Fishing with Ant Eggs

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A Young Angler’s Introduction to Mono County Fishing in 1949

By Steve Odell

“In Mono county opening day of fishing season was almost a holiday.”



I was nine years old and my buddy was Woody Reynolds, who was eight years old.  He was a Paiute Indian.  He was being raised by his Aunt Florence Reynolds.  His Grandmother was Nellie Reynolds, a full-blooded Paiute Indian who was born 1890 and lived in the Lee Vining area all her life.  Nellie lived about 5 miles from the town of Lee Vining, overlooking Mono Lake.  Nellie could be seen walking to town or walking home, sunshine or snow.   In her younger years when she would walk to town, she would stop at the Mono Lake School and visit my Grandmother Nora Archer, who was the teacher and lived behind the school, raising her children (my Mother and her sibling).  

      One early summer day Woody and I were hanging out around his house when Nellie asked if we wanted to go fishing.  Needless to say, we both were very happy to go fishing.  Nellie, Woody and I loaded into Nellie’s' model A ford sedan.  Woody and I rode in the rumble seat. We stopped by my house so I could get my fishing pole, a bamboo fly fishing rod with a fly fishing reel filled with yellow fly line.  Nellie told us we were going to the Virginia lakes.  As we headed north on Highway 395,  Nellie pulled off onto the Lundy Lake road and drove about a mile, and then pulled to the side of the dirt road and stopped.  She got out and reached in the car and grabbed a concave, woven Indian basket and a small brown sandwich bag.  She started walking off into the sage brush calling Woody and I to follow.

              We followed her and she walked about a quarter of a mile and suddenly stopped in front of a three foot high pile of twigs.  She removed the top 6 to 8 inches of the cone-shaped pile. Suddenly the mound was alive with millions of large red ants.  She began digging with her bare hands into the mound with the ants swarming her hands.  She removed a handful of twigs and placed them into her basket.  She called me over to her.  She told me to put my hands into the ant nest and grab some of the ant eggs.  I could not see any eggs, but I saw millions of mad red ants.  I told her no, I didn't want to get bit by the ants.  She said, "Don't be a baby!”

              I said, “No!”  She grabbed both my hands by the wrists and placed them into the ant nest.  I began screaming and crying figuring she was torturing me.  She let my hands go with biting ants crawling all over them.  I began shaking the ants off my hands and arms while screaming and crying in pain.  She again grabbed my wrists and held them.

             “Steve, shut up.”  I stopped yelling.  She looked into my eyes and said, "Tell me how much those ant bites hurt?”  I suddenly realized that the bites did hurt, but not that much. 

            I sobbed, “Not much.”  Woody stood there, not saying a word, knowingly, as he had gone through the same ordeal on an earlier fishing trip.  She said, “Okay, get some of the ant eggs out of the nest before the ants take them underground.  We both went to work scooping eggs and twigs out of the nest, placing them onto her basket.  When the basket had a large pile of twigs and eggs on the basket she said that it was enough.  She told me to put back the top of the nest that she had set aside.  I asked her why?  She said, “If we didn't the ants would abandon the nest.  With the top replaced we can return to the nest to gather ant eggs another time.  The ants bring the eggs to the top of the nest in the morning to get the warmth from the sun, and as afternoon arrives and it cools, the ants start taking the eggs back down the nest underground for the night where it keeps the eggs warm through the night.” 

             She picked up the basket, which was about two feet across and began flipping the eggs and twigs into the air.  I watched and asked her what she was doing.  She said that the twigs were lighter than the ant eggs and would fall off the basket leaving the ant eggs to fall onto the basket.  After a while she collected the eggs and put them into the paper bag.  We returned to the car and went back to Highway 395 and drove to the top of Conway Summit (9800 ft.) and turned left onto the Virginia Lakes road.  She drove to Trumble Lake, one of the Virginia lakes. 

            She led us to the other side of the lake to a rocky area where we sat down.  Her fishing gear was an old metal telescopic rod with a casting reel filled with cloth line.  She had a 1/8 size sinker and a  # 8 or 10 hook.  She told me to rig up with the same amount of weight and size of hook.  The ant eggs were about the size of a cooked grain of rice and the same color.  She placed the hook through the middle of the ant egg and kept adding eggs until the hook was filled.  She made a cast, with the sinker making a large splash, about 50 feet out.  There were a lot better sitting spots around the lake so I asked her why she picked this spot?  She said, “If you look closely you can see where there used to be an old stream bed.  The lake is deeper in the old stream bed.  The fish liked it there.”  She sat so still and motionless that I thought she had fallen asleep.  Suddenly she reared her pole back and began reeling in a fish.  She landed fish after fish in this manner, about every five minutes.  I hadn't caught a fish.  “Nellie, why haven’t I caught a fish, when I am using the same bait?” 

              She said, "You are fidgeting too much.  Sit still.  Don't move.”

              There were a few other fishermen nearby, and nearly everyone found a reason to walk by and admire her fish and ask what she was using for bait.  You should have seen their faces when she told them "ant eggs".  Where do you buy them they would ask?  She would answer, "I don't".  The limit then was 25 fish.  Nellie ended catching her limit and I caught about 10.  Woody also caught his limit.  He must have learned his lesson well because he caught more fish than I without much fanfare, as a good buddy would.


            My other fishing mentor was Frenchie Davis.  I never knew his last name.  I only knew him as Frenchie.  I was nine years old, and Frenchie had asked me if I wanted to learn how to fish.  Naturally I said yes.  He said that fishing season opened in about three weeks.  I went home and asked my mother if I could go fishing with Frenchie on opening day.  My mother paused and quietly weighed my request.  Frenchie was a bachelor.  He liked his drink, and he usually drank to excess.  Frenchies' job was to collect garbage from the restaurants and take it home to feed his hogs, all three of them.  Finally Mom said, “Okay, but you have to be home before dark, and you tell Frenchie that I said "No drinking while you’re with him!”  I ran and found Frenchie and told him I could go.  I had trouble sleeping that night, and waiting for fishing season to open dragged on forever.  In Mono county opening day of fishing season was almost a holiday.  The day finally arrived and I loaded into his car, and away we went to Lundy Lake.  With no top on the car, the dirt road to Lundy Lake was a dusty 11-mile ride. 

             Needless to say I was not aware of anything but getting there and learning to fish.  We arrived at the dam area of Lundy Lake, and hiked down to the lake.  There were no other fishermen at that end of the lake on opening day.  He rigged up a bamboo fly fishing rod with a fly reel and yellow line on it and handed it to me.  He had another pole almost identical to the one he gave me to use.  He led me down to the waters edge and put large worms on our hooks. Then he began roll casting his line out into the lake.  He told me to watch him and do what he did.  I tried and tried, but I couldn't get the hang of it.  He finally stopped fishing and held the pole and line alongside my hands and put my arm through the motion to make a successful cast.  After a few times with his help, I finally got the hang of it and could cast about half as far as he could.  We fished all day and we both caught our limits, 25 rainbows each.  I was so excited and proud, and his encouragement made a lifelong impression.  To add to the day he presented me with the fishing pole that he had let me use.  We had many more fishing trips and exciting adventures.


            As a boy growing up in the Sierras, we would have many friends and family vacationers in the area, and they would have me guide them and show them how to catch the wily  rainbow trout in the clear mountain streams and lakes.  I used the unorthodox techniques I learned from an old Nellie and the skills that I learned from a some times sober old man, to show how I was able to catch the trout.  I learned how to present natural bait by wading into a stream and floating the bait into and under hidden places along the stream.  I learned how to find the place to fish on a lake shore by looking where old stream or runoff streams entered the lake.

            On a trip in 1954, my brother-in-law, on vacation from Southern California, told me he wanted to catch some nice sized fish to take back with him.  It was November, and the chill had already arrived in the Sierras.  I told him we should fish Rush Creek, between Silver Lake and Grant Lake.  I picked this spot because I knew that fish from Grant lake would swim upstream in rush creek to spawn.  I think the limit was fifteen fish at that time.  We both caught our limit of fish and none were under about 2 pounds.  I caught the biggest rainbow trout of my life on this trip.  I had waded out into the creek and drifted a worm under some overhanging willow bushes.  I was using my bamboo fishing pole with fly line and a small weight on my leader.  The fish hit my bait and immediately felt the hook.  The fish charged upstream toward me.  I was startled and just stood there watching this large fish swimming towards me.  By the time I reacted, the fish spotted me and turned down stream, as startled as I.  Luckily I didn’t have a tight hold of the line and it slid through my fingers.  I was taught that my fingers were the drag on the line.   I could tell that the fish was very heavy, and I tried giving him slack but not too much so that he would throw the hook.  The line started burning my fingers as it slid through my fingers very fast.  I didn’t know how I was going to slow this fish down, and I was sure he was going to break my leader.  I started pulling back on the pole to put pressure on the fish.  This slowed him down just enough to make a leap out of the water.  I gasped when I saw how big this fish was.  I didn’t have a net as I was taught by Frenchie that a good fisherman didn’t need a net.  I was to play the fish until it would give itself up to me.  So the fight was on.  The fish tried to return to Grant Lake, but I wanted to land the biggest fish of my life.  With heart pounding, hands shaking and much second guessing on how to land this monster, the fight continued for what seemed to me as hours, which in actuality was probably about a half an hour.  Finally the battle ended with the fish surrendering to me at my feet.  I measured the fish, and it was 28 inches long.  I never weighed it and sent it home with my brother-in-law.

            Some fifty odd years later in 2007, I found myself standing in the same stream with a similar outfit trying to repeat that day.  It didn't happen.  Next time!     


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This page contains a single entry by David Archer published on May 8, 2008 10:05 AM.

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