We all know the old saying, “If you fall off the horse, climb right back on it.” Well, having just lost what looked like a four-pound smallie (estimate arrived at by applying the “You-Should-Have-Seen-The-One-That-Got-Away” filter to what I recall observing those many years ago), it was more a case of, “If you fall off the horse, go find a donkey to climb back on,” because few things in life are more ignoble than hooking a big fish an immediately losing it.
And here’s another old adage, the classic admonition by the veteran running back to the rookie who excessively celebrates his first NFL rushing touchdown: “Act like you’ve been there before.” It shames me to say that in contrast to your typical Bassmaster tournament circuit pro, who would simply shrug off such a heartbreaking event, my response was peppered with epitaphs such as “Shit!” “Crap!” and “F@#k!”But you really can’t knock a kid whose response to misfortune is (as we say in the teaching profession) “age appropriate,” can you? So, let’s move on.
Turns out, my big smallmouth was just the precursor to a feeding spree up and down The Beach. At one point, each of us, including myself, either had a fish on or was unhooking one. The majority of these fish were what we called “perch” (with apologies to yellow perch everywhere), but which were actually freshwater drum. In common with their saltwater counterparts, freshwater drum emit audible “grunts” when handled. A typical Little Miami River drum will give you a respectable fight, boring toward the bottom in carp-like fashion, but its endurance is such that after one decent run, it will suddenly go torpid, at which point you’ll tow in a fish that appears already resigned to whatever fate awaits it. Sadly, it was the fate of the drum caught on that particular August morning to have the metal spike of a cheap stringer rammed through its gill flaps, to have its mouth pierced with the same spike, and then, through the force of gravity, to descend the six-foot length of frayed plastic line, halted finally by the metal ring at the end of the stringer.
Between the eight of us, we hauled in at least 20 drum, along with several rock bass ( a river-dwelling sunfish with a disproportionately
large mouth) and a couple of what we called “red eyes,” ( actually spotted bass, a smaller, equally scrappy relative of the small mouth bass).
But after maybe an hour during which nearly every cast along a twenty-yard stretch of the The Beach produced a bite, the action abruptly shut down. We threw out our lines, waited, waited, and waited. Nada. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Nothing but the sound of running water and the occasional epithet. Then I heard splashing, followed by whoops. RC and the two Tims had stripped off their shirts and shoes and were waist deep in the water. were waist-deep in the water. “Accidentally-on-purpose,” as the expression goes, they beginning to encroach on Tom and Steve’s casting lanes. Steve made a big production of reeling in his line and then freezing in mid cast as if the approaching commotion would simply pass and move downstream with the current. Tom also reeled in his line, only to cast it back out over the three boys’ head. He then briskly reeled it in. Was Tom attempting to hook one of the swimmers? I wondered.
It would serve them right.
Punctuating Tom’s second cast was a shrill “Yeow!” emanating from RC. Apparently, in response to the velocity of the cast, Tom’s nightcrawler and Tom’s hook parted company. Tom’s baitless hook and sinker traveled to the lip of the channel, while the newly liberated nightcrawler detoured briskly to the left and splatted on the back of RC’s neck. “What is it?” RC shrieked, swiping furiously at the point of contact. For his part, Tom feigned an expression of total befuddlement, but RC wasn’t buying it. “Whadda fuck! RC croaked, splashing toward Tom. Two benevolent forces intervened to defuse what could have been an explosive sequence of events: The two Tim’s broke out in spasms of laughter just as Gary, who was running toward the scene of all the excitement, lost his footing on a slick rock and executed a textbook “Ass-Over-Elbow.”
Now we were all laughing, even Gary, who had the good fortune of landing in a flat of mud. That is, we were all laughing except Ronnie, who was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Croaker?” someone finally thought to ask. We scanned the surrounding environs.
“He could have drowned,” I volunteered. “This river is mostly shallow, but it has undertows that can suck you right down to the bottom.” This pronouncement was greeted with an interval of grave contemplation. As “Tweeners,” as it were, we retained our boyish fascination for phenomena of Things That Can Suck You Under, including, but not necessarily limited to: fast-moving trains, quicksand, and seemingly benign pockets of river water with treacherous undertows. And in fact, the Little Miami River did and still does claim a disproportionate number of drowning victims each year. But the river was merciful that day; Ronny was in fact the source of what we initially thought was a wild boar or some related feral beast. We finally discovered him, partially concealed by a rock ledge, fast asleep and snoring, as they say, to beat the band.
Need I remark upon the perils faced by a 12-year-old boy who suffers the misfortune of falling asleep amidst his peers? Our first impulse was to attempt the discrete removal of his clothes, but RC vetoed that proposition, arguing that Croaker, simply by virtue of being Croaker, would certainly have a generous allotment of underwear “skid marks.” And that’s when Tim Molloy spotted the bloated corpse of a sizable carp.
I must confess that Tim’s proposal that we reel in Ronny’s line, hook the dead carp on it and then play the line back out, struck me as both hilarious and relatively benign (as opposed, for instance, to drawing penises all over his body, or removing and then hiding his pants. Plus, I was relieved that it was Steve and not myself that Tim and RC appointed to fetch said carp and secure it to Ronny’s hook. Given the foul odor emanating from the carp, Steve’s strategy of grasping it by its lips and hefting it at arm’s length struck me as well-reasoned and sound, except that, moments later, Steve discovered that the better part of the fish, excepting the lips and part of a gill flap, was right back on the ground. Steve’s s revised strategy, (guaranteed to delight those of us who quest after nausea-inducing experiences) was to grip the carp by its sides, transport it (again, at arm’s length) and then hook it through an eye and then out through the skull. He then opened the bail of Ronny’s dime-store Zebco reel, set the corpse out in the current, let about ten yards of line play out, and then reclosed the bail.
On the count of three, we all started yelling, “Fish on, Croaker! Fish on!”
Ronny’s eyes shot open, and after enduring that interval of disorientation typical of anyone who’s been abruptly awakened, he focused in on his rod, cradled by a Y-shaped branch, and clearly bowing under the weight of something substantial.
“Oh God, don’t lose it!” RC cried as Ronny scuttled to his rod, clutched it, and then vigorously and repeatedly set the hook. (I think we were all amazed that he managed not to tear off the unfortunate carp’s head.)
He’s putting up a hell of a fight,” Ronnie grunted, as he struggled against the current to haul seven or eight pounds of dead weight with a reel seemingly designed to malfunction right out of the package. But all the vital components — the Zebco reel, its spool of ancient, 20-lb.-test braided line, the one-piece True Temper steel rod, the 1.5-oz. pyramid sinker, the treble hook specially designed to accommodate “stink bait” — performed flawlessly.
“It feels like a bass,” Ronny said matter of factly, which floored, RC and the two Tims, and I mean, literally, in that they both staggered about, seized by paroxysms of laughter, before dropping face-first on the ground.
“Whatever you do, don’t let it jump!” Steve shouted, apparently having opted to join in on the fun.
“Why?” Ronny grunted in response. Noticing that the carp corpse seemed to be drifting downstream, I glanced at Ronny’s reel and quickly deduced that the screw holding the spool in Ronny’s reel had come loose, rendering the reel useless. (I suspect that many anglers of a certain age remember their love/hate relationship with what was, in many cases, their first fishing rig — the Zebco 77 spincast rod-and-reel combo, in which the rod handle and back half of the reel could be unscrewed from the front half of the reel and the actual rod.)
Steve and I addressed Ronny in unison: “Because he’ll break your line!” (Steve). “You’re reel’s busted! (me). Needless to say, this put Ronny in a state of utter confusion, so I stepped into the water, grabbed Ronny’s line and began pulling it in, hand over hand. My better angel hoped Ronny’s line would snap, leaving him hugely disappointed, but with the consolation of having a whopping good fish story in his repertoire. The not-so-good angel was curious to see how Ronny would react when he gets his “trophy” close enough to shore to figure out what he had actually caught. And that moment of reckoning was imminent because already could see the carp’s pale mass. A couple feet closer and I could make out its grotesquely mutilated head with half the left jaw missing and the right eyeball, somehow squeezed out of its socket, but still connected by a filamentous gob of tissue.
“I see it!” Ronny whooped. He waded in front of a me and grabbed the line, at which point I gladly released my grip. Ronny began backing up, moving toward the shore. Suddenly, he froze. “What the hell?” he said, almost with a sigh.
“It’s a zombie fish!” Steve shrieked theatrically.
Had I not been in on the joke, I could easily imagine being appalled by the sight of that leering, cadavorous creature
Two things then happened in quick succession: Ronnie began chanting, “Sorry, sorry sorry,” as Steve reached into the water, hefted the carp, and proclaimed, “Touch it and you die.”
At which point, Ronny flung his rod at Steve and ran, panic stricken, about eight or so yards until he tripped over an exposed root. Ennervated by the laughter of RC and the two Tims (Tom and Gary did not seem that amused ), Steve advanced toward Ronny, intoning, “He wants your soul. He wants your soul,” as Ronnie struggled to his feet, only to stumble and fall yet again.
Spmeone tapped me on my back. It scared the shit out of me. I turned and confronted two men, both looking to be in their mid-twenties and, despite the heat, both dressed in black cassocks that fell a little higher than ankle-length.
“You boys are trespassing on private property, as I’m sure you already know,” one of them said smugly, while his partner was softly chanting, “Naughty, naughty. Tsk, tsk.”