I spent Memorial Day in Delphos, Kansas, the environs of which have been the maternal side of my family’s ancestral home, since my great-great grandfather Allison homesteaded there in the 1860’s. When I was a lad, the holiday was called “Decoration Day,” and while military veterans received the honors due them, families placed flowers on the graves of all of their close–and sometimes not so close–relatives and friends. This year I didn’t hear the holiday called anything other than Memorial Day, and my cousin Kate Jacques’s keynote address concerned the 75 Civil War veterans buried in the city cemetery. But otherwise, graves were decorated just as they had always been.
Visiting departed friends and relatives brings back a myriad of memories, of course; that’s what it’s supposed to do. In my case, a some of those memories are wrapped around catfishing.
The Solomon River formed most of the southern boundary of my grandfather’s “home place.” It’s very steep and sometimes very slippery banks were where I learned to fish for catfish and, by extension, everything else.
Perhaps noting that I can’t swim and absolutely detest getting wet unless I’m bathing will help explain why my most vivid memory of the river isn’t about me catching a catfish. I was about 10 years old and had been entrusted with two steel minnow buckets filled with sunfish my grandfather was using to bait limblines. Literally without warning, I slipped and shot past him down the bank and into the river.
He rarely got visibly upset with me, but this time he acted like falling into the water–and losing most of the sunfish out of one of the buckets–was completely my fault. Years later, when I had kids of my own, I figured out that he was half afraid because something serious could have happened to me and half afraid of what he knew my grandmother was going to say when we got back to the house.
Larry Thurston was a good friend in high school and became one of my best friends while we were at Kansas State. When I visited his grave, I remembered one night when he and I decided to set some limblines for flatheads on Tuttle Creek Reservoir. When we boated away from our impromptu shoreline campsite around midnight, the moon was full, so we didn’t bother to go back for the flashlight we’d left behind.
In retrospect, the flashlight would have come in handy, and the landing net lying beside it would have been even handier. To shorten an action-packed half-hour to a few sentences, one of our lines held a large and extremely unhappy flathead. After trying several other options, Larry got a two-handed grip on a conveniently located tree and tried–successfully as it turned out–to keep the 16-foot square-stern canoe we were in positioned between us and the lake. Meanwhile, I maneuvered the flathead to the back end of the boat and reached down, intending to grab her by the lower jaw. I missed her jaw and shoved my hand and forearm down her throat, at which time she clamped her jaws shut a couple of inches below my elbow.
Call me a sissy if you must, but I thought it hurt. By the time I’d pulled the fish over the transom and into the bottom of the boat, during which process she’d surrendered less than three inches of now-bleeding forearm, I knew it hurt. On the other hand, the flathead weighed 52 pounds, six ounces the next morning on certified scales, and a “sandpapered” arm is a badge of honor among catfishermen.
Every fishing trip my father and I took produced memorable moments, but the one that fits best with this theme took place on the Red River near Drayton, North Dakota. We were letting the boat drift down river toward town as the sun set on the only evening we hadn’t caught any decent catfish. Neither of us had a line in the water.
People who knew my father will have no trouble believing that he rummaged around in the bottom of the boat and found a sun-dried frog. After naming it Herman, he shoved a hook through its head and started jigging it on the bottom.
As if that weren’t crazy enough, he started trying to encourage the defunct amphibian. “Come on, Herman. You can do it, Herman. Find me a fish, Herman.”
I turned my back, so I could concentrate on not choking on my laughter. Then I heard a grunt, followed by an order to get the boat into the middle of the river, because “this is a big one.” If you call a 22-pound channel cat a “big one,” it was, too.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]