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Never Cuddle a Hornpout

Sometimes called a bullhead, it is a small-scale monster of no charm but remarkable liveliness in a fight

It had taken Champ a good many months to get me interested in horn-pout fishing, once I realized that a horn-pout was fundamentally an eastern bullhead. In the part of the Middle West that I had grown up in—in Minnesota—tying into a bullhead was only a little less gloomy an event than snagging a hook on the scalloped tail of some vast, ancient mud turtle.

In southern New Hampshire, though, hornpouting seemed to be a recognized sport. People I knew would go after them in spring and fall, in the hour just after twilight, appearing immediately afterward at kitchen poker tables or bowling tournaments with rusty buckets full to flipping over with catches of horn-pouts, which looked like intertwined nests of overfed blacksnakes, whimpering together, writhing and churning like inky living hearts. To me they were a fish only an ichthyologist could love. But fashion is fashion and, in the end, Champ, who is as shrewd and knowledgeable a sportsman as I have found in that corner of New Hampshire, tempted me into going out with him.

We climbed out of the cab of Champ's weathered navy-blue pickup truck just after sundown. Carl, a longtime friend of Champ's who lives and keeps a row-boat on the eastern beach of little Lake Todd, came out and offered us a hand. Lake water had somehow collected beneath the stern seat of the rowboat, and we bailed out what we could with a half-flattened two-pound coffee can. Champ, who is not tall but is square-set enough to make up for it, worked his way gingerly toward the rowboat's front, and once he was settled I handed him his paper pail full of old leaves and snarls of night crawlers and shoved us off.

Once we were properly out and had left the lily pads, and little choppy waves had started to bang and slide hollowly around the planking, it was completely black. The blades of the oars swirled soft and invisible on both sides of us. We went straight up the lake for a hundred yards or so and let ourselves drift freely while we got our bearings in the upcoming twilight wind. With the help of a flashlight we found a stump Carl had mentioned as a promising spot. I let the very light little cylinder of anchor out until it nicked the bottom.

Champ handed me a drop line, which he had already set for depth by tying a loop of slipknot where he thought I should hold it out beyond the right-hand gunwale. The night was very dark, moonless, peaceful. Waves were battering and rocking us gently, and we were already dragging our little anchor and drifting steadily toward shore.

I felt something alive hauling lightly against my touch, and began to take up the unseen line fingerhold over fingerhold. It came up straight but twirling, broke through the surface with a mashing of bubbles and scraped around the gunwale. I heard it skittering across the ribs immediately beneath my feet.

I planted a sneaker on whatever it was. "Guess I got one," I told Champ.

"Guess you do."

"Maybe I ought to have a look at it." Groping, I came across the flashlight and played its weak beam around the debris under me. The fish looked at most 10 or 11 inches long, with a freckled, seaweed-green back. It had the wide, spade-shaped snout of a little aquatic cobra, with tiny, yellow eyes almost at the edges and a ferocious complex of what looked like wavering, wet, black darning needles working above and below its jaws.

Champ moved closer to say: "You know which ones the horns are?"

"Yah. Part of the whiskers."

Champ snorted. "Those're just the feelers. Actually, right now your hand is around one of the horns."

"No kidding?" Inside my palm I thought I felt something beginning to scratch me. My hand snapped open; I caught the line as the hornpout dropped and held it suspended by the leader. "What happens if it does stick you?"

"You bleed, and it stings like hell. Some people, their bodies really react to it and it gets 'em quite sick. The horns are in that top fin and the two side fins just behind the head."

Squinting, I was able to make the horns out—hollow-looking quills of cartilage along the fins' front edges.

"It's only by you hitting him or him moving that he stings you. He doesn't sting you," Champ said. "You prick yourself with him. If you go to touch him and he wriggles, that's when it happens. Here, I'll show you something. The best thing is to get your hand right up on the hook and hold him like that, see?" Champ pinched the hornpout tight where its lips had closed around the shank of the hook. "Prevents them from wriggling too much. Then you can take him crossways, but the best idea is to slide right up his back with your two fingers and let the part between 'em push up the top fin while the tips of the fingers pull back the two at the sides. See?" Champ swung the hornpout over. I steadied the fish cautiously by tensing its lips against the hook and, while its sinuous black feelers stroked wetly across my thumb and it emitted its legendary whimpering pout, was finally able to gaff it the way he had showed me. Champ tossed my hornpout into a badly calcified old pail somewhere toward the bow. I wove a new springy night crawler onto my hook as evenly as I could.

We had drifted back into the lily pads, and Champ rowed us back out again. Except for the sluck of water against the sides it was completely still, the sky muffled and heavy with its pall of cloud. Bilge rolled unceasingly back and forth across my spongy sneakers. Suddenly the hornpout in the pail in front began to batter and thresh wildly, hammering against the pail's scaly, resounding sides. "Still alive," I said.

Champ stopped rowing. "See, they'll live out of water anywhere from two to three days. These here, you can leave 'em right in that dry pail overnight and throw 'em back in the water next morning and they'll swim away from you. Even after you get 'em cleaned—skin 'em, because that's how it's done around here; you break the spine just behind the gills and pull the rest of 'em completely out of their skins—and throw those fillets into a frying pan they'll still continue to wiggle their tails at you. Because a hornpout," Champ said as he took up the oars again, "has actually got quite a lot of life to it."