identify with his “I’m an ole’ bean picker, chicken catcher and ‘backer setter-outter” and we’ll have to talk more about that song very soon.

I’ve said here before that one of the reasons I love Bluegrass music and the local events is seeing the talent among us, and we have some very talented folks.  Isn’t it wonderful that Mr. Anderson has applied his particular talent to the task of recording our culture and recent history?

If you’d like to have your very own Leonard Anderson CD you can reach him at: 931-879-5278 and he’ll be happy to sell you one.