Originally published in Gulf Coast Fisherman magazine - Spring 1982
This first of four parts begins the true chronicles of an old time bait camp operator at Indianola, Texas, dating from the days of the row boat fishing skiffs.
Ed Bell, now retired ten years, has become a popular Story Teller known for his Texas Tall Tales.
Indianola is located on the south shore of big Matagorda Bay, some miles North of Pass Cavallo, the Gulf entrance. Powderhorn Bayou and Lake are to the North of Port O'Connor about halfway up the south shoreline to Port Lavaca. Decros Point is the tip of Matagorda Island on the east side of Pass Cavallo.
Indianola Fishing Center as it is now named has been destroyed by several hurricanes over the past half century, but by much hard work it always comes back.
This is one of the many areas where the Wells Fishing Forecasts were developed in the late 1940's and tested all through the 1950's. Some of the tide calculations were made by Harold Wells from one of Ed Bell's rented skiffs. He always carried his own 7.5 Johnson outboard and only used the oars to punch for a hard shell bottom.
His name was Al Smith. At least, a lot of people called him 'Al'. I called him Dad. I guess that was because I married his oldest daughter, Alma.
Seemed as though Dad was always ready and willing to build something.
He even offered to build an out-house at the farm Alma and I tried. The venture failed. Not the out-house, it was ok. The farm was what failed. The farm was near Harwood, Texas. Too far from salt water.
So, we moved to Indianola. To me, it was moving back home. My wife was not very thrilled. But, one needs to eat and there were fish, oysters, crabs, and ducks in season.
We settled in at Miss Knutsen's Courts. The cabins rented for $1.00 a
day. At that exorbitant price very few were rented. Miss Knutsen charged
us $5.00 a month. Miss Knutsen's stucco courts were on the south side of
Dad Smith was operating engineer for Central Power and Light in Victoria. He and "Mom" came to see us often.
I had a 14' flat bottom skiff. I think I rowed that skiff over one half of Matagorda Bay and all over Powderhorn Lake.
We usually got enough fish to feed a multitude. One day, luck being poor, I rowed nearly to Carancahua Bay (at least ten miles) and, of course the same distance to get back. On this trip, Dad began telling me of a second-hand outboard motor at only $35.00. Only! Sure had been some time since I had seen $35.00 in one pile.
Dad saw the look of dismay on my face. "I'll pay half of it and it won't hurt so much." Alma wasn't hard to convince. Next week, here came the motor, a ten horse power Johnson K-45. Each cylinder straight out from the other. The two spark plugs stuck right into the rain and spray. Both cylinders exploded at the same time, if it started at all, and each time that happened, we gained about two feet. But, the first day, the cylinders never exploded and we gained not even one foot. Dad was surely disappointed but undaunted. I had really not expected it to run anyway. 'These new fangled things just couldn't replace oars. Guess we cranked it enough to go to Rockport.
Next day, Dad still undaunted, found it. Not the motor, the trouble. Seemed as though the Johnson outboard people reckoned this old motor needed a cut off switch! I vowed a starter would have been a better deal. Well, this little push button was stuck tight on off. The first time the thing exploded, I near jumped overboard. Dad was elated. He went, "Heh! Heh! Heh!".
Then Dad told me that our neighbor, a Jewish carpenter, used to have an eighteen foot flat bottom skiff. That is, it was eighteen feet until it caught on fire. The fire got over a foot of the transom.
People could always get to me if they were as congenial as the carpenter. He said, "Ed, I'll take twenty dollars for the boat, you fix it up. Then I will pay you a dollar each time I use it." I was doubtful, but took him up on the deal. The first month, I rented the skiff twenty times to other people and five times to the carpenter.
Excitement was running high! I now wanted to buy all loose skiffs at any price offered, as much as ten or twelve dollars for some. Miss Knutsen loaned me ten dollars to buy one skiff. Offered her interest if she let me have the loan. She says, "You can forget the interest. I will be lucky to get the principal back!" Bless her heart, I most always owed her money. Worked some of it out.
Nearly even, and then next week Dad had that twinkle in his eye again. Several times that day I had seen him down the bay shore. I knew Decro's Point was calling. I could hear it myself.
I had learned to not hurry Dad. We took the K-45 out to the sand trout hole. We usually got about fifteen specks and as many as four hundred sand trout, some being about eleven inches long. We had got back home, about one-half mile, and Doris, the best fourteen footer, was doing good. I had named the boat "Doris" for my wife's only sister.
We were working on a poor little black skiff, some shy or fourteen feet, when Dad let it out. "Ed, these five to ten dollar boats just ain't gonna get us there." I knew. Decro's Point!
"Spill it, Dad", I begged. "Ed, if you buy the material, I'll build the boat!" I stared. "What boat, Dad?"
"The Decro's boat."
I could see Dad was just warming up. I waited. Dad was coming on grand now. The Decro's boat, sixteen foot long, seven foot beam, round bottom, and somewhat higher sides than any of my things. Very few people dared call my boats "things". But, Dad was one of them who could. After all, wasn't he the one who cosigned with me at the bank when I borried thirtyfive dollars?
"But Dad, what is this secret material you will use?" Dad looked at me. The twinkle was gone from Dad's eye. An "I dare you" look was lodged tight in both eyes. "Beaded ceiling!" I heard, but knew my ears had misfired! I dared not laugh but near fell off the deck of Blackie, the skiff. And all of twelve inches to the ground!
I bought the beaded ceiling and a lot of framing material, nails, screws, bolts, and paint.
I think that up to then, that was the most beautiful boat I had ever seen.
Dad had built it in his garage in Victoria. I had Pieper of Pieper's Welding Shop in Victoria make a forty-five pound anchor for it. Kinda clumsy thing but then he only charged me four bits for it.
On a borrowed trailer, the Decro's boat was proudly hauled from Victoria to the bayou at Indianola. In some back water only about one foot deep, we slid the beautiful Decro's boat off the trailer and into the water. There was a sound like ah-h-h. She was sinking! That's what is making the noise. I was dismayed. Of course, Dad had said the boat needed to swell more. But our boat sunk! The water was up near half-way on her sides, her beautiful white sides. The first new boat I had ever owned was sunk!
Never heard of a boat pump. So every day I bailed her out with a five quart oil can.
By the end of the week she was nearly dry. Then lots of work washing her sides where scum had formed. By the time Dad arrived Friday evening, I was busy affixing the old K-45 to the transom.
Doris, my sister-in-law, had just given birth to a beautiful girl, named Vina Lee. Dad saw that name on each side of the bow. He sure grinned. So Decro's boat became Vina Lee.
In those days you could not motor out or into Indianola Bayou. Too shallow. Also, to get to the bay, you had to turn left at the mouth, about two hundred yards from where it is now. Right in front of Tex Smith's house (no kin of Dad Smiths).
Next morning we loaded out almost in Tex's front yard. Do you have any idea how much duffel you need to camp one night at Decro's Point. Old man Decrow must have vacated a very long time ago. A more forlorn place I have never seen except for Indianola after a hurricane.
The Vina Lee was rolling some, not bad, the big load had caused more leaking. Water was sloshing some under the flooring. Seeing the sloshing might wet bedding or groceries, I let Dad have the wheel, or rather the handle, while I rearranged cargo.
Alma, my wife, was privileged passenger, being about six months pregnant. So Dad and I were doing all the heavy work. I soon finished placing the no wettables on inner tubes and ice box and snugged the tarp over all.
I could see Dad was worried. "Ed, you better run this thing, I am not getting much out of it." I glanced at the shore line. We were at a standstill.
I laughed till I near split. We were still not much boatmen. We had stowed that forty-five pound anchor high on the forward deck. The deck, rounded some to shed water, had also shed the anchor.
Of course, we got to Decro's and in less than four hours. My wife got a 32 inch Spanish Mackerel. We qot lots of fish. We most always did, when Dad was along. Dad had a grass sack hung over his shoulder, like a pick. Weren't picking cotton but we near busted that sack. Sure want to thank the guy who gave us the sack idea. We ate, dried salt mackerel for months, good too.
Now for the boat. There it was, just some of it sticking up out of the sand. Looked good to me. I was excited no end. While Alma and Dad cooked dinner and afterwards while they rested, I moved enormous loads of sand. Dad helped some. Finally after a Herculean effort we all teamed together to turn the boat over. I was desolate. What came out of what was most surely meant to be a grave, was more a carricature than a boat. Several pieces of gunwales ripped loose from the stern, several ribs were crushed. The deck which was mostly out of the sand seemed to be about all that was left. I was sickened. We were grave robbers. Dad was elated. He was making that noise again, heh, heh, heh. I stared.
Maybe this time the "Old man" had really blowed his top.
When Dad stopped his heh, hehing, he said, "Ed, there is the finest speed hull you ever saw." She has lines. The boat was built of strips of cypress, one-fourth inch thick, six inches wide, and fourteen feet long.
She had lines alright. On one side three strips of siding were torn loose from the transom. Each one stopped being loose at a different frame, or rib. On the other side ' the port side, only one strip of siding hadn't yet decided to go or stay.
The rest what happened was Dad's fault. He said, "Of course we are going to take it home, no doubt about it." We took "it" home to Indianola. We used most of our tie down rope to secure "it" in one piece, rest to lash "it" to Vina Lee. While we were loading some of the thing, some of the rest was always trying to get off.
We got it home. Then I learned something about measuring. "It" had a sharp V, eighteen inches deep in the bow, it was slightly rounded on bottom at the transom. It tapered in a wee bit more at top of the transom. Now, imagine seven frames to rebuild, transom moved toward four inches. To complicate matters a two inch strip was countersunk into each and every frame, also came in transom where the six inch strip joined.
It took from one to three weeks for each frame. A few never worked so had to do them over.
Then many gross of brass screws and the time it took to catch thousands of fish later, we began to pull those filmsy strips to place on the frames. Lots had to be reset, to come around the round spots.
Now we had a fast boat and a fairly seaworthy one. I never named the hull we got at Decro's just speed hull. The Speed Hull would plane with two men and a 5 hp. Johnson.
We took the Speed Hull to Sand Point, across the old ship channel from Indianola, and caught so many fish we couldn't string them all.
I put a live bait well in the Doris and soon she was my favorite fishing boat.
In December, I got an order from a dealer in Sweet Home, Texas for 2,000 pounds of fish. In ten days fishing, I got 1,063 pounds. We caught fish nearly anywhere we went. Nearly wore my true blue Sheakespeare out.
Dad and I would go out to what seemed a rock pile about one-half mile, where we used to catch sand trout. Now, we fished for tackle busters.
Took some pay parties out there with a guarantee of broken tackle. Our fishing line in those days was like the boats, not near as good as now.
However, one day Dad caught one eight pound Sheepshead, one fourteen pound and a seventeen pound Rock Bass. I believe some call them triple tail.
When I get rested, I'll try to tell you about later moving to Indianola Bayou, about one-half mile. Building my boat fleet up to 32 skiffs and about the people who rented them... Ed Bell