Grandpa and Grandma stopped by our little homestead, rolled up the driveway in their luxury sedan, all spiffed up in Sunday duds to offer my teenaged son, Craig, and I a ride to church.
“Lupe, get back!” I hollered at my blue heeler bitch, while hanging up a load of laundry on the line in the backyard. I was prepared. I had known they were going to show up at nine, because Grandpa had stopped by Saturday afternoon to warn us.
“Is Craig ready for church?” Grandma could see that I clearly wasn't, wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, and barefoot, petting my dog on the forehead to keep her from scratching the shiny cardoor.
“Uh, he sets trot lines on Friday and Saturday nights, so he's actually down at the river, checking his lines.”
Craig's latest obsession is to catch the mighty flathead catfish. There are three main breeds of catfish that lurk and interact in the two rivers that converge about a mile from our farmstead, and that is where Craig fishes up and down the banks of the quicker, more lucrative river. This time of year it resembles the Navarro more, as the swift, deep currents of June have dwindled to meandering streams, pools and massive sandbars. This is the time to catch catfish.
Our freezer is filling with channel cats, who are at the bottom of the catfish food chain, caught on stink bait that is basically a mixture of steer blood rotted with flour. A lot of people are afraid to eat the fish in the rivers on account of mercury, or herbicides and fertilizers and industrial waste, so the catfish population is plentiful. My take on the whole Afraid-To-Eat-The-Fish-From-The-River deal is just a basic question, like after seeing Grizzly spray strawberries with fungicide the day before harvest, or harvest watermelons that had been sprayed with a miticide that had the skull and crossbones on the lid, after seeing farmers inject growth hormones into beef cows, why be afraid to eat the fish? I mean nobody intentionally injects weird shit in those wild creatures that probably still feed off earthworms and mostly organic crap that washes down. Nobody sprays them for insects. They probably gobble a lot of dead bugs that got sprayed and end up drifting down the damn river, maybe they swallow some bubble gum a kid spit in the gutter, but then again what's the difference between that and the strawberry that got sprayed the day before harvest?
Case in point, from the perspective of Craig and I, would be the fishing gurus who've been pulling channels, flatheads, and blue cats, as well as largemouth bass and perch from that river all their lives, eating catfish for dinner just about every night. These folks seem pretty healthy to me, and they are also knowledgeable in the subject Craig is most interested in, which makes them teachers in my book, might even be part of my book.
“Craig needs to get a good education,” Grandpa says. “He needs a fair crack in life.”
These days he is studying catfish, and his main instructor would be the fellow down at the bait shop, were Craig rides his bike for the stink bait, treble hooks, trout lines, and advice. Located in the middle of nowhere, life is slow and quiet in the bait shop, and Larry, with a beard like Santa Claus, has studied catfish and those two rivers for seventy years. He knows every local fisherman, and what they've caught, and when, and how, and maybe even why. He knows catfish, and he knows the people who know catfish.
“I asked my ag teacher if maybe we could research catfish,” said Craig, who has already started high school. “He just ignored me.”
But at night, over a dinner of catfish, fried tomatoes and peppers from the garden at Uncle Huck's, etc., I hear all about the differences between the blues, the channels, and Craig's current goal in life, the mighty flatheads. “The channel cats go around in herds like cows and eat from the bottom, is why you catch them on stinkbait. They're all about scent. The blue cats are more about sound, is why you caught that big blue I think, that night when you just kept plopping your stinkbait in. But the flatheads — the flatheads hunt at night. They hide out in the shade of logs all day. They don't like the sun. And this time of year, when the current is more shallow between the pools, the flatheads stay around the edges of those pools and surround the channels, won't let them out. Some people think they communicate. Then they move in for the kill.”
Using frozen turkey hearts for bait, Craig sets lines overnight for the coveted flatheads on Fridays and Saturdays, so I had an excuse when Grandpa and Grandma stopped by at nine to pick us up for church. “He's probably catching channels left and right, too, so he won't be back 'til noon. Here,” I said to Grandma, whose window was rolled down, offering the epson salts, the rubbing cream, the hydrogen peroxide, and the antibiotic ointment that Grandpa had brought over on Saturday when Craig had showed him the wound on his hand where he'd been stabbed by the barbed forefin of a channel cat. “Thanks for bringing this by. Craig's hand is okay.”
“Oh, you just keep it. You might need it, Spec.”
“You know, Spec, I hate to say it but you're headed the wrong direction if you won't join us for public worship.”
“I'll think about it,” I said. “Thanks.”
Sure, I felt bad about not going with them. Here Grandpa had first shown up to invite us to church, and then when he'd seen Craig's puncture wound he'd gone back to the house where he and grandma had put together all those topicals, and they still weren't getting Craig and I to go to church.
Thing is, Craig has to get on the bus at 7:25 every weekday morning for the ride to school, and that doesn't really leave enough daylight to ride the bike down to the river, check the lines, and the trouble there is he'd probably just be tempted to try tossing some stink bait in for channels ONE TIME, since they're so hungry in the mornings right now, with the pooling of the late summer river and being under seige by the flateads. One cast would probably lead to another, since they'd be hitting, and sitting on the river like he was with church this morning on one hand, weighing out the pros and cons of going to school or church or going fishing, he'd be too tempted to stay there. If the channels were biting, from the perspective of the riverbank, I have no doubt which direction Craig would go. The wrong direction, as they say. Fishing would win out every time. So he can't do that on school days because then, instead of explaining to Grandma and Grandpa that Craig was checking lines and must have gotten sidetracked because the channels were hitting like yellow jackets on a busted watermelon, and couldn't go to church, I'd have to explain all that to the bus driver, Kenny, and then to the Principal at the high school. When it comes to mercy I believe Grandma and Grandpa, the Good Lord and the Preacher might give Craig a little more slack for playing hooky to go fishing. The public schools draw a hard line.
Feeling guilty about missing church, I waited for Craig to return home on the bicycle before completing this piece. Let's go see what he caught this morning: no flatheads, unfortunately, but eight channel cats, a few of them maybe three pounders. Thanks be to God!