A Fish’s Tale

beer boat

Robs keys jingled as he fumbled his fingers over the keychain of his trusty bottle opener in the predawn chill. He was given the bottle opener in his mid-twenties. He was drinking a Rusty Nail at the Irish Pub (He thought Scotch and Drambuie on the rocks was the height of sophistication). While waiting his turn for karaoke, a girl in a two piece Miller Light bikini walked into the bar. She wasn’t the hottest girl he had seen there, but she was half naked. She stopped at his table and talked a little and handed out keychains to each of the guys before moving to the next table. The Miller Light lettering has long since worn off of the bottle opener, but when he heard the hiss of that morning’s first beer popping open he could smell the slight hint of perspiration over her cheap floral body spray. And for a second he forgot about the cold and the light spray of the mist blowing in off the lapping waves of lake water.

Since he had grown up and got a job and a family of his own, Rob had made a point of drinking a beer in the shower at least once a month. The ice cold beer contrasted against the near scalding heat of the shower was a mini vacation in the midst of settling into a new life, new wife, new kids, new job, and the new mortgage that precluded the ability to take a real extended vacation away from responsibilities. But he barely remembered his college days and the debauchery that everyone thought was adult life. But this cold beer in the cold morning out in the cold lake side of wild Southern California while he fished for his own dinner, this was it. No more remembering. He was fully reliving his glory days.

As the sun peeked over the sparsely wooded mountain tops that protect Lake Silverwood from the harsh landscapes of the high desert, the shadows retreated across the surface of the lake and a kaleidoscope of blinding light reflected off the choppy waters. A boat sat in a small cove. It was beached and leaning slightly to the left from the sand against the front of the hull. The shore was about five feet of sand before disappearing into brown brush that covered the hills that bordered the cove. The hills met at the center point of the cove in an ascending crevice that somehow avoided ruts from the rains that came few and far between. Rob and Graham, poker buddies, were drinking beer and fishing from the shore, and Graham’s dog sniffed through the bushes.

Rob yanked up hard on his pole and began to reel in fast.

Graham said, “Calm down. Don’t yank so hard. All you’ll have on the hook is a pair of lips.” Graham set down his pole and walked over. “You know, you spilled your beer.” Graham tilted the bottle up and pressed it into the sand.

Rob continued to pull and reel.

“Hey, how high do you have your drag set? You are going to snap your line.”

Rob turned the dial on the front of his open faced reel. The fish began to run pulling the line out with a long zip.

“Don’t make it too loose. He’ll pull out all your line. Let him run but make him work for it.” Graham took a pull from his beer then lit a cigarette.

“I’ve been fishing before, I swear.”

“Ok.” Graham walked toward his pole. “I’m gonna pull in my line. I don’t want them to get tangled.” Graham came back with a net and his needle nosed plyers that he had stored in his boat.

“Check out this fish.” Rob’s pole was bent and the line pulled tight, but he had worked the fish within five feet of the shore. The fish circled back and forth avoiding the shore, and Rob followed it with his pole.

“Pretty good size.” Graham scooped it up into the net.

“Too big for my skillet. I love me some fried catfish.”

“No, you’ll probably put this one on the grill.” Graham grabbed the fish placing his thumb in the side of its mouth. He let the net drop onto the shore and pulled out the hook with the plyers. “Would you look at that the poor sucker didn’t even get to eat the worm.”

“Today is my lucky day. I don’t have to impale another one of those worms. I hate the way they squirm away from the hook and ooze all that mucus when we didn’t bring anything to wash our hands.” Robed took the brand new lime green stringer out of his sweater pocket and ripped open the plastic. He threaded the looped end through the gill and out the mouth then ran the metal rod tip through the loop and pulled it tight. He threw the fish back in the water and pushed the metal rod into the sand so he couldn’t swim away.

Graham walked back to the boat and grabbed a beer for both of them. “First fish of the day. Seems you deserve another beer even if you spilled the last one.” Rob downed what was left in his previous and took the new one from Graham.

Graham said, “This seems to be your lucky spot I am going to try out the other side of the cove.” This was the extent of their conversations when they weren’t drunk enough or there wasn’t anything exciting going on. It reminded Rob of his trips with his father only with Graham Rob was the older by eight or ten years, but somehow he still was the one to receive all of the “helpful” advice.

Rob’s pole was the one his father had given him on his sixteenth birthday. They had gone fishing from time to time. His father had taught him how to gut his first fish. He had an extensive tackle box and seemed to know more about fishing than he ever let on. But fishing seemed a remnant of his past. Rob and his father fished from time to time because that is what father and son were supposed to do. Rob just enjoyed the time he got to spend with his dad. Even when he grew too old for those trips, he kept his pole, and the stringer was the first fishing implement Rob had bought in years.

Graham, on the other hand, had the boat and several poles. His garage was packed with dirt bikes and he just had a larger driveway poured so he could park the RV that he was planning to buy. They lived in the same neighborhood and worked roughly the same jobs, but somehow Graham had all these nice things and all the free time to make use them. Rob spent Saturdays drinking beer at Graham’s poker parties, and he thought that they were pretty good friends. But it wasn’t until Graham’s most recent back yard barbeque that they had made a point of going out to the lake together. Well, it was more of Suzy’s idea. She had overheard Graham talking about his next trip and all but forced Rob to ask if he could tag along.

Graham liked to beach the boat in a secluded cove where he could watch the other boaters zoom past the point pulling skiers. They sat on the pebbly sand and fished without being crowded out by the impatient kids and the disapproving looks of their parents.  Best of all, they drank without fear of being harassed by the lake police like they would if they were in the boat.

Rob and Graham were spread out along the short strip of beach, and the dog, Buck rummaged in the bushes. He found a dried up catfish tail with remnants of what looked like a spine still intact. Rob watched and laughed. Graham and his clownish figure ran after the dog and tried to get the piece of rot away from him. Eventually, Graham caught the dog and threw the rotten fish bones into the lake. Buck walked up to the edge of the water and drew back when the water lapped onto his front paws. He stared out at the bobbing fish carcass and whined until he lost interest.

The day was warming as the afternoon approached. Rob took off his sweater and lay it next to a piece of driftwood on the shore. He cast his line out toward the inlet of the cove and leaned the pole against the piece of driftwood. Rob decided to give Graham’s system a try. He attached a hook to a bobber and hung it from the line between the first two loops at the top of the pole. If the line just jiggled from the movement of the water the weight of the bobber would pull the line down keeping it taut. But the bobber would be pulled up parallel to the pole if a fish pulled on the line. Rob sat in the sand and sipped his beer waiting for the next bite. It wasn’t long before Graham was pulling in a small one across the water of the cove.

As the day got hotter, Graham pulled in another fish, a catfish that rivalled the size of Rob’s. But that was the last of their luck for a while so Graham found a sturdy little limb that branched on one end so he could leave his pole unattended. Graham rummaged around in the boat until he pulled out a pair of swim trunks. He changed behind the boat and waded out into the water.

Rob called out. “I didn’t know you could swim in this lake.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I don’t know. Some of these lakes are reservoirs for drinking water.”

“They add chlorine. I know you’re hot over there. You should take a swim.”

“I didn’t bring any shorts.”

“You are wearing underwear aren’t you?  Just wear them. There isn’t anyone out here to see you.”

“You’re probably right.” Rob took off his shirt and pants and laid them in a pile atop his sweater. He waded out into the cove until he was deep enough to swim. He wasn’t a great swimmer, but he stayed near the land and swan out toward the rest of the lake. When he got out near the inlet, Graham called out.

“Don’t go out there. You’ll get hit by a boat. And I can’t save your ass if you drown.”

Rob took this as a challenge and swam toward the opposite side of the cove. It didn’t seem that far until he got about half way across. Tired and breathing heavy, Rob began to tread water. He knew from his days in high school swimming class that it didn’t take much energy to keep his head above water, and he could take some time to catch his breath. The water was warm enough around his arms and chest but his legs seemed to be drifting through a cold spot. He felt something touch one of his feet. He straightened up and pointed his toes. He wanted to sink a little so he could tell how deep the water was. He couldn’t find the reassuring warmth of the sun soaked gravel bottom or even the toe sinking slime of mossy silt. California doesn’t have any poisonous water snakes, no alligators, no snapping turtles. At least there aren’t any native to the state. But there is a thriving exotic animal trade and there was no telling what might have been dumped in the lake when it got too big for its owner. Rob hadn’t completely caught his breath, he began to beat his arms and legs wildly to swim toward the shore. But he held his head above the water and took a deep breath and forced himself to regain composure. He had to be brave with someone else watching. He remembered one of the few things his dad had taken the time to teach him. Take deep slow breaths, stop moving, put your arms out to the sides, tilt your head back, let your feet float up, and arch your back so that your belly button comes out of the water. Rob heard his father’s voice while he floated on his back with his ears bobbing in and out of the water. He made leisurely strokes until he reached the shallows of the other side. He was worn out so he walked along the shore until he made it back to his pole. He lay there next to the pile of his clothes to take in the sun, and catch his breath while he pretended to be drying off. The water lapped the shore from a boat zooming past.

Rob reached over to the bottle of beer that was smashed down into the sand. The sunlight shined through the warm brown glass, and Rob took the last swallow before throwing it into the pile of empties they had sitting near the boat. It bounced off the sand and rolled into another bottle with a loud clink.

Graham yelled out. “Hey asshole, don’t break those we’re taking them back with us. I don’t want to get cut.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rob had stood up and wiped the sand off the back of his shorts. He grabbed his pants and stepped into them. He started to walk toward the boat, but he saw the bobber slowly rising up. He ran over to the pole, slowed way down and bent over gingerly. He lifted up the rod careful not to spook the fish and have it to spit out the hook. Then he yanked back to set the hook. The bobber went flying off into the bushes behind him, but it didn’t feel much like he had a fish on the line.

Graham came running over followed closely by buck. “Did you catch something?”

Rob was reeling easy. “Nah, not this time. I hooked a loose weed or something. It’s not fighting.”

Graham kept watching the line in the water. “No, not a weed. You can see it in the water, now. It’s a fish but I think it’s fucked up.”

Rob began to reel faster. “You know you’re right. It is a fish.” It was a catfish small, bent nearly in half, tail flapping slowly causing it to turn circles around the hook. “It must have gotten hit with a boat or something and broke its spine. I can’t believe it survived.”

“I believe it. Nothing kills a catfish.”

Rob pulled it up out of the water. It was half the size of the other catfish they had caught but it didn’t look very young. It was shaking as best it could and it had its gill fins sticking straight out at the sides. “He’s still got some fight left in him.”

“You gonna eat it?”

“No, he survived this long. I’m not going to be the one to kill him. Besides, Suzy has a thing for small helpless animals. If I kill it, she will give me grief. If I throw it back, I may just be able to get some by buttering her up with a cute little anecdote about the amazing life of Corky the retarded catfish.”

“Corky had Down’s Syndrome.”

“Don’t over think it. It’s just a joke.” Rob walked his catch over to the boat to remove the hook. Just as they made it to the boat, Graham took off sprinting.

“Shit, I got a bite.” Graham’s pole had come off the stick it had had been propped up with and was inching towards the water.

“Hurry, don’t lose your pole! Lucky fucker, got another big one.”

Rob took the needle nose out of the top level of Graham’s tackle box and grabbed the hook in the fish’s mouth and shook a few times before the fish fell free into the water. The fish swam serpentine into the shimmering shadows of the lake while Graham fought his fish back and forth trying not to let it break his six pound test. Rob pulled another beer from the cooler and took a swig before baiting another worm on his hook.

They fished another hour without any more luck. Graham reeled in his line and whipped his pole several times. The hook and weight slammed into the water splashing with each strike. He was trying to remove the bait without touching it. Rob took this as his cue and started reeling in his line too. He shouted across the water, “Ready to leave?”

“I gotta get home and get a shower before Linda gets home.” Graham broke down his pole and pulled his stringer out of the water. It had two good sized catfish that shook against the day glow yellow twine that went through one gill and out the mouth, and one small stiff trout that only moved because of the thrashing of the other two. Buck ran in circles around Graham, and nipped at the fish. He was forced to hold the fish high so the dog wouldn’t ruin the meat. “Buck, you asshole. Get in the fucking boat.” The dog dashed off and leapt into the boat without breaking stride.

Rob broke down his pole and finished his beer before he pulled in his stringer with the one keeper that he had caught earlier that day. Graham rolled up his pant legs and waded into the water to clean his catch on the step at the back of the boat. Graham filleted the trout and tossed the carcass into the water. Then he slid his knife into the underside of the first catfish and slit it from groin to gill. He ripped all of the organs out of the cavity and tossed them into the lake. Dipping the whole fish into the water, he rinsed the rest of the goo out of the cavity and off his fingers. The fish was sluggish and stunned but it still tried to swim away.

Rob said, “Those things really don’t die, do they?  Trout die from the shock of being caught, but catfish don’t even need their hearts.”

Graham threw the fish into the cooler. It swayed gently, jostling the few remaining beers floating in among the melting ice. “They’re usually dead before I get home with them.” Graham cleaned his other catfish.

“You seem to be pretty good at this. Why don’t you clean mine for me?”

“I’ll take it home and eat it too.” Graham handed over the fishing knife. He had not yet rinsed his hands, and he pressed the handle of the knife into Rob’s palm with one hand and closed his other hand around the back of Rob’s making sure to smear in as much fish smut as possible. Graham affected a fatherly tone. “You are not a man if you can’t clean your own fish.”

“Thanks.” Rob held his hand out just a little too far from his clean pants. He rolled his pant legs one handed and waded out to the step to clean his fish.

Rob slid the knife up through the under flesh of the fish. Then, he turned the knife across the fish and followed the gills up until he hit the spine. He pushed down on the knife until the fish jerked and went limp. He didn’t want to put the fish through agonizing death that Graham’s catch would experience. The head of the fish sat atop the step as Rob removed the guts and rinsed the fish. The fish’s mouth continued to open and close trying to push water across the gills so it could breathe. The red inside of the gills stood open and the gill fins were thrust outward in a defensive posture. After Rob tossed the decapitated fish in the cooler, he lifted the head of the fish in both hands, palms extended to the sky. He was astonished and anguished that the fish was still clinging on to life, but he could not let those feelings show. “You’ll be OK buddy. It’s just a flesh wound. Swim it off.” He lowered his hands into the water and let the head float out.

“Ha! Swim it off.”

They pulled the boat from the bank and climbed in. Rob took another beer from the cooler and reached over the edge of the boat to rinse the bottle in the water. Graham started the boat and drove out toward open water. “Don’t let anyone see you drinking that.”

Back in the protected cove, the head drifted serpentine into the shadows of the lake.

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