Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

August 9th, 2004

Too Many Catfish and One Knife
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

Releasing a caught fish back into the lakes around Auburndale, Florida, was about as strange 'a thought as anyone could have. But I learned a lesson in good ol' common sense the hard way, many years ago.

When I grew up there, we had only one newspaper that came out weekly. The Auburndale Star was four, or so, pages of mostly good things that happened around town. It was the early sixties, and not much happened there that was newsworthy, and to make the "front page" was big news. Mom, Dad and I made that very page one week, and I figured we were famous, well, for at least until the next edition.

A new-fangled, concrete boat ramp, complete with wooden slips, cabins, and a small store that sold bread, milk, worms and stuff, had been built on a short canal that led into Lake Van. Nothing else was out there except orange and grapefruit groves. We were the first to launch Dad's light green, wooden skiff from the new fish camp. A photographer from the newspaper was on hand to witness the grand opening, and, sure enough, the following week, right slap-dab on the front page of the hometown newspaper was black and white proof we were there first. We were short-term celebrities!

As summer rolled around, and school let out, I would make sure all of my chores were done around the house, and then begin my incessant whining to go fishing. Dad would be at work, and Mom would finally get tired of listening to my crap and give in. Of course, I would already have my twelve-foot cane pole, small, green tackle box and trusty bike ready to go, sort of hidden behind the large hedge that surrounded our house. All I needed then was a loaf of bread, to make dough balls, and I was out of there for a day of serious, summertime fishin'! The only strict rule I had to obey was being home before dark. Not adhering to this, would end up in Dad chewing me out, or getting' my butt tanned.

It was about a ten-mile ride to Lake Van, but then, parents didn't have to worry about their kids, too much. No one was out to kidnap anybody. Everyone knew each other and neighbors would bust your fanny, just as quick as Mom or Dad, if one chose to cause trouble. Anyway, as I was saying, it was summer, and hotter than seven hundred hells. Out and around Lake Ariana, up a couple of small hills out on State Road 559, then down a dusty, clay road that wound through the groves, and I was almost there. I hoped the guy at the fish camp remembered me.

We were taught manners back then, and the only proper thing to do, was ask permission to fish from one of the wooden slips at the camp. The owner remembered me and waved me off towards the waiting fish.

Armed with my twelve-foot cane pole, an equal length of eight-pound-test, mono line, a plastic bobber, a split-shot and a size eight hook; I began to roll small dough balls. I lowered the first one down, beside a dock post, and as soon as I did, it disappeared into the tannic waters of the canal. I set the hook and came up with a nice, twelve-inch speckled cat. Then another, and another, and another, until I ran completely out of bread. Each catfish was brought up and strung on the cotton cord stringer I had skewered into a knot hole on the dock. I ran back into the store, where the guy that owned the place sat smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. I had my weekly allowance of twenty-five cents waiting to buy another loaf of light bread. He just pointed to the display shelf and told me to help myself, never looking away from the paper.

The scene repeated itself many times, until I had just enough time left to get back home before sunset. I had been sitting on that same dock all day, stringerin' up catfish, one by one.

Knowing I would catch the Dickens if I didn't leave, even though I still had bread and the fish were still bitin', I had to get home. I wound the line up on my pole, attached the hook to the rubber band, and went to lift my stringer out of the water. I couldn't pick it up. Thinking the stringer, and the unruly catfish, had wrapped around a post, I went back into the little store to seek help. The man with the pipe was about to close up shop, but obligingly walked out to assist. "Hell, son, you ain't hung up, you must have two-hundred pounds of cats on that stringer!" Now, that was a proud moment. We lifted and grunted, and when the fish hit the dock, there musta been a million of 'em!

He lifted the fish up on a hanger where a sign read, "Lake Van Fish Camp" and told me to stand just to the side of all those fish while he snapped a few Polaroid pictures; one for the "braggin' wall," one for me, and one, I hoped, for the newspaper. I was going to be famous again, all by myself. The Old Man was going to be some kind of proud of his fish-catchin' kid, and I was happy to supply supper for a whole year, with all those cats! Here lies the problem. How was I to get home? There was no way to mount all two-hundred pounds of slimy, horn-adorned fish across the handlebars, and then ride ten or twelve miles back home before dark. Solution to the problem; I'll call my dad, he'll come get me, I thought.

He never, ever answered the phone, Mom always did. But sure as I figured, this time he picked up the call. "Daddy, can you come out to Lake Van and pick me up?"

"You got a flat tire?"

"No sir, I caught so many catfish I can't get 'em home!" I was beaming from ear to ear!

"You got down there, didn't you?" And he hung up...

I felt like one of those catfish had jumped off that stringer, and hit me right up 'side the head. He was supposed to share in my excitement! What just happened?

The man at the camp must have sensed my dismay and searched out a large piece of plastic to wrap the fish in. We tied the stringer and its contents to the bike's handlebars and off I went, head held low, horny catfish pokin' holes in my knees; totally dejected, and getting pissed. With each rotation of the pedals, the anger compounded four times over. By the time I reached the house, where the ogre lived, I could have bit cut-nails in half! I slung the bicycle, fish and all, down in the front yard. It was somewhere around nine-thirty; way past dark. I stomped, lightly, but stomped, in on the wooden floors and the only thing I heard him say was, "You got fish to clean, don't cha? Best get to it." I was already pissed beyond words, now I was livid. He just sat there in front of the black and white television, never looking my way. I wanted to call him everything I had learned in the locker room at school.

I drug that pile of fish across the grass to the sink he had mounted on the back porch wall. I went to the garage and got the big, number three washtub and began unstringerin' those damned fish, one at a time into the tub, cussin' at the old man when each fish hit the bottom with a "thud." My bulldog, Spot, watched and seemed to be the only one that cared, and I was some kind of pissed off. I was pissed at the catfish, I was pissed at the night, I was pissed at the skeeters that were chewin' my ass off, but mostly, I was pissed off at the man I thought would be the proudest of me!

I began rippin' the hides off those catfish with a vengeance, cussin' each one of them; picturing them with Dad's face on them. I never cursed around my folks, but I swore if he were to walk out that door, I would. The door swings open and there he stands in his undershirt and drawers...

"You' 'bout done?" It was eleven o'clock! That did it! The ultimate, piss-me-off statement of the year!

I looked into the beast's beady eyes, "You plan on eatin' any of these catfish?" I growled. Who just said that? It wasn't me!

"Yep, I figured I might." The beast answers back.

"Well, you ain't eatin' a damned one of 'em!" Whose voice was that coming from my lips, surely it wasn't mine. I knew better than to cuss at the beast. He just peered at me over his bifocals, grunted and smirked his little smirk, then went back inside. I kicked a bucket across the yard as Spot high-tailed it to his doghouse, figurin' he was next.

About fifteen minutes later, Dad came out with his skinnin' pliers and his Case XX pocket knife. "Move over, boy. I'll skin, you gut 'em." We stood right there, that night, and watched the sun come up as we cleaned catfish. He never said another word.

A decade later, I sat on the side of a bed at Winter Haven Memorial Hospital, next to a man that had had a heart attack. The doctors were ready to place a pacemaker in his chest the next day. He was afraid, and told me that. We spoke man to man for a few minutes. He explained to me, he wasn't afraid to die; he just didn't want that thing in his chest. I broke the seriousness of the conversation and asked him if he remembered the time I had caught all of those catfish. He looked toward the little nightstand next to his bed. "Look in there, boy, and get out my pocketknife." I did so, and found that same old Case XX he had skinned my catfish with that night, long ago. "Put it in your pocket." I explained to him, I didn't want his knife, he would be fine in a week, or so. "I'll get it back from you when I get out of here. I don't want anybody to steal it." I took the knife.

"Well, do you remember all those fish? You never answered my question."

He looked me in the eyes, "Did you learn anything?"

"I wasn't supposed to bring all those catfish home, was I?"

"You ain't as dumb as I thought you were." He and I began to laugh with each other, through my tears. He had taught me a lesson without saying a word, way back then.

Three months later, he left this world. The time I spent with him, before his departure, were the best times I ever had with this man I called, "Daddy." I keep that old Case XX in my pocket. It travels with me whereever I go. They don't make knives like that anymore; ones that contain important lessons buried in their bone handles, and hollow-ground blades.

I've only kept a few catfish since. It's an obligation to the fish, I suppose. Somehow to repay my vulgarity. Somehow to rectify a wrong.

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

Previous Flats Dude Columns

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice