Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another (true) fish story

Ameiurus nebulosus

Brown bullhead.
Mud cat.
Horned pout.

We just called them catfish.

On a map today it's called Crystal Lake, but it was neither--it was a fishing hole. We called it the Duck Pond, though the ducks were intermittent. It was far enough along eutrophication for us to avoid swimming in it, but the catfish didn't seem to mind.

We all knew about their spines--we had long August discussions about how poisonous they were (or not), but we knew they were sharp and to be avoided. What you know and what you do are two separate things.

I had already caught an eel that morning--eels were rare--they spent most of their time in salt water, and they were not particularly welcomed. They insist on wrapping their writhing snake-bodies around the line,confounding our efforts to unhook them. Catfish are more reasonable.

Catfish and kids go together. A cat has a big mouth, firm jaw, is rarely foul-hooked, and (usually) cooperates while a child goes about the task of unhooking it while comparing the merits of Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. That's about as much multi-tasking as we did back in those days.

I hooked a nice sized cat with my drop line, and as I defended Hank's reputation against the rarified air of the hot Georgia summers, I lowered the cat to the ground. We all knew the procedure.

Once on the ground, you wrapped your hand around the fish so that the dorsal fin was held between your second and third fingers. One pectoral fin was held between the thumb and pointer and the other between the ring finger and pinkie. The older kids taught the younger, just as so much is learned by kids. Pheromones cloud memories, but I bet I could still do it. But not on that morning.

I lowered the fish, as I had done hundreds of times, but despite slack in the line, the fish was not on the ground. I never felt it enter my thigh.

Catfish spines may or not be poisonous--the state of Pennsylvania's official website claims they are. I don't know, I never felt the spine go in. What the same official website does not tell you, however, is that once in, the spines stay in.

"Come take a look at this! That kid has a fish stuck in his leg!"

One thing the Pennsy website does have right, though is that "brown bullheads are able to exist on atmospheric air for a time." Hours, it turns out. The catfish acted more disturbed than I was, wriggling in its slow death throes, burying the spine deeper and deeper into my quadriceps.

I would not go to the doctor. Had my cousin not thought of the hedge clippers, I'd have waited until the fish rotted off.

When I finally did get to the doc, with now just the spine attached, the fish buried in the backyard, he used his extensive medical skills to remove the spine--he grabbed a pair of pliers, and YANKED!

The summer my father lay dying, Leslie thought I might like to see Big Fish, a movie about a father larger than life.

I held my own until the father returned to the river as a big ol' catfish. I ran out into the warm dusk, and bawled. I cried for my mother, I cried for my father. I shook, sobbed, and wailed. I cried out every last tear I had saved for 40 years.

I lost my father a few weeks later. Not long after, I lost my sister. I no longer need to remember how to cry.

I love eating catfish--but don't let the experts sell you the tamed version.

Hrayr Berberoglu, a professor emeritus (which means he is likely old enough to have lost a good portion of his tastebuds), had this to say:

Wild catfish are bottom feeders and well known for their "muddy" tasting flesh due to their diet. Farmed catfish are raised in specially designed rectangular above ground, 10-20 acre large ponds that are 1-2 metres deep. Farmed catfish are fed high-protein food pellets consisting of soybeans, corn, wheat, vitamins and minerals. This diet results in a mild, sweet taste and flaky fleshed fish.

Imagine that--we need to give a fish a vitamin.

All catfish are sweet, and all have flaky flesh, but only the the tame ones are mild. If you want mild, go grab a Filet-O-Fish. The industry likes the convenience of farm ponds. If you want to taste a catfish, you're going to have to catch one yourself.

It's not hard--just watch out for the spines.

Pennsylvania Fishes, "Chapter 13,Catfishes," Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Division
Hrayr Berberoglu "Catfish: Farm Raised," in the Food Reference Website,


Kate Tabor said...

Doyle -
Two powerful stories. A fish story does not have to be a tall tale to captivate.

I loved a shore fisher-woman, my grandmother, who taught me to catch bullheads in the glacial lakes of Eastern South Dakota. She taught me how to grab the bullhead with index and middle finger on either side of its head to avoid the spines and cut the head off with my fish knife. We caught and ate bullheads in the spring. Late June fish were very muddy tasting, but Spring bullheads are sweet.

In the summer we would fish the shore of the Missouri river for Walleye. Sometimes we would get lucky, but mostly it was a time to be together.

I miss her, but then I still have the stories.

doyle said...

Good morning, Kate!

Some of my most vivid memories of childhood involve fishing.

I cannot (yet) understand how I blend the cruelty involved with the pure joy I get when catching a fish.

Oh, I can rationalize it when I catch fish for dinner, but my joy does not come from that. There is a visceral pleasure that came from a catfish dancing on my line.

Not sure I'll ever understand why.