FISHIN’ is an excerpt from the upcoming book Pathways
My grandmother had what I would describe as a single mindedness about her work ethic. Little would get in the way of what she had scheduled to do. Monday was wash day no matter how cold it was just to get it out of the way. The only exceptions were on rainy days or during harvest season. During the late summer, Monday was also preparation day for Tuesday – CANNERY DAY. Tomatoes were peeled, okra cut, beans shelled or soup mix was readied to be canned the next day. Wednesdays and Thursdays were copies of Monday and Tuesday. One day was set aside to sweep the backyard under the privet, another to weed the rock garden and others to do what she hated most – house cleaning. Early, early mornings were spent milking the cow and some days work was rearranged to accommodate for the churning of butter and making buttermilk. During the early summer EVERYDAY was weed the garden and pick “critters” that might be chewing on plants. Nothing interfered except the meal preparations and finally the harsh late afternoon midsummer sun that would drive her into the shade…of her front porch to start processing vegetables. There was no rest for the weary.
I can see her distinctly in my mind’s eye standing in her garden and can clearly hear the “clinking” sound of her hoe making contact with the few small rocks that remained in her garden. She is wearing a cotton “sack” dress handmade from last year’s feed sacks, a broad-brimmed straw hat and old lady loafers that had been slit to accommodate corns and bunions. That was pretty much all she wore as I found out one day when a hornet flew up her dress causing her to strip in the middle of the bean field. There is no modesty when being stung by a hornet but young eyes should not see these things. Her face, arms and legs were as brown as the leather harnesses that PawPaw used to hook his old horse to the wagon and the rest of her…obviously had rarely seen the light of day. I think now how old I thought she was but she was just forty-eight when I was born. I was forty-nine when she died.
There were only two things that would drive her out of her garden – rain and fishin’. Fishing was something that she discovered after PawPaw died. I do not have one memory of her going fishing prior to his death although I remember hearing stories about trips to the river, a mile or so distant as the crow flies. I don’t think this was an example of “sport” fishing but was the setting and checking of trotlines in hopes of supplementing table fare…cheaply. Pan-fried catfish and catfish stew would replace the canned salmon that we often ate in the winter. Well, she made up for lost time as she entered her “semi-retirement” after moving in with us and then later with Aunt Joyce after my Dad remarried. It also did not help keep her in her garden that H.L. Bowers built nine or ten ponds and lakes between us and the river…and gave Nannie free entry…and me with her.
I was not her only fishing partner and she would not overuse the Bower’s lakes. I think she feared that the invitation might be revoked if she caught too many fish. There were also a plethora of people who would line up to go with her, many who would just call volunteering to take her to the lake of her choice. Some would call days ahead to make “reservations” to go fishing. The reason was simple. The Lord had blessed her with the ability to find and catch large quantities of fish. Miss Maggie would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or might have practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. Full moon, wind from the south or south-east with a rising barometer…time to go fishing. There were times Nannie ignored the signs and, likely as not, she would not be shutout.
Her fishin’ was fishing in its purest form. No high-dollar technology was employed. I once gave her a Zebco 33 rod and reel, maybe the all-time easiest reel to use. She never used it; instead, there would be a thin cane pole or three, all strung with heavy twenty pound test line and a small split shot crimped a foot or more above a small gold hook. Rarely did she fish with a bobber. All of her extra gear, hooks, weights and line were carried in a paper poke. I remember when she graduated from a “croaker” sack to put her fish on to a line stringer and then finally to a metal stringer. An earthworm, cricket or a wasp larva was lightly presented to where she thought bream were bedding, allowed to sink a bit and then moved in a slow side to side arc. Wham! That strike would likely be the resulting outcome and into the croaker sack a fish would go! For those of you too young or too Yankee to know, a croaker sack was a porous burlap feed bag “repurposed” to put fish or frogs in to keep them alive or, in the gigged frog’s case, wet. The bag would be laid into the water. Frogs—croakers. Get it? Yes, frog legs do taste like chicken.
I would ask her “Nannie, how do you know where the fish are?” She would answer “Can you not smell them?” Uh, no I couldn’t but I can now and she taught me to look for the “pot holes” that the bream made when they were on the bed. That doesn’t explain how she caught fish when they weren’t on the bed. Maybe Maggie was right about the voodoo thing but I suspect it was the fact that she had studied fishing the same way she studied her Bible or the almanac.
Nothing was too big to go in her frying pan and, sometimes, nothing too small. I guess it goes back to being poor during the depression. Small fish were brought home and, if not cleaned, became a part of her garden. The two and a half pound bream or the nearly eight pound largemouth she caught did not go on her wall. No, that was pure foolishness. An eight pounder could have fed a Chinese family for a month and we were not going to waste it. Hand-sized bream were always my favorite to be pan fried in Crisco using corn meal breading…at least I think it was Crisco…it might have been lard. I’ve tried pan frying them and I just can’t seem to get it right.
There was one August afternoon that Nannie decided to take Maggie and yours truly to Bower’s Big Lake. That’s what we called it. The Big Lake was twenty-five acres of fishing heaven. Bream, catfish and largemouth bass seemed to always be hungry and this day all of the signs were in place. We walked the three-quarters of a mile to the lake, scooted under the gate that cut the River Road, and started to fish from the closest access to water. For the next two hours we did not move and had it not been so late in the day we might not have left then. Seventy-seven double hand-sized “breeeeeems,” as Maggie called them, over filled our stringer. There had to be nearly forty pounds of fish and, for an eight or ten-year-old boy, a near sixty-year-old grandmother and, who knows how old Maggie was, it was a tough trek back to the house…followed by a couple of hours cleaning the fish. It was worth it the next day as the smell of frying fish permeated the air.
I remember the last time I took Nannie fishing. She was in her late eighties and a bit feeble, but not much. Linda Gail and I loaded her up in my old ’72 FJ 40 Land Cruiser and took her to the dock at Bower’s Big Lake. The weather was terrible for fishing. Cloudy and windy, a gale blew from the wrong direction as the barometer plunged but she hung a couple and we have a picture of her holding a “whale” still decked out in her broad-brimmed straw hat. She had at least started to wear pants by this time and I imagine a cotton “sack” dress would have been a little cool. What I remember the most was her laughter, something that I heard so rarely. When I think about Nannie seldom do I see her smiling. This was a special day as were all of the days when we went fishin’.
I miss her terribly and just don’t seem to get the enjoyment from fishing that I did during those days. I still try to get the spark back and will continue to do so. Sometimes I think to do otherwise would somehow be letting her down. The same is true with my garden. I know I could buy produce from the money I spend on seed that I actually raise. Fishing, even when they are not biting, is a little like therapy or maybe meditation. I have found it to be a pathway that leads me to memories that I sometimes didn’t even know I had.
FISHIN’ is an excerpt from the upcoming book Pathways