Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Of Catfish and Catalpas: Trotlining Debacle with Daddy

I love remembering and writing.  Sometimes one of the other gets a bit disjointed, slightly off the truth of the matter.  I’m never sure which is it that’s in error though, the remembering or the writing.  Mama tells me I’m not remembering this correctly;  that she was having a bout with elevated blood pressure and Daddy was a bit peeved with me ‘cause SHE wasn’t going fishing.   Go figure…

In our family sport fishing was a waste of time while hours spent rigging, rebaiting, and running trotlines was a true test of agility and prowess. In the golden days of late summer when the bullisses are falling in the water all the local fishermen know the catfish will be biting and it’s time to set out lines. 

In my childhood no one had heard of jugging or yo-yoing or at least not associated with the river:  a time when Marlin and Evinrude ruled the current and you knew who was coming by the sound of their outboard.  Several times I can remember rumors of someone “phoning” but those people were unsavory characters incapable of catching fish the honorable way.  We always ran trotlines when a fish fry was on the calendar, it being the quickest way to fill a freezer slap full of fish.

Trotlines had at least fifty large-enough-to-snag-a-‘gator shiny hooks on them.  The odds of catching a big one (great grandparent catfish) depended on how many hooks were set out. On one end of the trotline was a length of cord long enough to tie-off to a tree limb chest high over the water, usually full of spiders.  On the other end was a weight of some sort, heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the river through the current where it was dropped.  Daddy preferred the long cast iron sash weights out of the old-fashioned windows to insure the trotlines would stay put and not roll along the bottom with the river current.

There is still great contention over the best bait to be used on trotlines.  Many self-acclaimed men of fishing lore swear that minnows are the only bait for trotlining.  Well, my daddy always wondered why a river catfish would try to bite something it shared the water with and to prove his point, one time he actually put a shiner on a hook and the flopped it off, dropping the line in the water where it feebly tried to swim away for a moment and then flipped belly-up, undisturbed by any fish (much less a catfish).

We used those big yellowish-green and black catalpa worms.  If they were picked a few days prior to being used and stored in the bottom of the refrigerator in a paper sack the skin would toughen slightly and the worm would stay on the hook better especially if you pinched off the head and threaded it hind-end first.  The worms could be turned inside out this way, getting thread-like goopy catalpa worm entrails all over your fingers but almost assuring the trotliner of a certain catch.

To actually set the trotlines out in the river took at least two people, all the trotline accoutrements, and a very necessary boat, motor, and paddle.  There are a few unspoken  rules to setting out trotlines:  You cannot bait them on land;  the person that forgets the net will not be remembered kindly; and the person keeping the boat still in the river current must possess Herculean strength and the patience of Job.  Thus the story.

Daddy had decided he wanted to run trotlines.  The river had been up and was falling out, meaning the water was abating quickly.  The bullises and fox grapes were ripe all in the swamps and Rex and his bunch had just come from the river with a cooler full of catfish caught on trotlines.  My little brother, five years older than myself, was away at college.  Mama was down in something although I think this was a convenient excuse to get out of having to handle the boat.  She seemed to feel peevish often when the boat in the river and her in the boat were imminent.  Mama still doesn’t swim and is almost deathly afraid of water.   I alone was left to help Daddy in his endeavor to out-trotline his cousin.
Daddy didn’t ever want to start setting out trotlines and work his way up the river from the boat ramp in Leakesville.  Someone may steal the fish before he could get back down the river to check the lines..  Nope.  Nothing doing but to put in at Gant’s Bluff and set lines up and down the river from Chat High bluff to Coaker’s Bend. 

There’s not a proper boat ramp at Gant’s bluff.  Instead there is a top of the river bluff, a four foot vertical drop down soapstone and then a sandbar to maneuver the boat down and across.  Daddy didn’t believe in making more trips than necessary up and down that bluff either.  He made the trip once with the boat fully loaded with motor, gas, tackle, and bait.  He liked to be at the top of the bluff, easing the boat down with someone else trying to alternately pull and wobble the heavy thing.  Or stop its progress if it got underway too quickly.  Daddy and I had done this many times before but on this day, with all those sash weights, the boat was especially heavy.  After much huffing and puffing and I’m sure what were under-the-breath curses, the boat was in the water and we were off to set out trotlines.

Daddy was the only person who could bait the hooks properly so I was the person that had to keep the boat steady from the bank and back paddle to the middle of the river.  Let me stress, I am female.  Perhaps, if Daddy had ever taught me how to run the outboard and I had paddled from the back of the boat the task could have been much easier but Daddy didn’t do that.  And since I was always a full-figured lass, he wouldn’t let me sit at the absolute front of the boat because then it wouldn’t “plane out” like it was supposed to.  I had to paddle that frazzling fourteen foot aluminum boat from the middle seat with a homemade paddle derived from 1” X 6” standard fir stock.

I was not up to the task.  The first trotline was set out with relative ease, being in an eddy the locals call the Cutover.  The next and consequently last, trotline was to be set out in the fastest of water on the Lower Chickasawhay at Chat High Bluff.  At first Daddy was only miffed because he was getting splashed by my efforts to keep the boat going straight out from the bluff.  I could not maintain the effort however and he hooked himself through the thumb and index finger trying to bait the hooks faster and reacting to that he forgot to tie the catalpa worm bag up and they were crawling all over the boat.

 Sometimes things are just too funny not to laugh.  On this day, this is the point that I remembered he was in the service indeed and it is made very clear to me that this is the last time he ever lets ME run trotlines with HIM.  What a relief!

The trotline was left, half-baited, in the river to await the afternoon and my brother’s arrival.  I don’t know why we didn’t just fish.  We had everything required.  I guess Daddy had his heart all set on running trotlines the whole day.  He didn’t seem too happy about leaving the boat up at Gant’s Bluff but after all the back stroking there was no way I could haul or push the thing back up to the truck, much less pick it up to put IN the truck.

I was taught by Daddy how to do just about everything my big brothers can., from running a line of shingles to painting houses to replacing a washer on the sink.  There are a few things though,  to which I will gladly and readily concede my brothers’ superiority:  changing the oil in a car, cutting and splitting firewood for Mama, bush-hogging the field, and running trotlines with Daddy.
I wish there were photos...  The image in my mind of those sluggish slow old and cold catalpa worms crawling all over the boat and Daddy is indelibly etched in memory, even if Mama does say it's in error!  Y'all have a GREAT rest of the week.

1 comment:

  1. I think I'll be laughing about this all day! Trust me, it's a much needed laugh to!