The Chickasawhay River flows ever so gently through Greene County, here in the very southeast of Mississippi. It has, from the first Indians to camp here to present been the absolute favorite body of water to wet a hook in and while away the time.
In our family, fishing was approached with an almost religious attitude. You had to be prepared (sound familiar?). Earthworms were to be dug, catalpa worms picked, minnows seined, livers cut, and crawfish netted. And that was just the start. Rods and reels had to be checked carefully for old line that may break once "the big one" got on. Never a family to waste anything and, heaven forbid, throw out an old hook, Daddy would check the hooks for rust. The sound of a metal file as it's worked to remove rust and sharpen the barb always gave me the heebie-jeebies. Daddy NEVER lost a fish because he was using old line on the Zebco or the hook wasn't sharp. Nope. A day spent fishing with the family meant having all implements of fishing fully repaired and absolutely prepared. Really.
I remember being very young, young enough to have several of the brothers still living at home, and Daddy working into the late hours of the night "fixing up the tackle" he was fond of saying. Every rod 'n reel and cane pole was checked for hooks, sinkers, and bobbers. They were practice-cast behind his workshop (away from the cats that loved to chase danger) to assure the drag was properly set, and to make sure his rod had more line on the reel than anyone else's, him being the provider of the family and all.
The tackle box also had a thorough going through. Daddy would check the supply of aforementioned hooks, sinkers, and bobbers. The pliers had to be in there, especially the needle-nosed pliers, in case a fish swallowed the hook. Hooks were never expendable when they were close enough to be retrieved. A knife, bug spray, but most importantly, the stringer were the rest of the components in Daddy's tackle box. As a family, we did not fish with lures, crawl worms, or any of the other artificial bait, because, well, that really wasn't fishing the way our family fished. Those things were not in the tackle box.
Mama took care of the food. If she had time the morning of the fishing trip she might get up and fry chicken to be eaten picnic style with a full complement of sand. If Daddy didn't want to fool with making a fire to cook breakfast at the river, Mama made fried egg sandwiches with just a little mayonnaise and lots of black pepper, a loaf at a time. Jugs of ice water and sweet tea magically remained cold when Mama did the fixing. Coffee was doctored to Daddy's specifications, of course, for the Thermos was ever-present with him once the fishing destination had been reached. Somehow, there was always a cookie or two to be found in the food sack, either honey buns or moon pies. We never knew money was tight at our house when Mama fixed for the river.
Our fishing destination might be any of a half dozen places up or down the Chickasawhay River. All of the good fishing spots accessible to families not in a boat were privately owned. Prior arrangement with the landowner was required to secure the almost-sacred key, necessary for entrance onto fenced and gated land beyond which the aquatic wonder gently burbled and swirled.
Daddy drove the truck, so the actual unlocking the gate, swinging it open, and closing it once the truck was through was delegated to Mama. This, in order of importance of all her other tasks crucial to a fishing trip, was her greatest undertaking. Not only did she have to do this quickly enough to suit Daddy, she also had to be responsible for safely restoring the gate key to its original position in the truck, lest it become lost and we were locked in the swamp. I don't know how many times I heard Daddy question her about the security of the key, but I am aware his questioning wore a little thin on her one good nerve.
Bouncing along the sandy roads into the river swamps, the occasional but monstrous mud puddle was ever a threat to us reaching our destination. Even in the midst of severe drought, the river roads always had at least one gigantic puddle to be concerned about. Each one would have to be carefully navigated but not too slowly, becoming stuck was not an option when Daddy was going fishing.
Successfully around the puddles, seemingly mile and miles later comes to view a dense stand of young live oaks, a bend in the road, an opening through the woods, and the river finally is there, suddenly appearing as if the Almighty had just created it then and there for us.
In the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen, a mist dances ethereally across the surface of the slightly muddy river water. Indian hens call from their hollowed tree sanctuaries. In the tall turkey pines and cypresses along the bluffs all manner of songbird are awakening to greet the dawn with their own Hallelujah Chorus. Crickets chirp and the mosquitoes buzz around exposed ears. Wild hogs and deer could be heard stomping through the leaf-carpeted woods of river birch, sycamore, bay and hickory, but they won't bother us, Mama always assured. There we were, children and parents, together on a day when all seemed infinitely right with the world: a glorious day to fish.
Hours later, sunburned, food consumed, tackle lost to that unknown element that exists under the surface of the water, the process is reversed to carry us home. The fish were cleaned, fried, and eaten, accompanied by Mama's hushpuppies with the hint of garlic and onion, served one way: piping hot. Sunday clothes somehow became ironed and shoes polished. Baths were taken and as I drifted into that dreamless sleep that every child has after a day spent in nature, I saw Daddy's shop light on as he carefully puts away all the fishing things for another day to be spent with those he loved the most.
Gee, Daddy, how was the fishing?