Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

January 12th, 2003

The Box
By Roger Stouff

There's a big old aluminum tackle box sitting in that room of the house which, when renovated, will include a cabinet for storing my collection of antique and newer firearms, fishing gear, maps, boat plans, a desk for my computer and tying flies.

That room is a work in progress, like the rest of the house, but the area is a sort of small alcove off the living room, about eight by twelve, with windows on two of its three sides. It will be perfect for a place I can write, do odd jobs like oiling my reels or cleaning a gun, or tying fishing flies. It will also be a sort of conservatory.

The old aluminum tackle box was Dad's. It's rounded on the corners, like a loaf of bread, but much bigger, and the sheet metal is dappled with texture. You unclip the lid on each side, and it separates down the middle and the two halves open outward with a dry shriek of metal on metal. Inside are rows of trays stacked three high which also expand outward on hinges, revealing lots of individual tackle storage units and a larger space beneath.

I take it out, sometimes, and study it carefully. When I was a kid, that tackle box was many things to me. It was a symbol of being a grown-up: A grown-up sized tackle box marked the entrance to a whole world of grown-up privileges and perks, without cognizance of the responsibilities entailed. It was also a wonderland of things I was seldom allowed to tinker with, mysterious fishing lures that would emerge only out on the lake, and a plethora of unknown objects which I could only glimpse while the lids were open and the trays sprawled outward.

I had my own tackle box, I remember, a little yellow plastic one that was about a foot long, six inches wide and five inches tall. It held a few hooks, a half dozen lead weights, a couple of corks and some lures which had seen better days that Dad had donated to my collection, and I prized them all greatly. When Dad opened his tackle box, I opened mine, whether I needed anything from it or not.

Today his old box sits in the room which will be my "piddling room," along with his nine-foot, five-weight fiberglass fly rod and Martin automatic reel. The burgundy finish has speckled and grayed, and the reel is chipped and greasy. The line, once yellow and flawless, is crackled and dry. But if I wind the external disc and merely touch the release, it whirls and sings, pulling line in as if it were brand new. It is a sound I know so well. I don't use automatic reels anymore, but they still hold a warm spot in my heart.

Sometimes I open the tackle box and finger through its contents: old wooden Heddon Lucky 13's, badly chewed up; Rapala Floating Minnows and oodles of fly poppers, their feathers long disintegrated and their rubber legs melted away like the years. There are Jitterbugs, many of them, and I can recall their strange movement atop the water, slowly retrieved on the line with a jerky, side-to-side motion that often drove the largemouth bass into a frenzy. There are large bass poppers, a single Snagless Sally which I don't recall him ever using, and huge lures which I can't identify the make or model of.

At the bottom of the box, in the larger space, he always kept spare Johnson Century or Citation reels. We always fished with Johnson reels, Citation or Century. There was also always a spare fly reel, too, just in case. I had my own fly rod, which I never quite mastered but became reasonably proficient with by the time I put it away as a late teen.

He kept a smaller box for the tackle he used most, to be stashed at easy reach under the deck of the boat. I have it, too, but it came along after I was a grown man, and I have no connection to it. No tether or lifeline. His spin cast fishing tackle I still use, some of it, though a dozen old reels lay in a box at home, common ones as well as brands of which I've never heard.

A red-and-white Lucky 13 catches my eye, and I pick it up. The hooks are rusty, and the body is marred by a great many tiny pricks, teeth marks of largemouth bass. If I could count the exact number of fish taken on all the lures in that box, I would guess they'd fill the living room from floor to ceiling. There are a thousand fish swimming around in that old aluminum tackle box, taken under a thousand cypress or tupelo branches, from behind a thousand sunken logs, aside a thousand weed beds and nearby a thousand flat-topped pond lilies. There are dozens of oatmeal crème pies inside there, too, the only snack we'd bring with us on the water; lurking somewhere under the expanded trays, between the metal hinges, is a small boy and his aging father; the boy born late in the man's life, an only child, knowing no sports, no baseball or football, only a tackle box full of lake water, cypress trees, shell mounds, broken pottery, bluegill, bass and safety.

If I turned the box over and spilled its contents onto the oak floor, not only would the Heddons and the poppers and the Johnson reels tumble out, but so would eight cottonmouth snakes which ran us out of Peach Coulee one day, intent on getting at the fish we had in the livewell. If I shook the box to free anything stuck to the black innards, an old Hildebrandt straight-shank spinner might dislodge, along with a catfish that must have easily gone 40 pounds, which we chased around the lake for half an hour before it broke the line on a cypress knee. If I brush the insides of the box with my fingertips, I might stir the dust of memory, recollection of something I had forgotten and can't recall now.

But I don't turn it over, don't shake it or brush it. The fanned trays and open lids are enough, for there is a world of water contained in the bottom of that old aluminum box. Sometimes I feel like all of a lifetime could fit in there, does fit in there, like a treasure chest, or a hope box. Most of me is rattling around inside that old box, bumping against its component memories and events. I don't use the box; I don't use the fly rod, either, fearing that something might happen to either of them and I'll lose all my memories somehow.

Such things as memories can't be bought, they can't be remade. In the house, in the greater sanctuary like a secret box inside a secret box, they're safe from forgetfulness.

Instead, I take my new graphite fly rod out of its canvas case while standing on the bank of a pond somewhere nearby and connect the ferrules of the two-piece rod. I strip out line, inspect the knot of the fly line to the nine-foot leader and the condition of the chartreuse popper with white rubber legs and black fuzz on the tail. Thinking of the child in the box and the old man he's becoming somewhere on the stream winding ahead, I lift the rod and the line whips back, pushing through air which Abraham breathed in and Black Elk exhaled, then snaps forward and stretches out before me. A few false casts later the line is laid straight, leader out, and the popper is let still near a clump of submerged brush, submerged like the days gone down from my youth.

A bluegill rushes out of the brush and boils water around the fly, and the line snaps taut, and the rod bends, and for a moment, at least, he's standing over my shoulder, just behind, just out of my sight, and the circle comes 'round to where it began yet again.

Nea'se. Thank you for sharing my ramblings, and my waters. ~ Roger

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