Catfish Blues

By Stirling Edgewood

Copyright 2020

For some, fishing is a pastime to idle away a pleasant day. For others, it is a sport, a challenge, a skill to perfect. For yet others, it is a ritual, like the retelling of an ancient myth. One you only dimly remember from somewhere deep in your bones.

One day I decided to check out a local lake I hadn’t yet tested. With rod, reel and tackle in hand, I tucked my license into my tackle box along with the pocket fishing regulation guide that came with it. I stopped at a bait shop I noticed on the way, standard practice for the seasoned angler. Fisherman’s lore says check with the locals when first dropping your line in a new locale. And the local bait shop guy is the CIA of pescatarian intelligence. They chit-chat with every fisherman in the area, and they know that if you pull in a full stringer, you’ll be back sometime soon for more bait, maybe some lures, or even a new rod. At the bait shop, I grabbed the standard styrofoam cup of nightcrawlers and a container of relatively fresh minnows and asked the counter guy where the best spots were. He gave me a couple recommendations, which I duly noted, and then tried to sell me on some rubbery jigs that looked like squid made of lime jello. I was pretty skeptical, but bought a few just to keep up relations with my only information source.

My first stop was the first place mentioned by my bait-shop informant, a short pier with a few sunburnt and tired-looking guys lazily dropping baited hooks down into the brown-green water. The sun was glaring with mild disdain, generating a humid late-morning heat. Yeah, I know, fishermen are supposed to hit the water early, that’s when the fish are biting. But I was a bit hung over from bar-hopping the previous evening, and had ignored the alarm I set for 6 AM. By the time I rolled out of bed, found my fishing gear in the garage, located the lake on the map, and did my intelligence gathering at the tackle shop, it was well past the prime hours.

I set up my gear midway down the pier, and chatted up the nearest fishermen. We talked about the usual things, the weather, the type of fish in the lake, the best bait and lures. When it got to what he was pulling in that day, it was pretty clear that the take was sparse. A couple of guys had landed some small, pale sunnies, the fisherman’s equivalent to finding a nickel in the street. After a half hour, I figured this place was fished out, so I asked about other spots in the area. One guy pointed up the bank, and said a few trees had fallen in the lake that way, which sounded like one of the spots mentioned by my informant from the bait shop.

I trudged along an overgrown path, breaking my way through briars and nettles at times. My pants collected a handful of cling-ons and I had several scratches on my bare forearms and legs where thorns had poked through my jeans. Eventually, I came to a cluster of three tree trunks stretching down from their muddy, upturned roots on the bank into the murky lake. It looked promising, except I didn’t see any other anglers, which was a bit odd for a place that seemed to be pretty well-known among the resident fisher-folk. Maybe the dock was just a bit too comfortable, and the path to this spot a little too rough.

While skewering a worm on my hook, I managed to jab the point deep into my thumb. After cursing, and briefly considering the effects of greasy worm guts injected into my body subcutaneously, I decided to ignore the blood and let out a cast. I swatted some mosquitos for a few minutes, but with no indication of life from beneath the surface, I reeled it in. After casting in a few other spots around the fallen trees with the same disappointment, I decided to change up the bait. Minnows weren’t hitting either, so I reluctantly slid one of the jello squid onto my hook. I got an immediate hit on the next cast, gave the rod a quick jerk to set the hook, and reeled with anticipation. Finally, there was something at the end of the line. A scrawny little sunny. After skinning and deboning, the remaining flesh couldn’t have made half a mouthful. I grabbed my pliers and gently worked out the hook. Then I bent down and held it loosely in the water until it suddenly swished its tail and darted back into the depths.

Another 45 minutes and I had pulled in a few more sunnies, all too small. The mosquitos were getting thicker, and the oppressive air was starting to make my head hurt, reminding me painfully of how much alcohol I had consumed the previous night. I started trudging back toward the path, ready to call it a day. I figured I scored a few bites and actually touched a fish or two, so it wasn’t a complete loss. But a nagging part of me knew that it was a pretty dismal outcome.

“Fuck it!” I said out loud. I turned around and looked at the lake. “If I were a fish, where would I be on a hot afternoon?” I thought. I peered up and down the bank. Then I spotted an area where the tree branches were growing out over the lake, creating some shade. Leaves were circling lazily in the water. “Looks like fish paradise to me,” I thought.

I broke a trail through some thick brush, earning a series of bright new red badges from uncooperative thorn bushes, a couple of bruises from protruding branches, and an armada of cling-ons carpeting my lower legs. But when I got there, it was cool and shady. Surprisingly, a little creek was feeding into the lake at that point. A few yards from its mouth was a point of land that jutted out into the lake, but not far enough to escape the refreshing shade. I sensed immediately that was the best spot to try my luck.

As I moved along the muddy bank, I noticed what looked to be a cement block about ¾ submerged. It seemed a strange place for it, but if you fish enough you wind up seeing all sorts of unusual things in the water, either washed in by the rain or tossed away by the careless. I looked closer and noticed a rusted metal ring protruding from the top. I began to suspect it had been placed there purposely, and that I wasn’t the first adventurous angler to visit this hidden hole.

After moving a few yards further along I reached the point. I grabbed a worm, and impaled it firmly on the hook, despite its muscular, writhing attempts at escape. I cast out into what looked like the deepest, coolest spot and “WHAM!” The rod immediately jolted. I gave short, sharp jerk to set the hook, and began to work it slowly in. The fish was fighting and the line was being pulled first in one direction, then another. After a few seconds of reeling, the tension in the line suddenly increased and the rod bowed sharply down toward the water. I held the rod low and away from me, finding all the tension released. Then I pulled up again.  The tension increased in proportion to how far I pulled. “Damn, caught a snag.” I thought.

I figured while the fish was fighting me, swimming this way and that in its effort to escape, she managed to wrap my line around a submerged branch or a rock, and I wound up stuck. Further reeling and pulling would just result in a broken line and no fish.

I held the rod as far out over the water as I could, tugging in different directions, trying to free it up, but had no luck. I decided to walk down the bank to see if a different angle could get my line free, but I was still pinned.

“Well, that was at least a bit of excitement.” I thought, and my instant bite seemed to hold promise for this as a potential honey hole yet to be over-fished by the natives. I felt a slight pressure in my abdomen, and realized I needed to piss. I dropped my rod, and seeing no one around, I unzipped and let loose into the lake with a stream of dark yellow fluid. I could tell by the color I was getting a bit dehydrated, but decided to stick around anyway to test the potential of the waters less fished-by.

I zipped back up, picked up my rod, and was surprised to feel it was suddenly alive in my hands, with the unmistakable erratic tugs of a live fish on the other end. Occasionally, you get lucky, and the fish unsnags itself. “She seems eager to hop into my frying pan.” I thought.

With surprisingly few turns of the reel I had her up out of the water wriggling from the end of my line. It was a slick, brown catfish, lively and vigorous, even a little plump. I grabbed her by the mouth and brought her down the bank to the cement block I noticed earlier. I grabbed my stringer, which was a 5-foot chain with what looked like giant rusty safety pins attached to it every few inches. I opened one of the pins and slid the open metal rod up through the fish’s gills and out of its mouth.

A sharp pain suddenly shot through the middle finger of the hand holding the fish. In my excitement I had forgotten that catfish come equipped with nasty, sharp fins they can flick with force enough to rip through the tough scales of a fish, let alone soft human skin. Blood welled from the gash, but I decided to ignore it. I grabbed my pliers, but then decided not to risk further injury working the hook out. Instead I cut the line at the hook, leaving it protruding from her upper lip.

I used another of the over-sized rusted safety pins to latch the stringer on the eye hook sprouting from the concrete block, and dropped the metal chain, catfish and all, into the water. The cement block was an old fishermen’s trick. With your stringer in the water, your catch will stay alive while you push your luck further, keeping them fresh, instead of decaying in bag or bucket, or worse yet, laid out in the sun.

I heard the catfish splashing in the shallow water, then the chain rattled a moment, and to my dismay she swam off into the murky deep water. I yanked up the stringer, inspected the chain, and with disgust realized I had forgotten to pin the metal rod back into its socket. Apparently with the distraction of a bloodied finger I neglected to secure my prize.

The thought of the rapid hit on my first cast, however, left me eagerly anticipating another drop of a lure into the drink. My previous weariness fled, and I quickly tied on another barb and disemboweled another wriggler on it. The next cast laid in the drink a few moments when, glancing down at the minnows in the shallows, I noticed a larger, darker, aquatic shape slowly wandering along the shore. The minnows scattered as it meandered closer. It had the outline of a catfish, and as it came closer, I pondered on the improbability of the one that had recently eluded me coming back for a visit. Bending down toward the surface, I peered intently through the murk, and was amazed to see a hook protruding from the fish’s mouth, in the same spot where I had hooked my little escapee. Was she coming back to taunt me? Did she have an irresistible desire to experience the wonders of my digestive tract? I thought about reeling in and dropping some bait in front of her nose. It just seemed so implausible that she would take a second bite. I had never heard of a fisherman catching the same fish twice in the same day. Instead, I grabbed a stick off the ground, threw it at the water and joked, “Go away you little troublemaker.”

I reeled in, cast again, and the rod bounced lightly in my hands, announcing another bite. The softness of the tugging told me a fish was only nibbling and hadn’t swallowed the bait. I began the delicate art of setting the hook. In my mind, I imagined a fish hovering near my proffered morsel with lazy wariness, nibbling around the edges, grabbing a loose length of night crawler instead of taking the hook, and repeatedly engulfing worm and hook, only to spit it out again. She was tasting it, testing it. I didn’t want to spring the trap too soon. The sudden motion could draw the bait outside the myopic range of her vision, or scare the jittery creature into rapidly darting away. But I didn’t want to wait too long, either, because she might discover the hard, indigestible metal buried in what she thought was a tasty snack. With only the tactile feedback of chaotic tugs, translated through some 20 feet of thin nylon and 5 feet of flexible fiberglass, I could only guess when my target had the hook tightly enveloped in her closed mouth. I jerked to set the hook. From the epileptic tantrums of the rod I could tell it had attached to her. I knew I had the connection needed to start working her in. Of course, at that moment the true struggle to land her had only just begun. The reel relinquished several clicks of line as I jerked, and I got exciting thinking this would be a sizable catch. The strength of her pull told me she would make a full, tasty meal. She was pulling powerfully, and the line was now playing out from the spool in quick, erratic spurts. I knew she was too worthy a fish to simply reel her in. I let her have her head, waiting for her to tire herself out against the friction of the line playing out from the spool, reeling her in slowly, with gentle pressure applied only when the slack line revealed her weaknesses, all the while maintaining a pressure that kept the hook secured without snapping the tenuous strand connecting us.

Suddenly she erupted from the water with a flash. She was a beautiful bass, shining in the sunlight, a stream of foamy water cascading elegantly from her tail. As she sailed across the water, the line went slack. She hit the lake’s surface with a plop. I started reeling, but I was getting no resistance. I reeled some more. Still no resistance. It was then I realized she had spit out the hook. “Probably when she jumped.” I muttered to myself. “Very clever of her.”

I cast a couple more times and got another bite. This time, I managed to reel the fish in. Pulling it from the water, I saw it was another bass, decent sized, but not nearly as big as the one that got away. I carried it back to the stringer, made sure I secured it this time, and then put it gently back in the lake.

After a few more unsuccessful casts, a voice came over the water.

“How’s the fishing today?”

I looked up and saw a small boat with a black outboard motor floating about 75 feet away. A man in a brown uniform was sitting in the back.

“Alright I guess.” I replied.

“Can I see your license?”

I was a bit puzzled how he could see anything from that distance, but I fumbled in my tackle box anyway and pulled it out.

“Hold it up please,” he instructed. 

I held it up, and he pulled out a pair of binoculars and put them to his eyes. After a few moments, he put them back down, and asked, “Catch anything?”

I considered for a moment whether the bass I had stringing was above the catch length. It seemed like it was, but I hadn’t bothered to measure it. I replied, “Nothing worth keeping.” He seemed satisfied with that, grabbed the stick of the outboard motor, and puttered quietly away.

I cast a few more times without success. The prickling from the scratches I earned on my quest, the hot insistence of the sun, and the scratchiness in my dry throat kept reminding me how hungover I was. So, I packed up my gear, grabbed the stringer with my prize, and trundled back the way I came.

Back at home I quickly skinned and gutted her. I fried her up in a cast-iron pan with butter, lemon, and garlic, just until her meat was soft, tender, and flakey, and not a moment longer. She was fresh out of the water, giving her a uniquely appetizing savor. “That’s a taste that can’t be matched by anything bought in a store,” I thought. I probably could have fried her naked and she would have been delicious. With the right seasonings, she was delightfully palatable.

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