Stafford L. Battle
“If you don’t wrap it just right, it will fall off.”
That always worried my younger brother. He would grimace as we trudged along the rocky, muddy path towards the river. Earthworms were expensive, almost a half penny each. We had to rob our joint piggy bank to ensure the success of every fishing expedition.
Daddy in those long gone days never seemed worried about our undertakings. He said to us, “Remember everything I told you. We don’t want your mother getting mad. Make her proud. We have a responsibility.”
In previous Saturday trips, upon our return, we filled our only bathtub with fresh, slimy fish; mama was so surprised and angry, she made us eat double helpings at the Sunday fish fry. We publicly groaned but were secretly happy at the scrumptious task. Many of our friends and neighbors and the community church minister joined the misery; and they brought piles of warm potato salad, savory pots of collard greens, precious sheets of honey soaked cornbread, and gallons of sweet tea to ease our mother’s burden.
“Don’t run. Watch your step. Try not to fall.”
Indeed, my brother was still wiping the sleep out of the corners of his eyes as he stumbled stoically forward. He was determined to be the first person on the bridge as he strutted ahead. The wooden structure over the marsh was an ancient, wobbly affair. If you tried to play marbles on it, they would roll away and plop, plop, plop into the dark water lost forever. Our father, told us that years ago, cars traveled this road to go south to Carolina where great, grandma lived in the cotton field. We asked him if many cars tumbled into the river. He laughed and said, “Not too many. Be careful how you step, that board over there is still loose. And don’t hurt yourself on exposed nails. Best fishing is on the south side.”
The sun was a thin yellow sliver expanding on the horizon. The air was cool but we knew it would soon be uncomfortably hot later in the morning, especially in July on the Potomac. My brother grunted and placed his hopes on securing our favorite spot between two ancient wooden columns stuck deep in the river. The metal fishing box slid and stopped precariously by the pylons.
“You fall in, your mother will whip your butt for messing up your clothes.” My father guided us to a sturdy oak plank that had railings tied to the posts. “The best tasting fish are right below you. Now, bait your hook. Your mama invited a horde of relatives and church folk to dinner. We gotta bring home catfish.”
White perch were always easy to trick onto a hook with a dangling earthworm. But you needed many buckets of the small fry to make several decent sandwiches. The larger shad and herrings ran together in big schools along the banks of the river; a long handled scoop or three-pronged snag hooks worked fine, but shad and herring possessed many thin stiff bones and had to be cooked long and hard before consuming. Catfish, however, those distinguished denizens of the dank mud and muck, were the most difficult to catch; they had a sizable fishy brain and seemed to knew how to best evade the tempting hook and line. Daddy coached us on how to jiggle the bait just so and pause briefly as the wily cats inspected the offering before chomping on the barb. Once hooked on the line, there was always a fine struggle.
The sweet delicate flesh of the whiskered prey yielded a memorable feast after you figured out how properly to prepare it. Cats had no fishy scales like normal fish and the skin was not truly edible. Daddy would nail the fish to the side of a shed and use pliers to pull off the foul covering. Mama had a special flour coating and spicy broth she had learned from her African great grand mother to expertly steam the fishy delight. It was always delicious.
My baby brother was very angry when daddy failed to take us to the bridge one summer weekend. Brother was so angry, he poked his fingers in all the slices of bread in the house. Our baloney sandwiches leaked mustard and mayonnaise for over a week. That anger turn to frustrated tears when the minister told us fishing trips with daddy would never happen again in this life. Daddy was with a different fisherman. We didn’t completely understand until much later.
“Fishing is a noble endeavor and one must be respectful,” my brother tells his youngest son and daughter clinging beside him. “There is a proud history that goes a long, long ways back.” We stand on the precarious bridge now supported with steel beams. “People use to go south on this bridge to great, great grandma’s house. It is still standing.” It is hot and moisture flows freely down his face. He wipes his cheeks and smiles at his memories.
I cherish the shared emotions passing through his thoughts. Gazing down the lazy river, my eyes dampen from the heat. I say, “We need catfish, church folk are coming to dinner. We have a responsibility.”