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Original Issue


In that failing Missouri farm country, bound by potholed roads and poverty, the fish in the creeks were food and a rich source of wonder for a youth

In the Missouri I knew as a boy, nobody called fishing a sport. Life was rooted in the land and fishing was mainly for food. To me, anyway, it was as natural as cutting wood, as sacking nuts or watching the men make whiskey. It was exciting, too, with strong pleasure and sometimes the splendor of magical events, like the Sunday afternoon we seined deep holes and took more fish than sacks to hold them, carp and catfish sliding from the truck bed as we bounced up the rut-torn hill. Or those November nights on the river with boats and lanterns and gigs pronged wide as pitchforks. I no longer fish, and the boy who did is 20 years into the past. Yet memories of that time come constantly to mind. They return to me, or I to them, as if they were my source, a keel of sanity in a world more gnarled and rotted than—at a right-angle bend in the river—the gigantic pile of driftwood and tree trunks we used to call Snake City.

Remembering begins with noon and the sun's raw glare. With hot fields and ridges adrift in the haze. Trees, bluffs, the land transfixed in windless air. And through the rinsing heat, a boy heading down to the river, down the dust-still road toward spots where rocks jutted into the stream or where a tree had fallen and jammed near the bank. He would know beforehand that big fish—bass and buffalo, carp and catfish and drum—were never caught that time of day. But there against stone or bunched roots the water rushed and swirled and dug out a hole. And there with cane pole and worms he could catch 30, sometimes 40, fish.

Perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, the spread and thickness of a man's full hand. Sunfish with colors so finely gray-orange and green that holding one for a moment in his hands, careful of its spiny erections, he could not but wonder at the beauty of these small dumb creatures, so swift to strike, to jerk down the cork and be caught. They rose into sight and hit in a mass. They flashed fins and bright bellies against the hook's hold, fish after fish all afternoon. It became a small rite of plenty, of rapport with life at its ravenous source. The fished-out hole stayed empty but there were always others, always a piece of river secret and untouched. And now, going home, his worth was plain in the fat full stringer. The weight of his catch was proof of luck, of that primeval blessing which fishermen seek.

Almost all his free time he spent on the river. He came to know every hole, slough, creek mouth and gravel bar, every bridge and crossing down or upstream for miles. Where he went on any given day depended on the fishing he wanted to do. He loved best to take his fly rod—a ferruled cane pole to which he'd wired eyes and a reel—and start for the river at dawn. To enter the wet gray stillness of day before sunrise. To turn downhill from the sleeping town, with no sound but footfall and the waking cry of birds. Across pastures, thickets, fencerows, to come out finally on a mud road winding through dark trunks of timber in the bottoms. The world then was suspended in shadow and half-light, dense with the being of earth before man: unmoving quiet shapes and smells—of cattle and cut hay, of wet stones and dew—that in the keen air were like another language, older and more true. At moments like this he felt that nothing in the world was not essential. And when at last he came up on the bridge—a single span of iron rail and loud loose planks—he stopped to watch mist rise and drift above the silk black surface. He stood stock-still and let the purl of water come into his heart, until all the river, its force and grave repose, its life apart from human life, was in him, too.

Upstream the river narrowed with many rapids spilling into depth. Water sprawled spuming through willow and beds of blunt rock to deepen abruptly, six feet, 10 feet, and then go shallow again. It shot in chutes past sandbars and mudbanks to gradually grow broad and still in deep pools. To places like these he made his way, beneath trees arched like a vault, wading sometimes waist-deep to get around brush and the wreckage of trees. He worked then to set his fly down perfectly. It would drop and settle slowly, its small spinner flickering, and instantly his body was alert with waiting for the sudden pull. It came soon or not at all. When it did, up through the tremor of the bending rod sprang shocks of primal life. He could feel the fish as it fought, feel its veering thrust and surge. Each strike felt firm, deliberate, as if each time a bond were being joined. While the outcome was in doubt he wooed with magic and prayer the fish he could not see. Then it became visible, its dark shape forking toward him. He caught rock perch, crappie and bass, none of them so very big. And yet, through the mystery of that first contact, they seemed somehow huge.

He worked each place patiently, and as he fished the sun spread golden through the mist. It climbed, and light cut in shafts through the trees. The water turned from black to gold to transparent green, and then a different kind of fishing began. He replaced the fly with a hook and no longer stopped to try each tempting spot. He moved upstream, on the lookout for holes in which there would be a single big fish—a smallmouth bass charging back and forth in a rage. For some reason these warlike fish took over smaller pools. They did not defend a nest, so far as he could tell, but only the hole itself. They attacked intruders, they stayed in plain sight, and for a long time they were impossible to catch. Minnows, poppers, crawdads, too, he tried without luck. What worked he found by chance. He was watching one of these fish when a frog about three inches long jumped away from him into the water. It started kicking across the surface, and in a flash the bass was under it, churning in tight circles. The longer the frog swam the more enraged the fish became. It rushed to the end of the pool and shot back. It rammed into the frog with a vicious shake of its head, gulped, and went back to its irate patrol. That was how to do it. He would catch a frog and jab the hook through its belly. A minute later he had the bass on his line. These were big fish, five and six pounds, and more than once he splintered the bamboo rod.

He would take three or four bass like that and start home with tails dragging the dust. He stopped again on the bridge, this time to stare down through his own image and gradually make out, in the dark hole under the bridge, the most enormous bass he'd ever seen. It weighed 10 or more pounds, or so he guessed. It was there each time he passed, hovering mid-depth on the upstream side. And nothing, not lures, not live bait, not the many movements of men, disturbed its perfect calm. It seemed never to move, merely to appear and vanish, as if part of the river itself. He had seen men shoot fish from bridges (though not this bridge), especially the slow-moving carp that nosed along the bottom in bunches of five or 10. When one was hit, it zigzagged madly, its thick back cutting the surface, its wound white and pulpy, like a ripe rose. This fish, though, seemed apart from harm, beyond guns, dynamite, the unfair things men used to take fish, electric shock cranked into the water from an old box telephone. Maybe it knew, the same way crows or deer know, men armed from men unarmed. It seemed inviolate and wise, not at all like the brazen, nervous bass he caught with frogs. It seemed, in fact, the spirit of this place to which he came at dawn, and every time he saw it he felt deeply at peace.

The boy, of course, is myself, a self more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree whose life has reached to many rings. Once, out for firewood, another boy and I crosscut a trunk of walnut that had lain barkless and rotting for maybe 50 years. When the yard-thick halves rolled clean we found the ooze of sap still live at its heart. Time remakes the meaning of such moments. They grow in memory and come finally to speak for the whole of one's life. I try, anyway, to stay loyal to those times on the river. Amid the damage of living I find purchase in that uncluttered coming to selfhood of a boy whose serious solitude began on clear-water streams, the Maries and Little Maries, the Osage, St. Francis, Castor, Huzzah, Black, Blue Tavern, Jacks Fork. Most of them were small enough to flashflood after a night's downpour. They fell to almost a trickle in late summer, and you could hear a boat coming miles off as it bumped and scraped through the shallows.

I fished alone often, but not always and not at first. Like any beginner I had to learn from someone: techniques, judgments, places. I had to receive a code of simple conduct, or merely an essential feeling, and this was my father's gift to me. It was a deep, unconscious giving, the only thing, I sometimes think, entirely his to give. He was a carpenter turned schoolteacher, moving from job to job, small town to small town, leaving friends, enemies, a string of half-built houses. Nothing much worked out, which might, perhaps, be said for most men. But my father, at least, knew how to retrieve himself from the debris of his life, and that knowledge became mine through him. From the time I was six we would dig worms and with an armful of poles take off at evening for the river. We would bait up and cast out to the channel, then sit back in the calm and watch the sun slant downward.

Sometimes we got ambitious and drove to special places, most often to one of the big dams—Bagnell, Wappapello, Clearwater—where fish gathered in great bunches along the edges of the spillway. You could see them, dark flashing shapes crowding the bank to escape the pounding of the water where it churned up from the floodgates. To fish close to the dam was forbidden, but with a treble hook—three big hooks welded back to back—we could cast upstream into that swarming mass and snag them with hard jerks on the line. Or else we fished the channel with heavy sinkers that dragged slowly downstream. Along the embankments of towering concrete, six-foot gar floated like logs in the sun, and at Bagnell, on the Osage, catfish large as men were said to lie at the base of the dam. The biggest one I saw was four feet, a blue cat with slit belly and guts cleaned out that pulled loose from the stringer and swam off. There we caught crappie, channel cat and, sometimes in great batches, the silver-bright humpback drum.

For a time, too, we fished small streams with trotlines, cord strung from log or rock across the river with a dozen hooks baited and left overnight. We took nice catfish that way, and now and then a soft-shell turtle. Better than any catch was the excitement of going to check it in the morning. If a 10-pound flathead was on, the water fairly boiled. Mostly, though, we just put out lines and settled down to wait. I'm amazed now how broadly satisfying that was. Once we fixed the poles, propped them with stones and forked sticks, we felt that simply being there was enough. What we caught or didn't catch was up to luck entirely. Luck meant a mess offish, of course, but on those soft evenings it meant something more: participation in an order as slow and patient as the earth itself, a harmony whose silent moving depth was like the river. Shadows spread, and across the hills came ringing of far-off church bells. Walls of trees massed darkly from high banks over the water, and upstream pale-limbed sycamores grew ghostly in the twilight. The air cooled and dew damped our clothes. Nothing stirred. First one, then another whippoorwill began to call, and as night rose the peace got so intense that to reel in and leave seemed almost sacrilege.

And then there was grennel fishing. That, anyway, was what we called it. Grennel are also known as grindle or bowfin, and in Mingo Swamp they grow ungodly large. Eight to 18 pounds, two to three feet long and thickly lean with wicked teeth and a flared fin running the length of the back. They hit best on cut bait—we used chunks of carp—and they fought with brute fury. Mingo lay in one of the old channels of the Mississippi north of the Arkansas line. It was banked for water control, and the only way in was to walk, two, three miles along dikes and levees, cutting through brush with machetes, sidestepping the cotton-mouths and rattlers that everywhere thrived in the mud and mud-thick waters. That place was nothing human, and when the reeds ahead began to shiver and slowly part, you stopped and allowed time for what was moving there to make up its mind.

We used cane poles, 15-footers cut new each time we went in. Carp swarmed so thick in some of those sloughs that for bait we just clubbed what we needed and sliced them up. Then we waded in waist-deep, huge fish splashing around us, the gumbo sucking at our feet. We set out the poles in a wide circle, rammed them into the bottom so they stuck out of the water at an angle, with the chunks of fish meat on hooks a foot below the surface. We stood then at the center and waited for strikes. We never waited long. Grennel hit like locomotives and moved on without slowing. The pole would heave and begin slapping the water in wild arcs, sometimes two at once, and the only way to take those fish was to scoop them into dip nets as they swept past our legs. There was no end to what we could catch that way. They piled up on the bank, fish after fish, as many as we could carry. Getting back to the car with a hundred pounds of fish was hard going. We decided finally to build a makeshift wheelbarrow, wooden so we could float it. We hauled out our catch in that and left it there for the next time.

That was when we lived in Glennon, in the southeast end of the state. The town had a population of about 30 people. There was a gravel lane flanked by eight or nine houses, some of them empty, and a wooden church that later burned down. We sat steep on a ridge over swampland and cane-brake 20 miles from Marble Hill, the county seat, and 10 from Leopold, where the school was. Every spring high water half-destroyed the roads—dirt, gravel, blacktop torn into potholes—that bound the country together. Farming was all there was, and each farm took its bearing from the closest town. If a man said he was from Zalma or Clubb he most likely meant from a farm nearest the junction with that name. The towns were small indeed, often no more than a church, a couple of houses and a general store that was also the post office and gas station. I gradually came to know these places, but at first their names alone were real, names like Advance and Arab and Gipsy and Drum, like Loose Creek or Folk or Rich Fountain, from which I got my first notion of the backwoods as a community. I did some of my best fishing while we lived in Westphalia where in addition to a paved street there was a stone church, a tavern much used, a school and a mill for grinding feed. The town was strung out on a mile-long bluff above a river that cupped it on three sides. From our house you could look off and see it winding beneath the trees and sky, cutting through hills and valleys as it disappeared and then appeared again to vanish finally in a distant stand of gum and cottonwood.

The life we lived was failing even then—the land wearing out, the young people leaving—but communal customs still survived. People got together to build a corncrib, to work on cars, to meet at sunrise on a neighbor's farm and bring in the whole crop in one day's time. Every gathering had a purpose beyond mere meeting, and so, too, with fishing on Sundays. After church, talk went from farming to the weather, from that to fishing, and in the afternoon maybe 30 people and a dozen dogs would gather on a farm near the river, the women to start the meal, the men to pile everything—nets, sacks, dogs, kids—onto a wagon or into the back of a pickup and take off for stretches of water where the big fish were. We would bump along through the bottoms high in corn and sorghum cane, the air sultry, the sun blazing stubbornly down. Heat lightning flickered faintly without sound, and beyond the rim of hills loomed massive thunderheads. They would stand there for days, miles high and motionless.

Once on the river we planned our strategy, unraveled the nets and took our positions. Then real fishing began. In overalls and old shoes, hats cocked tight, we waded in with 40 feet of spread seine. We dragged the length of channels, we circled snags and deep holes and went in to drive the fish from hiding. We splashed, poked, danced on the limbs of sunk trees. Ten-pound carp shot headlong into the net, bass darted up and down its length, catfish swaggered slowly back as we fought to bring the deep end around and outflank them in the shallows. Then into the mass of seething fish we charged, clubbing, grabbing, digging fingers into torn bloody gills. We hugged heaving fish bodies against our own, scales like silver dollars rubbing off on our skin, clothes, hair. The men were left the catfish, whose teeth did real damage, whose erect side fins stuck out like pointed knives. There was only one way to take a cat bare-handed: ram your fist straight down its throat and grab, fast, before it could bash into you or grind its teeth across your arm.

And afterward, supper. The fish were skinned and filleted, each piece finely cross-sliced so small bones would fry to a crisp. Wood stoves roared with flame in the cook shed, and into kettles of boiling lard were dumped pounds and pounds of fish steaks. They had been rolled in cornmeal, and when they were done the crust was hard and golden around meat white and tender and unbelievably sweet. There was always a fish fry. But when the haul was great each man took home a share as well. When this happened the fish were sorted into a circle of glistening heaps on the grass. Everyone helped except one man, who stood apart with his back turned. His job was to answer with one of our names each time another man pointed to a mound of fish and called out "Whose?" The pointing started at random, but once in motion it went from pile to pile in order. An enormous catfish might by itself be a share, and it went in the order of the circle to the next name called.

There was one other kind of fishing—on winter nights, with 20-foot gigs, from boats along the deepest stretches of water. It took skill, it took a man's whole strength, and my own first time with the gig—not just being in the boat but actually doing the spearing—was a moment of fear and exulted entry into that much, at least, of manhood's joy. In winter big fish came to settle in the wide, long parts of the river, not in the channel but in sloughs and elbows of backwater, six, eight, 10 feet down among logs and pockets of mud. Spots like these were too deep to seine, and to try with hook and line was useless because of the snags. But here the river's biggest fish were found. You could look down from the boat and see them, their bellies pressed to the bottom, their dark shapes still in the shadows. The trick was to jam steel barbs into one of those backs and then get it up through 10 feet of water. And you had to do it right, otherwise you lost the gig and maybe swamped the boat. Twenty pounds of fish caused fierce commotion. It appeared to sleep, to be mesmerized by the cold. But the second you touched it, it sprang to violent life.

We used a 20-foot flat-bottom boat, and once on the water—there were never more than three of us—we poled with the shaft of the gig, its 10-inch teeth upturned and gleaming. We hung out a kerosene lantern and glided in a globe of light, a coppery glow that lit up the bank as we passed. Things came out of the dark and fell back again, tangles of root and stone, fallen trees, the jagged rock face of bluffs rising hundreds of feet from the water. The lantern hissed softly and nobody spoke. We watched the silt-gray circle of light slide over the bottom. It cut into darkness and spread through the river's debris. We examined each clutter of rock and logs until, at first sight just a log, we found the object of our search. In that instant the night became vibrant with life. Far off a dog barked twice, tires spun gravel on the ridge road, and below, in the river's silence, great gills flexed slowly.

You stood then on the seat at the tip of the boat, your mind fixed on the fish, and began to lower the head of the gig. The distance had to be judged with care: too close and your thrust would not gain momentum, not close enough and you would be off-balance when you hit. With about two feet to go, you stopped, gathered your body like a fist and came down with all your weight on the fish. It was like plugging into a dynamo. A cloud of swirling silt arose, an explosion of hurt heaving life at its center, and everything—the boat, the light, your own flesh—began to tremble against the violent shudder of the gig. At such a moment, to ever get the fish into the boat did not seem possible. If it got off the bottom it would start to swim, and if that happened it would be too strong to hold. You just leaned on the shaft of the gig and bore down, waiting for the fish to spend its strength. Eventually it did; it fell suddenly quiet and then you could lift it to the surface. In the boat you stepped on its head and yanked the barbs free. It lay there, its tail twitching slowly, its torn flesh hanging in tendrils.

Fishing was brutal, savage, cruel, but none of that was the point. Joy was what counted, the rush of deep delight that came, I think, from rites that for a million years kept men living and in touch with awe. On the river I felt untroubled and at home, as if creation were a living whole in which I, too, took part. At such times I loved to fish—that is the word. I felt thankful for my luck and in wonder at the mystery I touched upon. That was the blessing of boyhood. It depended on a way of life now largely vanished and to which in any case I cannot return. Perhaps that is why I no longer fish. Except in memory, a grace that is lost stays lost.