Flower Moons, Bream Beds, and Cooter Soup

The May, full “Flower Moon” had risen just above the tree line along my southeast horizon. Big with a pinkish tint, I watched it rise although the warm pre-dawn felt more like July or August in the foothills of the Blue Ridge than May.  Temperatures climbing to the low nineties didn’t sound bad if you live in south Texas or Arizona but as you are aware, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity”. The humidity seemed to be building despite there being little chance of rain. 

It has been drier than my first wife’s sense of humor for most of May and the weather liars allowed there would be no relief soon…maybe the early June weekend.  They predicted wide spread showers by Thursday but we’ll see…they have been known to lie before.

My garden is suffering despite the hose and sprinkler I pulled from my house.  Even my crabgrass seems droopy, and the row middles are harder than baked brick.  My tiller bucks and kicks up dust but doesn’t dig deeply enough to remove the crabgrass. Dry, windy air is not good for my garden…or my psoriasis…or my mood.

Not too dry or hot to walk.  It is a habit I look forward to and the world might quit spinnin’ if I were to miss a day.  I have three routes I use but recently I’ve have stuck to my lake route.  The three and a half mile trek is cooler and there is plenty of shade…and plenty to see.

I paused on the lake bank and watched the activity ten or twenty feet from the shoreline.  Dozens of pothole bream beds were visible in the shallow water.  Dark torpedo shapes darted in and out.  The bream seemed to be playing a child’s game of chase.

Full moon, wind favorable.  Might be time to dust off the rod and reel.  It has been a while.  This lake is catch and release but that’s okay.  My freezer is full of food, I don’t think I’ll starve. I’m also not fond of cleaning fish.

I used to fish every chance I got until I lost my fishing partner.  I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head, “Can’t you smell ’em? They’re here close by.”  She’d drop a squirming worm on a number six, gold hook from a cane pole and be rewarded.  I couldn’t smell them then…still can’t but I could see them guarding their beds, dark shapes silhouetted against the sandy bottom.

My grandmother taught me about fishing.  How to tie on a hook and work the worm on to it.  “Make sure you get the tip covered. The breams is smart.”  “Fish facin’ the sun, so they don’t get spooked by your shadow.”  Except when they are on the bed.  They’ll bite about anything on the bed and don’t really care about shadows…mostly out of anger, I think.  Once she ran out of bait and used a flower blossom successfully to catch “just one more.” I’m reminded of “shooting fish in a barrel.” Don’t rightly seem fair but then my grandmother didn’t fish for sport, she fished to eat.

Nannie fished without a bobber mostly and only the smallest split shot weight.  Slowly moving the pole tip back and forth, changing the depth up and down.  Moving up and down the bank until she locked herself in mortal battle with a warmouth or bluegill bream.  She didn’t throw any away.  The smaller ones made it to the garden as fertilizer, the “eatin’ size” into a frying pan.  I’ve tried pan frying and can’t seem to get it right. I’ve just about quit trying.

I walked out before sunrise the next morning carrying an old Zebco 33, a pail with redworms, and a pocket filled with a few extra number six hooks, red and white bobbers, and split shot weights.  The Flower Moon was still visible in the dark western sky. A mile and a half there and a mile and a half back, I could have been ten years old again walking down the river road toward Bower’s Lake, my grandmother and Trixie the puppy leading the way.  Maybe Miss Maggie would be with us too.

The Zebco wasn’t much different than the one I saved up for and bought at Pettus’ store sixty years ago.  If memory serves, it’s my fourth 33.  It’s a cheap, no frills reel perfect for a cheap, no frills guy. It is also beat up despite not having been used much in the past decade.  The cork handle of the rod is peeling, and I noticed I had made a hasty repair on an eyelet with electrician’s tape.  Whatever works.

The fish were active and the action swift.  Pumpkinseed and blue gills, some bigger than my hand, battled for the opportunity to hang themselves on my hook.  In an hour I probably caught two dozen keepers, some I probably caught more than once.  I know my grandmother was spinning in her grave as I let everyone of them go. 

An alligator snapping turtle paid a visit as did several Eastern water turtles.  I’m sure they were looking for a free meal from a stringer that wasn’t there. We called them cooters back in the day, from the West African word kuta.  With a modern change in usage I have to be careful when using the name.

The beast’s shell was as big around as an old-fashioned Caddy hubcap.  Again my grandmother spoke in my head, “Don’t let a snapping turtle bite you ’cause it won’t let go till it thunders.” I don’t know about that Nannie, but I know he’ll take a finger off.

I made the mistake of casting near him trying to scare him away.  Despite his size he was quick in the water.  He submerged and took the worm and hung himself on the hook.  I tried to keep him from heading to the bottom expecting him to break my line.  The line didn’t break, instead he stripped the gears in my old reel and hunkered down on the bottom to wait me out.  Looks like I’m in the market for a fifth Zebco. 

My grandmother would make cooter soup from the turtles she caught or those that happen to wander through her yard.  During those days, Southern farmers who survived the depression days still prepared cooter soup, or catfish stew, or fried rabbit. I think they did it to remind themselves of the bad, old times…the “worser times.” At least she stopped short of possum. She said it was too greasy. I’ll have to take her word that it is.

I understand turtle soup is now considered a delicacy. Don’t believe my grandmother would agree. To her it was a free meat when times were hard.

I remember a big iron pot on an outdoor fire boiling water to dip the cooter in to loosen its shell and skin. It was a lot of work to crack open the shell and skin and bone the meat, being careful to remove the eggs and liver. Rich looking dark meat ground like hamburger, sautéed with onion before being cooked like vegetable soup.  Soup heavy with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, and okra to thicken. Maybe celery or carrots thrown in for good measure. Basic soup with a twist.  Everything harvested from her garden, sometimes even the turtle.  The old cooter tasted like chicken with the consistency of beef…or was it the other way around?

How long can a cooter stay down? Still waiting after a half hour, I tugged on the line and felt the load on the end move. Hand over hand I hoped the line wouldn’t cut me if he ran. He didn’t run and I took out my MacGyver knife and waited to get him close. I cut my line as close as I dared and watched my line and the old mossback disappear into deep water.

Walking back home I carried no fish but there was a spring in my step as I thought the best of life has to offer sometimes requires a lot of work…and provides sweet memories too. An evening in late summer came to my mind. Two old women in flour sack dresses and wide straw hats and a small boy sharing a load. Carrying three stringers full of hand sized or better home and sitting out under the privet bushes and stars next to the garden cleaning them all. Nannie, Miss Maggie Cureton, and a young boy. Listening to them laugh and tell stories of the “worser” old days that didn’t seem so bad. Enough fish for three families to feast on the next day. A memory to feast on for life.

Don Miller writes about various subjects, nonfiction, fiction and some with elements of both. His author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3MGRivTC9YRWjMTAbB1FsY7cD3V0OLEHDQLxd3M7T2ka0A4gkmY5YWW-g