It’s just about being there

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 9, 2000

We pulled out of the driveway of the old house in the heat of a mid-day June sun, onto the black top of an Alabama road that was warm enough to have those sticky tar patches scattered about. It was the summer of 1975, and I was about to spend a week in one of my favorite places, on the banks of the Black Warrior River with my Uncle James.

Uncle James is a character, a veteran of the European theatre of World War II and a reluctant member of newsman Tom Brokaw’s &uot;Greatest Generation.&uot; He’s an avid outdoorsman and a child’s best friend. He is reluctant to talk about his days as an infantryman that lead to his earning three bronze stars and a &uot;purple heart&uot; or his duties as a tail gunner of a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber.

Along with several of my cousins and my brother and sister, I spent the summers of my youth at his house.

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But that trip in the summer of ’75 wasn’t just any other fishing trip. It was special. Just me and Uncle, no distractions. Fishing, shooting our .22 rifles, camping at the mouth of Grant’s creek. A child’s paradise.

We rolled down U.S. 11 towards Fosters, Ala., in Uncle’s truck, a mid-60s model Chevrolet with the number 162 painted just above the door handle. Headed west, we crossed the Foster’s Ferry Bridge, named for the ferry it replaced years earlier, now a present-day relic in the process of being replaced. Then, pay dirt. One of the highlights for me on any fishing trip was the stop at Toady Jones’s general store. The words &uot;See Rock City&uot; painted on the shingled roof, it was a regional landmark of sorts. We picked up needed supplies: bread, cooking oil, potatoes, corn meal, bologna, Vienna sausages, crackers, eggs, bacon, Pepsi for me, Miller High Life (pony size, of course), for him – the essentials.

Uncle James put the finishing touches on trot-line hooks while I spent a couple hours with a 10-foot cane pole and red worms fishing from my favorite stump on the banks of the creek. It was just me and the worms, the bream never showed.

After a quick dinner of bologna sandwiches it was time to do what we came for, to bait up our trot-lines and go after the real fish, the big catfish lurking at the bottom of the river.

Trot-line fishing is a different kind of sport. The concept is simple. Tie a line to a tree at one side of the river and stretch it across the channel. Tie on hooks and bait about every eight feet or so and weights (in our case old iron window weights or the occasional rusty brake drum picked up from a salvage yard) about every 15 feet to pull the line toward bottom, safely out of the path of passing barges.

We had two lines on this trip, strung by Uncle weeks earlier.

We pushed off, paddling down the creek toward the river. It took an hour or so to bait the lines, with crawfish seined from a nearby ditch as the bait of choice for this trip. &uot;The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish,&uot; Uncle James would always say. And we had lunker crawfish for this trip. We were hopeful.

I guess we finished our work around 10 p.m., though I don’t believe we checked the time the entire week, and we called it a day. Gear stowed, tons of stars in the sky, the lines baited, hoot owls hooting. We went to sleep.

We made our next trip down the creek at dawn, working the south line first, landing a dozen or so channel catfish in the 10-pound range, the occasional &uot;drum&uot; (as we called them) a blue cat or two and a medium sized yellow cat. From there we settled into our routine. Breakfast on the banks of the creek. Clean and ice the fish we would keep to eat. Midday we’d stop to sell our catch – pound after pound of fresh catfish. Then, an afternoon of bream fishing and the evening line baiting routine — a word or two of Uncle James’ special brand of wisdom along the way.

It has taken years for me to realize how much that trip and others like it mean to me. And you can bet many summer days to come will find me and children of the next generation of my family learning the lessons of the creek and the river, the bream and the catfish, the red worm and the crawfish.

It’s all about being there. The fishing is just a way to pass the time.

Todd Carpenter is publisher of The Democrat. He can reached at (601) 446-5172, ext. 218 or by e-mail at