McKean Minute: The Secret Language of Sportsfolk

I have been trying to take a day off to fish all summer, and despite the season and the reason, I haven’t either made or found the time to go nearly as often as I want.

That changed this week. My buddy Joe called to say that conditions looked good tomorrow, and could I join him on our local walleye lake, Fort Peck Reservoir. I could have found good reasons to decline, but on both cellular and psychic levels, I needed a day of fishing, so I accepted.

Joe is a long-time walleye and northern pike predator, and he spends more days on the water, in all seasons, than he would admit to folks outside our circle. But for those inside the circle, he’s the guy you want to fish with. He knows the spots to fish and the gear to use, and he’s pretty good company, besides.

But he’s also a suspicious bastard. He’s always sure that someone is spying on him, trying to learn his tactics and honey holes. He’s wrong, of course, but he’s developed an elaborate deception to throw off would-be interlopers. He uses a secret language to describe landmarks where he’s had good luck fishing.

“We’re gonna hit Scarface first, and if we don’t get anything, we’ll hit Buffalo Jump. From there,” he says, “we’ll work Grocery Ridge and then come back by Carp Alley.”

You won’t find any of those spots on any map. They’re all landmarks that Joe and his cronies have named in their lifetimes as anglers on Fort Peck. Each one of them has a very specific reference to the insiders—Scarface is named after a big northern pike that had a prominent scar on its snout. Buffalo Jump because it looks like it might have been used by natives for that purpose—but to outsiders, they’re as non-descript as any “Fish Creek” or “Pine Ridge” that you might see on any thousands of maps.

As Joe riffs on his personal landmarks, it occurred to me that each of us have our own terms for special spots in our own outdoors worlds. Maybe it’s a bend in a river or creek where you’ve had consistent luck (“Slaughter Cove”), or the corner of a field, named after a buck you killed there years ago (“Brow-Tine Bottoms”). Or maybe a pasture named after a former hunting partner (“Snot-Nose Slough”). I absolutely love this secret language of sportsmen—or, to be inclusive, sportsfolk, as I term our community in the headline of this McKean Minute.

Only Joe isn’t accustomed to being inclusive. Our last spot of the day, with only two walleye to go to notch a pair of limits, is a point that’s defined by two prominent gumbo knobs.

“Let’s see if we can’t pick up the rest of our limit off Boobie Point,” says Joe. I nod approvingly.

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