Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

August 23rd, 2003

The Old Fella
By Roger Emile Stouff

The old fella emailed me a year or so ago.

I get plenty of emails at the office. Though I've been writing my local column pretty much steadily for going on 25 years, at three newspapers and an audio version at a radio station, it's only been since about 1998 that anyone took any notice. I think that's because it was around then that I grew up finally, and came back in spirit and soul to these ancestral lands and waters. An epiphany is good for column fodder, and local readers responded heartily.

Of the emails I receive from folks who have somehow been touched by what I call my weekly dribble, a few of those have become friends. But the email I received from the old fella a year ago was different.

He is a very private person, as am I, so I respect his desire to stay in the periphery. I'll call him "the old fella," because he calls me "young fella" and I reply in kind.

A retired educator and local businessman, the old fella's email to me immediately sent up smoke signals. From a far horizon, I sensed a kindred spirit. Our correspondences continued and one morning we met for breakfast before work. A friendship was forged then that has only strengthened with time.

The old fella is in his sixties, and suffers from a touch of emphysema, but is otherwise hardy and decidedly bright of eye and humor. He's done some writing of his own, which I was delighted that he shared with me. As the months passed, the kindred spirit I had sensed in smoke signals from a far horizon became more and more evident. We are very much alike, yet very different.

A fisherman in his own right when his children were growing up, the old fella loves to talk angling with me. He loves wooden boats and his particular passions, amateur radio and model building. Last winter, I asked him for one very special favor when he felt up to it.

"Go fishing with me this spring," I wrote in an email.

We didn't fish this spring, though we continued to discuss it. A few weeks ago, we agreed to a boat ride through the basin. The old fella confided to me it had been more than a decade since he had been in the river basin, and he missed it. Early one Saturday morning we boarded the boat and I brought him to my world. I showed him ancient villages and ancestral waters. We visited ancient worship places and haunted blackwater channels. We idled through a morning of sharing.

"You've opened Pandora's Box," he warned me after that, and I vowed I was up to the task. Last Saturday we agreed to go fishing.

The old fella and I departed early. The recent cool front which has settled over my area made for perfect circumstances. We trailered the boat to a nearby launch into Bayou Teche. A quilt of mist hugged the surface of the bayou, gossamer and golden where sunbeams saturated it and the fog held it close, like an old friend. Though the basin was hopping with good catches of shellcrackers and goggle-eye, water levels were low and more than a week of northeast winds had pushed literally tons of water hyacinth against the boat landing near my home. I was reluctant to push the boat through that mess, since it had just come out of the shop after blowing a head gasket a week earlier. Instead, we headed for a small canal near the Intracoastal Waterway that usually held a few good fish.

But upon arrival, we found the canal muddy and unproductive. I was highly apologetic.

"Catching fish is lagniappe," the old fella said. "Lagniappe" is an Acadian expression meaning a bonus to something already pleasing. "Just being out here is good."

We fished that short canal most of the morning, trolling down one side and then the other, repeating the process when we were done. A small black beadhead nymph on my four-weight resulted in two small bream. The old fella was fishing bait, and hooked into two bream and one eight-pound catfish.

Both of us encountered our share of lure-and fly-eating stumps and trees. While disconnecting one mess from a low-hanging limb, I noticed there were muscadine vines covering the nearby trees, dark burgundy berries in clusters hanging here and there. I picked a few and the old fella and I shared breakfast. It was my first time eating muscadines, but for the old fella, the spray of sweet fruit between his teeth was the magical conjuring of boyhood memories, a lifetime of recollections. I could see in his eyes a plethora of joys and sadnesses, the faces of people I had never met behind his eyes, waters I had never traversed, fish I had never caught.

Over the months we've known each other, I wondered from time to time if I saw him as a surrogate father. I miss my own dad so much since his death in 1999. There's a lot of Nick Stouff in the old fella. But after proper consideration, I understood that while I might at some level be fishing with my dad vicariously through the old fella, he's not a surrogate father. He's a friend, dear and cherished. A kindred spirit in a world sadly lacking in such treasures.

We stayed until nearly noon then headed in, trailered the boat and drove back to my place. The fishing was subpar, at best, but then, the fish were lagniappe after all. There were muscadine berries and cool breezes. There were stories traded between bow and stern of the boat, laughter lifting from within the banks of that little canal near the Intracoastal. Recollections shared and, with mighty blows of a blacksmith's hammer, a friendship forged more strongly than ever.

It won't be the last fishing trip with the old fella. Pandora's Box has been opened, but once the fog hanging low over the bayou cleared, it became clear the box was a small treasure chest instead. A year ago, when that first email arrived at my office computer from the old fella, I never would have guessed we'd be fishing through an early-morning bank of mist, popping muscadines into our mouths and trading stories like precious gems. He thanks me profusely for sparing the time, making the effort, to take an old fella fishing. I tell him I can't think of a better way to spend my time, a more pleasing output of effort, than this.

People in this world have become estranged. We chase illusions down concrete spines, searching for something at that point on the horizon where the road beneath us narrows to a point, an arrowhead we'll never reach. People search corporate ladders, sterile subdivisions and crisp bank statements for meanings in lives. We are islands to ourselves, self-imposed isolation born of fear, jealousy and competition.

If the old fella and I achieved anything beyond a few fish, a cool morning boat ride and a handful of muscadine berries, it was the antithesis to isolation. A few moments in a small boat, chasing smoke signals, and finding that there truly is something on the horizon, something so many pursue but seldom find. ~ Roger


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