The near-wealthy lived in Chickasaw Gardens just a few blocks from Picardy.
In Chickasaw Gardens, the roads curved and meandered while ours were straight or dog-legged. Decorative street lamps were spread too far apart to be functional in the Gardens. Our street light, on the other hand, was very tall and anyone trying to dash to it, home base in the summer evening game of hide-and-go-seek that ranged over nearly a dozen homes, would be easily spotted three houses away.
But the Gardens had a lake and we didn’t. In the winter it sometimes froze thick enough for skaters. In summer it was stocked and ready for junior anglers.
Chickasaw lake was long and irregular. One end had a large curved area with a fountain that was sometimes turned on but that’s not where the fish were. The other end narrowed to a low earthen dam less than a hundred feet wide but, again, the space was too big for the fish.
In between, there were two adjacent islands that created three channels between the two ends of the lake. One island connected to the shore with a foot bridge but the other was isolated, unconnected and overgrown by late summer. The only way to this second island was to wade across the muddy bottom which almost no one ever did. That island stayed wild.
It was in the channel between that latter island and the shore where the fish stayed. The tree-lined banks on both sides created cool, dark hiding places and the catfish – “Bullheads, not catfish,” John corrected … the bullheads wallowed-out holes among the roots in which to hide.
Walking up, you had to move slowly and walk gently, making sure your shadow didn’t fall on the water. If it did, you’d invariably see a V-shaped wave moving away as the Bullheads swam to the other side.
But a patient angler or a small boy in black high top tennis shoes could move slowly up through the bushes, sit and bait a hook and get it into the water without disturbing the fish in the morning’s cool shade along the bank.
The best bait, usually from the Weona grocery across from East on Poplar Avenue, was uncooked biscuit dough. The tubular package would make a dozen such rolls but there was no way to use that much in hours and hours of fishing.
In the beginning, I tried different fishing poles, different reels, different lines. I’d cast out into the middle of the channel, let it sit for a while and then slowly reel it in.
John said, “You gotta drop it into their hole under the tree. They won’t come out for it.”
John’s Dad, living up in Tipton Tennessee must’ve taught him.
John knew a lot I didn’t.
And following his advice, it became apparent that my ability to cast the hook and bait into such a hole beneath a tree on the far side of the canal was more likely to catch a tree or a bush, not a fish.
On the other hand, getting it into a hole on the near side required no more than playing out five or six feet of line and giving it a gentle swoop.
So much for powerful casts.
“They’re on the bottom. Just wait. When you feel a tug,” John went on, “don’t move. Pretty soon he’ll swallow it and then slowly swim away. Don’t yank it or nothing. Just reel him in.”
My vision of a silvery fish leaping out of the lake and three feet into the air with a multicolored lure hanging from its lip like I’d seen in the sporting magazines at the barber shop wasn’t gonna happen at Chickasaw Lake.
“There, see the line movin’ out? You got one. Reel him in smoothly. He’s yours.”
Bullheads, like the much bigger catfish, have the same spines in their fins. Pick ‘em up wrong and you’d get stuck – and the slime and germs would hurt for days at a time.
John showed me what to do.
“Lay him on the ground on his belly and wait for him to stop floppin’ around.”
“Then, put your hand over him like this and put your thumb behind the side fin and push it out so he can’t poke you. Put your middle finger on the other side and sort’a do the same while your forefinger is in front of that far-side fin. Then, wait for him to raise up the fin in the middle of his back and get the skin between your thumb and forefinger under the it and lock it forward. He can’t poke you then. Finally, snug your fingers under his belly and pick him up.”
“Once you’re holding him, squeeze just a little and he’ll open his mouth and you can look down his gullet to see where the hook is caught. If it’s near his mouth, just reach and and push the barb out. He won’t bite if you keep squeezing him a little.
“But if he swallowed the hook real good, then just cut the line and get the hook back later when you gut him.”
Cleaning bullheads isn’t easy. They have skin, not scales. You cut the skin all around the head and then grab it with a pair of pliers and pull it off – but it’s stuck on real good. You needed pliers with good grippers.
And of course, you had to slit the belly and rake out stomach, intestines and God knows what else before that.
All the skin and guts were thrown out into the lake – we figured Bullheads weren’t very smart and would probably each other’s guts as well as uncooked dough.
Packing up when it was time to go, the remaining bait dough would be tossed into the lake to feed the fish and whet their appetite for more, hopefully hiding a hook attached to a line attached to my fishing pole the next time out.
The first couple of times I brought Bullhead filets home for dinner, Mom fried them up for my dinner.
“You caught those?” Wendy would ask.
“In Chickasaw Lake?” Terri would add raising her eyebrows.
“And you carried them in your pocket from the lake to here?” Dad would finish.
Uncertain why they were asking so many questions, I could only tell the truth.
“Yes,” I’d say but with my voice rising at the end turning it into a question.
Never having eaten Bullheads before, I guess they tasked like Bullheads. Fishy, a lot like catfish, but stronger. And a lot like how the lake smelled after a dry spell with no fresh water coming in.
It only took a couple of meals to realize that nobody wanted to eat them, myself included. So from then on it was “catch and release” and then wonder if the fish survived the hook extraction ability of a ten year old.
And then the realization came, that fishing is not really about fishing or eating.
Fishing is about solitude.
It’s about listening to the wind, bushes and trees.
It’s about the colors of spring, summer and fall.
It’s about the cool feeling of damp soil along the bank in the shade of broad trees on a warm quiet day.
It’s about people walking by but being anonymous and unseen in the bushes.
It’s about solitude.
It’s about choosing what you’ll do for the next minute. And then choosing again for the minute after that.
Shall I go?
Shall I stay?
Shall I stretch out my legs and lean back against the tree and gaze up at the leaves?
Should I get out the fishing pole, line, hook and put on some bait and try to catch a fish?
Naw, I think I’ll just sit.
Sitting is good.
I adopted a nautical term for times like this.
They are “rudderless”.
There’s no direction except what comes in the moment, and if nothing comes, then you just enjoy the moment.
In rudderless moments, I would do and go, or wouldn’t go and do, all according to the whim of the moment.
The wind blows.
Years later as I would travel the world, I would cherish those rudderless hours and days when circumstance or the occasional and very intentional plan would make some of that time available.
I wandered a backstreet in a residential section of Wuhan China, rudderless. I bought a six pack of beer and shared it with local residents who had come out, set up a table and chairs beside the street where they live for an early evening and apparently regular game of Mahjong. Other than offering and accepting my beer and their chair, we couldn’t communicate. But we all knew it was a nice moment. Everyone smiled and nodded.
And I’ve explored a mountain preserve a couple of miles from my home and found a secluded rock on which to sit and contemplate the life hiding all around me. That life lay hidden, quiet, and it just “was.”
In moments of great stress, I can close my eyes and imagine the cool dirt, the gentle shade and the “shush” of wind and leaves overhead. I’m back to that stillness and peace beside the lake.
Alone, nothing to be done, no place to be.
Today, I’m between flights in Charlotte North Carolina with a couple of hours to wait.
But, for some of that time at least, I’ll be back there.
You know where now.
I’m rudderless while around me swirls a sea of people going, drinking coffee, checking voice mail, boarding flights, arguing over make-up flights for missed connections and not having a very nice time.
Me? I’m enjoying that moment, back on the bank of Chickasaw Lake.
Rudderless for a couple of hours.