"Say lady, you're pretty zippy there," Eloise Johnson said to her friend, Carmen Frickenstein, as they walked down a trail toward the east branch of Verdigre Creek last June to fish for trout.
"Not really," said Frickenstein.
Zip, of course, is relative. For an 83-year-old woman, Frickenstein was indeed moving along. So was Johnson, a self-proclaimed "old and decrepit" woman of 75 years. "I hurt my knee, so I'm not moving as well as usual," Johnson said, almost apologetically.
The women - Frickenstein from Creighton and Johnson from Winnetoon - had walked this trail at Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Royal hundreds of times. Lifelong residents of northeastern Nebraska, they had fished this creek as children. They have been fishing
"Don't tell them all of our secrets, but we can tell where to fish by where the tracks are," Frickenstein said, pointing to the tire marks left in the tall grass by trucks that once a week bring 200 or more rainbow trout to one of four locations on the creek from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Grove Trout Rearing Station. That reliable supply of trout and their enjoyment of fishing, the outdoors and each other's company have kept Frickenstein and Johnson coming back most Thursdays, and sometimes Fridays, from spring into fall.
Truck tracks aren't all they notice. On this walk, Frickenstein pointed out a fresh set of deer tracks on the trail. It was about 9 a.m. when they approached their starting point a few hundred yards from the parking lot.
"Where do we get down?" Johnson said.
"We got down here last time," Frickenstein replied, leading the way off the trail and down the steep bank to crystal-clear water.
They baited their No. 8 gold hooks with pieces of nightcrawler, and for a touch of color tipped the hooks with Berkley Power Eggs. One used a fluorescent red egg, the other chartreuse. If they find one color is working better, they both use it. "You don't need too much worm," Frickenstein said. "Two or three will get you a limit."
Wearing Red Ball hip waders patched over the years of use, they headed downstream. Most fly-anglers walk upstream, casting their lures ahead and allowing them to drift
Phooey, these women say.
"We go with the flow of the water," Johnson said. "That's what the men tell us is wrong.
"We do everything wrong according to the men."
Both women carried spincasting rods and reels older than many of the people who fish the stream. Frickenstein used a vintage steel model. She and her late husband, Joe, each bought one when they were married in 1941. The price: 98 cents. "And we thought we couldn't even afford those, but we did it anyway," she said. "We bought them because we both liked to go fishing. I think that's probably one of the first things we bought." She still has both rods. Her grandchildren use Joe's. "I wouldn't sell those for $500 because you can't get them anymore."
Frickenstein's rod was fitted with a Johnson reel. "The one I usually use fizzled out last week," she said of her Zebco 202.
Johnson also used a Johnson reel, and her fiberglass rod was newer than Frickenstein's. She's not certain, but it was probably made in the 1950s. Considering fiberglass
The rule that says anglers should wear dark colors so they are less visible to fish doesn't concern these anglers either. Frickenstein's purple shirt might have met those standards if not for the bright pink and white screen-printing on its front. If they didn't see that, the trout certainly would see the pink jig box hanging from her belt. Johnson's bright yellow shirt with orange and red stripes was anything but dark.
"What I get a kick out of is these guys come out of the city with these fancy fish poles and these camouflage outfits that they spent lots of money on," Frickenstein said. "That's silly." "They've got their fly rods that they try to use and get tangled up everywhere in all the trees and brush and such," Johnson said.
Frickenstein and Johnson are not much for casting. They walk downstream, usually side-by-side. In spots where the vegetation grows thick and the open water is narrow, they go single file. But they always fish opposite sides of the creek. Holding the rod in one hand and the line, weighted with a single, large split shot, in the other, they jig their baits past spots likely to hold trout. Methodically, they poke their rod tips under moss beds and cut banks, letting out line so their baits drift toward the fish. Or they drop their offerings behind fallen logs or into other tangles or holes that might hold fish.
"We know all of the hidey holes," Johnson said.
"We even made a few," Frickenstein said.
They expect results. "If we don't catch any fish, we move," Frickenstein said. That was the case this morning on the first stretch of creek they plied. Other than seeing the silver flash of a trout they spooked from cover in the first bend they walked, there was no sign of fish. So they headed up and over a hill to another favorite spot.
"The Lutherans are having an ice cream social," Frickenstein said when they arrived at the creek again. "They used to have good homemade ice cream. Now they buy it."
Such small talk is an integral part of every fishing trip for the pair. Catching up on the latest happenings around town and elsewhere is one reason they fish together. Talking breaks another trout-fishing rule. "The guys say, 'Oh, you've got to be quiet and whisper,' " Johnson said with a chuckle. "Hogwash. I'd say we caught as many fish has they did."
Frickenstein was already teaching at Creighton when Johnson joined the staff in 1966. Frickenstein loved fishing the creek. Her husband loved to fish, but he preferred fishing for walleyes from his boat. Looking for a partner, she asked Johnson, who gladly accepted. "The day school was out, we started," Frickenstein said. "We'd go every week. We'd even go in the rain."
The two would fish once a week from the time school let out in May until it resumed in the fall. After they retired - Frickenstein in 1985 and Johnson in 1987 - and school didn't limit their schedule, they would start fishing a few weeks earlier, whenever the weather allowed, and continued into October. More often than not, they fished on Thursdays. "And everybody knew it was our day," Johnson said. "In town, everybody knew when it came Thursday, don't call me to do nothing cause I'm going fishing," Frickenstein said.
Through surveys, the Commission estimates about 60 percent of the 10,000 fish it stocked in the creek in 2000 ended up in anglers' creels. This is a busy place. About 5,000 anglers from 26 Nebraska counties and several states fished Verdigre Creek in 2000, an average of 13 a day. On weekends when the weather is nice, it's easy to find anglers from Norfolk, Columbus, Lincoln and Omaha. Anglers catch about a fish an hour. Frickenstein and Johnson typically do better than that. But on this day, they had no fish to show for their first half-hour on the creek. "Come on, you cotton-picking fish," Frickenstein said, hoping to coax a trout into biting. "We haven't got a fish here for a long time," she said, referring to a particular bend in the creek. "I don't know why we ever come here. I guess we think we always have gotten fish here …"
A few minutes later, a hoot from Frickenstein signaled a fish was hooked. "Oh no," followed a few seconds later, telling the story: The fish got off her line.
The Commission has owned a piece of Verdigre Creek since 1928. In 1951, it acquired more land to expand its trout rearing station and to build Grove Lake. Most of the land frequented by trout anglers today was purchased by the Commission in the late-1950s and early-1960s.
Area residents had been enjoying the spring-fed creek, which originates just east of Royal, long before that. Born in Brunswick, seven miles east of Grove Lake, in 1920, Frickenstein has visited the creek as long as she can remember. "Well, heck, when I could walk we started to come over here," Frickenstein said. "We used to have so much fun, but then we kids mostly played in the crick until Dad said we had to learn to fish." That day came when she was six or seven years old. "My dad loved to fish."
Johnson's trips to the creek as a child were more frequent. She was born in 1928, a half-mile west and two miles south of where the pair had started fishing this day. If they couldn't find a horse to ride, she and her siblings would walk to the creek to swim. "Back in those days there was no bathroom in the house, so in summertime we'd have our bath in the creek,"
Most trout don't get the chance to grow that big these days. Most of the rainbows stocked in the creek are about 10 inches long. A few avoid the hook and spawn in the creek, as do some native brown trout, which in 2000 made up about six percent of the harvest. As one of five Class A trout streams in the state, this stretch of Verdigre Creek is well suited for fish. The riffles, runs, pools and cut banks, sand-and-gravel bottom and abundant aquatic vegetation meet the trout's every need.
"You're really working there, aren't you," Johnson asked her partner.
"I'm trying every little hole I can find," Frickenstein replied, still searching for the first fish of the day as they continued to work their way downstream.
"There used to be a hole by that bend there," she pointed out. "If you were patient, you could get your limit there. I remember two guys who would always try to beat us there."
"They'd practically run to beat us there," Johnson recalled.
As the stream flows, Verdigre Creek covers about three miles as it winds its way through its narrow, deep valley from the rearing station to the lake - twice as far as the crow flies. About half of this reach is owned by the Commission and open to the public. Hardwoods and cedars cover the hillsides, and in spots, meadows stretch on either side of the creek. "This is the most beautiful spot in the world," Frickenstein said.
"We aren't using many worms, are we?" Frickenstein asked her friend, rhetorically.
"We never get skunked," she said a few minutes later.
"This may be it," Johnson replied.
"There are no guarantees in fishing," Frickenstein said.
A few bends later, Johnson had another bite, but didn't hook the fish. A cool breeze coming off the creek made fishing comfortable following a week of temperatures in the upper 80s. "This is the best day all week," Frickenstein said.
A few steps farther and Frickenstein had a bite, but again, the fish didn't take the bait deep enough to allow for a good hook set.
"That wren is happy," she said, as she listened to one of many chirping birds around her.
The two had fished the creek often enough to know which holes typically produced fish. "A lot of times I lie in bed at night and I think about this creek and I can just draw where all the bends are," Frickenstein said. "I can just see them and we can just kind of know where the fish are going to be most of the time, not all the time, but you know the best places to go."
That didn't mean they passed holes that seldom produced fish. Johnson let her bait drift under a bed of moss growing behind a tangle of fallen tree branches and pulled out the
With another piece of worm and an egg in place, she dropped her line back in the hole. Another fish took the bait, this time literally stripping her hook bare.
Meanwhile, Frickenstein had ducked under a fallen tree and worked her way downstream and around a bend, where she landed her first fish of the day. "It didn't fool around at all," she said, dropping the trout in her canvas Arctic Creel. "If they're going to bite, they're going to do it right away."
Johnson continued to ply the hole that produced her first fish and was rewarded with a second. "I was surprised to have one fish," she exclaimed, "and now two."
Unable to catch a third, Johnson caught up with her partner and they continued downstream. "I'm surprised we're not hearing any cardinals," Frickenstein said.
"Nature is a wonderful thing," said Johnson.
At 11:30 a.m., Frickenstein landed another fish. "I've still got my first worm," she said after removing the hook. "I'm going to try to get one more."
"You're being conservative, aren't you?" Johnson said.
"If we run out, a lot of people in town tell me they've got plenty and they'll give me some."
Twenty minutes later, that worm produced a third fish.
"Did you get it in the moss?" Johnson asked.
"Right at the end," Frickenstein replied, pointing to the downstream end of a long finger of moss in midstream. "You know they like it there."
Around the next bend, she landed her fourth and biggest fish of the day - a 13½ incher that had been in the creek for a while. "Well, I've got to start a second worm," she said.
That fish would be the last of the day, and put Frickenstein up four to two on her friend. Not that they keep score. "We don't care," Frickenstein said. "I think it's even."
"One time she'll catch more, and the next time I'll catch more," Johnson said.
"Remember the north side over there where the grass grew over the bank?" Johnson asked, pointing across the stream.
"That was always so good," Frickenstein said.
They continued their small talk, about what they'd planted in their gardens and other things that kept them busy.
"I'm not making jelly, pickles or anything this year, are you?" Frickenstein said.
"No," Johnson replied.
"It doesn't pay," Frickenstein said.
When prompted, they told stories. Like the time they were chased by a rabid raccoon Johnson had awakened when she poked her rod under a cut bank. Or the time she confronted a man fishing directly below the rearing station, an area that is off limits to anglers.
"Eloise is braver than I am, and when we got over there she said, 'Say sir, I think you're fishing where you aren't supposed to,' " Frickenstein said. "Boy he got mad … I thought he was going to push us both in and hold us under the water."
"Well, where he was fishing was right where it was posted that you weren't supposed to fish," Johnson said.
"He was having good luck, too," Frickenstein said.
Their stories stretch to Minnesota, where the pair traveled each summer for nearly 20 years with their husbands to fish for walleyes. Johnson recalled a big walleye she caught and how the men in nearby cabins were impressed that a schoolteacher could catch such a fish. And they told about their days teaching in rural schools, where Frickenstein made $35 her first month on the job and Johnson $100. And how Johnson kept Frickenstein coming back after a battle with cancer in 1983.
"I just about died in November," she said. "Man, I was sick. And Eloise, in the spring, kept saying, let's go fishing, let's go fishing. I never said anything, but boy, that summer, I could hardly hang in there. But I did. If it wouldn't have been for her, I never would have stuck with it.
"It's sure duddy up here. We didn't even get a nibble," Frickenstein said as they reached the end of the stream's public stretch. They called it a day and headed back to the parking lot. They had fished for a little more than three hours. With six fish, they were under their average catch - a limit of seven fish each - but about even with the average for the stream.
"How far is it?" Johnson asked.
"I don't have any idea but I know it gets longer every time we have to walk back," Frickenstein said.
At the end of the trail was a picnic table where they sat, ate lunch and continued their talk. The table was added at their request, as was the modern pit toilet near the parking lot. Several years ago, Johnson wrote the Commission and voiced her displeasure about the
Not long after their letter, they arrived one day to fish and found the area manager clearing brush to install a new pit toilet. Jokingly, he asked if there was anything else they wanted. They said a picnic table would be nice.
They don't fish as early or as often as they once did. They used to arrive at 7 a.m.. Last summer, they only fished about once every three weeks. Too hot, they said. Maybe they will get out more this year.
Frickenstein said, "A couple of weeks ago, there was a guy here who said, 'You still fishing?' 'Yes,' I said, and he said, 'How long are you going to do that?' and I said 'Till the good Lord poofs out my light.' "
"I'll bet as long as we can manage to hobble along, we're going to do it," Johnson said.
It was a half-mile back to the parking lot. In the past three hours, they had easily walked twice that distance, following the twisting, turning stream. But they weren't fazed.
"You're stepping along pretty good today. You're knee must be better," Johnson said.
"It's good today," Frickenstein replied.