Standing on the floating dock and looking down through about eight feet of water at the bottom where they’re swimming, I am sure that the catfish are laughing at me. As best as I can judge, the three that are wriggling past my hot-dog-baited hook are about as long as my forearm. They must know that I find them delicious, they might be able to tell from my expression that I was picturing them fried up with a side of tartar sauce and a cold beer, and they may also have heard from around that I am a terrible fisherman. Those frolicking fish probably know they are safe.
I had quit fishing for about twenty years purely out of frustration from sometime in my boyhood until my late twenties, when I met my wife and began going to Lake Martin on the weekends with her family. The frustration that had caused me to give up fishing was based largely on the fact that I had never caught a fish. Never. Until one day – I was in my early thirties at this time – out of a mixture of boredom and curiosity, I snuck into my brother-in-law’s ample tackle box and “borrowed” a sizeable purple lure that looked kind of like an octopus . . . I’ll go down to the pier while no one is down there and cast out for a while— then I’ll put the expensive-looking lure back without saying anything, no one would know the difference. And what do you think happened? I caught a beautiful catfish! A big one! I had to call everyone down there, I didn’t have a choice, it wasn’t like I could throw it back and tell everyone later . . . not when they all knew that I had never caught a fish. The first thing my brother-in-law asked was, of course: “What’d you use to catch that thing?” Shit! I had to fess up. He wasn’t mad at me for using his lure without asking, and it was pretty easy to get it back out of the catfish’s mouth before we threw his big slimy butt back into the water. (Since I had never caught a fish, I also didn’t know how to clean one . . .)
Back in the present, I am standing on the floating pier and his bottom-feeding cousins are robbing my bait. If I’ve caught a fish since that big cat eight years ago, I can’t remember it. But that doesn’t take the joy out of fishing at the lake. When we aren’t swimming, chatting under the shade trees near the waterside or piling onto the pontoon boat for a “big boat ride,” as the kids call it, I spend a little time each day casting out, usually in the direction of the “stinky fish tree,” the stump from one of the sunken Christmas trees that sticks up out of the water like a buoy so we don’t run over them with the boat— yet over and over, nothing comes back but a hook. And sometimes not even that, but it’s still pretty relaxing. I don’t even mind the prolonged insult of having to walk out after the water levels drop, through the sodden red mud to those bare trees, to retrieve the lures they stole from me over the summer. Those trees are, after all, an integral part of my defense as to why I never catch any fish: if the trees were farther out, I insist, far enough out to stay covered by water all year, then the fish would hatch and grow there year-round, but since they aren’t covered by water all year, the fish that hatch in them don’t have time to grow to a size worth catching. So the whole problem is the placement of those trees . . . I know this is a lie, but it makes me feel better to see it that way.
Growing up, I didn’t have any place like this to go and fish. We would go fishing every once in a while in some stocked pond my dad would somehow find on a back road just out of town, but I was too small back then to do much more than reel in an empty hook that my dad had baited and cast for me. My family used to go to Panama City Beach for one week every summer, but the beach, with all its tourist-trap white sand messiness, isn’t the lake. For all the years that we went to beach, we never went fishing down there, and I think I had been to Lake Martin, the man-made lake in eastern Alabama where my in-laws’ place is, once or twice maybe. (One girl I dated in high school, her family had great big lake place, but her rich parents saw to it that we didn’t date long.) My family stayed in town most of the summer, and on weekends we were usually either doing chores or helping my dad with the yard work he did as his side business. The closest thing that I had to anything like the lake was playing in the neighborhood ditch, trying to catch tadpoles.
I haven’t let my late-starter status stop me, though. My well-meaning relatives see me trying to become a real boy and they’re very supportive. I get Bass Pro Shop gift cards for my birthday sometimes, which as I’m opening them are accompanied by sheepish, half-apologetic comments, like “I thought you might want to get yourself some fishing stuff . . . since you seem to enjoy it now.” And when I make yet another trudge up the hill, back into the house, after yet another fruitless hour or two on the pier, someone inevitably asks me the very kindly question that everyone already knows the answer to: “Did you catch anything?”
Even though I’m not quite there yet, I am fast learner, and I’ve done a fine job of disciplining myself into developing the necessary skills involved in this Deep-Southern feat of multi-tasking: sitting in the sun, drinking Miller High Life, and casting out in an attempt at snagging that fish that wandered too close to our pier looking for his dinner. I was already pretty good at sitting around and drinking beer, of course, but it’s third thing that I haven’t quite mastered yet.