Memories flow like water in Gunpowder

DAN RODRICKS

September 16, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Somewhere out along the Big Gunpowder, near where it almost joins the Little Gunpowder, John Foard's father parked his car and stepped into a spring night with a dipping net and a flashlight.

He used the net to catch herring. He used the flashlight to spot cow droppings.

"We used to climb over this farmer's fence," Foard was saying yesterday. "Back then it was all pasture out there. And my father would keep the flashlight aimed down and every time he saw one he'd yell out, 'Cow flap!'"

They got down to the river -- I figure from Foard's description of the place that it was in Joppatowne -- and spent the evening dipping a large square net for herring.

"We would dip from the banks of the river using a 20-foot long pole tied to a net spreader. Every few minutes we would lift the net from the water to see if we had any herring in the net. It was strictly luck that the fish would be swimming above the net just as we raised it off the river bottom.

"If there were any herring in the net, we'd swing it to the river bank with the help of a Y-shaped pole, which was stuck in the bank and used as a pivot point. The net would be emptied then returned to the water. Many a night we took home 50 to 150 herring in a burlap bag. The roe from these fish was very tasty when fried and so were the fish. They could be fried, baked or pickled."

I'm letting Foard go on about the Gunpowder he knew as a boy because I find his stories delightful, and because they tell of a special relationship and because they offer a glimpse of a time, after the Depression and during World War II, when people lived off the land. This wasn't sport or recreation -- well, maybe just a bit -- it was fishing for food. John Foard, who is 62 now, has lived long enough to look back on the memory with some wonder and a little sentimentality. I like the way he tells stories about "the good old days" because he doesn't call them that. This isn't nostalgia so much as it is personal history that provides a detail from the large urbanscape that was Baltimore, circa 1940.

"When Pulaski Highway was completed, we started dipping for herring from the two-lane bridge over the river. A rope was tied to the net spreader and dropped over the side of the bridge into about three to six feet of water. The largest haul I remember was 105 herring, but that was after hauls of 50 or more were lost trying to get the net up over the bridge.

"Where the Gunpowder passed Route 40 we used a two- or three-foot-square net to dip for gudgeons, which was a fish smaller than a sardine. We would catch them, roll them in sand in our hands to remove all the tiny scales they had. Then, starting at the back of the head, we would cut about three-quarters of the way through the fish and then slide the knife forward, and that would pull the single entrail from the fish. We'd carry a little frying pan with us and fry the gudgeons over a stick fire and put them in a sandwich and eat them right there."

The Big Gunpowder, of course, carries the water most of us drink from Prettyboy Reservoir down to Loch Raven and, from there, out to the Chesapeake.

"My father knew the night watchman at the big dam at Loch Raven," John Foard says. "After 9 or 10 o'clock at night he'd let my father fish from inside the watch house with him. They'd catch mostly carp on worms and dough balls, which were made from dark molasses and corn meal."

Workers had to blast stone to build the water tunnels from the reservoir to the city. Foard's father, good harvester that he was, got something for his family from that project, too.

"Dynamite houses," John Foard says. "The dynamite was stored in them. They were about six feet square and seven feet high. They were tin on the outside, double wooden walled with sand in between the walls. When the project was completed, the houses were sold cheap and my father and uncle each bought one and they had them hauled to our property [on Fitch Avenue] on a low-bed trailer. They were unloaded and rolled into position over two-inch pipe. To this very day we still have one of those dynamite houses on the property. We store garden tools and other junk in them."

And that net Foard used to dip for herring? "I still have that, too," he says. And all the memories it stirs.

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