The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 3, Pages 3-6
Summer, 1981

The Great Cow Plot

by Patrick McManus

One of the nation's outstanding writers of humor is Pat McManus of EWU's Department of Journalism. His wit has appeared in the Reader's Digest, Field and Stream, and Spokane Magazine, as well as in such books as A Fine and Pleasant Misery and Kid Camping from Aaaaiii! to Zip.

This piece is from Field and Stream, May, 1969, Vol. LXXIV No.1, copyright by Patrick McManus. McManus is a Contributing Editor to Field and Stream.

Biologists and science fiction buffs have speculated about the earth's take over by the insect world. Perhaps the bovine species poses a far greater threat.

When I came in from fishing the other day, my wife asked, "Have any luck?"

"Great," I said. "I saw only two cows and got away from both of them."

I hadn't caught any fish, but that was beside the point. The success or failure of my fishing trips depends not upon the size of the catch but the number of cows encountered.

Some people do most of their fishing on lakes or the ocean, where cows are seldom, if ever, encountered. Most of my fishing is done in cow pastures, the natural habitat of cows.

Even when I plan a fishing trip 40 miles back into the wilderness a herd of cows will usually get wind of it and go on a forced march to get there before I do and turn the place into a cow pasture.

Sometimes the cows get the word a little late, and I'll pass them on the way. Invariably a few of the poor losers will gallop along in front of the car, still trying to get there ahead of me and do what they can on short notice and empty stomachs.

I've given up hope of finding any place to fish where a cow won't manage to show up and put in her oar. If I was in the pet shop on the 19th floor of a department store and stopped to net a guppy out of an aquarium, a cow would get off the elevator and rush over to offer advice.

My wife insists that I've become paranoiac from over-exposure to cows. She tries to tell me that the intricate and near-impenetrable patterns of cow spoor laid down around my favorite fishing holes are a result of nothing more than random chance. Even granting high probability from number of placements per square yard, which is altogether ample, I remain unconvinced that these bovine mine fields are not the product of conspiracy and cunning. There's probably a small island in the Caribbean where cows are given a six-week course in the design and manufacture of mine fields before being turned out to pasture alongside fine trout streams. The whole thing is a plot by Castro to lower our national morale.

All cows are fishing enthusiasts, although their idea of fishing might better be described as "Chase the Fisherman." The object of the sport is to see how many times the fisherman can be made to cross the creek. Five points are earned if he wades across, 10 points if he splashes only once, and 25 if he hurls himself across without touching the water. The last is achieved by first running him twice around the pasture to pick up momentum and then making a straight shot for the creek. This maneuver is usually good for a score, providing the fisherman can be driven past the other team's goalie. As fishing enthusiasts, cows can be divided roughly into two groups: participants and aficionados. Another grouping I find useful is simply Fast Mean Cows (FMC) and Slow Mean Cows (SMC). The SMC, mediocre athletes at best, are usually content to watch the main events between the FMC and fisherman (thus the expression "contented cows").

They participate only to the extent of doing everything in their power to ruin an otherwise good running turf, apparently in the belief that a slow field improves the spectator sport. The FMC are frequently referred to as "bulls." The term is usually preceded by harsh but accurately descriptive adjectives. It is sometimes argued that "bulls" is not an appropriate term for FMC since some of them are known to give milk. I disagree. Upon hearing the shout "Here comes a ... bull!" I have yet to see any of my companions wait around to argue over the sex of the beast.

No effective cow repellent has ever been developed for the comfort of fishermen. Simply from the standpoint of size alone, one would think that cow repellent would have priority over mosquito repellent. I don't know if it would work, but someone with a knack for chemistry might try distilling and bottling the aroma of a well done sirloin.

The only thing that bulls have any respect for at all is the stick, and many knowledgeable cow pasture fishermen carry one slipped under their belt for easy access in an emergency. This is known as the "bull stick" or sometimes simply "BS." When the bull approaches, the BS is first waved threateningly in the air and then thrown. (This is not to be confused with the BS thrown by hunters.)

A couple of fishermen I know like to brag about their narrow escape from a grizzly bear, Ursus horribilis, but I'm not impressed.

A man just hasn't done any real escaping until he has escaped from a grizzly cow, Bovinus horribilis. I am probably the world's leading authority on the subject, having studied it since my childhood days. In my mind's eye, now somewhat astigmatic but Wide Screen and Tru-Color, I see myself as a young boy; fishing pole in one hand, worm can in the other, making my way down to the creek. My phlegmatic and flatulent old dog, Stranger, is close upon my bare heels and close upon his heels is our neighbor's bull, known in those parts as The Bull, and we are all running to beat hell. Stranger, his jaws set in a grim smile, runs between me and The Bull not out of any sense of loyalty or protection but because of old age and a shortness of breath. Arriving at the fence the dog and 1 hurl ourselves into the sanctuary beyond and The Bull screeches to a stop in a cloud of dust and slobber just short of the wire. Stranger, sweat streaming down his face, pulls himself together long enough to take credit for once again having saved my life - "Well, bailed you out of another bad spot didn't I?" - and then he and The Bull stand on opposite sides of the fence and say cruel and obscene things to each other while 1 ignore them and get on with the day's fishing.

Why did I risk frequent confrontations with such a malevolent creature as The Bull? The reason is one that perhaps only a trout fisherman would understand. Little Sand Creek was a great trout stream, probably one of the finest in the nation at that time, but with the humility of all the truly great it meandered its regal course through a series of humble and unpretentious - not to say miserable - farms, one of which was ours. The stream was fished with such ardor and love and perseverance by so many anglers that by mid-season any worthwhile trout who had survived the onslaught would strike at nothing that did not show obvious signs of life and then only after taking its pulse. That section of the stream which ran through the farm owned and operated by The Bull, however, remained virtually untouched - except, of course, by me, known affectionately throughout the region as 'That Fool Kid."

These sorties across the pasture were not nearly so hazardous as the chance observer might suppose. The Bull's top speed was a good deal faster than mine, no doubt because he didn't have to carry a fishing rod and a can of worms or worry about his dog's heart. But we had the element of surprise on our side, and by the time The Bull caught sight of us we already would be well accelerated. If The Bull closed the gap too quickly, 1 would jettison rod and worms, and Stranger would jettison everything he could, and we would give it our all, every man for himself, right up to the fence, and hurl ourselves over, under or through the barbed wires. Such instances were rare, however, and most of the time we could get through the fence in a manner that was more dignified and much less painful. 1 learned a great deal about plane geometry from these exercises with The Bull. 1 discovered that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, an idea that The Bull either could not fathom or he was reading Einsteinian theory in his spare time. At any rate, he almost always ran in a long, arching curve. This resulted from his knowing nothing about leading a moving target; he always held dead on. Consequently, a diagram of our converging lines of motion would show his course as a long curved line intersecting and merging with my short straight line. Successful evasion thus was largely a matter of predicting, given the proper angles, distances, relative speeds and variable handicaps, the point at which our two converging lines of motion would intersect. As I say, I was a master of such calculations. My talent went wholly unrecognized, however, and people continued to refer to me as 'That Fool Kid."

It came to pass that my widowed mother took up with a man and married him, offering the feeble excuse that "the boy needed a father." Both she and I knew that was an out-and-out lie. She had pulled off a clever coup d'etat, designed to deprive me of my place of power and authority over the family, which I had been ruling with a firm but just hand since the age of eight. The mercenary imported to depose me proved to be a tough customer, and I saw that I would have to play it cool and watch for the main chance. It came sooner than I expected.

Hank, as he was called, one morning sent a peace feeler in my direction: "Don't know of a spot where we could catch some fish, do you?" he asked. Well, it seemed like no time at all before the mercenary and I were standing at the fence to The Bull's pasture. I thought it best to warn him. "That ol' cow out there seems to be lookin' our way," I said.

"That ain't no cow," the mercenary said. "That's a bull. But land, boy, you don't have to be afraid of a bull. All you gotta do is show 'im who's boss."

It seemed a comfort to him to see me smile, the first time since being deposed. What he didn't notice was that Stranger and The Bull were smiling too. It became kind of an "in" joke, afterwards. That is, after the mercenary had climbed through the fence and demonstrated to all of us just who was boss. It turned out that the boss was just exactly who I and Stranger and The Bull had known all along was boss.

The mercenary, we smugly observed, wasn't much of a hand at fighting bulls. On the other hand, he proved to be the best broken-field runner ever to hit our county. To this day I have never seen a grown man who could run so fast, even one who wasn't carrying a fishing rod and creel, and wearing hipboots. A kid just had to admire a man who could run like that.

From then on Hank and I and Stranger ran from The Bull together, and we went far afield and ran from other bulls and sometimes cows and even whole herds of cows, and we forgot all about power and authority and the like. We were willing to risk the wrath of any cow who stood guard over a stretch of good fishing water, and it wasn't long before we were being referred to as "That Fool Kid and That Fool Man." But we paid her no mind; she had her hands full, what with being the head of the family and all.