the true stories
Once when I was thirteen just before we came to live in Canada permanently, my family visited my grandmother in Beaumont. It was an exceptional time. My mother and sisters and I stayed a while and we all headed to the cabin on the Gulf of Mexico that my grandparents owned. The girls went dancing at night and we all went to the beach during the days. My father was going to pick us up later in Beaumont for the ride home to Houston. My grandfather was at sea on his way to India.
After a day or so at the cabin, I had a strong hankering to go fishing. It was an activity that I only did in the company of my grandfather, but he wasn't due in port for months. I saw his Datsun pick-up sitting under the pilings and asked my grandma if I could have the keys. She knew that the old man had taught me to drive on the beach a few years before and she said it was OK.
The little truck had been hand-painted with a brush. It was marine grade rust paint borrowed from the Sun Oil company. The engine had been carefully dismantled and scrubbed clean, then re-assembled. All the parts that would take paint had been painted in different colours. It made it easier for me to understand which part was what while watching the old man work on it when he was in port. It looked like a Lego toy and ran like a brand new Singer sewing machine. My grandfather, his dog, Skipper and I were the only ones to use it.
I gathered my tackle box from the shed under the house and loaded up. I had no driver's license and no fishing license, so I was ready for the day. I chose a place we affectionately called “The Cut”. It was a machine dug canal that linked the Gulf of Mexico with Galveston Bay near Gilchrist, Texas. It was simply lined with huge corrugated sheet iron that was a little more rusted with every year that passed. The joining of the open ocean with the Bay via this short-cut made for a fish highway.
It was only a ten minute drive from the cabin and soon I was all set up. I was using the usual bait of the region which is shrimp the size that people where I live now save for their stir-fry. The line was rigged with a lead weight and a hook leader about a foot up the line. My rod was the first I had been gifted with, a cheap little Zebco spin-caster. It was the first time I ever drove somewhere by myself and the first time I ever went fishing alone. Felt real good but kind of tight like new hiking boots.
There were some good ole boys pretty close to me on my right. They were drinking beer, cussing, smoking cigars and one was trying to fish. He went through the ritual of asking twenty questions as to what I was fishing for and what bait I was using. I disappointed him as I have always been a hunter, not a sportsman. I'm fish for food, period. The only way I release a fish is if it's too small or poisonous to eat.
This bubba was fishing for flounder specifically. As the time went on he caught crab after crab. Big beautiful blue crabs. He broke into fits of Shakespearean swearing every time. What bothered me was that he simply whacked the poor creatures onto the hard packed sand and left them to bake in the Texas sun. The iron walls had about three feet of free board left in those days, so the eight legs could only try walking two hundred yards to the bay to get relief.
After awhile there were seven or eight crabs scuttling about trying to find shade and blowing bubbles. From time to time the man would turn and address some new random string of cuss-words and maledictions to those outcast crustaceans. He explained that he was getting all those crabs because when you fish for flounder, you have to let your line sit still.
“Them big ole flounders, they bury themselves in the sand, my boy. Got to leave your bait down for them to creep up on it, like. That's the problem with these got-damned crabs. They move faster than them ole fat flounders. Now them flounders, they are lazy fish.”
“You been here four hours and ain't got nothing but turd-wrasslers and those blue-clawed sons-of-bitches,” said his side-kick, opening another beer.
I caught some big crabs and put them in a bucket of sea water for my grandma to cook. When I had enough, I picked up the refugees left stranded by the man. I couldn't throw them back into the water until these guys left the scene for fear of ruining their chance at a flounder. I hadn't caught any fish except a small drum and a few baby cats.
I was getting low on shrimp, so I started to pop my weight up and down as a way of discouraging the crabs who had sent word of the feast and were congregated in the deeps just below us. I figured the little puffs of sand and silt would keep them off my bait and on to the gentleman's rig to my right.
The man continued to fish and strand each crab he caught. The other fellow started drinking in earnest. I looked around and saw one big crab. It had been ignominiously banged against the iron until it released its grasp on the bait and had scuttled off to the shade under my truck. It sat there seething and scoping out the situation. I'd get it later.
As I fished, I kept checking it. After about ten minutes it started to move. It described a wide arc in a clock-wise direction until it came to the iron barrier. There was a little shade there and it went sideways along past my position. I was worried what would happen when it got up to the other fisherman. Slowly it crept closer to its tormentor.
The man was flat determined to get his flounder and was in deep concentration. I watched out of one eye as the blue sidled up to the man's right big toe which poked out of his flip-flops. The man's belly occluded his sight-line to his feet. After a brief look around with its eye-stalks the crab raised a mighty pincer like Excalibur and sank the business end into the fat toe down to the bone.
It was clearly a premeditated precision attack and I learned then and there that animals of any type are not stupid, have feelings and possess memory. The man howled like a stuck pig and jumped back a foot or two. His partner almost choked with laughter and in the end they had to amputate the pincer and pry it off. The old crab was flung far into the drink and no doubt started to grow a new claw.
The fellows bandaged up the wound, which was considerable and said they'd be going. I said I guess I would to and began to reel in my line. After taking the two turns of slack out, I was treated to a snag. I walked left and right and pulled like the devil. All to no avail. I returned to my original position and reeled hard. My rod bent straight down to the water.
The two guys gave advice and I tried all their tricks. There was nothing for it. I would have to break the line. It was something I hated to do. It was like giving up. Besides, the tackle cost money. With a heavy heart, I reeled up as much as I could without breaking the rod itself. Then I wound my fist around the line and heaved like a stevedore.
The line went slack as a leaf falling off a tree. It was like pulling a tooth. I began to reel in furiously. It was a bad way to end my trip. Especially so as it was my feeling that this was probably my last time fishing at this spot. That later came true.
Now my bare line was snagged. My rod bent double. My brain couldn't sort out what was going on. How could a line get snagged with no tackle? Wait, I could just barely reel some up very slowly. I peered into the muddy Gulf water. I figured my little spin-caster had been damaged. It was a fitting end. Stubbornly I reeled in strained slow motion.
Suddenly my line went slack again and I saw a flash of brilliant light under the yellow chop. It was a big one! By this time I had the two men yelling instructions on either side of me. With their encouragement, I reeled up a four pound flounder. It was the biggest fish I had ever caught and it was a flawless specimen.
The men congratulated me and the fellow with the toe said it didn't hurt anymore. He was glad I'd caught it to prove to his friend that there were some big old lazy flounders buried in the sand right under our feet. Side-kick insisted I drink a beer with him. I drove back to the cabin, a boy no longer. You should have seen the look on my grandma's face when I showed her that “golly-whopper.”
We took it back to Beaumont, so she could cook it when my father came to pick us up. It fed the six of us full and caused my father to raise his sophisticated eyebrows. It was the first time I fed my entire family and it I can only liken the feeling to being in the company of the first hunter at the first fire watching the first woman smile.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.