Releasing a caught fish back into the
lakes around Auburndale, Florida, was about as
strange 'a thought as anyone could have. But I
learned a lesson in good ol' common sense the
hard way, many years ago.
When I grew up there, we had only one newspaper that
came out weekly. The Auburndale Star was four,
or so, pages of mostly good things that happened
around town. It was the early sixties, and not
much happened there that was newsworthy, and to
make the "front page" was big news. Mom, Dad and
I made that very page one week, and I figured we
were famous, well, for at least until the next
A new-fangled, concrete boat ramp, complete with
wooden slips, cabins, and a small store that sold
bread, milk, worms and stuff, had been built on a
short canal that led into Lake Van. Nothing else
was out there except orange and grapefruit groves.
We were the first to launch Dad's light green,
wooden skiff from the new fish camp. A photographer
from the newspaper was on hand to witness the grand
opening, and, sure enough, the following week, right
slap-dab on the front page of the hometown newspaper
was black and white proof we were there first. We
were short-term celebrities!
As summer rolled around, and school let out, I
would make sure all of my chores were done around
the house, and then begin my incessant whining to
go fishing. Dad would be at work, and Mom would
finally get tired of listening to my crap and give
in. Of course, I would already have my twelve-foot
cane pole, small, green tackle box and trusty bike
ready to go, sort of hidden behind the large hedge
that surrounded our house. All I needed then was a
loaf of bread, to make dough balls, and I was out
of there for a day of serious, summertime fishin'!
The only strict rule I had to obey was being home
before dark. Not adhering to this, would end up in
Dad chewing me out, or getting' my butt tanned.
It was about a ten-mile ride to Lake Van, but then,
parents didn't have to worry about their kids, too
much. No one was out to kidnap anybody. Everyone
knew each other and neighbors would bust your fanny,
just as quick as Mom or Dad, if one chose to cause
trouble. Anyway, as I was saying, it was summer,
and hotter than seven hundred hells. Out and around
Lake Ariana, up a couple of small hills out on State
Road 559, then down a dusty, clay road that wound
through the groves, and I was almost there. I hoped
the guy at the fish camp remembered me.
We were taught manners back then, and the only proper
thing to do, was ask permission to fish from one of
the wooden slips at the camp. The owner remembered
me and waved me off towards the waiting fish.
Armed with my twelve-foot cane pole, an equal length
of eight-pound-test, mono line, a plastic bobber, a
split-shot and a size eight hook; I began to roll
small dough balls. I lowered the first one down,
beside a dock post, and as soon as I did, it
disappeared into the tannic waters of the canal.
I set the hook and came up with a nice, twelve-inch
speckled cat. Then another, and another, and another,
until I ran completely out of bread. Each catfish
was brought up and strung on the cotton cord stringer
I had skewered into a knot hole on the dock. I ran
back into the store, where the guy that owned the
place sat smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper.
I had my weekly allowance of twenty-five cents
waiting to buy another loaf of light bread. He
just pointed to the display shelf and told me
to help myself, never looking away from the paper.
The scene repeated itself many times, until I had
just enough time left to get back home before sunset.
I had been sitting on that same dock all day,
stringerin' up catfish, one by one.
Knowing I would catch the Dickens if I didn't
leave, even though I still had bread and the
fish were still bitin', I had to get home. I
wound the line up on my pole, attached the hook
to the rubber band, and went to lift my stringer
out of the water. I couldn't pick it up. Thinking
the stringer, and the unruly catfish, had wrapped
around a post, I went back into the little store
to seek help. The man with the pipe was about to
close up shop, but obligingly walked out to assist.
"Hell, son, you ain't hung up, you must have
two-hundred pounds of cats on that stringer!"
Now, that was a proud moment. We lifted and
grunted, and when the fish hit the dock, there
musta been a million of 'em!
He lifted the fish up on a hanger where a sign
read, "Lake Van Fish Camp" and told me to stand
just to the side of all those fish while he
snapped a few Polaroid pictures; one for the
"braggin' wall," one for me, and one, I hoped,
for the newspaper. I was going to be famous again,
all by myself. The Old Man was going to be some
kind of proud of his fish-catchin' kid, and I
was happy to supply supper for a whole year,
with all those cats! Here lies the problem. How
was I to get home? There was no way to mount all
two-hundred pounds of slimy, horn-adorned fish
across the handlebars, and then ride ten or
twelve miles back home before dark. Solution
to the problem; I'll call my dad, he'll come
get me, I thought.
He never, ever answered the phone, Mom always did.
But sure as I figured, this time he picked up the
call. "Daddy, can you come out to Lake Van and
pick me up?"
"You got a flat tire?"
"No sir, I caught so many catfish I can't get 'em
home!" I was beaming from ear to ear!
"You got down there, didn't you?" And he hung up...
I felt like one of those catfish had jumped off
that stringer, and hit me right up 'side the head.
He was supposed to share in my excitement! What
The man at the camp must have sensed my dismay
and searched out a large piece of plastic to
wrap the fish in. We tied the stringer and its
contents to the bike's handlebars and off I went,
head held low, horny catfish pokin' holes in my
knees; totally dejected, and getting pissed. With
each rotation of the pedals, the anger compounded
four times over. By the time I reached the house,
where the ogre lived, I could have bit cut-nails
in half! I slung the bicycle, fish and all, down
in the front yard. It was somewhere around
nine-thirty; way past dark. I stomped, lightly,
but stomped, in on the wooden floors and the only
thing I heard him say was, "You got fish to clean,
don't cha? Best get to it." I was already pissed
beyond words, now I was livid. He just sat there
in front of the black and white television, never
looking my way. I wanted to call him everything
I had learned in the locker room at school.
I drug that pile of fish across the grass to the
sink he had mounted on the back porch wall. I went
to the garage and got the big, number three washtub
and began unstringerin' those damned fish, one at
a time into the tub, cussin' at the old man when
each fish hit the bottom with a "thud." My bulldog,
Spot, watched and seemed to be the only one that
cared, and I was some kind of pissed off. I was
pissed at the catfish, I was pissed at the night,
I was pissed at the skeeters that were chewin' my
ass off, but mostly, I was pissed off at the man
I thought would be the proudest of me!
I began rippin' the hides off those catfish with
a vengeance, cussin' each one of them; picturing
them with Dad's face on them. I never cursed
around my folks, but I swore if he were to walk
out that door, I would. The door swings open and
there he stands in his undershirt and drawers...
"You' 'bout done?" It was eleven o'clock! That did
it! The ultimate, piss-me-off statement of the year!
I looked into the beast's beady eyes, "You plan on
eatin' any of these catfish?" I growled. Who just
said that? It wasn't me!
"Yep, I figured I might." The beast answers back.
"Well, you ain't eatin' a damned one of 'em!" Whose
voice was that coming from my lips, surely it wasn't
mine. I knew better than to cuss at the beast. He
just peered at me over his bifocals, grunted and
smirked his little smirk, then went back inside.
I kicked a bucket across the yard as Spot high-tailed
it to his doghouse, figurin' he was next.
About fifteen minutes later, Dad came out with his
skinnin' pliers and his Case XX pocket knife. "Move
over, boy. I'll skin, you gut 'em." We stood right
there, that night, and watched the sun come up as
we cleaned catfish. He never said another word.
A decade later, I sat on the side of a bed at Winter
Haven Memorial Hospital, next to a man that had had
a heart attack. The doctors were ready to place a
pacemaker in his chest the next day. He was afraid,
and told me that. We spoke man to man for a few
minutes. He explained to me, he wasn't afraid to
die; he just didn't want that thing in his chest.
I broke the seriousness of the conversation and
asked him if he remembered the time I had caught
all of those catfish. He looked toward the little
nightstand next to his bed. "Look in there, boy,
and get out my pocketknife." I did so, and found
that same old Case XX he had skinned my catfish
with that night, long ago. "Put it in your pocket."
I explained to him, I didn't want his knife, he
would be fine in a week, or so. "I'll get it back
from you when I get out of here. I don't want
anybody to steal it." I took the knife.
"Well, do you remember all those fish? You never
answered my question."
He looked me in the eyes, "Did you learn anything?"
"I wasn't supposed to bring all those catfish home,
"You ain't as dumb as I thought you were." He and I
began to laugh with each other, through my tears. He
had taught me a lesson without saying a word, way
Three months later, he left this world. The time I
spent with him, before his departure, were the best
times I ever had with this man I called, "Daddy."
I keep that old Case XX in my pocket. It travels
with me whereever I go. They don't make knives like
that anymore; ones that contain important lessons
buried in their bone handles, and hollow-ground blades.
I've only kept a few catfish since. It's an obligation
to the fish, I suppose. Somehow to repay my vulgarity.
Somehow to rectify a wrong.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary
Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much
of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area.
After moving a little closer to the coast, his
interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still
visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."
He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's
and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little
over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow
water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came
around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary
doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the
waters will ever be present.
Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater
patterns in the early '90's and has participated as
a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers
on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting
and tying instructor and stained glass artist,
creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.