Do you remember the first time you caught a catfish? How about the first time a catfish caught you? I do. I have a inch-long scar underneath my thumbnail to remind me of how I once wrestled with both a mud cat and my faith in my daddy. I had just turned twelve, and Daddy packed the fishing rods, my little brother Coby, me, and a dozen bologna sandwiches wrapped in a bread bag into his Ford truck. About four in the morning, he had woke us up with, “Hey boys, you going fishing?”
Like we had some kind of choice. By 4:30, Daddy had us and the bologna sandwiches headed south on Highway 127 toward Gadsden, Alabama. I was itching to go fishing, but Coby just slumped down in the front seat of the Ford, shivering in his jacket and slobbering on my shoulder. When my shoulder got too soaked, I’d shove him toward Daddy. Coby’s little fat face would root around on the seat like a blind mole until he found Daddy. If Daddy got too wet, he’d send him back towards me. This game of Coby ping-pong would go on for at least an hour. We were not what you’d call full of motherly affection.
Finally, Daddy would bark at Coby, “Boy, you better sit up and take off that coat. You’ll be cold down by the water and won’t have nothing to put on.”
Coby would sit up, squinch up his mole eyes, then shuck his jacket. It just so happened that this particular trip, our Uncle Holland, our cousin, Floyd Lee and his friend Tater would be meeting us at the lake. They was traveling in Holland’s land-boat, an Oldsmobile Delta 88.
When we got to the fishing hole at Cedar Bluff, we stopped at the bait and tackle shop and waited for Floyd Lee and them. The sun had just come up, ugly and gray, when the Delta 88 pulled up.
Uncle Holland got out, took a deep swig of the Alabama morning and his flask. “Ah, smells like morning.”
I took a sniff. “Smells like dead fish to me.”
Daddy handed me the minner bucket. “Get eight dozen, Small John.”
Me and Floyd Lee, who was my age but smaller, waited outside, helping the man count out the minners. Floyd Lee had on a flannel shirt rolled up at the sleeves. His blonde hair was greased down with Brylcream and tucked behind the ears, he combed it about forty times before the minner bucket was full. Then we went inside to grab us a Co-cola and some pork skins. Tater come into the store wearing this big old heavy overcoat.
“He’s going to get cold by the lake, with that thing on,” I told Floyd Lee.
“Naw,” he said. “He just wears it to go shopping.”
Daddy hollered from the counter, “You boys ready?” He had a six-pack of Schlitz and Coby ready to go.
I put my stuff on the counter and whispered something to Coby, who was looking puzzled over at the girlie magazines behind the counter. Just I was about to kid Coby about it, I saw Tater loading the lining of his coat with Funyons and Cokes. My mouth just plopped opened, I was so shocked. Tater wasn’t much older than Coby and already he’d left the path of the straight and narrow to become accomplished in the ten-finger discount. They’d always said Tater was the black sheep of the family, but I thought they meant his complexion. I didn’t know he had sticky fingers, too.
“Daddy,” I said, “look here.”
Daddy watched Tater steal some Debbie cakes, I swear he did. But he didn’t say nothing, only picked up the bag.
“Grab them minners, Small John. Sun’s about up.”
“Coby,” I hollered.
He followed me out like a fat half-drunk lemming. All the while, I was thinking about Daddy not saying nothing to Uncle Holland. I couldn’t figure it out. My daddy weren’t no Abe Lincoln, that’s for sure (he wasn’t that handsome, for one), but he’d always told me to be honest. Then he goes and does something like that–let’s Tater steal without a word. Now, was that what Honest Abe would’ve done? I decided my daddy was a hypocrite, no two ways about it. Though that decision changed the way I looked at him, it did not, mind you, change my desire to go fishing. Some things go beyond ethics.
A half-mile down the road, Weiss Lake jumped out of it hiding place behind some wind-breaking pine trees. We parked next to the highway, beside the guard rail. When the cold lake air hit Coby, he snapped awake in short order, eyes flicking wide open like a baby doll’s. You’d think we was in Alaska the way he yanked on that jacket.
After grabbing my rod and the minner bucket, I hopped down the big boulder-size rocks to the bank. Quick as I could, I baited my hook and threw the line in. My bobber was bobbing before Daddy even got down to the lake. He set the ice chest down on level ground then sat down on top of it. He could both relax and keep an eye on the beers so me and Coby couldn’t sneak one. A few minutes later, Daddy threw in. He worked the line, reeling in gradually, giving it a yank or two. Daddy had learned to be a patient fisherman from his Grandmaw Hawkersmith, the best fisherman he ever knew.
Coby stuck a Styrofoam cup in the bucket. “Gimme some them minners.” He chased the little fish around and around, then he reversed directions and mad a awful scramble when them minners tried to put on the brakes. After a couple of times, some minners give up the ghost and floated to the top.
I hollered, “Coby’s killing the minners again.”
Daddy turned his reel a couple of times. “Boy, you better quit messing.”
Coby snatched up one minner and went off to his own rock to pout. He had a time baiting the hook: I thought his thumb was about to be an endangered species. When he finally threw in, that minner had six holes in him, no belly and just a piece of tail dangling.
“Minners is supposed to be live bait,” I said.
He threw that line in as hard as he could. The lead carried to line and bobber half-way across the shallows. The minner sailed straight up in the air then landed plop beside Coby. It stared up with its only eye.
“Good throw,” I said.
“Think you’d catch more fish with some bait?”
“Shut up, Small.”
He reeled in as fast as he could, re-baited with that same minner, the hook stuck between its eyes, then threw in again. The line zinged through the air. The minner escaped again, plopping into the lake about six feet from shore.
“At least it made it to the water this time,” I said.
Him being so sensitive and all, he probably would’ve cried and run back up to the truck if Floyd Lee and them hadn’t showed up, hollering and jumping down the rocks like loose pebbles. Floyd Lee carried his rod and reel. All Tater had was his pump action pellet rifle. Uncle Holland puffed and heaved his way down to the shore beside Daddy. He spread out a folding chair, stuck the pole-holder in the mud, opened a three-layer tackle box, and started making his choice of lures.
“Crappie ain’t going to bite no lure,” Daddy said.
Holland tied a spinner jig on his line. “Ain’t looking for no G-D crappie, Johnny. I’m shooting for me some bass.”
Daddy popped the top on a can of Schlitz. I once saw him do the same thing when a Fire Alarm salesman had come to the house. He’d hauled in three kinds of alarms, an extinguisher, and a fancy tape player, along with a six-pack of Pepsi to grease the wheels. At first, Mama, thinking he was an evangelist, wouldn’t let him in the door, but when she saw that Pepsi, she said for him to come on in. Normally, nobody made it past the door ‘less they had some Co-cola, but times was hard and like they say in church, beggars can’t be choosers.
The salesman settled in with his tapes and pictures and liked to scared us to death. Turned out he was so convincing about the hidden dangers of night fires, I was afraid to be burnt up as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Mama must’ve felt the heat, too, because she said, “Well, John Mark, what do you think?”
Daddy, who’d sat there, not saying a word, just popped the top on a Schlitz and took a good, long drink.
“Thanky, Mister,” Mama said and held out her hand. “I don’t believe we’re interested. We’ll be seeing you. Shelva, help the man with the Pepsi.”
That night, I was sure our house would burn to the ground. When I got up the next morning and the house still stood, I felt a pang of disappointment. For the next few nights, I went to bed expectant, only to wake up to disappointment. In the end, I realized my futility. That house never did burn down, but it did make me think of my daddy as somebody who could see through folks, like that sales, and know when they was truthful and when they liars.
So when Daddy popped that can at Uncle Holland, I knew it was his way of saying just how little respect he had for Uncle Holland’s fishing skills. That’s what puzzled me about Daddy not stopping Tater from stealing. Couldn’t he see through Tater like he could see through my Uncle?
“What’s the gun for?” Coby asked Tater, catching my attention.
Tater pumped the gun twice. “Shooting shad.”
I wondered if he stole the gun, too. “Pull up a rock,” I said to Floyd Lee. “Let’s do some fishing.”
“Nah.” He laid his rod and reel next to me. “Think me and Tater’s going to shoot some shad.”
Coby followed them around to an inlet where the water had undercut the bank. Shad schools hid under the banks away from the biggest fish like carp and catfish.
Tater pulled up his pump-action pellet gun and fired two shots. “Got the suckers.”
“Let me try,” Coby said.
Floyd Lee grabbed the gun. He pumped the gun seven, eight times. The pellet thwumped through the water.
“Like to blowed that one’s head off.”
He shot a dozen more times then Tater took a turn. When they took a breather to reload, a halo of dead shad–chunks of meat and fins and scales–glimmered in the water.
Now the fish’ll never bite, I thought.
“My turn now,” Coby half-asked.
They traded looks. Floyd Lee handed Coby the gun. When he pulled the trigger, the gun kicked. The pellet skipped across the water like a smooth, flat rock.
Tater laughed. “How many you figure he killed?”
“Give me that before you hurt somebody.” Floyd Lee took the gun back, and they went about their business.
“Let me have another shot, please. Please?”
I wasn’t going to look at Daddy. I wasn’t, but I could feel his eyes on me, and I got a bad case of the cold, clammy shivers. Then I had to. I had to look. Daddy had his jaw set, his eyes set on the bobber. Then it happened. He gave me The Look. He could’ve gone on for days, but I cut him off by looking out at my bobber while I reeled in.
My daddy was a man of few words, but he made his meaning clear in little ways. Nodding. Staring. Showing his teeth. All this meant something. Living with Daddy was like having a third base coach in the house. Bunt. Pass the salt. Steal second. Hand me the Phillips head screwdriver. Take on for the team. Go help your brother.
I cussed to myself and set my rod down. I wandered over to the inlet, acted like I was checking out the scenery.
“Hey, Small,” Floyd Lee hollered. “You want to do some shooting?”
“Ain’t thought about it,” I said.
“Come on. It’s a lot more fun than baiting a hook.”
“I guess I could be persuaded to.” I took the gun from him, pumped it two times, which was more than enough to kill a shad, and handed it to my brother. Coby giggled like it was Christmas. He managed the feat of shooting every single pellet with without injuring even one shad.
“Thanks y’all.” I handed the empty gun back.
“Hey,” said Floyd Lee, “that’s all the pellets.”
“Do tell.” I grinned, and they knew they’d been had.
Me and Coby headed back over to our fishing spots.
“You boys keep it down over there,” Uncle Holland hollered. “We’s trying to do some fishing here.” He reeled in his jig, which by then looked like a soggy wad of snot. “Don’t believe they’s biting the spinner, Johnny. Maybe a rubber worm.”
“Ain’t no bass in this lake.”
“So I hear tell. But let me ask you this can you guarantee that? Can you see into the hearts and minds of them fish?”
Daddy stuck a fresh minner on the hook and threw in.
I started to tell Uncle Holland about Daddy’s Ma Hawkersmith. From what I heard, that woman could catch fish with a bare hook, and when she didn’t have no hook, she just talked to them real gentle and they swam clean up to the bank. I imagine it was a pleasure for a fish to be eaten by Ma Hawkersmith. She was a legend in Mystic, Georgia. I wondered what she’d do about Tater’s stealing. I started to tell Uncle Holland all this, but something told me he wouldn’t get it.
Uncle Holland took a big swig from his flask then spit liquor on the worm. “This’ll drive them nuts.”
“Wish I had me some of them rubber worms,” Coby said.
“What for?” I said.
“So I won’t have to bait the hook.”
“Won’t catch nothing with them.”
“Don’t catch nothing anyhow.”
There he was, belly-aching again, feeling sorry for himself. At a young age, Coby knew there was two kinds of folks–them that was born to catch fish, and them that was born to cut bait. Didn’t take much to figure out which one he was.
“Won’t catch nothing shooting them shad,” I said. “Come on, let’s go drown some minners.”
“Nope. Don’t want to.”
We passed by Daddy and Uncle on my way back to the rock. Daddy had collected two fish that was barely keepers and a six pack of empties. About the time I threw in again and was watching that bobber out there mocking me, Daddy said, “Any you boys want something from the store?”
I almost asked for some Funyons, but a funny wisdom came over me and I kept joke to myself. “Another Coke,” I said.
“Can I go?” Coby said.
“I reckon that’d be a good idea. Tater, you and Floyd Lee come on ,too.” Daddy eyed Uncle Holland for signs of a “no,” but he just sipped from his flask and watched his lure get water-logged. Tater and them shrugged then headed for the car.
“Daddy,” I ran up to him and spoke so nobody could hear. “Watch out for Tater. He’s got sticky fingers.”
Instead of nodding like I expected, Daddy squinted up his eyes. “Mind your own business, son. You let me handle the boys, understand?”
“Keep an eye on my line while I’m gone.”
I flopped down on the rock, my mind all mixed up. I would have to think about this. My daddy always told me to be honest, including telling stories about Abe Lincoln’s walking miles to give back pennies–like he was kinfolks. Things like this made my head hurt, when you been told something all your life, then you find out it might not be true. Like when Mama told me Santa Claus wasn’t real. My heart about broke. But this was worse, because with or without Santa, I still got Christmas presents. I knew I had to decide whether or not I was going to believe in my daddy.
Before I could, though, my bobber made for hills. Normally, when a crappie bites, it just nibbles the bobber almost never goes underwater, and when it does, it never stays long. My bobber disappeared so fast, I knew I didn’t have no crappie on the line.
I yanked to set the hook and started to reeling in. That old reel squealed like stuck pig, and the rod almost bent in two. That fish fought by yanking and pulling something awful. I figured I had me a carp or the like. My arms started to hurt. I almost let go of the reel to stretch out my hands, but I knew the way it pulled, I’d lose it sure as the world. The reel squealed again. I let the line loose so the fish could run, but the funniest thing happened; as soon as it felt the slack, that fish just give up. When I didn’t feel nothing on the line, I just reeled in, disappointed.
When the bobber came in, the rod bent in two again. I looked down in the water, and staring up and me was the biggest, yellowest mud cat I’d ever see.
“My God,” I said. “I caught the granddaddy of them all.”
Either it was dead or played better than any possum, because it just floated in the water, not fighting, hardly even moving. I reached down for that catfish, but there didn’t seem to be no place to catch hold. With a crappie or especially a bass, you just grab it by the lower lip and that mouth opens easy as you please. With a catfish, though, that mouth’s like sharp sand paper. I studied on it for a minute. I decided to do what Daddy always done. I hooked my thumb and pinkie finger under its bottom fins and squeezed.
Like it’d been goosed, that catfish come to life, twisting and barking up a storm. Before I let loose, it caught my thumb, right under the nail, with a razor-sharp fin. Blood spurted out ever which way. The cut burned like fury.
I dropped that fish real quick.
While the blood washed down my arm, that cat flopped around on top of the rock, hoping, I guess, to land in the water. I flipped it on its side, held it down with my boot. Lord, that thumb burned, but I let it bleed in hopes the poison would run out. The fish laid there, pretty much tuckered out.
When I reached for the hook, I found four rusty old hooks and a rotted lure in its mouth. They seemed sort of like medals, the fish-purple heart or Iron Cross. Maybe he’d got then in battles with fishermen. I imagined some pecking order amongst the fish–”Here come o’ Joe. Lookit dat dere rubber worm he got on. Took it off some angler t’other day.”
I felt sort of sorry for him, until he tried to stab me again. For his troubles, I kicked him off the grass. I got the needle-nose pliers out of the toolbox. I squashed that fish again, satisfied when it grunted. With the pliers, I yanked on the hook. It popped out, a piece of catfish jaw still stuck on it. Remorse was not what I felt at that moment.
I shoved a nylon stringer through its gills. Tempted as I was to let it go so the stringer could eventually drown it, I set the fish in the water. I tied the stringer off with a square knot. Bent down, I washed the fish slime off my hands. When the water hit my thumb, I screamed bloody murder.
“What’s the problem son?” Uncle Holland sounded aggravated. “I’m trying to fish here.”
“My thumb.” I held up the evidence.
“Bring it over here. Let me take a look see. Come on, I don’t have all day.”
My legs didn’t feel too steady, but I made it over there. I showed him my bloody thumb.
“Catfish got me.”
“Catfish huh?” He never got up or took his eyes off his bobber. “Well, it don’t look too bad. Get you some ice and soak it. That’ll take out the sting.”
“You disputing me, boy?”
“Then do like I told you.”
I opened Daddy’s ice chest and to save time, stuck my hand straight in. “It burns,” I cried.
“Sure does, don’t it,” he laughed.
I kept my hand in the ice, mostly just to spite him. A minute later, Coby and them come running down the rocks.
“We got us some more pellets,” Coby said.
Daddy hollered from the car, “Get your hand out of my ice chest, boy.”
I guess he thought I was sneaking a beer. “Can’t, Daddy. Uncle Holland told me to soak it.”
Carrying a grocery bag, Daddy climbed down to us. “What are you soaking it for?”
“Catfish got him,” Uncle Holland said. “Told him ice would take the sting out.” He winked at me, and I didn’t know who I hated more, him or that mudcat.
Daddy pulled out my hand and slid his six-pack and my Coke in. The bleeding had stopped, but the cut had puffed up something terrible. My thumb looked like it’d been boiled ’til it burst. The water in the cooler had turned the color of pink lemonade it almost made me thirsty, until I realized that was my blood. Daddy closed the lid.
“Holland,” Daddy said to Uncle Holland, “don’t you know nothing about catfish stingers?”
Uncle Holland just played with his lure, reeling in, resting, reeling in, resting. All of a sudden, I knew the answer–he didn’t know nothing about catfish or fish in general. Like Coby, he’d been born to cut bait.
“You got the fish, son?”
He acted surprised when I said, “Over yonder on the stringer. Lord, Daddy, this burns like fire.”
“Sit down.” He half-pushed me down on the ice chest. He reached for the fish, and it about yanked loose. Expecting it, he hauled it up, it wiggling and squirming, trying to cut Daddy it’d done me. He thumped twice on its belly, then seemed to tickle it. That durned mudcat ceased squirming, acted like it’d gone to sleep.
“Here.” He brought the fish over to me. “My Ma Hawkersmith taught me how to fix a mudcat sting.”
“How’d you do that?” I said.
“Make it go to sleep. It about sliced me to bits.”
“Ever seen one of them alligator wrestlers? Same principle. Just tickle its belly some.” He grabbed my hand. “Ma Hawkersmith learned me about catfish slime. You ever stopped to think what happens if a cat sticks itself?” He rubbed my cut thumb on the fish’s side, coating it in thick slime. “Ma said its slime fixes it up real good.”
I flinched, waited for that fiery hurt, but I was amazed. When the slime sunk in, the pain went away. The swelling started sown gradual.
“Better than Mercurochrome,” he smiled.
“Or ice water.”
He got a Band-Aid out of the tackle box.
“I never knew you had Band-Aids in there.”
“You’d be surprised, son. Being a Army medic makes you pack some unusual tackle.”
He wrapped up my thumb. He put on Band-Aids faster and better than Mama, who always took care of my cuts.
“All fixed up. You can go back to fishing.”
I couldn’t help grinning ear to ear, like I’d just got a new toy. I went back to my rock, amazed my thumb felt better. Daddy got out a Schlitz and sat down on the ice chest.
“I reckon the ice would’ve worked,” said Holland, “if you’d give it time.”
Daddy popped the top. “One thing I learned in the Army–a man’s got to have the equipment for the job.”
Everybody got quiet. Coby and them had gone off somewhere. Daddy sipped at his beer like he didn’t want it and watched his bobber do the two-step. Holland reeled in his lure, water-logged and sad-looking, then changed over to a spinner.
Just when we’d settled down to some serious fishing, Coby and them come tromping through the woods on that inlet. Between them, Tater and Floyd Lee carried this big snapping turtle by the rim of its shell. Coby flitted around them like a puppy anxious to be patted.
I remembered this one time when I caught me a little snapping turtle and put it in a box. My mama said to watch my fingers. If that turtle caught hold of me, It wouldn’t let go until sunset. The thought of putting my finger in a turtle’s moth had never occurred to me. If she hadn’t said nothing, I probably never would’ve done what I did.
I stuck my finger in its mouth. When it didn’t do nothing, I tickled its nose and neck. I was just about to give up when it chomped down on my thumb. Now, it didn’t hurt as much as that mudcat, but I jumped by, that snapper still stuck to my finger, and ran around like a chicken with its head cut off. I tried shucking it. I tried pulling on it. I even tried slamming it on the ground and against a tree. Still, it had ahold of me like it wouldn’t let loose until doomsday. I sat down, worn out, and started to crying. I felt so bad for myself, I didn’t notice that turtle letting loose and crawling off. I must’ve felt pity for me because when I finally stopped bawling, that turtle was nowhere in sight. I’d thanked the lord for good, Christian turtles.
That turtle was a shrimp compared to the one Coby and them carried.
“Looky here,” Floyd Lee hollered to his Daddy. “Look what we got.”
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Holland said.
“Weighs at least fifty pounds,” Coby lied.
They set it down by Holland’s tackle box, arms and legs tucked inside for safety. Floyd Lee rummaged through his Daddy’s tackle box. “Where’s the can opener?”
“What you want it for, son?”
Coby and them traded sinful looks.
“We’re going to open up this here turtle, see what’s inside,” Tater said.
“That’d kill it,” I said, bewildered they’d even think about it.
Coby said, “it would?”
Tater looked at me like I was some dumb shad. “So?”
“So? So?” I left my line in the water and got up in Coby’s face. “Who do you think you are?”
“You ain’t his daddy,” said Tater. “Don’t tell him what to do.”
“Yeah,” said Coby.
I looked the situation over. “Shooting shad’s one thing, but using a can opener on a turtle ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”
“Why not?” said Tater.
I could tell by the look on his face, he really didn’t know. “Because it ain’t like to Oldsmobile. You just can’t lift the hood and give it the once over. That shell’s attached.”
“So?” said Tater.
“So you’ll kill it.”
“That’s what I had in mind.” He smiled the same way Holland had when I stuck my hand in the ice chest. Coby and Floyd Lee turned pasty white. I could tell that wasn’t what they had in mind.
“The opener’s in the bottom,” Holland said flatly, “underneath the tray of rubber worms.”
Tater got it out.
Daddy never turned around. “Put that thing up.”
Tater waited, unsure of himself, for Holland to say something.
“I told you to put it up. I don’t want to tell you again.”
When Tater dropped it, the opener rattled in the metal tackle box.
“You boys let that turtle loose. Coby, you and Tater set him in the water over here by me.”
Tater didn’t want to, but both boys did like they were told. After it had drifted out some, the turtle stuck out its head, took a look around, and dove out of sight. Tater and Floyd Lee stood around, I think waiting for my uncle to do something–to say something. Holland kept an eye his line like it was his birthright to sit there and fish.
“Coby,” Daddy said, “why don’t you bait you a hook and drown some minners.”
Coby knew that wasn’t no request.
Right about then, Holland got ready to go. “Don’t guess them bass is biting today.” He clipped off the lure and threw it in the tackle box. “Boys, grab my seat. Let’s get on to the house.”
Nobody seemed disappointed that Holland had made this decision. His “boys,” grabbing what they could or felt like, climbed up to the car.
“Y’all don’t rush off now,” Daddy said while shaking Holland’s hand. “We got a whole bunch of minners left to drown.”
“Just ain’t my day, I guess, Johnny. Let’s get together again sometime.”
By the looks they gave and the way Daddy let them leave without waving, I knew we’d never go fishing with them again.
“So,” I said to Coby so Daddy couldn’t hear. “what else did Tater steal at the store?”
“Oh yeah, I didn’t get to tell you about that. Daddy took him by the arm to the counter and made him pay the man for what he stole.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“Ain’t done it.”
“And Tater done it?”
Coby wrinkled up them mole eyes. “Would you tell Daddy you wasn’t going to do something?”
I didn’t even need to answer that. We settled into fishing. Even Coby set still for awhile so we could listen to the lake, enjoy the frogs singing. We didn’t catch nothing after that, but we faithfully baited and threw in until all the minners was gone.
“It’s getting about that time, boys,”
I got the stringers and the rods. Coby brought up the minner bucket. Daddy hefted the ice chest up to the road. We put the mudcat on ice for the ride back home. A fish that big wasn’t no good for eating, but it’d look great with me holding it up for Mama’s Polaroid. I had me a trophy and a good scar. We got in the truck, squeezing together like sardines and smelling like them, too.
“That was useless,” Coby said.
“What you mean?” I said.
“We didn’t catch hardly nothing, except that catfish, and it about took your thumb off.”
“Fishing ain’t about catching fish, son,” Daddy said.
I knew Coby didn’t get it and probably never would. If wasn’t no explaining it to him, though, so I just popped the top on a Co-cola, took a good long sip, and settled in for the ride back home.