Mendocino County, Calif., grape grower Charlie Barra picked up a shovel handle and rapped a couple of times on the big steel siphon pipe angled into the water of an irrigation pond in his Redwood Valley vineyard.
It looked like he had summoned not a school, but a horde of piranha. The water boiled with fish. The 12-year-old towhead boy peered at the amazing sight and was stunned. He almost lost his breath, smiling hugely through a set of buck teeth that stuck out far enough to munch an apple through a hog wire fence. (His parents later spent a fortune on braces to correct his teeth only to have him run over his retainer twice with his '65 Pontiac LeMans. Don't ask.)
Back to Charlie Barra.
Charlie laughed at the reaction of the boy when his pet fish surfaced, thinking it was feeding time from the ringing of the steel pipe. A metal trash can filled with fish food was chained to the pipe.
Charlie gave specific instructions to the 12-year-old as the boy hurriedly opened his tackle box and rigged his rod and reel. “No fish shorter than this,” Charlie admonished, spreading his hands apart probably a foot. Charlie asked the boy's dad for a piece of paper. He wrote a note telling anyone who asked that the youngster had his permission to fish.
“Your dad and I are going to go look at some vineyards. We'll be back before long,” Charlie said.
The vineyard tour was over in about an hour and by then the boy already had a stringer half full of Barra-legal fish.
Charlie excused himself. He had business in town and told the boy and his dad to fish as long as they wanted.
As Charlie drove off, the boy told his dad that a bunch of men came and asked him who gave permission to fish the pond.
“Dad, I gave the men the note Mr. Barra gave me, and they could not believe it. They said they had worked for Mr. Barra for a long time, and he never let them fish in the pond,” said the boy.
Fishing continued for about an hour more after Charlie left before the boy said, “Dad, I think I‘ve got enough fish. I am ready to go if you are,” he said.
That story goes back more than 20 years. I still have the picture of my son, Carl, standing beside that pond holding a huge string of fish. His son is the same age he was when he fished Charlie Barra's pond.
My son and daughter often went with me on trips to gather articles. Those were special trips, but none were better than our visit to Barra's Redwood Valley vineyard.
I visited with Charlie and his wife Martha once again earlier this spring. It was a visit I cherish as much as that one more than 20 years ago. Charlie and Martha are gracious hosts just like Charlie was on that summer day more than two decades ago.
“That's where your son fished that day,” Charlie pointed out. I could never forget that fishing spot.
A story in this edition of Western Farm Press tells of Barra and his half century as a California wine grape industry leader. It does not talk abut fishing. It's an article I have wanted to write for a long time; to bring a perspective to today's California wine grape industry and the sacrifices of men like Barra to give grape growers a better shake.
Thanks again for the fishing memories, Charlie, and just as important thank you for standing up for all wine grape growers for a half century.