When my friend Jerry invited me to join him, Chad, James and Tim for a couple days on the Trophy Waters of the Au Sable River, I worried that I would be out of place in this group of tremendously talented writers and artists. But just as I’ve come to know Jerry to be, these guys are as kind and humble as they are talented, so I was fine. To be safe, though, I vowed to keep my mouth shut and let them think I was a fool rather than open it and remove all doubt, which, for instance, might happen if I tried to impress them with some overused quotation from Mark Twain.
As I anticipated, the guys were cerebral and witty in a writer and artist sort of way, but when Jerry told us that we were going to fish at a place called Alligator Bend where he had caught some huge fish several years ago with his friends Kelly and Bob, something akin to a demonic possession afflicted this group of distinguished scholars.
“Hell ya, man, let’s snag a gator.”
“I can’t wait to stick some of those pigs.”
“Yeah baby, we’re gonna snare some toads.”
“Let’s stop talking and go bag a donkey.”
Oh my, I thought, this could be my chance to get a trophy. Finally, I would bring home a special memento to hang on my wall and show to my friends while I tell them about the night I fished Alligator Bend with the men of letters. This sort of thing is never easy, though, and many years ago—in the process of teaching me to fish—my mom showed me that the scene doesn’t always follow the script when you target a trophy.
My mom’s relationship with fish was distinguished by a simple four-step procedure.
Catch them. Clean them. Fry them. Eat them.
With few exceptions, steps two through four always followed step one. Sure, she occasionally threw the small ones back, but she never ‘released’ them. People born in 1921 and raised in Boskydell, Illinois didn’t know any other way, I suppose.
My first lessons from the Beulah Marie Holliday school of fishing involved a cane pole, a plastic bobber and a clump of garden worms—or night crawlers when she could afford them—impaled on a bright Eagle Claw hook. Her equipment was more sophisticated. Using a fiberglass rod with a Zebco 33 reel, she propelled a convoluted arrangement of swivels and hooks as close to the center of the pond as she could manage. A lead bank-sinker provided the energy for her launches, and also served to keep her line tight enough to cut cheese after she secured her rod in its spiral holder and clamped a small metal bell to the tip of the rod to signal when a fish had taken the bait. When she was satisfied that everything was as it should be, she’d return to her aluminum chair and fire up a Winston. “I’m just dying for a cigarette,” she’d usually declare, which was much more true than she imagined at that time.
After I mastered the cane pole, my mom gave me a small rod with a Zebco 202 reel and a little tackle box stocked with swivels, hooks, bank sinkers, a spiral rod holder, and a small metal bell. To maximize my efficiency, she taught me the difference between the way the bell sounded when only one bluegill was hooked versus the way it sounded with two. “No need to bring in your line with only one fish,” she would say. Fishing from the bank of some small Illinois farm pond, my mom and I would repeat her process until we filled our white styrofoam cooler with enough bluegills to feed the two of us and several guests. Then she’d load our gear into her Plymouth and drive us home.
That’s pretty much the way I fished until a railroad conductor who patronized my mom’s tavern gave me some old Field & Stream magazines. Poring over those pages, I learned that if you knew what you were doing—and several articles in those magazines explained exactly what you needed to know—you could catch a trophy. Fishing, I realized, could be about more than food. If everything went right, you could catch a fish big enough to mount on your wall, and all your friends would marvel in awe.
“Can I try to catch a trophy?” I asked my mom. Occasionally we would catch a small catfish during our bluegill harvests, but we hadn’t really targeted them. If we did try to catch a catfish, I reasoned, we could probably get a trophy. The night before our trophy trip, my mom put two frozen packages in our sink to thaw. One was a box of shrimp she had bought at the grocery store; the other was a package of chicken livers she had gathered from chickens she had killed, plucked, and cleaned in our yard.
When we got to the pond, my mom replaced our single-barb hooks with big ugly three-pronged gaffs. Mom loaded her hooks with chicken livers; I rigged mine with shrimp. We cast, attached the bells, then began to wait. We would normally have well over a dozen bluegills in our cooler by the time my mom had smoked six cigarettes, but today she was on her seventh and the bells were still silent. My mom was about to switch to small hooks and worms when the water abruptly boiled with raindrops and we scurried back to the Plymouth, where, from my perch on the front seat, I could look over the hood and see the little golden bell on the tip of my rod. I would lose sight of my rod when a sheet of rain would fall, but between the water surges I could see it. Until the time that I couldn’t.
My mom must have noticed first because she opened her door and yelled “let’s go!” I jumped out of the car, saw the rod bent nearly to the water and heard the distinctive screech of the Zebco’s drag. My mom handed me the rod and said something about keeping the tip high.
The state record for a channel catfish in Illinois was something like 40 or 45 pounds, but my 15 pound trophy got plenty of attention in the local hardware store where we took the fish to have it weighed. When we got home my mom nailed the fish’s head to a tree so she could skin it before slicing its thick flesh into chunky filets. Alas, my trophy hung on a tree for a short time, but never on a wall. She did put its severed head in our freezer, though, and for the next few months she proudly showed the frozen souvenir to everyone who visited our house.
Although we fished the Trophy Waters until well after dark, we snagged no gators, stuck no pigs, snared no toads, and bagged no donkeys. But none of the guys seemed concerned about this, and we held a triumphant celebration upon our return to the cabin. Chad played music from a ‘portable’ speaker system he had constructed from old tobacco cans, and we feasted on peanuts, cheese sticks and crackers while we drank every drop of Tim’s imported Scotch “one wee dram” at a time. And of course we told stories and jokes.
Writers and artists have a way of seeing things that the rest of us don’t until they show them to us, and sometime between the first Joshua Davis song and the last dram of Scotch, my friends helped me realize that we had indeed caught a trophy that night. It came to hand during a rushed moment just before we launched our expedition, and now, in a modest frame behind a plate of glass, the trophy hangs on my office wall where I proudly show it to friends while I tell them about the memorable night that I fished Alligator Bend with the men of letters.