Living Out Loud: : My Father's Pets

The fishing story

Back last winter when I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring, I told myself I was going to take up fishing again.

In my youth, I remember Sunday afternoons on my grandfather's farm and the huge lake he had. We would often go fishing with our cane poles catching sunfish, bass and the occasional catfish. We would always throw them back; killing wasn't in my grandfather's heart or mine. It was just fun hanging out with him, relaxing on the bank of the lake and feeling that tug on the old fishing line.

Here it is the end of August and I still haven't bought that fishing rod. Maybe I'll work it in next spring, but for now, let me tell you my fishing story.

This probably happened about 15 years ago. My father had retired from his job in the city and one of the things he always wanted to have on his small farm where he and my mother lived was a big lake just like my grandfather's. One spring, he had that lake dug out, filled it with water and in the summer stocked it with bass and catfish.

In the beginning, it was important to feed the catfish to help them grow or at least that's what I think the man who sold my dad the fish said. My father would buy fish food pellets from him. Near sundown every day, he would go out to the lake carrying a huge metal pan and would throw the pellets into the water.

The months turned into years and my father continued to feed the catfish. Often times when I was visiting, I would walk down to the lake with him at sundown. I'll never forget the strange sight I would see.

My father would bang on the metal pan he was carrying with a stick as he was walking down to the lake. Very quickly, you would see catfish rising to the top of the water, their heads looking like black bowling balls with whiskers. They would splash around in the lake gobbling up the pellets quickly. They had come to expect the routine every sundown and looked forward to it. So did my father.

With the catfish fully grown, it was no longer necessary to feed them, but my father did anyway. He loved going down to the lake and seeing his pets. When neighbors would ask if they could fish there, he would usually say no. He didn't want anybody getting to his catfish.

More years went by and the catfish became even bigger. It was creating a problem in the lake — the catfish were taking it over. Now it was just plain necessary to have some removed.

My father invited a co-worker and me to come by on a weekend to do some fishing, to get some of those catfish out of the lake. I wasn't looking forward to this at all. I remembered seeing those bowling ball heads as my father would feed them. They were big and scary looking then. How the hell would they look now?

Early on a Saturday morning, my co-worker and I made the drive to my father's farm. I simply had a fishing rod and a cup of worms. My friend had at least three rods, various kinds of bait and a lot of fishing gear. He was charged up for the adventure.

I fished on the opposite side of the lake from my co-worker, deciding I wasn't going to try and catch any of my father's catfish. I caught some good-sized bass, which I would reel in, look at and throw back, being careful not to let my friend see what I was doing. In his words, "Those bass are good eatin'."

I watched him cast his line and he wasn't having any trouble getting catfish to bite but they were so big that, as he attempted to reel in the line, it would always break off. I watched this happen at least three times.

My friend tried another rod and, as I was throwing yet another bass back into the lake, he yelled at me.

"Hey, I need your help, quick!"

I ran over to my friend, who was pulling on his rod with all his might.

"Hold onto the rod," he said, "Keep reeling slowly. I'm going down to the bank and help bring that fish up."

He went down to the bank, entered the water, took hold of the line and, for what seemed like an hour, pulled the catfish up to the bank of the lake. During the struggle, I remember looking to the back of me, seeing my father walking toward us.

The catfish was huge. I would have to guess it weighted 20 pounds or more. It was ugly — that black head, fat body, mean eyes and white whiskers — lying there on the bank of the lake. It breathed heavily.

My friend was gleeful. As he started taking the hook out of the mouth of the catfish, he boasted to my father and me about "the one that didn't get away."

After he said that, the catfish started to flop — mighty flips and flops that would send it three or four feet into the air, causing it to descend down the bank of the lake. My friend tried to hold onto the fish, but it was too strong, the flops too forceful to do any good. The big fish got himself back into the lake in no time at all.

And with this, my father started to laugh, a big hearty laugh I had never heard from him before.

"It did get away," he said through his laughter. "My catfish wanta stay where they belong!"

With my friend feeling defeated, that was the end of the fishing for the day. We headed toward the house, had a few beers and were back in Cincinnati by early afternoon.

So there's my fishing story. Eventually, others would come to my father's lake and would have better luck than my friend in catching those catfish. I know it made my father sad.

He's gone now; he spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home. Sometimes when I would visit, we would talk about those catfish and how big they were and how my friend couldn't hold on to that 20-pounder. It would always bring a smile to my father's face.

Maybe I should have asked him why those catfish turned into his pets, why he loved them so much. I never did.

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