When we went on our annual camping trips at the ranch, my Dad liked to fish with trotlines.
For the non-country readers, a trotline is a string of hooks and fishing lines you run from one area of the river to another. You bait the whole string of hooks, leave them in the water, and come back later to check your results. If you want to be authentic about trotline fishing, you should tie them with a plastic milk jug attached to one end so you can find the start of the line later. They are for efficiency, bulk fishing and fish frys, and for those without the patience to sit and cast, reel, re-cast, wade into the river and get your line un-stuck, and repeat. It’s hard to drink beer when you are doing all that work (No it’s not).
I have a lot of stories about setting them, seining for minnows, and checking them and re-baiting them with my Dad and my brother; often late at night. We would wear head lights so we could work with our hands free, and bugs would swarm mercilessly in our faces. You catch everything hungry with trotlines including snapping turtles, snakes, catfish, bass, and perch. My Dad would cut the heads off the turtles and the snakes that made their way onto the hooks with his pocket knife. We would remove the catfish, re-baiting the lines from the minnow bucket as we went along. Each fish worth keeping was pierced with a stringer through its lower jaw and we would drag them along behind us, alive and still struggling, slapping against our legs. I think this is why I have such an aversion to face and lip piercings. Sometimes we were wading, and sometimes we were in a small fishing boat.
Wading in the water at night was the scariest. There are water moccasins aplenty out there, and they can be aggressive. My Dad always said they were more afraid of us than we were of them, but that was never my assessment of the situation.
When we finished running the lines, we returned to the bank that led up to the campsite and the fish were taken off the stringer one by one. We placed them in a wire cage that stayed submerged in the shallow waters; the cage kept them alive until Dad was ready to clean and fry them. The strong survived, and the weak died off and were discarded.
I remember one time, a snake entered the cage and ate one of the smallest fish. We found it the next morning; its escape plan gone horribly awry.
As it tried to swim away smug and full, the undigested fish in its body kept it trapped and wedged between the bars of the same cage that offered it such an easy meal.
My Dad lifted it out of the water that morning, intent on winnowing out the fish that did not survive the night after hook and injury from their own easy meal, and the snake thrashed; angry and trapped by its own greed and distended body.
My Dad cut off its head and threw its lifeless remains on the bank. He cut out the undigested fish later to show us. It was fascinating and disgusting, and remains a powerful memory for me to this day.
Nature and hillbilly fishing can provide interesting lessons.
For those of you familiar with snake and fish symbolism, the point of this post should be fairly obvious, and this is mostly just an idea and memory this morning that I will probably come back to refine later. But I’ll ask you the questions that this memory brings up for me.
Which fish are you today?
The old catfish, still swimming free; scarred by your encounters with life and previous battles? Wise enough to ignore the shiny hook?
The resigned, ensnared one? Stuck in the cage wallowing in your mistakes and waiting with anger or passivity for death?
Are you the small, helpless victim? The fish that was swallowed whole and partially digested by the snake, discarded and forgotten on the bank?
Does it even matter if we all have the bottom feeding nature of a catfish?
The comfort for me is that even in a cage of my own making, protection is still offered and those who feed on the weak and helpless will be defeated and punished eventually; ensnared and consumed by their own greed.
I feel like every fish most days, but sometimes, I’m standing on the bank with my pocket knife, cutting the heads off the snakes and protecting those that cannot protect themselves.
And sometimes I’m the snake, even when I don’t want to be.
I’m a little surprised at the direction this post took–it started as a joke about red necks, beer drinking a lazy fishing in my head.
Maybe I’m getting my period or something.