Fishing with the old man

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The cypress had fallen a century ago in an unnamed storm that had roared along this part of the Gulf coast. As itís leaves and limbs melted away, the solid trunk had come to rest in the soft mud of the bayou floor, itís pink heart wood still fresh and scented as when it stood swaying on the soft bank. Just beyond where it lay, ran the deeper channel of the old bayou, and it was here that they would come. And it was here that I knew to wait for them.

There were three traveling together, youthful and rowdy, following the irresistible scent over the channelís edge and up behind the lee of the old log. Barely a pound and a half apiece, it was their first full summer in the dark waters. Their backs were the dark dove grey of healthy young channel catfish, and their white bellies were sleek with summer fat. They followed the trail with their fleshy whisker-like barbels sweeping the bottom grass, and found the gumball lump of stink bait laying quietly on the shallow flat bottom where the dark soil, stolen from blackland farmers for decades by summer rains, had settled out in the slowing current. In their haste to find a recognizable meal, they first passed the bait altogether, but turned immediately as they realized their mistake and jostled one another for the first mouthful of the new aromatic delicacy.

Bumping into the bait and the line to which it was almost invisibly attached, they telegraphed a false message up to the fisherman, waiting on the dock. As I jerked the little pole, prematurely trying to set the hook, the three golden points and barbs of the number 10 treble hook hummed harmlessly through the water, collecting nothing but stray weed tops in itís indomitable grasp. The three fortunates shared the scattered remnants of bait, and hurried on to new smells and new adventures.

A few moments later, the hook was once again resting in the short grass alongside the old log, the sweet aroma of itís blood bait being carried along on the sluggish current. This time a solitary traveler came over the lip of the channel, and like the earlier trio, followed her nose to my hook. She was older, at least twice the size of the others, and like them, was plump with a layer of yellow fat just under her silky and mucus-covered skin. Her flanks were supple and sensuous, with the grey of her back turning to an undulating green pattern and finally melting into the pure white of her distended belly. Her wide snout parted the bottom grasses and her flat, broad mouth opened and shut as she inhaled the tantalizing aroma.

She came up slower than the young ones had, and simply slurped up the delightful wad without hesitation, shuddering slightly as the flavor settled around her thick tongue and suffused her sensitive gills. This time as I set the hook, itís needle sharp points sank deeply into the cartilage of her mouth, one protruding beneath her bottom lip, and she lunged upward in surprise and panic.

The ultralight rod and three-pound line was much too fragile for late summer channel cats, but I had bought the willowy Fenwick almost twenty years ago, and the slender delicacy of it had always added to the experience of landing small fish in waters clear of stumps or weeds that might require ďhorsingĒ to retrieve snagged tackle. Besides, I wasnít serious fishing, just messing around to satisfy the dog who was absolutely rabid in her pursuit of unseen monsters of the deep.

As the big channel cat reached the surface she shook her head back and forth in a great effort to throw the hook from her mouth, but still feeling the steady pressure of the little rod and line, she then had only one thought: to reach the safety of the bank where there would be tree roots and shore weeds to provide a hideout. The line went slack as she streaked across the 30 feet of water to the hyacinths and sawgrass on the bank beside my little pier. I wound the handle of the tiny open-face reel as fast as I could, but she reached the weeds before I could catch up.

I knew that I could wade into the shallow water and mud, or maybe just lay down on the old wood of the retaining wall and reach down to grab her by the bottom lip, but the prospect of being finned or ending up hooked to my own line made me try to finesse her into clear water in front of the pier. There, maybe I could wear her down a bit, and at least get a look at her. Besides, Katy-the-Corgi was yipping and foaming at the mouth, and generally enjoying the entire game.

After a couple of minutes of lightly pulling the spider web-size line, I managed to convince her that the weed trick wasnít working, and she made another dash for open water. But, she was tired by now, and turned easily to the pressure of the line. As I drew her up alongside the pier, Katy looked down at her, and she looked up at me, and then simply turned and disappeared, leaving my line hanging limp in the late afternoon breeze. Katy licked the foam from her lips, and whimpered at the spot where the fish had been, then turned to grin at me as I tied a new hook on the line. For just an instant, I could hear my fatherís voice, nearly forty years ago, on a summer evening much like this one:

ďWell, boy, you see the thing is, to catch Ďem, you gotta be smarter than the fish.Ē

I just grinned back, and cast the line.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

-- Lon Frank (lgal@exp.net), August 19, 2001

Answers

'Course it helps to *want* to catch'em, too, Lon :-)

-- Tricia the Canuck (jayles@telusplanet.net), August 20, 2001.

What a sweet story! Most of the fun in fishing, is finessing the 'catch' until it's securely in your grasp. It sounds to me like Lon had fun. :-)

-- Gayla (privacy@please.com), August 22, 2001.

Good story!

-- helen (tell@me.more.stories), August 22, 2001.

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