Thanksgiving Catfish

Thanksgiving Catfish

It’s unusual for it to snow in Arkansas on Thanksgiving Day. But it did. A cold wind blew, snow fell, and soon the landscape wore a white overcoat. It was a beautiful thing.

I couldn’t have cared less. My life, it seemed, was falling apart.

I had just gotten a divorce. My ex-wife was awarded custody of our son. I was flat broke. On a day many were enjoying with their families, I was alone.

I had recently moved my meager belongings into a small outbuilding that had once been my storage shed. That cold, damp place, with cracks in the wall and mice on the pipes and ice-hard concrete underfoot, would be my home for months. Now I sat beside a campfire in the yard of that one-room shack, gazing deeply into the flames and contemplating life. It was depressing. I couldn’t shake the bad thoughts.

“Get your butt up and quit whining,” something in my head said. “You’re such an idiot. So many people are in much worse circumstances than you. You have no right to complain. You need to get up. Get away. Do something that will get you out of this funk.”

And, so, I went fishing.

It was freezing outside, so I dressed in a heavy coat, insulated jeans, a wool scarf, gloves and a felt hat. I felt overdressed for Thanksgiving but was glad I bundled up. Despite the snow flurries, I felt snug and comfortable sitting beside Uncle Julius’ pond.

I started fishing the pond when I was just seven. My grandmother was the first to take me there, at a time when I must have been a most obnoxious youngster. She took me often, nevertheless, and we fished side by side there many days. Those times were unforgettable.

I dearly loved that gorgeous little pond, and until I moved away to college, I fished it almost weekly throughout the year. It became my bastion – a place I could visit whenever my batteries needed recharging.

I walked there usually toting a rod and reel in one hand and a tackle box full of fishing paraphernalia in the other. From home, it was perhaps two miles, but the road across the hogbacks and hollows of Crowley’s Ridge was in such a beautiful setting, I enjoyed every step along the way. It never was a chore.

Once there, I would select from the tackle box one of four treasured lures given to me by wise fishing uncles: a Jitterbug; a Lucky 13; an old Devil’s Horse with rusty props that barely turned; and a big red-and-white topwater plug no one could remember the name of.

When the lure was selected, I would tie it on and cast. And I would cast and cast again, and then some more until either I caught a bass or knew I wasn’t likely to.

In the latter case, I switched from bass to catfish. The lure was removed, and a big sinker was tied on the line. A hook was tied below that and baited with a chunk of chicken liver or a fat night crawler. Then, if Lady Luck was with me, one of the pond’s plentiful channel cats would pluck the line and set my nerves atwitter. If I hooked it, we would fight; a long fight, hopefully. But sometimes I would quickly yank the fish onto the bank before it could break the line or throw the hook.

I had fished the pond often during Thanksgiving school breaks, but never before with it snowing. Now, pulling my scarf up over my nose and mouth, I threaded a piece of chicken liver on my hook with frozen fingers. When it was ready, I cast it into the pond and watched as the line tightened and sank. I reeled in a little more line, enough to get everything taut, then, placing the line between the thumb and index finger of my left hand, I sat on a stump and waited for the pluck.

It never came. Instead, after I had stared at my line for 15 minutes, I saw it move ever so slightly. It tightened, and then made a little sashay to the left. It moved slowly at first, but then faster and faster until … snatch! I set the hook.

The fish lurched and line “zizzed” off my reel.

Goodness gracious! This is a big one, I thought. I knew that because I could hardly handle it. It would race off one way then turn about and rush off again. I worried it would run the line around a stump or tangle it in a bush. But I managed to steer the fish clear and keep it in open water.

For several minutes, we fought. The fish took line and I would take it back. Finally, I gained the upper hand and could see the creature’s blurry outline four feet beneath the surface of the clear, cold water.

I reeled hard then, pulling back on the bowed pole for leverage. Then, suddenly, there it was – all 10 pounds of it – splashing in the shallows.

Holy smoke! It was pure white, as white as the falling snow.

I had never seen such a fish. But there it was, flopping beneath my hand as I pressed it down to remove the hook. When I finally lifted it so I might get a better look, it began croaking incessantly.

That seemed funny somehow. I laughed, then laughed and laughed again. Standing there in the cold and snow, holding the white fish, I was happy for the first time in a long time.

I thought about eating it for my Thanksgiving dinner. But I could not. The fish was too beautiful, too unique, to kill and devour. I squatted beside the pond, cradled it in the icy water and gave it a little push. The snow-white fish swam strongly away.

When the catfish had disappeared back into the depths of Uncle Julius’ pond, I looked up into the snow-streaked sky and said a word of thanks to the Great Fisherman above.

“Thank you, God, for this white catfish on this white day and the joy it gave me when what I needed most was joy. I am truly blessed, and for that I am grateful.”

This Thanksgiving, I will be sitting at my table with food piled high. A warm fire will be burning in the fireplace. My wife and six sons will be with me, and the joy of the season upon us.

I will be thinking of all the things my family has to be thankful for; our lives have truly been blessed.

For a moment, however, I’m sure my mind will wonder back to Uncle Julius’ pond, the day I watch the Thanksgiving catfish swish its tail and swim away.

Looking for fishing shows on Outdoor Channel during the months of October – December? “The Hunt for Big Fish” and “Stihl’s Reel in the Outdoors” both air in the last quarter of the year. Check the schedule for updated air times.

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