Redfin Rising Copyright (C) 2006 Tim Haywood
To my Grandfather, who taught me how to be a fisherman.
We stood together at the end of the table next to the kitchen door, under the light bulb, as Granddad took the clear, plastic pill bottles from the old tackle box one by one, laying their contents out for inspection on the blue plaid oil cloth that covered the table. The July air was still and wet, like a warm blanket around my head, full of air already breathed, wrapped around everything so I was aware of it slipping against me as I moved. The bare bulb hanging on a foot of twisted wire from the high, lath ceiling cast hard shadows that lay black against the grey echo of the light from the other end of the kitchen, and a crane fly stumbled upward against the wall like some drunken, giant mosquito dancing with its shadow.
“We’ll be too far from the car to go back if we forget something.”, Granddad said, “We have to make sure everything is ready.”
Grandmamma sat near the stove, at the other end of the long kitchen table, listening to the chicken smother frying beneath the dinner plate on top of the frying pan. It would come out sweet and sticky and falling off the bones. The drumsticks were mine, and there would be three in my lunch tomorrow.
“You better make that boy a fish bucket, too, before you sit down. He’ll need one for his own fish so I can see ‘em when you get back. Then I can make sure its his fish I’m cooking for him tomorrow night.”
“I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.”, he said. “I’ve got to finish this first.”
The crane fly flushed a moth and settled suddenly in a shadow in the crack of the molding at the corner of the ceiling. I looked back at the table.
Each bottle contained two number three, gold Mepps spinners with red plastic around the shanks of the treble hooks. Each spinner was checked to make sure that the shaft wasn't bent and that it would spin easily and that the hooks were sharp. Two spare reels of thirty pound test line were taken out, and two spools of white cloth, adhesive tape for wrapping around the line at the tip of the cane poles. I was finally going with him! I knew that the tape was to hold the half hitches in place at the end of the pole and take the strain from the knot. And white was used so it could be seen more easily in the flickering light of a fire while fishing for cats and eels at night. Granddad had shown me how to put a line on a cane pole the summer before, and had promised he would take me with him to the swamp for redfins this year. I’d been fishing with my uncles in the river swamp before, bait fishing for bream and catfish, but I’d never seen anyone troll for redfins. That was the secret of a master fisherman.
Redfin pike are the brook trout of southern lowland waters, small and pugnacious and gullible. They are even colored like brook trout, black on the back fading to a rich cream color on the bottom with blotchy patterns on the side to hide them in the shifting patterns of light in the clear, springwater streams of the southern coastal plain. The belly fins are flushed with red, bright blood red in front and fading to cream at the back of each fin. They are small compared with other "sport" fish. A redfin twelve inches long is huge, but when I was a boy they were prized for their taste, and catching them was an incredible adventure.
“Well, I guess we’re almost ready. You’d better put this in the car.”, said Granddad, replacing the last spool of line and closing the green plastic tackle box. “Now we have to make you a fish bucket before we turn in.”
I grabbed the tackle box, ran through the open door to the screen porch and bounded through the screen door, slamming it against the old refrigerator reserved for worms and yellow jacket nests. One leap cleared the two concrete steps, plunging me into the darkness of the yard beneath the pecan tree.
Shafts of yellow light streamed out from the open windows and doors of the kitchen, somehow managing to penetrate the thick night air. The old, black Chevrolet waited there with its sun visor set like a baseball cap across the windshield, merging around the edges with the darkness, reflecting the kitchen lights diffusely from gentle curves. The back seat was in for this trip because there were no buckets of bait or anchors or boat cushions to be carried; but the two stiff, cane poles tied to the carriers at the corners of the door on the passenger side still marked it as a fishing car.
The air was moving outside, drifting just enough to feel a flush of coolness on one side, but not enough to force its way through the screens into the house. As I stopped for a moment to experience the soft breath of the wind, the night filled with cricket sounds and the shadows of the moonlight touched me. The quartz of the white sand reflected the gray light, almost blue, in reflections that were only diffusely swallowed by the infinities of the shadows. I gazed into them for a moment, caught like the crane fly, not knowing what they were.
Granddad came out on the porch and turned on the yard lights. The shadows fled instantly across yard into the faceless darkness behind the woodshed, and waited in quiet pockets beneath the broom straw in the moonlight beyond the fence at the edge of the yard. I had been watching, and saw them run.
“Bring me that roll of hardware cloth leaning against the pecan tree there.”
I dropped the tackle box into the floor of the car, grabbed the roll of galvanized quarter-inch mesh screen wire, and bounded up the steps to the porch.
Granddad turned off the yard lights to save electricity, and pulled one of the cowhide covered chairs into the light from the door to work. The brown and white hair on the hide was worn thin in a couple of places, but still gave the chair an easy, natural decoration. I pulled another into the shadows on the other side, across the light, and sat watching with my arms crossed over the high back. With a pair of tin snips he cut a square of hardware cloth so that it would cover a five gallon metal bucket with about two inches to spare on each side. The corners were turned down and fastened with bailing wire passed underneath the bucket to the opposite corner. A small square hole about two inches on a side was cut in the exact center.
“The hardware cloth will keep the fish from jumping out and you can use it for a seat at lunch time.”, he said.
You sit on the bucket because everything else to sit on in the swamp is covered with red bugs. Any redfin we would catch would easily slip through the two inch hole, and the occasional large pickerel, or jack, would be a prize worth unfastening the bailing wire for. A little cold spring water from the river would keep the catch fresh if it was changed often enough, and the bucket would allow us to approach the water warily without having to worry about keeping a stringer of fish wet all the time. And, in the swamp, stringers of fish hanging in the water or laying on the ground while you fished a hole would attract snakes - another very good reason for the bucket.
Finally everything was prepared and in the car except for lunch. Grandmamma had prepared the strong, sweet tea in two quart jars now sitting on the table along with a jar of peanut butter and some Ritz crackers. We would keep the tea in the shade and drink it without ice the next day. The chicken was in the refrigerator.
“I’ll make extra biscuits in the morning for you.”, she said, “Now you’d better get some sleep. Don’t forget to wash your feet.”
The sooner I was asleep, the sooner morning would come, so I didn’t hesitate. I dipped some water into the wash pan and got the dust and dirt just to the edge of my pants legs, leaving a clear line between washed and unwashed. But no one checked and I made it to the bed, but not to sleep, and lay awake for what seemed like hours, staring into the darkness above me, listening to the crickets outside the window and imagining huge pike, too big for the hole in the bucket, rushing out from the shadows of cypress roots to catch my spinner.
The mockingbird in the rose vine outside my window woke me at dawn, and I could hear muffled conversation coming from the kitchen, where breakfast was almost ready. I usually just lay there for a while, until the old mocker flew to the post at the corner of the garden. But today I was into my jeans and sneakers and through the hallway to the kitchen as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
“I was just about to get you.”, said Grandmamma. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
She had a dish towel folded in her hand and used it to pull down the oven door to check the biscuits. The scrambled eggs sat, already cooked, in the iron skillet where they would stay warm a while, and a plate of bacon rested over the oven vent on top of the stove.
“The biscuits'll be done in a little, Wes. You want to say prayers.”
Granddad put his bible back on the shelf by his chair and knelt on the floor with his elbow in the seat and his head resting in his hand. I did the same by my chair at the table. Grandmamma sat in her chair across the table, just next to the stove, with the dish towel folded over her knees.
Granddad didn’t shorten his morning prayer for fishing, and asked for God’s blessing on the whole community, one by one it seemed. After a while I heard the oven door creak, and knew that Grandmamma was worried about her biscuits. The “Amen” quickly followed, and soon I was pouring the sweet, iced tea for Granddad and myself. Grandmamma waited until after the blessing to pour herself a cup of thick, black Lousianne coffee, that smelled as much of chicory as it did of coffee.
Soon she was putting biscuits in the paper bag with the chicken and sending us out the door. She stood at the edge of the porch while Granddad started the Chevy.
“I’m expectin' to see a mess of fish when y’all come back.”, she called across the yard.
I held on to the dash as we lurched out of the yard in second gear.
“Don’t have to use first unless I’m start’n off up hill,” Granddad bragged on the old car as usual.
Soon we were sending a plume of yellow dust into the air as we rode the washboards in the big curve by Jim Spivy’s house about a half mile down the road. The Chevy had holes around the fender wells to the trunk, so it wasnt long before I could taste the dust as it drifted out of the trunk along with the musky smell of meal worms and old yellowjacket nests that Grandmamma always complained about when we went to church.
“We’re going to fish the small water above Boggy Bridge.”, said Granddad, “and we have to go through Roland Sumner's fields to get to the river, so we need to stop by his house on the way in.”
Mr. Sumner’s place was a small collection of houses and barns and pecan trees just off the highway. His children had settled with their families in a cluster small frame houses near the big house they grew up in. Like most people in the area, they worked shifts in the clothing factories for a living and helped to keep the farm going in their spare time. Mr. Sumner was a full-time farmer, though, and we found him near the barn as we drove through his yard to get to the river.
“Hey, Mr. Wes, goin' fishing this mornin'?”
Mr. Sumner put one hand up to the roof of the Chevy and hooked the thumb of the other hand into the galluses on his overalls as we stopped.
“Yes. This is JW’s boy, visiting for a while. We’d like to see if we can find a redfin down on Boggy Bridge or at Sister’s Bluff.”
“It’s going to be a hot day for it.”, said Mr. Sumner, “Marvin Clements was in here last week without much luck, but you’re welcome to try. You need to be careful about going too far down Sister’s Bluff, though. I hear there’s a mean sow with a litter of half-grown pigs in there somewhere.”
Granddad leaned one elbow out of the window and talked about fishing and crops and who was sick in the community. Mr. Sumner put one foot on the running board of the car and talked about the new preacher and crops and the weather. I sank down in the seat and waited, and waited.
Finally the conversation ended with admonitions about new terraces across the corn field, and we continued our way past the barns and along the tractor path to the back of the field. The old Chevy felt like a carnival ride as we ran the furrows plowed across the road. The terraces loomed in front of us and Granddad took them at an angle to keep the car from bottoming out as we crossed. I was just thinking about being car sick from the motion when we got to the back edge of the field and struck the old wagon track headed through the scrub oaks to the sand hill at the edge of the swamp, and to the stretch of water called Boggy Bridge.
We parked the car under some sycamores at the top of the hill where the old road began to fill with trees. A barbed wire fence ran along one side of the old wagon track as it became a footpath across the sandy ridge and faded down into the swamp. A slight breeze was rustling the big green leaves as we got out of the car, bringing the dry, musty, smell of last autumn decaying across the ground and mixing it with the scent of pine bark and wire grass and blue-tailed lizards. It was the smell of July in the morning and it became a part of the day as I pulled the two fish buckets out of the back. Granddad untied the poles and stood them against a scrub oak, then took the tackle box and opened it on the hood of the car while I got the lunch bucket out and sat it inside Granddad's fish bucket for the trip to the river. He handed me a spool of tape, a spool of thirty pound test line, and a pill box with two Mepps spinners in it, one to fish and one spare. He took the same for himself and put the tackle box back in the car.
The yellow flies were buzzing by then. We applied a liberal dose of "6-12" insect repellent on our faces and necks, being careful to wipe our hands dry on our clothes before handling the plastic pill bottles. The "6-12" repellent would melt the plastic so fast that you could feel it get sticky and slick in your grasp, and see your fingerprints in the side of the bottle when you turned it loose. We rolled down the sleeves on our dark flannel shirts and put on canvas gloves with the fingers cut out, to protect our hands from biting flies as we fished. Old straw hats as further protection against the flies finished our dress. They’d often light on the hat and then fly away, figuring you weren’t edible I guessed. Finally, we rolled up the windows on the car in case of rain and to keep out whatever might be flying or crawling through the area, but left the car unlocked, and headed down the hill.
The long sleeves and gloves felt strange as we picked up the poles and buckets and started down the old wagon tracks toward the river. The pole felt larger in the stiff, canvas gloves, and I had a distinct impression of myself as a warrior clad in armor headed toward my destiny in the melee. Granddad walked ahead, with one hand carrying his fish bucket while the other threaded his pole deftly through the trees. I stayed far enough behind to avoid the spring of the limbs as he brushed past them. Magically, they became a succession of fire-breathing dragons, and griffins, and dark knights on horseback as I fended them off with my armor and I found their unprotected vulnerable spots with tip of my bamboo lance.
We didn't speak, and soon the fantasy was replaced by the rhythm of the swinging of the buckets and the resonance in the cane pole sweeping the air in ellipses that changed shape as I flexed my wrist this way or that in time with my steps. The warmth of the sun fell across the path like gold calico, with bright, leafy patterns that moved with the breeze stirring the tops of the trees and melded with the musty, dry scent of lizards and the rich, sweet smell of decaying logs and worms from the dark loam of the swamp. At one point the old roadway ran along the top of an elevated dike, now grown up in pine trees and scrub oaks, that carried it safely above the black, pig-rutted mud underneath the cypresses at the edge of the swamp. On some trips I could smell the wild pigs, but I never saw or heard one. At other places even the double track of the road wasn't visible, and you had to just follow the footpath along barbed wire fence, ducking the Spanish moss and watching for snakes and spiders stretched out in the sun across the open space.
The long sleeved shirt and gloves were soon wet with perspiration. Only the anticipation of redfin pike stood above the heat in the stillness of the edge of the swamp. I was glad to see the sandy tracks finally descend to the open clay bank at the edge of the swimming hole.
Boggy Bridge was one of those places that carried a name from the past. There wasn't a bridge there now, just the stumps of ancient pilings, black with rot and creosote. A suggestive line of them rose from the river’s edge on the other side and disappeared quickly into the green of the trees hiding the old wagon trail in the swamp beyond. Now there was just the big swimming hole at the end of the wagon track where the river came in from the east, from the black shadows of the swamp, and moved slowly out into the light from under the brilliant green fringe that the swamp had grown around this oasis of sunlight. The inlet to the pool was narrow, and the trees had grown over it so that there was a solid wall of green leaves thirty feet high, trembling delicately and rhythmically where they touched the surface of the moving water to tell you where the river was. The river swirled deeply against the hard clay of the hill as it cut sharply south, with a deep slough on the north side running out into the edge of the swamp and ending in a bog of mud and leaves that would suck you down like quick sand.
“Easy.”, said Granddad as he heard me start to run to the water. “Let’s see what’s in the slough.”
We stopped beside an old, bent cypress tree whose deformity had saved it from the saws and looked down into the clear, still water at the mouth of the slough. The water was deep there and we could see logs lying across one another under the water, stretching along and across the slough at several places. There were no pike in sight.
“I’ve come here and seen ‘em laying all over the top of the water sunnin’ themselves.”, He said. “You couldn’t get one to look at a bait.” If they’re hiding it means they’re hungry and looking for somethin’ to eat. So that’s good.”
I thought he was just trying to make me feel better.
“The pike will be underneath and beside the logs, in the shade, waiting.”, he said as he unwound the line on his pole. “Watch.”
He fastened one of the spinners to the swivel at the end of the line, unwrapped the adhesive tape from the end of the pole, loosened the three half-hitches holding the line, and unwound about five feet of line that was gathered there at the end of the pole, making the line almost as long as the pole.
“This is big water”, he explained, “You need a long line to work it properly. Use a short line for working smaller pools and tight places where the trees are hanging low on the water.”
The half-hitches and tape were replaced carefully to avoid putting a knot or kink in the line that would weaken it.
Finally he pulled out a jar I had not seen, with a strip of pork skin in it about three inches long from a ham that had been dinner one day. I watched as he bent two of the treble hooks on the spinner together on one side so that they would hook in both corners of the front of the home made pork strip. The spinner and strip together were five or six inches long, as big as some of the fish we would catch with it.
“Don’t stand behind me. You’d better get over there.”, he said, pointing to a spot behind the old cypress tree.
“But I won’t be able to see from over there.”, I protested.
“I’m betting there’s a pike right under this log here.”, he said, “and I don’t want you to be in the way when I bring him out of the water.”
So I moved over. Actually, I could see just as well from the cypress, and watched carefully as he began. Holding the pole out over the water horizontally in his right hand, he pulled the spinner back with his left to tighten the line, then dropped the spinner and raised the pole in the same motion. As the heavy spinner swung low over the water he dropped the end of the pole to let the spinner continue to sail across the slough to the far end of a log that spanned the width of the dead water there, and immediately began to "troll" the spinner along beside the log just fast enough to make the brass blade flutter and the long, white strip of pork wiggle behind it like a wounded minnow.
It hadn't traveled three feet before there was a pike on it. I could see that the fish had only grabbed the pork strip behind the big treble hooks, and figured it was lost. But at just that time Granddad lifted the pole smoothly over his head in a broad sweeping motion. The pike left the water as in a great leap, turned the pork strip loose, and sailed on its own in an incredible arc through the air that left it flopping in the leaves at the edge of the path twenty feet behind us.
For just a second I stood speechless and astounded.
Granddad grinned at me as I stared. He was holding the spinner in his hand, and the ten inch fish was desperately trying to jump down the hill back into the water. I pounced on it and managed to corral it after only a couple of flips.
Granddad took our lunch out of his fish bucket and put it in the shady fork of a tree a few yards into the swamp, then walked over to where I was holding the fish.
“Look.”, he said, taking the fish and opening the mouth for me to see.
What seemed like hundreds of wicked little curved needles pointed backward, designed to catch and hold whatever prey was unlucky enough to meet them.
“I turned the tables on it.”, he continued. “When the pike bit the tough pork skin the teeth dug in, and I pulled him out before it could let go. All I had to do was throw it on the hill.”
“But,” he cautioned, “you’ve got to do it with a smooth, continuous motion. Pulling too hard will jerk it out of his mouth, and not hard enough will give it a chance to turn it loose.”
“Now we’ll fix you up.”, he said.
He scaled the belly of the fish he just caught, “so the teeth will grab,” and cut out a strip with both bright red pectoral fins in front and the equally colorful anal fin trailing the rear.
“It’s important that the bait track straight and not whirl behind the spinner.” he said as he placed two of the hooks of my spinner through the bait just inside the pectoral fins. “Be careful not to touch a fin with the hook. If the hook hits the bone of the fin it will stick out and unbalance the bait, making it spin.”
“I think there’s another pike under that log. Why don’t you give it a try with this new bait.”
My line was already adjusted long, and all I had to do was swing the spinner out over the water to the other side of the slough. I could see the bright red fins on the bait undulating in the turbulence behind the big blade as the spinner bit the water and I started it back beside the log. Suddenly there was a dark shape covering the bright red, and I felt the weight on the line pulling back into the water. The pole swung up and the fish sailed through the air just as Granddad's had done.
“That’s the way, boy!”, said Granddad, smiling broadly.
I dropped the pole and jumped to where the pike was flopping its way down the hill toward the river. I had caught my first pike!
“I’m going down stream a way to cross over a log to the other side of the river.”, he said. “I’ll fish up the other side behind you and catch up to you later. Fish the rest of the slough. There ought to be several more fish in there. But be careful of the bog at the head. Stay on the path as you go around. I won’t be far away, so holler if you need me.”
He picked up his bucket and pole, and started down river.
I went to the clear water at the edge of the swimming hole and dipped a few inches of the cold water in through the hardware cloth as the fish flopped in the bottom of the bucket. Granddad was already working his pork rind bait around the roots of the big cypress stump at the lower end of the hole. I watched as he fluttered the spinner around the tree, then up and down the roots, in and out of the shadows, leaning his body into each swing of the pole. The stump was the diving board for this little community, however, and the redfins had abandoned it for quieter places. The big water below was full of gars, and wouldn't hold many redfins. I had been given the good water.
As I turned away a gust of wind whispered through the treetops and curled down into the space where I stood, laying the mist of its breath on the surface, stirring the water and logs and redfin pike with sky and leaves and cypress trees. I stopped to watch it run across the pool and ripple up the wall of leaves. I didn't see myself among the colors stirring in images racing with the wind in front of me, but I was there.
I walked back to the spot where we had pulled the first two from the water on two casts and put the bucket down beside me. Granddad was past the trees at the bottom of the pool. I was alone. The pole reached out toward the other side. The line lay in its gentle catenary from the quivering tip of the cane to my hand where the spinner waited with its bait. I swung it out and up, across the waiting pool, and softly laid it by the log as I had done before. The big, brass blade caught the water and throbbed deeply, so that the cane shook in its rhythm. I could see the spinner just under the surface as I pulled it back across the slough by the log. This time there was nothing. I cast again. Again nothing. The next cast went to the other side of the log, and this time I drew it carefully along at the same depth as the bottom of the log, remembering how Granddad had shown me. As the bait crossed another log lying at an angle under the first I was ready as a large pike shot out and grabbed the bait, and I jerked the pole quickly to throw it on the hill. The pike had just cleared the water when it released and fell back into the water only half way to me. Disoriented, it raced almost to the edge before realizing its mistake, then turned in a swirl of mud and dashed for the safety of the logs again. I had not swung on it smoothly, and I knew it. The next time would be different.
Several more casts to the same logs produced no more strikes, and I moved twenty feet up the slough to another log laying parallel to the run in the center. The water was about four feet deep, and I could see the patterns of the leaves laying on the mud at the bottom. There wasn't a sign of a fish, and I could see everything on my side. The spinner swung out to the far bank. The vibrating line riffled the water like a water bug where it entered as I brought the spinner back and teased it along near the top of the log, but over the far side. Another big pike jumped on it. I took a breath and swung deliberately and smoothly, and watched the spinner fly into the air by itself. The pike had turned it loose before I raised the pole. I had seen him grab the hook, but it hadn't registered in my mind as I responded to the strike I had anticipated rather than the one I got. He had turned it loose as soon as he felt the metal in his mouth.
I had to stay aware. I had to concentrate on what what was happening in the water if I was going to do any good. I blocked out everything except the red of the plastic on the hooks and the red fins on the bait trailing it. Even the brass flicker of the spinner throbbing through the end of the pole was muted in my awareness as I focused on how the bait was taken. There were five redfins in my bucket when I came to the bog at the head of the slough thirty yards away. I had not been aware of advancing up into the slough as I followed my casts with a Zen-like focus from one spot to the next.
On the other side of the slough was the edge of the swamp, where the river wound underneath a tangle of trees and the footpath turned to the river only at the deep holes that held catfish and bream. I gave the bog a wide berth, following the path as I had been told even though it didn't look all that boggy. The bright sunlight of the swimming hole gave way to the shadows of the swamp as I crossed, and the yellow flies were replaced by mosquitoes whining where the sweat had washed the 6-12 away from my neck.
The flecks of yellow sunlight danced as windlight broke the silence of the leaves far above my head with whispering, falling softly on the path and stealing quietly through the edges of my consciousness. At times the bamboo vines would bar my way and I would have to step around or walk my way, hand over hand, along the pole to free its tip from the thorns. Then there was the water, shining darkly through the openings, flowing underneath the limbs of fallen trees still green and clinging to the banks. Sun-speckled mats of yellow leaves floated on the eddies and near the dark roots along the bank. Openings just big enough to see showed redfin pike laying in the shadows, waiting, unaware it seemed of anything except the water there and what it held. They sat motionless, breathing with the slow pulse of time, maintaining position with a wave of fin that looked like it was driven with the current instead of against it. They were a part of the whole of it.
I stood in the shadows, hid behind them, and raised the pole to swing the bait across the pools. I watched the brass and white and red flutter back across. I watched pike suddenly appear around it, on it. The pole would lift... At first it struck the trees hanging overhead and the line would just hang limply in the edges of the pools. I learned to stop and see the way to cast and draw it back where there were openings above, planning how and where to stand. I learned to see the openings as I looked into the water, to be aware of where they were even when I didn't look.
And almost magically, slowly, I became aware.
Solitary ants journeyed through forests of fernlike mosses covering the trees, and, if I waited in the shadows quietly, small warblers flashed yellow-green, upside down and sideways after them. Bright splashes of sunlight moved through the darkness of the river swamp, drifting upon it slowly in ragged patches the way cloud shadows drift over open fields.
As I walked, the cane would dance ahead with the silent cadence of a needle sewing me into the cypresses, cutting the edges of the spider webs, casting their disciplined geometry aside as I passed through into their shadow world. I followed without thinking, not looking back, and there was no sound except the wind and the rustle of me among the leaves. Eddies of sunlight waited quietly where small green plants and red flowers grew as though caught along the edges of the path in bright places where time breathed slowly with the wings of resting, yellow butterflies.
A trail of moss swished slowly like a cat's tail in the current.
A redfin rose from the shadows.