Earlier today, as I walked down a hallway filled with business suits and serious faces I paused for a moment, only a moment, in embarrassment.
I could not remember a word.
This isn't uncommon, and normally I continue on without a thought, knowing that at some point I will remember it and all will be well, but this time it gave me pause because of the nature of the word.
It was a fishing word.
I no longer fish, but from the time I was a small child until after college I often spent my days and nights wading up various creeks, or camping on a riverbank, or even trailing a line behind a boat. But as life changed and I drifted further and further from my rural roots I unconsciously fished less and less, until one day I realized I had not touched my fishing pole in years. The line on it had dry rotted and the last jig I used seemed permanently secured to one of the eyeholes.
The word I had forgotten this morning, between meetings and presentations, described the line of string that we used to secure our fish in the water. After a struggle, it floated to the surface.
Except in my mind it sounded more like "Strainger" with a hard "g", because that is how my dad would often pronounce it. This memory evoked images of my brother and I standing on a creek bank with him as he handed us a catfish, saying "Put this on tha strainger" in the drawl I did not notice as a child. This pulled me down into a flood of other memories until I settled on a particularly vivid one. I began to remember how we would fish at night when the catfish were "running". It would be a Friday evening usually, the heat and humidity driving my brother and me to sit in front of our one box fan after arriving from school, when my dad's truck would pull up outside. Before the dust of the dirt road could settle, he would be in the house, rushing us to gather the fishing gear. Inevitably, one of his friends would arrive soon after, with their own dust trail and fishing gear and disheveled children in tow. Sometimes this would be our cousins, of which the father-son pair were roughly equal to the age of my father and myself. Other times it would be Tony and his son Shawn and, if so, Tony's beer, because the one was never far from the other. As we loaded the truck the dogs would excitedly circle, knowing that this was a sign of an adventure.
Being summertime, we would still have several hours of daylight, but would rush because many things had to be done before dark. First, after loading kids and dogs and gear, we would drive down into the woods to one of the many streams. Here the adults would take the seine, a long net secured on each end by two wooden poles, and, standing on each side of the stream, would dip it in the water so that the entire width was covered by the net. Then we kids would start upstream splashing and moving towards the net as the adults worked their way towards us using the wooden poles to drive under the edge of the bank and into roots and holes. To a minnow, this was the equivalent of Armageddon. The tiny fish would race chaotically in the narrowing distance trying to find shelter until bunching up in the confines of the net. And of course we did not call them "minnows" but instead "minners", which we would lift up and dump into a 5 gallon bucket of stream water. Always some would be caught in the net and require us to grab them, slime from the net and stream and their own terror causing us to often miss, until with a silvery flash we could flick them into the bucket with the others. Other times something worse than minnows would be forced out from under a rock by the wooden poles, and a moment of shouting and splashing would ensue as someone jumped from the water, pursued by an angry cottonmouth. Seemingly irritable in the sweltering summer, cottonmouths defied the tendency of most snakes to avoid us, often swimming directly at whoever was nearest. Sometimes this would drive us away, especially if we already had enough minnows, but other times one of the adults would stand their ground and take several shots with a pistol. As boys we found this all very exciting.
Once we collected enough minnows to provide us with bait for the entire night, everyone would load back into the truck, now with an extra bucket full of water and small frightened fish, and we would drive into the pastures that served as "marches" between the farm and the wildlife area. These back pastures saw far more cows and coyotes than people. With each dip and rise in the rough tractor road the bucket would splash at our ankles. As we approached each connecting gate from one field to the next, one of us would leap out of the back of the truck as it slowed and run ahead. The trick was to open the gates fully before the truck arrived so that it never had to come to a full stop. Like everything in our life, this had evolved into an act of gamesmanship where success would be greeted by commendation from the adults and failure would result in jeers. The last pasture lay between the bottom of a wooded hill and the creek itself. Even here, before actually reaching the wildlife area, a feeling of remoteness would settle over the bottom when things were quiet. The opposite bank of the creek contained forest, and downstream it entered a huge wildlife management area that stretched for miles north to the Tennessee Valley. Dad would drive up to the threshold of this expanse, pulling as close to the creek bank as possible without going over the eroded edge, and kids and dogs would leap out to search the area for anything interesting. As the adults carried chairs and lanterns and fishing rods and tackle down the embankment our job was to collect firewood and not play at the edge of the water while doing it. A creek is a treasure trove of excitement for a young boy, mysterious, and full of turtles and snakes, and at least one of us would always be yelled at for skipping rocks or making a lot of noise.
As dusk fell and the already dark woods shifted to impenetrable blackness, we lit the fire. Everyone took a fishing pole, the adults usually taking two or three, and we would each in turn dip our hands into the bucket for a minnow. This had become another game, and anyone incapable of grabbing a minnow in their first few tries would be given a hard time. Dad never missed, and we rarely did ourselves, but when one of his friends from town would be with us, someone less familiar with our world, our comments could be merciless. So much of our jokes then centered around "us versus them" in an endlessly repeating pattern: North versus South, country folk versus city folk, kids versus adults, it went on and on. As a parent now I recoil at the constant pressure to isolate ourselves from everyone around us that I experienced as a kid. But that was the way of things. For those doomed minnows, unaware of our pride and showmanship, instinct demanded that they swim as fast as possible away from the hand in the water. To catch them, I slid my hand down against the inside of the bucket and then slowly began circling, always keeping my forearm near the bucket wall, until the minnows schooled together in a clump. Then, with practiced agility, I quickly scooped up into the pile, trapping two or three against the wall with my palm. I kept the biggest and let the rest drop back into the water.
There are as many different ways to fish as there are types of fish, but we were there primarily for catfish. In our area, many types of catfish existed in the lakes and rivers, including blue cats, yellow cats, and channel cats. But in this small creek, no more than 40 or 50 feet across and 10 to 15 feet at its deepest, we primarily fished for blue cats. To do this, we hooked the minnow through the butt and curved it out beside the spine. This kept the minnow alive and allowed it to kick its tail as it attempted to swim. Catfish would be attracted to the injured minnow. Once secured on the hook, with a small lead sinker spaced about 1 1/2 to 2 feet up the line, the minnow dangled helplessly as one of us would draw back and cast a line out into the darkness of the water. This was another game, another chance for praise or ridicule. As the sinker and minnow shot out into the night everyone watched to see if the minnow remained on the hook. The force of casting caused a poorly hooked minnow to slide off in midair and land with a weak splash, and the line would need to be reeled back in to repeat the entire process.
Once all lines had settled in a web of monofilament stretching in every direction from our spot on the bank into the slowly drifting water, the adults assigned each of their poles to one of us and marched off into the night to set trotlines. Tied to low hanging branches over the water, the heavy strings trailed a series of baited hooks (often using shad guts or chicken livers) that needed to be checked at regular intervals throughout the night. Each time that the adults slipped into the darkness we felt exhilaration of being in charge of the fire and all of the lines. For those moments, we were the boss. Of course, checking trotlines also held peril for us in addition to the freedom from supervision. If one of the adult lines began to bounce and jerk, indicating a fish was testing the bait, our nerves peaked and our hearts began to race. To lose a fish on one of Dad's lines was bad, but to lose the hook as well was terrible. If one of us missed a fish and managed to snag the line on a submerged stump we would try to get everything reset before the adults returned.
Fishing in the dark is very different from its daytime equivalent. Under a glaring summer sun, it is rare to not be able to identify what is caught on the line before it is fully reeled in to the bank. In the black of night, with only the weak flicker of a small campfire illuminating the shore, we often could not identify our catch until the last pull out of the water. This commonly ended in cries of surprise or disappointment. Heavy, cumbersome turtles or spirited drum or carp gave the impression of sizable catfish, while a large gar scattered everyone as it flipped onto the shore and snapped needlelike teeth at ankles and toes. The most dreaded catch also prove to be the most terrifying. Rarely, one of us would pull a long black eel out of the inky water. This instantly led to chairs being turned over and fishing poles dropped because in the dark there was no way to differentiate between a pissed off eel and a pissed off cottonmouth snagged on the hook. As the tangle writhed and flopped in the grass we would slowly get closer, someone having retrieved the lantern to cast better light on the scene, until one of us could pin it down with a long stick and identify the catch.
As the night drifted towards morning we would tell stories and drink coffee brewed in a percolating kettle over the campfire. At some point, either when we had caught more fish than we could eat, or alternately caught no fish and grown tired of the cool dampness that descended on the bottom after midnight, we collected our gear back into the truck, poured any of the lucky remaining minnows back into the water, and put out the fire. Our last act would be to walk down to the murmuring creek and retrieve the stringer. This had always been the measure of how successful a fishing trip had been. One stringer full meant a good trip. Plenty of bravado followed based on who caught the largest or which fish was the most difficult to land. If only a few fish were on the stringer at night's end they would be released back into the creek.
Thinking back on those days a quarter-century ago, I am startled by the extent my life has changed. I have central heat and air, my stomach never aches from hunger, and I am free to be myself outside of the pressures of a small southern town. I have, in essence, a full stringer. Yet a lot of good has also been left behind. The peacefulness of water pushing by as I listen to the fire crackle and the freedom to walk out on a moment's notice to spend a full night fishing are now gone. Just like the sticks we threw into the creek as boys, I have continued moving downstream.
But I don't want to forget.