Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Trot-Fishing In America, East Texas style

WRIGHT PATMAN LAKE, ATLANTA STATE PARK — A soft drizzle falls across the lake as the wind blows out of the south. Everything is a uniform shade of gray on this unseasonably cool final day of April in East Texas, as my future father-in-law and I whiz across the placid water in a flatbottom boat. We are running two sets of trotlines, each containing 50 hooks with plastic jugs bobbing on either line. We hope to have landed a mess of catfish.

H.K. Teel will turn 80 in October. He complains about having slowed down in old age, that he is not as strong as he used to be. That certainly is true, but he’s still tough as the skin on an old Appaloosa catfish. Most mornings, during the two-week period in May and October that he runs lines, he is out on that lake by himself. A few years ago he hauled in a 60-pound App (not the computer type) while running the lines alone. As he tells it, “One of two things was gonna happen. Either I was going to get that fish in the boat or y’all would find me at the bottom of the lake, my arms wrapped around that sucker’s throat.”

He got that fish in the boat.

I have been on the mouth-stuffing, food-cycle finale of the fish harvested from this lake for more than three years. Both H.K. and his son, George, love to deep-fry fish, hush puppies and fries for family gatherings — of which there are many, this being a big family. These are hands-down the tastiest catfish I have ever eaten — light, flaky meat that melts in your mouth, especially if you grab a piece right after it is pulled out of the fryer. This is about the only time I eat fried foods. At least it is cooked in canola oil. You have to live it up occasionally, right?

The rain covers my eyeglasses, casting everything in a gauzy haze. H.K. heads to the first trotline, marked by two white bleach jugs. How he can find a gallon jug barely bobbing in this mass of water escapes me, but he goes right to it and hands me a plastic jug with the top cut out. It is filled with chicken hearts, which he is using as bait today. Yesterday he used bream. It depends on the weather, wind, moon and air temperature as to what bait is used. My job is to pull up the line and spear a chicken heart on each hook, while hoping we’ll come across a mess of catfish as we reload.

Someone apparently ran over the first trotline, knocking it down. H.K. is not happy about this development and mutters a few imprecations. There isn’t a single catfish on the trotline. With tutoring I learn how to pull up the line and in so doing pull the flatbottom from one buoy to the other. By the time I’m finished baiting 50 hooks my hands are sore. We head to the other trotline, a few hundred yards away.

A few tugs and chicken-heart baiting later, a blue catfish has swallowed the hook. H.K. hands me a small net to get the fish into the boat. With some effort I finally get the hook of its mouth and toss the fish in the five-gallon bucket.

Several more about the same size — maybe 24 inches long — follow. I put on gloves after getting cut by a fin. H.K. does not approve of this, saying he has never seen anyone wear gloves to unhook a fish. I know it’s wimpy, but I need all ten fingers to type and would rather not sustain injury.

We hook a big one, about 12 pounds and at least three feet in length. I get it into the boat with no problem, but the hook just won’t come out. H.K. is getting a bit impatient, so we trade places. I’m secretly relieved that it takes him a few minutes and a pair of needle-nose pliers to get the hook out. The 12-pounder is too big for the bucket and flops about on the boat’s bottom.

We finish running the lines, head to shore. I redeem myself by successfully backing the truck and trailer down to the ramp. I may not be worth a flip at unhooking catfish, but I can back up a trailer with the best of them. We head to his farmhouse. I take more photographs of him cleaning the fish and carving out fillets. I don’t volunteer to help, and he doesn’t ask. When he is done, there is a large bowl of fillets, enough to feed at least a half-dozen people. He kindly offers to fry some fish up for brunch (my term, not his), but I need to get back to civilization.

I keep thinking about H.K. wrestling that 60-pounder into the boat. I bet that was a sight.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas) May 12, 2011.

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