(photo by Clare L. Martin)
Sunrise, Atchafalaya Basin—
Daddy’s ankles in water as the flat-bottomed aluminum boat slides off the trailer. I put my life jacket on. Daddy says, Hold onto the rope and walk to the wharf. I board the boat carefully, so I don’t fall in the water. Daddy never wears a lifejacket. He throws the outboard into reverse then shoots out to the channel that is peppered with cypress stumps, some hidden below the waterline. Daddy knows the clear path to where the fish are hiding. Any good spot under the willow trees.
Flowing costumes of green braids—the willow-dance of the breeze. Daddy opens a Schlitz beer can and gives me a red soda pop. He baits my hook because I don’t like touching the catalpa worms with their black goo. We cast close to the ribbons of branches, being careful not to set the hooks in the trees. We’re not fishing for squirrels, Daddy says.
Sun ascends to the shoulders of the willows. We eat bologna sandwiches and chips and sip our drinks. I am getting sunburned. We are waiting for the corks to bob, pop below, and disappear under the water for good.
Daddy talks to the fish. Take it, Big Red. That worm is good. A tug, a quick jag to the right to set the hook in the fish’s mouth, then I’m pulling hard. Reel, reel, reel. The sun perch breaks the surface, shimmering iridescent reds. He is fat. He twists mid-air drowning in oxygen and blood. Daddy pulls the hook from the throat of the fish that swallowed the bait and hook. Then, as I expect, Daddy squeezes the middle of the fish and it expels urine directed at me. I squeal. Daddy knows I hate and love this. Our ritual joke.
Daddy tosses the sac-a-lait into the ice chest. I am proud to have caught the first fish of the day. I feel lucky like we might have enough to invite family over for a fish fry. Everybody brings their own beer. Sac-a-lait battered in seasoned cornmeal and deep fried. Sometimes the fins are so crispy we eat them. Mama always has a loaf of bread on the table in case anyone gets a needle-like bone caught in their throat.
Daddy fishes with two hooks: one low for the catfish and the other higher up the line. Daddy does catch a catfish: a slick, almost lavender one in the shadows of the willows. He uses pliers to remove the hook and holds the catfish carefully so he isn’t stung by the barbed whiskers. Good eatin’ Daddy says. He put up a good fight. I love the fight most of all.
This day I catch a Gaspergou. It is big and fights like a man. I sweat in the sun’s heat. This big fish fights so hard. I pull, pull, pull and reel fast. Daddy holds the net near the water’s surface. How big will it be? We are both excited. It’s big and Daddy says, They’re no good unless you cook it in a courtboullion. We both know Mama will have nothing to do with it. Daddy wants to throw it back in the water, but I start to cry. We fish until the sun is low on the horizon.
At the boat landing, we are dirty and tired. The boat is full of trash: beer cans, wrappers, and a few thin streaks of muddy blood. Daddy tells a Creole boy, who helps us put the boat back on the trailer, that I caught a Gaspergou. The boy licks his lips and smiles. I smile too, shyly. Daddy opens the ice chest and holds up the Gaspergou. The sun’s just now set but the silhouette of the fish is delineated starkly. The last streak of light is fuchsia and orange. I get into the front seat of the station wagon. In the rear-view mirror, I see Daddy giving the teenager the Gaspergou and the very last Schlitz.
©2017 Clare L. Martin