Thoughts On Fish Sandwiches

By Ted Peck - June 2, 2015
The older I get, the more Paul "Sprink" Hensal reminds me of King Solomon. Hensal was one of just four game wardens in wild and wooly northwest Illinois where I came of age in the 1960's.

Hensal was tough, gruff-and fair. His only son and I were good buddies all through school. Before we were born Hensal used to run with my Dad and other salty young men who had just returned from World War II.

They used to cruise the backroads at night with a bottle of whisky and a .410 pistol on a mission of filling the backseat of an old jalopy with dead rabbits.

My Grandfather was active in local politics. Hensal's day job was bagging groceries at the A & P market. Grandfather used his influence to get Sprink a warden's career with the newly formed Illinois Dept. of Conservation.

From that point forward my Dad and Sprink Hensal were technically on opposite sides of the law. The stage was clearly set for an eventual encounter between this young River Rat and the local game warden.

It was a cold November night in 1967. Mallards by the thousands were working the bottomland cornfields of our tenant farm. My pal Steve "Gomer" Sisler and I were waiting for the ducks.

Mallards are often more attuned to game laws than humans who are supposed to follow them. We knew we were supposed to quite hunting at sunset. But this huge tornado of mallards was working in. Thirty-three minutes after we were supposed to quit they were all over us.

The ducks were so close that patterns from our shotguns were ineffective. We fired six shots. The pulverized carcass of one greenhead was the only duck to fall from the sky.

We picked up the duck and jumped in Gomer's '51 Pontiac to drive out of the field. Hensal came flying up out of nowhere, blocking our exit with his old green Plymouth.

"All right, you little S.O.B ! What's your excuse this time? The imposing warden barked from the darkness behind a small revolving red light on the Plymouth's dash.

The best excuse I could muster was lack of a wristwatch. Hensal took our guns and sent us on our way.

The family was eating dinner when I walked into the house. Nobody said a word. Normally, Dad would ask how many ducks Mom would have to clean.

"Hensal caught us!" I blurted out in a voice somewhere between anger and tears.

"You dumb little S.O.B.!" was all my Dad said, his voice clearly full of disappointment.

He wasn't mad that I broke the game laws. He was angry because we got caught. Hensal had been trying to catch my Dad shooting late for years. He was never successful because the warden couldn't cruise that green Plymouth within a mile of the farm without the farmer seeing him.

When Andy Houzenga saw the warden's Plymouth, he would turn on the barn light. Dad would check for the light as often as he would check the sky for mallards. He never even came close to getting caught.

My downfall was a lack of situational awareness. A fault which I have since worked diligently to correct. There is no doubt I could have been a consistently successful violator if it weren't for the efforts of Paul "Sprink" Hensal.

Hensal and my Dad talked. Then Hensal intercepted me walking home from school and ordered me to take a seat in the Plymouth.

He said he had talked to the judge. Getting my Browning back would require me to ride along with the warden on the weekend one day per month.

This experience changed my life. At month's end Sprink gave my gun back. He also gave me a brand new Timex watch with the admonition "Okay, you dumb little S.O. B. Now you have no excuse for breaking the game laws. I don't expect you to know all of them. Hell, there are so many I don't know them all myself. You'll never get on the bad side of me if you follow this one rule always treat the resource like you were the only one who could ensure the future of hunting and fishing".

I haven't knowingly broken a fish and game law since-even in these days of inch-thick rule books and regulations within regulations.

I came of age before philosophies like catch and release and selective harvest were ever dreamed of. We now live in a time driven by regulations written for the lowest human common denominator instead of common sense.

Paul "Sprink" Hensal had vision akin to America's founding fathers. We would certainly benefit from a substantial dose of this thinking in this day and age. But 'it is what it is'.

Most of the time I can't comprehend the questions, let alone coming up with functional answers. That said, here is some perspective from an old River Rat:

Treat every fish like you're holding the future of angling in your hands.

The decision to free the fighter or turn it into a fish sandwich is entirely up to you.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.