by Mark Daul
Outdoors in Niagara
Charlie comes from a large family of black bass and is the closest cousin to the largemouth bass, both abundant in our local fishery. The guy you see in the picture has been with me for about 28 years, and has a cool history.
When I had my bait and tackle shop in Niagara Falls, naturally, fishing bait was something I sold there - everything from grubs, minnows, many different kinds of creepy crawlers, (worms to crayfish). Buying bait from wholesalers was a tough trek sometimes, with the same old story of "supply and demand." If they were out of certain bait that happened to be popular, especially in the springtime, you had better do something in a hurry to serve your customers' needs.
Crawfish (crabs) were either in good supply or none at all. Once I was out of crabs just before bass season opened in June and two young lads, around 12-13 years old, stopped by to look around - just to be near the fishin' stuff. They didn't have any money, but I always liked it when the kids would come to see the new spring merchandise, all the lures on the walls, inspect the bait tank and the new fishing rods and reels in the rack. They would look, and with a youngsters' photographic memory remember what they saw. All the while wishing, "Some day, when I have enough money, I'm going to buy one of those." The kids were just finishing up the school year, just before bass season opening.
I didn't have any crabs in stock yet for the fishermen at the opening of bass season, and the boys told me they saw "a whole lot of crabs" in Gill Creek where it flowed behind the police station on Hyde Park Boulevard. "We can get you some if you want," they said. I thought for a minute and said, "Yeah, OK, get me some."
"How many?" they asked. I told them to bring what they could, and the next day after school they came, riding their bicycles carrying their dipping net, with a five gallon plastic bucket almost half full of crabs hanging off the handlebar. There were hundreds of them. "We can get you more if you want," they said.
I asked them how much I owed them. "Oh, nothing, we wanted to get them for you," was their response. I thought, "Gee whiz, I had better give them something," so I told them to take them out of the bucket and put them in my crab container - a large flat tray with sides - count them, and look for any dead and crippled crabs. There weren't any. I figured what a wholesaler would charge me for that amount and I paid the boys what I would have paid him. They were delighted and so was I; now I had bait for opening day.
The boys supplied me with crabs for a couple weeks after that, until the supply started to dry up. In the last load there was a newborn baby bass about the size of a minnow mixed in. They didn't know that, and I would have told them to take the bass back to the creek and release it but they had gone home already. I put that little guy in a quart jar so when they came in again they could run it over to the creek and let it go.
The jar sat on the sales counter for a couple days. Then a customer brought in a used aquarium and aerator, filled it up and made sure the newborn was going to be OK. The aquarium was set on top of a cabinet just inside the door, and as people came in they would stop and look at the tiny bass, youngsters especially. People kept asking what his name was. I asked the two boys what they thought would be a good name and they answered, "How about naming him Charlie?" I asked them why Charlie? They didn't know; it just sounded good.
It doesn't take long before a newborn fish gets bigger and fatter. By the end of Charlie's first summer and being pampered so well, the guy was taking on a personality. He would see customers come in and he would act like a Walmart greeter. Kids and adults alike would look at him, move their fingers around the outside side of the glass, and Charlie would follow their hand around like a doggie getting a treat. They were bringing Charlie minnows, crabs, worms and other things to eat.
Then winter came and supplies of those things became scarce, some no longer available. One day when Charlie didn't have anything to eat for a day or two, a visitor gave him a small strip of Wunderbar baloney. How he loved that Wunderbar, in fact he would jump out of the water for it if you held it for him. So when live food wasn't handy, baloney filled the void, no problem.
One of Charlie's admirers came in one winter day with a container of mixed goldfish and dumped them in the tank. Charlie went bonkers. He must have thought he died and went to fishie heaven. Charlie methodically captured every gold-colored fish first in one feeding and left all the light-colored white ones until the next day. Charlie then went on another feeding frenzy. Boy, did he love goldfish, and that is what he lived on for the rest of the winter.
One morning upon opening the shop I saw Charlie was struggling, swimming upside down and on his side, hanging on for dear life. I carried him in my hands, him never struggling, from the aquarium and gently put him in the big bait tank that had a commercial aerator in it, gently moving him back and forth in the water, giving him more oxygenated water through his gills. When I felt he was strong enough I let him go, off he went. I checked on him every day for a week or more, and he stayed under water enjoying himself with his newfound family of minnows.
Charlie's fan club missed him. I had to explain to everyone what happened, and asked them to say a prayer for him. I actually had kids come in on the way home from school, asking if Charlie was OK. The prayers must have worked because after his time in the minnow tank, I took him out, looked him over like I was a fish doctor and put him back in his aquarium where he was familiar with his surroundings. He sure was happy to be back "home."
One cold morning the following spring, I came in and opened the shop. There was Charlie, on his back, not moving a muscle. I was saddened; my eyes welled up and I thought, "What are the kids and all the others going to do now when they learn Charlie is gone for good?"
Giving it quick thought, I decided to get him mounted. We'd still have him but we wouldn't be able to watch his antics or even feed him. Charlie grew to 14 inches in length. I took him to Furans Taxidermy on Hyde Park Boulevard and had him mounted. Furans mounted him for free. I put him back above the cabinet, where he'd always been, but out of reach. He was beautiful.
That's our Charlie you see in the picture. He was born in the spring of 1986 without a name until he became "Charlie," named by the young boys, who have to be pushing their 30s right now. All I can say is, Charlie was the pride of the neighborhood kids, adults, and was an educator, and an entertainer; he lived for a reason. He lived about two years, and I still have him today sitting in my living room.
"So Smart" sez: Check with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation if you attempt to keep any bass or game fish in a tank of any kind. There are rules, and you will need a permit to do so.