Friday, July 4, 2014

Princeton Day School Bass Ponds Memories

We called the ponds McClure's in deference to the Headmaster by that name as though they were his personal ownership, a fitting name since we ourselves felt not the slightest dispossession. Doug McClure sang in one of the Trinity Episcopal Church Princeton Choirs my dad directed. When I was 13, he invited me and my brothers (younger) to fish for bass in the farm style pond behind his house. The fishing was good; we caught bass as large as 17 inches, the big one my seven-year-old brother Rick caught. Mr. McClure told me I was free to fish here any time I like, as well as free to fish the string of four impoundments at the eastern edge of Princeton Woods ranging between three to six acres.

So began years of privileged fishing. Since my family lived in Lawrence eight miles away, I usually pedaled my 10 speed to fish the ponds alone, and during the warm months of late sunlight, usually fished them after school. I was free to fish with a friend or two, often did, as well as with my brothers. I fished all over Mercer County and parts of Middlesex and Hunterdon from the age of 14, mostly getting around on that bicycle, but I valued no other place else as special as McClure's ponds.

Virtually no one else fished them. They were of course on private land and posted. I rarely saw anyone else fishing or otherwise. We named the ponds by number in descending order. The First Pond drained into the second. An anomaly, the Fifth Pond drained into the First, so named in order of discovery. Not on Princeton Day School land, we avoided this smaller pond as belonging to someone else, Sixth Pond likewise, named after daring to fish it at dawn. Across Prettybrook Road and below the fourth, the Sixth Pond also embellished another property. The Second, Fifth, and Sixth ponds attain five foot depths at maximum. The others, 10 feet deep. A friend and I took inflatable boats on ponds one through four and created topographic maps by difficult step measurements, triangulation, and depth sounding. I still have these maps and they appear no less than professional. Prior to the McClure's years, my favorite Boy Scout merit badge involve mapping, so I came prepared to get results.

At the edge of the Second Pond, a log cabin with fireplace stood for how many years I don't know, but I learned somehow or other that the ponds were created in 1955. I also found a tree engraving on the bank of the third pond dated 1955, which seemed ancient to my 14 years. We were allowed to stay overnight in the cabin if we wanted to, and we must have done this almost a dozen times over the years, even in January when the ponds were frozen and we left tip-ups in cut holes overnight, getting up at dawn and hand lining largemouth bass and pickerel, as many as a dozen flags tripped from First to Fourth ponds.

The pickerel became a problem for my brother Rick. "You destroyed the Fourth Pond."

At 17, I collected 16 pickerel from Colliers Mills in the region of the Pine Barrens closest to home with friends one December afternoon fishing, placed them in a big cooler filled with water, and transported them to Princeton in my station wagon, stocking the weediest Fourth Pond. They did well. Three years later--we still fished here on occasion--the pond throve with pickerel. Many years later, we discovered a chain pickerel in Stony Brook. The stream dammed to form the ponds is a tributary.

Take my word not Rick's. Bass in the Fourth Pond seemed undiminished. All of these ponds brimmed with bass and held some big ones. Although I never caught one more than four-and-a-half pounds, my two brothers once witnessed a five-pounder caught.

We seldom saw Mr. McClure, but when we did, he always expressed interested in us. Being enabled to fish here made great difference in my life. I fished so much I had no hope of doing exceptionally well academically and going to a great college or university, but by the time Mr. McClure invited me to fish the ponds, I was already so deeply fascinated in and enamored of the mysteries I encountered fishing, it seems unlikely that lack of the McClure's pond opportunity would have changed the amount of fishing I engaged; the fishing at McClure's greatly enhanced my experience and allows me to feel deeply indebted to a great generosity. Another Anglican angler long ago might have felt similar loyalty, as Izaak Walton yielded to the generosity of land owners to practice his fishing.

I never was a normal boy, if normality is keeping with the program and making grades appropriate to intelligence. Even in kindergarten, I could not keep with lessons, since I remained with thoughts and dreams in my own mind much more than followed along. As soon as we moved to Lawrence when I was seven, I spent many hours alone in the nearby hundred acre woods and at Little Shabakunk Creek. Most of my reading I found on my own rather than took assignment from school. I suppose my parents saw no hope for me to be a star pupil; perhaps more existed by my pursuing own interests. They were not limited to fishing, but when I would pedal home at 10:00 p.m. on school nights in June from McClure's, parents never protested, nor should they have.

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