In the woods beside the house someone had buried an old refrigerator in the ground. It was full of dark rich soil which was full of fat wriggling worms. A fishing expedition always began with a trip to the old refrigerator. We’d take an empty coffee can, lift the door of the refrigerator and dig around in the soil. When we found a worm we’d pull it out and drop it in the coffee can. Once the can had enough worms in it we’d collect fishing poles and head for the lake. The cane poles had fishing line tied to the end, a red and white bobber, a small weight, and a hook.
The walk down to the lake involved passing through the barnyard and then walking along a dirt road. After passing a small swamp on the left the road went up a slight hill, through some pine trees and then opened onto the lake.
The best place to fish for the bream in the lake was on the bank beneath some huge old pines. Through the clear water we could see the round beds the bream made on the floor of the lake. Argie was the one who taught me how to put the worm on the hook and gently toss the hook into the water. For some reason he told me that I should spit on the worm before throwing it into the water. This became so natural to me that I’d probably do it to this day. I’d then swing the line gently into the water. At this point Argie told me that I had to, “Hold my mouth right,” if I wanted to catch a fish. I’ve no idea of the right position of my mouth for this enterprise but still use that expression when I speak of an attitude of hopefulness. While waiting for a fish to take the bait I’d stare down at the lake bottom near where my worm was suspended and watch as the bream swam near it. If I got bored waiting I’d gaze out across the lake. Sometimes I would see catfish, some of which were huge, either jump out of the water or lazily roll over out in the middle of the lake. Sometimes I’d see a head moving smoothly across the surface of the water. These heads belonged to eels but more often to snakes. Because of the snakes we couldn’t swim in the lake.
Eventually the fish would begin biting. After pulling a fish in we’d take the hook out of the fish’s mouth and place the fish on a string. Then we’d toss the fish stringer into the water at our feet and secure it to the bank with a stick.
Although there were catfish in the lake we never fished for nor caught any of them.
The lake was formed by an earthen dam which blocked the water of a small stream. At one end of this dam was a sluice gate. Every once in a while this sluice gate was left open allowing the water to run out and the level of the lake to drop. I think this was done periodically to allow the farm hands to catch large numbers of fish so that they didn’t overpopulate the lake. Although my brother and I were never allowed to participate in this orgy of fish catching we did watch. My brother had a small boat in which he used to zip up and down the lake. The farm hands would either wear waders or roll up their pants legs and walk out into the lake pulling the boat behind them. With the water level so low they could actually catch the fish with their hands and toss them into the boat. Although we didn’t eat the catfish they certainly did. They would also catch some of the eels. I remember watching, appalled, as Puddy or Bowow would chop off the eel’s head and then skin it by peeling the skin down its body as though taking off a sock.
At the end of a fishing expedition we’d make our way back along the dirt road to the house. With cane poles over our shoulders and fish on the stringer I felt hugely accomplished. The next task was to clean the fish. There was no room for squeamishness here. I don’t remember how old I was when I caught and cleaned my first fish but I’m pretty certain that no allowances were made for age. If I caught it I had to clean it. There was a spigot behind the house where we did our fish cleaning. Using a large rough cutting board we’d first scale the fish. Next came the beheading by a sharp knife. The trick was to make two diagonal cuts just behind the gills on either side. The direction of the cuts was towards the fish’s nose. Where they met the head came cleanly off of the fish’s body. Then another cut was made along the bottom of the fish. I learned to reach in through this cut and cleanly remove the guts. That was it. It all seemed quite clean and simple once I got used to it.
The best part came next. Kate was a super cook. We’d present her with our clean fish and an hour or so later she’d ring the dinner bell. There was nothing better than sitting down to a dinner of fried fish, corn, okra, and lots of biscuits with freshly churned butter.