Far removed from the ocean and miles from the Great Lakes, many people in central Ohio are not inclined to think of this area to be one fraught with fish stories.
Perhaps that is true today -- but in another time, local residents were known to boast of the fish of Franklin County.
In the years after the American Revolution and the emergence of Ohio as a state, thousands of people crossed the mountains seeking a new life in the Ohio Country. Some of these newcomers were the sons and daughters of the pioneer Long Hunters who had spent months hunting and trapping in the Ohio River Valley before the Revolution. But other new arrivals from points east were nothing less than astonished by what they found here.
Here, a New Englander accustomed to farming land whose primary crop was rocks found land with topsoil up to 5 feet deep. Living in this largely unoccupied land of prairie, wetland and old-growth forest were extraordinary numbers of the widest variety of animals.
A free translation of the Native American phrase that became "Scioto" is "hairy river." The name derives from the condition of the river in the spring of the year when thousands of deer came to the river to drink in molting season. Checked by logs or other obstructions, the discarded fur collected and the Scioto River, for a time each year, literally had a fur coat.
In addition to the deer, the Ohio valley was home to elk, wild boar and woodland buffalo. In fact, many of the current major roads in Ohio once were buffalo trails, then the paths of Native Americans and finally the wagon trails of frontier settlers.
Then there were the birds. Ohio once was home to the passenger pigeon. Somewhat smaller than the pigeons with weight issues who live downtown today, the passenger pigeons of frontier Ohio were numerous and prolific. When they migrated, the huge flocks of passenger pigeons literally blotted out the sun for hours.
Seeing an easy target -- as opposed to an antagonized buffalo -- frontier Americans hunted the passenger pigeon to extinction. The last passenger pigeon in America died more than a century ago. The bird was preserved and can be seen from time to time at a local museum.
There were fish stories as well. From one local account:
"A citizen whose memory goes back to the (eighteen) twenties has personal recollection of 'a peculiar fish, about four feet long, weighing fifteen or sixteen pounds, and possessed of a long snout in the form of a spatula.' Which once upon a time, long, long ago, was taken at Billy's Hole in the Scioto."
Billy's Hole was located south of downtown Columbus along the Scioto and was an early favored place for drink and debauchery. Billy Wyandot, a local Native American, drowned in the large water-filled sinkhole for which the place was named.
Local resident John Otstot remembered frontier drag fishing. "The fish known as Red Horse was caught in the Scioto with a brush drag, made by tying brush together with grapevines. This drag, with some men standing on it, was drawn along the bed of the river, driving the fish before it. The fish were taken in this way in great numbers, some being entangled in the brush. Among the Red Horse captured were specimens three feet long. Suckers, catfish, gars and waterdogs were also taken.
"The fish caught were laid in heaps which were distributed by asking a blindfolded man who should take this one -- and this." Every little stream, Otstot said, was "full of fish."
According to a later account, "Several black bass weighing from three to four pounds each, and two blue catfish, were caught in the Scioto in October, 1854. Mr. Moler caught a catfish weighing over thirty pounds in the same stream on June 16, 1855. In June, 1857, a catfish weighing forty-two pounds was caught in the river two miles below the city.
"In 1875, seventy-five thousand young shad from the Rochester, New York, hatchery were deposited in the Whetstone (Olentangy) just above the Waterworks. Hon. John H. Klippart, under whose supervision this deposit was made, informed ... that these fish would annually descend to the Mississippi River, and, if undisturbed, regularly return to their spawning grounds ...
"After Mr. Klippart had stocked the Whetstone and (later the) Scioto with shad, the annual return of the fish was much hindered by the dams in the Scioto, but fish weighing from one to five pounds each, resulting from his deposits, were taken from the river in 1883."
In the course of this early account, the author notes, "There are probably local anglers living who can tell of fish larger than this caught in Franklin County waters, but a historian feels bound to keep within the horizon of his information."
I tend to agree.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek Community News.