My earliest memory of the Muscatatuck River was from around the age of seven. Though, the river itself was never the center of this memory. The old aluminum boat my dad had bought, and pulling that monster catfish from Muscatatuck’s waterways are what I remember most. For a week, my dad and Uncle Merle had talked of the boat and catching fish, which sent my young, inquisitive mind abound. I too wanted to land a huge fish for myself. They, my dad and uncle, had planned our excursion, and I was ready. To a boy of seven, nothing else compared to going on a fishing trip with my two heroes.
I remember Uncle Merle helping my dad lift the boat from the bed of the truck and carrying it to the river’s bank. The boat was old and dented and had a few peeling stickers on the side, but to me, it was magical. I had never been on a boat before that day.
They pushed the vessel half into the water leaving half of it on the bank. My dad instructed me to climb aboard and sit in the back. Uncle Merle climbed in behind me and sat in the middle, where the wooden oars were mounted on either side. My dad shoved off, stepped on, and floated us out into the middle of the gentle downstream current. Appearing to be a natural navigator, Uncle Merle guided the vessel. Even at my tender age, I noticed how well the two brothers worked together.
The sun blazed that morning and its rays reflected brightly off the water. Working the oars, Uncle Merle churned the water, and I shifted in my seat to watch as we floated down the river. I saw a variety of snapping turtles, all different sizes, scooting from fallen logs and sliding into the water as we drifted past. I saw a muskrat surface and dive back under the murky river. A fascination aroused in me like no other, and this exciting adventure had only begun.
Inside the boat, we had fishing rods, a stringer to hold our catch, and a Tupperware bowl full of stink bait, mixed and prepared by my dad. He’d used this concoction for years, and continued to do so up until he died.
I heard Uncle Merle pull the oars once again, splashing the water. Impatiently, I asked, “How far are we going?”
“Downstream a ways,” said Uncle Merle. “Around the bend to the cave. That’s where your dad and I usually go. We’ve always have decent luck at the cave.”
I’d heard of the cave on a few occasions; nothing in detail though, just a mention here or there about catching a big catfish at the ole cave. I too wanted to catch a big one. I’d never caught a fish that was worthy of any bragging rights. Even at the age of seven, I’d landed some decent crappie and bluegill, a nice large-mouth bass or two, but never a gigantic catfish.
The oars splashed again. Excited, I watched as we passed the bend in the river. And then, a new world opened up to me. There, the river tunneled through a section of trees that grew from both sides of the bank, emerging, and fusing their limbs and leaves together high above us and the water. I watched in wonderment as the shadowy display of Mother Nature swallowed up the boat, engulfing us, my dad, uncle, and me.
My anticipation got the better of me, and I turned to ask, “We almost there?”
“Not much further,” said my dad, who had removed the lid from the Tupperware bowl. He stirred and smashed the bait with his hand. I’d seen him use this technique in the past. He said it was to reactivate the ‘stink’ which attracted the catfish. I wasn’t sure if this was true or some story adults like to throw at children from time to time. To me, the blended mush, whether stirred or not, smelled horribly. He scraped the bits of bait from his hand back into the bowl and resealed it with the lid. He then dropped his hand over the side of the boat and into the water to give it a quick washing.
With the sun beating down, I began to sweat through the Superman t-shirt I was wearing. I remember that shirt well. Clean or dirty, and being that the shirt was my favorite, I donned it regularly for a couple years, until my stomach began poking out the bottom.
We floated along and I watched and grew more excited, knowing we were getting closer to the cave and our fishing destination. We broke free of the tunnel of trees and the sun brightened the water again. The banks grew steep and towering, as if the river had naturally carved through this high rolling section of the countryside. I watched with anticipation, becoming enthralled with each splash of the oar. Breaking past a row of bushes, I saw it. The cave was everything I’d expected it would be. The entrance was big, dark, and a little scary. I’d never seen a real cave before, only in photographs, and on television.
“Any animals live in there?” I asked as we stepped out of the boat.
“There might be,” said my dad. “Nothing to worry about. Maybe a bear or a mountain lion.” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or trying to use that grown-up humor on me again. I kept my guard, eyeing the cave with a bit of fear and suspicion.
We gathered our equipment from the boat and not long after, we cast our rods into the river, waiting for the arrival of the big catfish, enticed by the glorious stink bait fixed to our hooks. Patiently, I waited for the next few minutes before growing weary and bored. I fiddled in the dirt with a stick, drawing caricatures I created from my mind. I fashioned myself as a decent artist, even at my young age.
We sat on the bank with no action to behold. Not a bite or nibble.
“I’m bored,” I said as I drew the bill on Daffy Duck’s head. “Where are the fish?”
Slowly, with eyes fixed on the water, my dad turned the crank on his reel. He tightened the line making it more sensitive to any strike at the stink bait.
“Got to be patient, buddy,” he said. “It’s called fishing, not catching.”
I heard him use that ‘fishing, not catching’ line many times throughout my life, but I think then was the first time. It was a phrase I too would use on my sons later when they were impatient little rascals, as I had been on that day so long ago.
“They’re down there right now,” said Uncle Merle. “On the bottom. You can bet on it.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Wait and see,” was the only answer I got.
The sun was hotter than before and my Superman shirt had soaked through entirely with sweat, front and back. I was on the verge of giving up. There were no fish in here. Their big fish stories were made up. I was certain of it. I was ready to go home.
Then, when my hopes were all but lost, my dad yanked his fishing rod. With a clean jerk, he set the hook and reeled steadily, looking very much in control. The fish dove to the bottom and his rod bent nearly in double. The excitement was too much to bear so I stood.
My dad kept the reel at the center of his chest, as his thick forearms and wrists maneuvered the fish with ease. The mighty beast in the water was no match for my dad’s brute strength. Nobody was, as far as I was concerned. Not even Uncle Merle. My dad toyed with the fish, letting it tire out, and then cranked the reel a few times more.
I couldn’t take it. I was nearly dancing where I stood. I said, “Can I try? Can I reel it in? Let me try!”
The rod straightened as the fish attempted to swim to its freedom yet again.
“Feels like a big one,” said my dad. “Sure you can do it?”
“I can do it. I know I can.” I was wearing my Superman shirt. I felt I could do anything.
My dad handed me the rod and I instantly felt the commanding power of the fish on the other end. I gripped the fishing rod as tight as I could with both hands and stood my ground. Right away, I thought I’d made a big mistake by taking over the duty of trying to land this whopper.
“Hold on tight!” said my dad. “Don’t let go!”
“I won’t,” I said as the fish pulled and inched me closer to the water’s edge.
“Stay with it!” said Uncle Merle.
The sweat on my hands hindered my grip. I grasped above the reel and positioned the handle in the center of my stomach for better leverage, as my dad had taught me, but that didn’t help. When I could, I gave a few cranks. The opposing strength was unlike any I’d ever experienced before. I mean, I’d been in a few fights on the playground, wrestling schoolyard bullies twice my size and getting the better of them on most occasions, but I’d yet to face this type of power. Looking back, I knew this force came from desperate animal instincts to live and survive another day.
As I said, I’d never caught a fish worthy of any praise, and that’s what I sought. That’s all that mattered to me—catching and landing this fish so I could tell the story for years to come of how it nearly dragged me into the great Muscatatuck River, as I am telling it now.
We fought, the fish and I, each of us displaying our unyielding pride to the other. Neither combatant wanted to give. The fish took a dive and I pulled the handle a little harder into my stomach. Feeling my resistance, the fish relaxed and I cranked the reel again. The fight seemed all but out of him. I saw the white on his underbelly as he surfaced a few seconds later. It was a catfish! A big one!
“There it is,” said my dad. “Looks like a dandy.”
“He sure is a keeper, if I’ve ever seen one,” said Uncle Merle.
I felt my pride swelling, but I still had yet to land this rascal—and that was the most important task. I cranked the reel but the beast wasn’t giving up so easily. There was more fight in him yet. He bolted toward the bottom of the river and I lunged forward, creeping closer to the water’s edge.
“Hold on, son!” cheered my dad.
My hands slipped and my strength gave as the rod flexed double again. The fish was relentless in its quest to escape. I gripped tighter and gathered my will, courage, and all my dwindling vigor to make one final go at landing this powerhouse.
The handle sank deeper into my stomach. I gave a couple strenuous turns on the reel and heaved with all I had. When I felt I’d no more to give and was about to succumb to defeat, the beast surfaced again. This time Uncle Merle stood by holding the dip net.
“Way to go, Jimmy!” he said. “You did it!” He scooped it out of the water and pulled it from the net. I’d done it. I’d landed the beast!
I looked at it. The catfish was the length of my arm and wet and glistening. Its gills heaved in and out, just the same as my own chest. We were two exhausted warriors who, in my eyes and heart, had just fought one courageous and noble battle. There was praise to give for both sides.
Uncle Merle wrenched the hook from its mouth. “You want to hold it before I put it on the stringer?”
I wanted to but my arms felt as heavy and useless as two socks filled with sand.
“I don’t think I can right now,” I said. “Maybe later.”
Uncle Merle shrugged and fetched the stringer from the boat. He fed the pointed, metal tip through the gills, out the mouth, and then through the metal ring attached to the opposite end of the stringer. He pulled the string tight, and at the edge of the water, he tossed the beast in and lashed the stringer around the base of a tree.
“You caught a fine catfish,” said my dad. “That’s one to be proud of.” I was, and I told him so.
We sat on the bank a while longer and the excitement among the three of us had ceased. I resumed creating my caricatures in the dirt with my stick. On occasion, my thoughts skipped back to landing the fish. It was one of the proudest moments of my life at the time.
Then something came over me. I’m not sure why, but I felt despair. I reflected: Was I the one who really landed the beast? Was I the one who really caught him? I wasn’t, and I knew it. My dad had hooked the catfish. He was the one who’d exhausted most of the fight out of him before handing over the rod. What if the fish and I had started on even ground? What if it was I who attempted to hook him, missed, and failed altogether? These thoughts riled me. This wasn’t a catch I could brag about to my friends. This wasn’t a fish I could call my own. I turned to my dad.
“Are we going to keep it? Doesn’t seem fair we keep just that one.”
“Depends on if we catch any more,” he answered.
“We should turn him back. He deserves to live.”
Neither my dad nor Uncle Merle said a word. Instead, they slowly cranked their reels, tightening their lines as before.
I drew in the dirt and heard my catfish splashing and rolling over and over. The rascal was at it again. Still fighting like a true warrior to the very end. He had heart, that fish.
Uncle Merle hopped up and marched to where he’d lashed the stringer. To my surprise, he yanked the fish from the water, and clinging to its belly was a snapping turtle. It wasn’t a big turtle, not as big as the ones I’d seen on the way in scooting from logs. I went over to investigate and noticed three or four chunks missing from my fish, a couple at the tail and one or two on its backside.
Uncle Merle shook the turtle from my fish and it landed into the water and dove under. And even though the catfish was injured, it showed no signs of slowing down. It pitched and flopped as before. Uncle Merle picked a different location and lashed the stringer around the base of another tree.
I felt sorry for my fish. How could he swim away if the turtle returned?
“Maybe you should let him go,” I said again. “I don’t really want him. He fought a good fight. He should be turned loose. What do ya say?”
“We’ll wait a little longer,” said my dad. “They might start biting soon. No sense of turning it back yet. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
I dropped my drawing stick and concentrated on the tip of my rod. If I were to catch a fish, I needed to do it myself and not with the help of my dad. That’s the way it had to be.
The wind blew and the temperature finally cooled. I watched the tip of my rod. It didn’t move. In fact, it didn’t move for several minutes, which, to any boy of seven, seemed like hours. This wasn’t a great place to fish at all, I thought. One measly fish was all the action any of us had seen. Where were all these fish I’d heard so much about? Where were these giants? These monsters?
“Maybe we should go home,” I said. “I don’t think there are any more fish here.”
“Give it time, Jimmy,” said Uncle Merle. “They’ll start biting soon. We got here a little early. Just you wait and see.”
But I was tired of waiting. I wanted to see some action.
The wind blew harder and thunder rumbled in the distance. We sat there for some time without a bite or any trace of a nibble. I went back to drawing in the dirt, but even that was boring me now. I gave my stick a fling and that’s when I heard my catfish rolling and tossing in the water again. This time, the splashes were louder and higher.
“Those dang turtles!” Uncle Merle said, and marched down to the water.
He pulled the stringer from the river. No turtles hung from my fish, but I saw the damage they’d left behind. Half of the tail chewed away, another chunk from its side ripped clean, and a fresh set of bites marks were on its back. This fish didn’t deserve this. It continued to pitch and flop, wanting to escape back to the depths of the river, back to the normal life it once knew.
Uncle Merle tossed it back out into the water.
“Shouldn’t you tie it up somewhere else?” I said. “How about we let it go. I don’t want it anymore. Please.”
“Don’t give up so easily, son,” said my dad.
But I wasn’t giving up, really. Letting the fish go had nothing to do with giving up. This fish, in my eyes, deserved to be free. It had proven itself worthy many times over already. What I couldn’t understand is why my dad and Uncle Merle failed to see and feel the same as I did.
The thunder rolled in and the wind whipped through the trees, swaying even the largest branches with ease. The rain fell and pelted the boat, the river water, and us.
My dad and Uncle Merle reeled in their lines, and I did the same. They scrambled to pull the boat further onto the bank, and we retreated into the cave. Hypnotized, I watched from the cave’s entrance as the raindrops appeared to bounce off the river. The thunder belched again, causing me to jump a little. The storm erased my notion of any fierce animals that might be lurking inside the cave.
The rain flushed down from the sky creating a sloppy, muddy mess along the bank. I imagined the water climbing high enough that it rushed into the cave and dragged us back to the river where a passel of snapping turtles awaited to eat us. From there, our remains would wash downstream, out into the ocean. Our friends and family would never see us again.
Though, my worries ceased when the thunder and rain stopped unexpectedly.
“That didn’t last long,” my dad said.
“It’s gonna be a scorcher now,” Uncle Merle added, poking his head outside the cave.
The sun projected through the trees, and the heat radiated from the ground, trapping us in a swath of humidity. Soaked from the rain, my Superman t-shirt cooled my back and chest.
Our fishing trip was over and the time had come to pack up and leave. I was beyond ready to go. I was overjoyed by the thought of escaping this mud pit, but most importantly by knowing I was about to release my fish. It deserved its freedom of this place. In fact, we both did.
I told my dad I was going to release my fish and he agreed I could. Relieved, I scooted down the bank to set it free. I twisted the stringer around my hand and hoisted the fish from the water only to discover a creature I no longer recognized. Half its body gone. Head chewed to the skull. A skeleton with bits of flesh at the rear. My heart shattered. I was too late.
“Those turtles did a number on it,” said Uncle Merle.
My dad must have seen the sadness on my face. “Cheer up, son. We’ll come back another day. Then you can catch all the catfish you want.”
“Or turtles,” Uncle Merle added.
I removed my fish from the stringer. Instead of throwing it into the water for the turtles to finish, I dug a hole in the mud, buried it, and covered it with a few leaves and twigs. I felt this was the respectful thing to do. A true warrior needed a proper send-off, and I wanted to make sure that he got his.
As we loaded in the boat and floated away from the cave, I remember pondering on what had occurred. This fish and I had fought a good fight, and it nearly defeated me. It had guts and honor, and I was certain that there wasn’t another one in the great Muscatatuck River like it.
As time passed, and as I became older, I did indeed catch many more catfish. Some exhibited spunk and charisma, but none were as memorable as the fish I’d caught at the ole cave when I was seven years old.