I loaded the gear into the car, looking now and then at the clouds building in the west, mean, dark-bellied, tough-guy clouds, full of rain and wind.
“Looks like it’s going to storm,” Barbara said, “are you still going?”
“You can’t tell what the weather will be like up there,” I said, nodding toward the mountains hidden behind the black sky. A gust of cold wind slammed into the yard, lifting the seat cushions off the cheap patio chairs.
She was not comfortable with it. but after the episode of the Big Toe last winter I think she just accepted it. We were sitting on the floor, before a nice fire, snow swirling beyond the windows.
“What happened to your toe?” she said.
I looked down at the blue, black and yellow nail.
“Ahh…, I think it got a little cold,” I said.
“Cold? What do you mean, it got a little cold?”
“Well,… my foot got pretty cold. A touch of frostbite, maybe…,” I said.
“Frostbite? How did you manage to…, don’t tell me. Fishing. Right? When you went fishing with Dangerous in February,” she said.
“I don’t think the nail is going to fall off,” I said, probing at it with a ball point pen.
“You’re lucky your entire foot doesn’t fall off,” she said.
My father couldn’t know that I had turned into some kind of manic fly fisherman, him being dead for the past ten years and more, but sometimes I got this image of him in Fisherman’s Valhalla, sitting around mixing bait and smoking Camel straights as one of his buddies tunes the celestial tube to focus on me slipping a 16-inch brown trout back into the water.
“Well, hell, lookit that. Hey, Scotty, your boy’s catchin’ ’em, but he aint keepin’ ’em,” the old crony cackled, adjusting the controls to bring me in sharp and clear so everybody could see.
Would the ghost of my father take up for me? Would he understand? Would I be able to explain? I don’t know.
He was seldom home and as I grew older these absences became more frequent and lengthy until it was surprise to find him there when my sister and I came from school. We could count on his coming home at least once each summer and announcing we were all going on a big fishing trip. My sister and I usually received the news with about the same enthusiasm as if we’d been awarded an all-expense-paid trip through hell.
A typical family fishing trip began with a long drive to a hot, muddy Texas lake where we all worked like hell in the heat to set up the camping stuff. Dad’s camping stuff included, but was not limited to: wooden-framed army cots, a canvas tent big enough to hold two families, ice chests, lanterns, water cans, cardboard boxes of groceries, and a collapsible picnic table that weighed about 40 pounds collapsed and maybe 60 pounds when expanded to its full size.
After we got the camp squared away we would rig up the fishing poles.
These were not fishing rods as I have since come to know them. They were truly poles, and worthy of the name. One, of which I had long and bitter acquaintance, was a telescoping steel model and had a tendency to un-telescope at the wrong time. It cast like a reinforcing rod, but coupled with a big enough reel, it could haul a small steer up from the bottom of any lake you could put a boat on.
We used corks, bobbers, snelled hooks, large sinkers, woven fishing line (monofilament came somewhat later) and the most god-awful assortment of baits, worms, impregnated dough, chicken guts and other unmentionable gop. Dad believed that properly-mixed stink-bait attracted fish like a yard sale draws housewives.
Dad was a sucker for unusual bait and he used lots of different kinds. This was easy. Every filling station, country store, hardware store and bar within fifty miles of any Texas lake stocked at least fifteen different varieties of bait, including the local concoction the owner’s brother-in-law stewed up out back.
Although Dad tried them all at one time or another, he was mainly partial to two basic varieties of bait — stink bait, and blood bait. Either kind seemed to work and both stank. You could buy it ready made, but Dad believed the absolute best was made up in the kitchen from a secret formula scrawled on the back of an envelope by a drunken fishing pal.
Making the secret bait began with a trip to the butcher for unidentifiable hunks of hacked-up meat, maybe a pound or two of stinking chicken parts and a bottle of dark, thick blood from some unfortunate animal. These animal parts were mixed with various other ingredients like meal, cotton balls (to make it stay on the hook), reptile parts, and other foul things found growing in dark, dank places. Sometimes the resulting goo was allowed to dry on wax paper out in the garage. Sometimes it required baking, or boiling, or both. Either way, it wasn’t pretty.
I remember this so well because I usually got to help. I guess mixing the secret bait was a vital part of the growing-up-to-manhood-in-Texas rite of passage. After a while, I was able to sense the impending bait mixing ritual, and when Dad pulled out his fishing gear and began oiling the reels and fussing around with all the bits and pieces, knowing what was coming, I’d quietly disappear for the rest of the day,.
Sometimes he’d wait for me to come back. He didn’t want me to miss out on the secret blood bait mixing ceremony.
It was hot in the car, even with all the windows down and the road-air blowing around inside. Dad was smoking Camels, the radio was whining out country tunes about whiskey, women and pain — things Dad had more than passing acquaintance with — and I had my sneakers up on the dash and my elbow out the window. I was thinking about who was going to be doing the bop with Jennifer down at the teen center while I was stuck in a damned aluminum boat piercing defenseless minnows with large, sharp hooks.
We were having a good time.
Dad was into his trotline period then. He had about three hundred feet of line wound on a hand-made wooden reel. The reel was mounted on an arrangement of pipes that could be clamped to the side of the boat. Very large hooks were tied to the line every three feet or so. We baited them with the current favorite variety of stinking bait after the trotline had been attached at either bank across a small inlet or bay and sunk from it’s middle with a large rock. Every fourth or fifth hook got a rotting piece of jackrabbit impaled on it. The rest had stinking pieces of the latest bait stuff put on them. Chicken guts packed with blood and skunk piss or something. I forget. Just to cover every angle, Dad punctured holes in six or eight cans of dog food with a screwdriver and hung them from the trotline as attractors.
It was 100° in the shade, you could fry eggs on the boat seats and I had yet to come to a deep appreciation of the virtues of cold beer in such situtations. This was fishing.
We sat in the boat, sometimes quiet, but more often talking about this and that, nothing important, waiting for an unseen fish to tug on the wounded minnow. Sometimes, I’d see him from the corners of my eyes, looking at me. Looking at me like he was wondering who I was, how I came to be here in this boat with him. Wondering where the years went so fast and left me bigger, older than the last time he had looked, really looked at me.
It was something that connects the blood bait and the mayfly.