Saturday, August 20, 2005

Fishing for ancestors

DearREADERS,
After weeks of planning, scheduling, and "equipping," I took a trip to witness Mother Nature's bounty at Lake Okeechobee in South Florida last April. It was KT's birthday, and we were off to celebrate with 5 days away from the phone and work. Though nothing much was biting, the trip was still fun. The locals told us that in the first three months of the year only 2-3 sizable bass had been caught. All was attributed to the changes in the lake brought about by the runoff from the up-stream rivers damaged during three of the four hurricanes in 2004.

One early morning I found myself relaxing in the canoe with baited hook and lots of time to set my mind adrift. It was picture-perfect. The sun was just beginning to melt the mist that blanketed the water overnight. There were dragon flies skipping the surface as a hatch of ducklings ventured out within a beak's length of their doting mother. A graceful pair of egrets assumed their supervisory position, circling in the lofty heights. The usual Florida heat wouldn't make its debut for another 2 months, and the rare low humidity was idyllic. But alas, no fish were forthcoming.


It was at that moment that Ol' Myrt here began to realize how similar this process is to "fishing for ancestors."

Funny thing! The first recognized similarity was the FRUSTRATION of not finding anything.
The second similarity is the need for patience.


WHEN WE START OUT, WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE WILL CATCH
Whether it is striped bass, rainbow trout or catfish, a dedicated fisherman longs to haul in the big one. Genealogists dream of breaking through that "big brick wall" to gather information on elusive ancestors. Not knowing what we'll find is the fun of both "sports."

WE NEED TO HAVE SOME EQUIPMENT
Since none of us have the bear claws to fish, we must gather an assortment of hooks, lines, sinkers, lures, rods and reels; perhaps even a boat and a trolling motor. When fishing for ancestors, the 21st century genealogist needs a computer, genealogy software, printer, scanner, copier, digital camera, internet access, file folders, top-loading sheet protectors and such.

BOTH REQUIRE AN INVESTMENT OF TIME & MONEY
Just as the fishing trip involved travel expenses for the car, cabin and food, similar expenses can be anticipated when genealogists go on research trips. (Notice trips is plural.)

WE NEED A LICENSE
Each year Florida fishermen must purchase 1 or 2 types of fishing licenses - freshwater or saltwater, with an additional stamp for permission to take snook during season. Genealogists renew memberships in local and national genealogical societies, and online database sites. When I went to Phoenix, I had to obtain an "Urban Fishing License" to take my grandsons fishing, since my Florida licenses weren't reciprocal. Genealogists might decide to join a distant society based on surname or place where our ancestors once lived, just to obtain the newsletters in hopes of catching tidbits on an ancestor or how-to tips for research that particular area.

WE NEED BAIT
Yes, ol' Myrt knows how to put worms on hooks now, but I have not yet mastered the finer points in the art of using minnows and crickets. (The darn crickets are just too quick for me.) Online genealogists set their bait, using surnames on databases websites and search engines, such as Google. That's what brings the information to your desktop. Just sitting there staring at the screen at Ancestry (and not typing in a name) is about as effective as my staring at the murky waters of Taylor's creek without casting in my line. Just as I must try a variety of bait, so we must try every conceivable spelling of an ancestor's surname to make the catch.

Neither fish nor ancestors are going to just fall into my lap, except for that time on Frog Creek; but that is another story, and I digress.

WE MIGHT USE A CASTNET
Just how did the local bait shop get the minnows we hoped would land the big one? They use castnets to pull in multiple fish to sell to aspiring fishermen like KT and me. Sometimes the castnet snares twigs and reeds, and might even catch an old shoe. Likewise, genealogists cast their nets to bring in multiple responses by posting queries on message boards and mailing lists online or via print media such as local newspapers, in addition to genealogy and history periodicals. As with the bait fishermen, you don't know what you'll gather in response. Some will be good, but you may have to throw some back.

THE CATCH MUST MEET MINIMUM SPECIFICATIONS
If a fish is too small, or it isn't the right season, we must throw it back. Likewise, we don't want to keep unsubstantiated lineages. Everything must meet a minimum criteria to be acceptable. No exaggerated "fish tales" when it comes to proving an earlier generation on my family tree.

THE BAIT SHOP - WHERE FISHERMAN HANG OUT
If you want to know about the best fishing places in a new area, just hang out at the local bait shop. There will always be some proud soul who will jump at the chance to share his latest fishing triumphs. Genealogists have hangouts, too. The local genealogy society's monthly meetings provides all sorts of tips on how to reel in an ancestor. Hearing the successes of others only serves to increase our determination to make good.

FAVORITE FISHING HOLES
In April 2005, Lake Okeechobee wasn't seeing a lot of good catches. Folks in the area had reported success catching sunshine bass on Taylor Creek in the early morning and at twilight. This waterway feeds into the lake by the locks on the north side. That's a major reason for our choosing to spend time there, in hopes of duplicating the success. Likewise, genealogists have their own favorite fishing holes. www.ancestry.com, www.HeritageQuestOnline.com (through www.godfrey.org), www.familysearch.org (including online research outlines), www.usgenweb.com and www.worldgenweb.org to name a few. Proponents for one service over another are just as adamant as the fisherman is about returning to his lucky spot.

FROG CREEK
And now to the story about Frog Creek -- it was a school of perhaps 100 tiny 1-inch baby bass that jumped across and into my lap just as I paddled my orange kayak around the bend and into their neck of the woods (err, um, ok,) creek. Fortunately KT & Johnny were in the canoe behind me and saw the whole thing. Because they provided primary evidence as first hand eye-witnesses, THAT fish story of Ol' Myrt's is believable.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
DearMYRTLE,
6023 26th Street West PMB 352
Bradenton, FL 34207
http://www.DearMYRTLE.com

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