My Fishiest Story


WE came to Elbow Lake while the sun was still in sight above the silent pine and cypress groves that hemmed us in. We pitched our tent on the sandy shore about midway of the nearer arm. For the lake called Elbow is a crude drawing of the arm bent at the joint whose name is so commonly used by pipe-fitters, architects, makers of furniture, and navigators of inland waters. Elbow Lake is, or was, not a true carpenter’s square; it was rather a giant enlargement of the Australian Pigmy’s boomerang, some two or three miles around, set down in a sandy basin, more than thirty miles from nowhere.

For three days we fished. We did it with a seine six feet in height and sixty in length. Clad in pure Nature’s garb, we fished. Those of us who were the best swimmers took the pole at one end of the seine, and carried it out through the deep water in a great circle, and brought it back to the pole at the other end, where it had been held in water three or four feet deep.

We rolled the seine evenly on the two poles held close together. The fun began when we had brought it in to make a circle five feet in diameter. Sometimes nothing happened; which, from the standpoint of a true philosophy, is also a part of fun, since fun is dependent so largely on the occurrence of the unexpected. But, at other times — things began to happen.

O Man, of fifty-odd, can you not still feel those thrills? A splashing would begin near the centre of the netted circle of quiet water. The net would stretch and widen at the side. Perhaps another splash would come at the other side. A sensitive naked shin might receive the sudden impact of a cartilaginous nose, backed by some sixty pounds of fish-flesh in rapid motion. Nursing my own black-and-blue spots, I always felt sorry for the ichthyic cause of each; for I opine that it is not the custom of either the Ichtalurus or the Polydon Spathula to incur sudden collision with anything more solid than the ooze of favorite feeding banks.

The ultimate thrill came to the young man who squeezed his bare body between the end-poles of the seine and, with groping hands, located the fishy prey in the agitated water. Sweeping passes below the surface would be rewarded by the touch of something solid, something smooth. Reaching arms would feel and find their way around the slippery body of a shiny ‘channel-cat,’ or the still more smoothly coated ‘spoonbill,’ which has an extremely elongated nose and is most delightfully free of the sharp-pointed barbs with which Mother Nature says, ‘Noli me tangere,’ for the whole family of catfish.

The Ichtalurus, or channel-cat, is a well-rounded, smooth-skinned, and sufficiently good-looking fish. Its heavy-boned skeleton is well padded with firm, white flesh, which cuts into rounded steaks that broil to a delicious, ‘chewy’ brown over the red coals of pine or Cyprus in a hollow of the sand. Giants of his kind are found in the quiet back-waters of the Mississippi River. You may see his captors carrying a magnificent specimen, a pole from shoulder to shoulder through his gills, while the tail drags on the ground between them. Such a six-foot cat will weigh over one hundred and twenty pounds. At Elbow Lake, our channelcat averaged sixty pounds and were from four to five feet in length.

But the ‘spoonbill cat’ is the hero of my tale. He is as smooth and svelte as the under-side of a flounder moulded into a stream-line harmony that is reminiscent of the latest dirigible. His true name is Polydon Spathula, and I have yet to find a self-respecting ichthyologist who did not chide me for calling him a ‘cat,’ even though I always preface it with ‘spoonbill.’ It is the spoon that makes him a delightful companion for a swim. That spoon ‘bill’ is a thick cartilaginous protuberance, some ten inches long, into which the shapely shoulders die away in graceful speedlines. It is over two inches wide near the end, but narrower near the nose. It is just the shape of a spoon-handle and gives an easy and unbreakable hold. This, I am sure, points a Texas origin for the phrase, ‘to lead one around by the nose.’

It was on the last afternoon of our fishing that my chance came, and with it the performance of a ‘stunt,’ inconsequential enough in itself and of no particular difficulty, that has afforded recurrent and thrilling memories of careless youth, men with hard faces and soft hearts, sun-glinting water, the taste of delicious food, — poorly cooked, but, oh, so sweet to outdoor hunger, — the smell of pines and — my one true fish-story.

We had fished well around and past the ‘elbow’ of Elbow Lake. We were a good half-mile from our camp, by land, but only a little over a quarter of a mile diagonally across the water. I had just recently made the trip around the elbow with a channel-cat. Its many hazards were of recent experience and sore in memory. Of course it is sport, but a sixty-pound fish weighs heavily after strolling half a mile. Add to that the fact that prickly pear was plentiful, and that pine-roots have a way of turning up sharpened knurls just below the velvet of pine needles that form a carpet for bare feet; that tarantulas are common, and that a diamond-backed ‘rattler’ will sometimes start ‘purring’ close at hand, while your burden is still very much alive and gives violent evidence of the fact at very unexpected intervals. The violence of that sixty pounds of catfish is disconcerting when you are carefully balanced on one foot with the other descending uncertainly between two clumps of prickly pear. I had only recently made the round trip by land when the boss sawyer, ex-officio boss of the seine, spoke to me.

‘Captain,’ he said, ‘it is your turn next.’ He was a wily boss sawyer, that man. All day he had been calling me ‘Hombre’ and other names devoid of honor.

Unable to resist the soft blandishment of the title, I squeezed between the upright seine poles and began making passes with submerged armsthrough the opaque water. My hands came in contact with a round fish body. Its owner, startled by the touch, gave a mighty kick with powerful caudal fins. He slipped through and away. I let him slip. I too was wily. I had felt the prick of a shoulder barb. It was a channel-cat. Not for me, the porterage of another of his kind, over that rough half-mile of scrub and prickly pear.

There had been four splashes in the narrowing circle of the seine. I had hopes of a better choice. Soon my hands came into contact with another piscine form. Encouraged, I pushed and held it firmly by leg-pressure against the meshes of the seine. My hands passed up and over a velvet skin, scaleless and smooth, to barbless shoulder, and down the graceful streamlines of head and nose to the hard protuberant ‘spoon.’ Nose under water, with a bubbling sound that meant Eureka, I seized the tough and cartilaginous ‘bill’ with more joy than I now have in the grasp of a squash racket for the next fierce rally.

‘I’ve got him! ‘ I yelled, and brought his nose to sight.

‘A spoonbill,’ yelled the gang, and let me out.

Squeezing between the seine-poles, I stood in three feet of water and gave thought. Up the bank beside me was a rough scramble through roots and creepers, to more roughness at the top. Then a long hike must follow before sixty pounds of burden could be dropped in camp.

Lakeward, the prospect was enticing. Our tent stood attractively among the trees, less than half a mile distant by the water route. The decision was instantaneous. Once taken, it has lingered in fond memory with warmth, like that of the successful high dive before a crowd of more timid friends, or like that of the neat and polite rejoinder at a banquet, to the discomfiture of a temperamentally covert antagonist.

‘So long, fellows,’ I called; ‘me for the camp’; and pushed out into the quiet water with my spoonbill in tow.

At this point, in my younger days, I was wont to ‘embroider’ somewhat, telling how sociably my companion and I made the swim together, how willingly he lent a hand, or tail, to the acceleration of our progress, how we talked it over — all that. Now I see that such treatment was inartistic, crass, juvenile. In this narrative I amend the fault.

With apologies to many groups of interested auditors, some of whom unkindly referred to me as Apollo’s favorite instrument, I honestly aver that nothing happened. The reason is simple. My interpretation of it is, I am convinced, based on flawless logic and an accurate estimate of tri-dimensional navigo-dynamics. It is briefly this. A fish is built, organized, and intended to swim forward and not backward. The action of caudal fins is propulsive. The slightest pointing of the front end of a fish is enough to change his direction to suit the pointer. Thus, with a firm handful of spoon-shaped bill, the slightest pressure on the horizontal or vertical plane was sufficient. The fish could do nothing but give his aid for the remaining direction, which was forward. That is why nothing happened. For, honestly, nothing happened.

Yet memory tells a different tale. It tells of a laughing crowd in the shallow water, good-natured, jeering, and wellwishing, with an apprehensive warning from one or two. It tells of smooth and smiling water, stretching away to the green of pine woods below the translucent blue of a cloudless sky. It recalls the sensation, nearest of all my pictured concepts to the dream of Eternity, of fatigueless immersion, with just enough of motion, in a medium wellnigh ethereal, supportless yet completely supporting at every point of every surface; a something to carry along that was not a burden; a rounded graceful body that just fitted within the circle of the arm when one stopped stroking and paddled lazily with feet alone; a body that was just as warm as the water but cool to the touch, sleek and smooth, like a baby’s skin; an object toward which to point, and the approach to which was leisurely and constant; a gray tent, picturesquely pitched on the bank among the pines.

So our swim was ended and, sorry as I now am to say it, I dragged my luckless captive up the bank and dumped him among the sixteen hundredweight of fish that, to-morrow, would fill one of the wagons and compel us to take turns in walking the thirty miles home.

Big John, as cook, was ‘mindin’ camp.’ He watched me come ashore. I had often been called captain, and once, major, when making a hair’sbreadth catch of a swiftly moving train. Big John made no comment until I deposited my wriggling catch among his now quiet mates. Then he spoke.

‘You sure have got your nerve with you — colonel,’ he said.

  1. This is a true tale, the title notwithstanding.