By Gary Shiebler
September 17, 2010
In this high speed, here today, gone later today world we live in, the idea of slowing down and relaxing, even when it comes to fishing, is becoming a lost art. What used to be protected time is now too easily invaded by the ringing of cell phones and the buzzing of text messages as “getting away from it all” gets harder and harder to do.
Another casualty of our high-tech lives is a tradition that seems to be fading from the pages of many outdoor magazines, blogs and websites: the great American fishing story. Whether it be sharing fish tales at a local coffee shop or trading stories about the “one that got away” in the cab of an old pickup truck, the art of storytelling has always been good medicine for the heart and soul of the angler. So, as a way of keeping our fish stories alive, I’ve decided to periodically post a few of my favorites in hopes that they may rekindle some of your fondest fishing memories and perhaps, take you to a place where Facebook status updates and Blackberry apps are put in their proper place — things that we control instead of the other way around…
Some of the best times of my childhood were spent going fishing with my family. Most every weekend during the summer, we’d all pile into our big, blue Chevy station wagon and drive down to the end of Roe Avenue where we’d unpack a quiver of willowy cane poles tipped with red and white bobbers, colorful folding chairs, bags of frozen shiners, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and plastic pitchers full of Tang. We’d then walk along the sandy shoreline of Great South Bay for about a quarter mile, sidestepping horseshoe crabs and fresh mounds of seaweed abandoned by the receding tide, until we reached the old brown barge, nestled up against the tulles and cattails. There, we’d set up camp for the better part of the day and catch snappers, blowfish and the occasional dogfish.
“Be careful of their teeth!” my mom would say if we pulled in a dogfish. With their big, prehistoric, gaping mouths we’d always heed her warning and defer hook removal and release to our sure-handed father. But we never got tired of rubbing the bellies of blowfish as they ballooned in the palms of our hands, and the snappers and “cocktail” bluefish always put up the best fight.
My mom is living proof that whether you are eight or eighty, there is nothing quite as exciting as watching the pop and twitch of a red and white bobber just before it disappears under water. To this day, she still loves to go fishing with her grandchildren, a passion that was passed down to her by her father and ultimately, down to me as well. At the end of those breezy summer days of my youth, we’d haul our catch back to the car and head home, where my my father would clean our catch and fry up the tender fillets in egg batter, bread crumbs and butter. I daresay, with a big tall glass of lemonade and fresh corn on the cob, there was no better meal to be found anywhere.
I abandoned fishing for a long time, trading cane poles and bobbers for surfboards and wetsuits, and it wasn’t until I moved back to California that I decided to wet a line once again. A lot had changed over the years and with an almost overwhelming selection of rods, reels, line, and bait to choose from, I needed some help. So I recruited a no-nonsense, cigar puffing, 60-year-old retired marine sergeant named Ergo Majors III to get me back into the game.
The great, great grandson of Alexander Majors, the founder of the Pony Express, he was the strictest of teachers with the simple task of learning how to tie a Palomar knot or baiting a hook being a noble exchange of wisdom, never to be taken lightly or rushed into practice. He had three unbreakable rules: You’re only as good as the knots you tie, if you think you’re fishing too slow, you’re still fishing too fast and make sure you eat what you keep and release the rest. His suggestion for my first fishing trip in southern California was equally simple and to the point. Grab a friend and go night cat fishing.
“Might as well start with the bottom feeders,” he instructed me over the phone, while guiding me through what kind of hooks, line and bait to use. “And make sure you have good sharp fillet knife for the dinner you’re going to bring me tomorrow,” he added with a chuckle.
“Oh, one more thing,” he said, just before he hung up. “There’s a spot just behind the eyes on top of a catfish’s head. That’s the spot where you can painlessly sever the spinal cord. All it takes is one swift blow, quick and painless. And be careful of the fin on top of their body. It’s a single, boned spike, sharp and poisonous and it can leave a nasty wound. Now, go bring me back some dinner.”
That evening, armed with a brand new rod, spinning reel and some frozen mackerel, I went fishing for the first time in almost twenty years. It turned out to be a good night, as my friend Geoff and me each caught three, nice-sized catfish apiece. Like many a drive home from a fishing trip, we swapped stories.
“You know, catching those catfish tonight reminded me of the time I caught a nine pounder in the pond behind my house in Chico,” he recalled. “I kept him in a bucket for a week and named him Moe, short for Moses because he looked like a wise old man with those whiskers. Would have kept him longer if my old man hadn’t made me throw him back.”
“Do you think they’ll still be alive by the time we get home?” I asked, nodding towards the cooler in the back of my truck.
“Hard to say,” was all he said. A few days later, he confessed that he didn’t have the heart to tell me that most catfish can survive out of water for hours and hours
“One swift blow, quick and painless.” was my mantra for the rest of the ride home.
I pulled into the driveway, said good night to Geoff, unloaded and rinsed off my gear and carried the cooler into the kitchen. I opened the lid, took out what was left of the plastic bag of ice, and much to my dismay, noticed that the catfish were still alive. I quickly pulled out the one that was moving the least and put it on the cutting board above the sink. While reaching for my heaviest knife, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something walk into the kitchen. It was Mitten, my faithful orange and white tomcat. He effortlessly jumped up on to the kitchen table and started cleaning himself. I thought to myself it was only fitting that the master of backyard wild game hunting would be present to observe my skillful preparation of the evening’s catch.
“Here we go, Mitty,” I said confidently. “One swift blow, quick and painless..”
I came down with a solid strike on the back of the head. Despite thinking that I’d hit the “magic spot”, the catfish continued to flap around.
“Damn, I must have missed the spot,” I muttered to myself in disbelief.
I struck down with another blow and still, there was the flapping. Suddenly, the idea that it might be suffering created an immediate shift from following directions to a complete panic mode and I began whacking away uncontrollably. Like a crazed butcher strung out on meth-amphetamines, I continued to pound and hack away, totally oblivious to the fact that I’d probably finished the job after the first blow and what I was experiencing was probably just some residual muscle reflexes. But it mattered not as the “Mad Butcher of San Diego” wasn’t going to stop until all movement had completely ceased. A light switched on in the dining room. It was Linda.
“What’s going on in here?” she asked sleepily as Mitten strolled over and rubbed against her leg.
“I’m trying to filet a catfish,” I replied angrily.
“It sounds like you’re renovating the kitchen. Why all the banging?”
“Because I was trying to find the “one blow and the catfish is dead” spot,” I said, while slowly making my way towards the couch in the den.
“Did you find it?”
“Oh, sure. I think it was somewhere between the sixtieth blow and when it’s head fell off,” I answered.
“So are you finished?”
“Uh...no, not quite”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I have no idea what I’m going to do with the two left in the cooler,” I remarked.
“Sorry you had such a rough time. Are you coming to bed soon?”
“Yeah, I just need a few minutes.”
The soft, sofa cushions felt wonderful under my weary body. Within moments, Mitten was on my lap.
“If you start kneading your claws into my chest, I’m going to chop your head off too,” I barked as his whiskers tickled the bottom of my chin.
He kick-started his thundery Harley Davidson purr and it rumbled soothingly across my chest and down my rib cage — the magic spot. I closed my eyes and we had a little chat.
“Did you know Mitty, that worldwide, there are over 30 families of freshwater and marine catfish, containing over 2,000 species?”
He continued to purr contentedly, obviously enjoying the zoology lesson.
“Yep, and the Danubian catfish can reach a weight of almost 700 pounds.”
Mitten shifted his weight a little and stretched out his right paw. He decided to change the subject.
“That was quite a show you put on in there.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said dejectedly. “What was my problem?”
“Well, I think you were kind of nervous. Reminded me of the time when you first had to give me medicine for that bladder infection. You were a wreck trying to get those pills into my mouth.”
“Now just a minute there, buddy,” I protested. “They always make it look so easy in the vet’s office. They say, “Wrap him in a towel like this, put pressure here on the sides of his mouth like that and his jaw will open right up like this. Then, all you have to do is drop the pill into his mouth and gently massage his throat until he swallows and you’re done! It’s easy!” What are they talking about? There’s nothing easy about it at all! The moment you start to squirm, I automatically start to panic.”
“Kind of like tonight, huh?”
I pushed at the heels of my boots and they fell to the floor with a thud. The cool night air felt good on my damp socks. I continued our silent conversation.
“Frankly, I was fine until Geoff told me that story about Moses. By the time I got home and opened up the cooler, they weren’t just catfish anymore, they were potential members of my family, with biblical names, no less. Hey, do you know that there’s a catfish in Florida that can actually walk on land?”
I was starting to get emotional again. Mitten shifted his purr into overdrive.
“I mean, when you think about it, why would anyone want to hurt a catfish? They’ve survived on this planet for millions of years while quietly scavenging the bottoms of lakes and rivers. They don’t bother anyone. Sure, they’re good eatin’ but why not just fish for something that deserves to be caught, species with bad attitudes like muskie and steelhead?”
Mitten stood up and yawned.
“Flathead catfish are carnivorous and pretty darn mean,” he reminded me.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” I replied.
“By the way, you do know what you have to do tonight before you hit the hay.”
“Yes, I know,” I said, while sitting back up to put my boots on. “Gotta run Matthew and Luke down to the local pond and let ‘em go.”
Mitten swatted one of my shoelaces and looked up at me.
“Call it penance for a job not well done.”
“Amen” I replied. A light switched on in the hallway.
“Honey, are you almost done?” Linda asked.
“Almost” I said.
“Can I make a suggestion?” she added. “You might want to jump in the shower real quick.”
I looked down at my clothes. There was a chunk of dried up mackerel hanging from the bottom of my sweatshirt.
“Yeah,” I said. “Good idea.”