Unfolding the Map
At a burger joint in Gassaway, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) has to listen to a guy's fish stories. The focus on catfish reminds me of how scary they seem to me. And I don't even go into the fact that catfish includes a species kind that can kill a human with poison, and the notorious candiru, which has been known to swim into and lodge itself in...well, never mind...just never go swimming where candiru are known to live. At right is the West Virginia commemorative quarter reverse from Wikimedia Commons.
"As I ate my hamburger, the fellow explained the best means of taking a catfish. During the long explanation rivaling Izaak Walton's for detail, the man periodically formed a funnel with his index finger and thumb and poured salt into his bottle of Falls City. 'Used to could taste the beer in our country,' he said. The angling method was this: first 'bait' a catfish hole with alfalfa and pork fat for three weeks; then, the night before a rain, put a nine-lived Eveready in a sealed Mason jar and lower it into the water to hang just in front of the baited hook.
"'And it works well?' I asked.
"'It works sometimes.'"
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 3
Gassaway, West Virginia
Catfish have always frightened me, just a little.
As I related in a previous post, I have always had a slight fear of deep water, especially murky deep water where the bottom cannot be seen. When I jump off a boat into a lake, for instance, or I am treading water where my feet cannot touch, I get a sense of vertigo. When I'm swimming or treading water in such situations, I could be just inches from the sand below, or feet, or miles from anything solid. It is as if I am flying half blind - I can see the sky above, but the earth below is hidden.
When you add the potential for catfish or other forms of life, swimming unseen below, then my hair starts to raise on end.
When I was a child, and we used to drive east from my hometown on a trip to another town or down to the city, we always passed a particular landmark. My mom grew up in a logging camp in the forest, and the road now passes through Camp 19 at a place called McGuire's Ranch. There is a pond next to the road that was always known in our family as "Man-Made Lake." A small stream was dammed there and the pond was used for floating logs. My mom said that she used to swim there, and when she did, the catfish "tickled" her toes.
As a child, I was fascinated by that story. Why would catfish tickle her toes? I thought about her swimming, legs below the surface, and a catfish taking an interest and putting its nose up to her feet. The picture in my mind made me shiver, and made me vow to never swim in the pond, even if I got a chance.
The fish in the river near our property were always tiny - little minnows and trout a few inches long. The minnows in our creek would occasionally tickle my toes as they flitted about them while I stood in the river, but that was cute. A larger fish near my toes would seriously give me a panic.
Later on in my life, I began to hear the legends of the enormous catfish, lurking in the dark waters at the bottom of rivers and lakes. These tails put the dread in me. These catfish were always described as being the "size of a Volkswagen" or sometimes "the size of a motor home." Usually, wherever a dam was located, you'd hear about the huge fish that lay at the base of the dam. It was usually catfish - bottom feeders, they would grow large on the stuff that came down rivers and got deposited at the dam. Just as goldfish, if you put them into a larger environment outside of an aquarium, would get really large, so too catfish, it was said, would grow in proportion to their environment. In New Mexico, I recently heard of an old giant catfish said to be lurking at the base of Elephant Butte dam on the Rio Grande.
My leeriness of catfish didn't stop with my discovery of the sport of "noodling." Noodling is such a crazy idea to me that I can't believe that anyone ever thought that it would be a good idea. If you haven't heard of noodling before, I'm not making this up. Noodling, a popular form of sport fishing especially in the South, consists of finding catfish holes in rivers, and sticking one's arm into the hole until the catfish bites it. The fisher then engages in a tug of war with the catfish until the catfish is dislodged from its hole and caught. The fishing can occur in shallow or deep water, and can involve injury since once the catfish bites it latches onto hand, wrist or arm. People often sustain minor wounds, though some can lose fingers or get infected from the bites.
I've never even developed the taste for catfish on the plate. I lived in Louisiana for four years and one item found in many restaurants, particularly those that serve Cajun food, is blackened catfish. However, knowing that catfish are bottom feeders and vacuum up all kinds of things both benign and toxic, I was not really keen for the meal in the first place. But I tried it to see if I would be pleasantly surprised. After all, I drink Coke despite the things in it that aren't good for me also. Yet the fish seemed bland except for the Cajun spices. It just didn't grab me.
So, from images of huge Volkswagen size behemoths swimming under me in lakes and rising to either "tickle my toes" or actually swallow me whole, to scum-eating bottom feeders, to the object of a sport practiced by people who I think must be slightly deranged to let a catfish bite them by design, I just never warmed up to catfish.
Give me a good salmon any day. Now that's a fish I can live with!
If you want a more electric version of the song, listen to Jimi Hendrix' recording:
If you want to know more about Gassaway
Next up: Valley Fork, Wallback and Left Hand, West Virginia