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Eight: Uncle Phil’s “trout”

My Uncle Phil is the world’s worst fisherman. His fishing is nearly always a production closer to moving into a new house or conquering a continent than taking in a breeze. He carries three or four rods of differing lengths and two heavy tackle boxes. After he’s baited, strung, checked, mulled, decided and rethought, he becomes a whir of casting, reeling, checking bait, cursing, and recasting and cranking again. Within minutes, he can lose several baited hooks and high-dollar lures to underwater hazards—always in a storm of vulgarity.

Discussions my Uncle Phil and I have over fishing clog up weekend hours like branches and leaves damming a creek after a spring storm. Each of us state our arguments—then libel, slander and defame one another until time for dinner. One summer night, after a particularly difficult discussion over trout versus bass fishing, we ate and decided to go bass fish the following morning.

I slid into my car long before sunrise to meet him at Smithville Lake north of Kansas City. The day was brilliant for fishing, with only a hint of the coming oppressive heat hanging above the dawn.

We met at Pat’s Lures. It was in a row of shops and gas stations that stood like beggars just outside of the town of Smithville. We gathered with other men in the shop’s parking lot. We all ogled underage women in uniforms stopping at the convenience store/gas station next door on their way to work at the supermarket across the street. As opening time neared, some of the men began to grumble.

“The sign says 6-fuckin’-a.m.,” said one man as he loaded beer into a cooler on the tailgate of his pickup, straddling the tongue of his boat trailer. “Where the hell are they?”  He was a champ, wide awake and eyes bright with a hangover.

“I need to get on the water before sunrise to make my day,” said another as he adjusted the bar-stool like chair above a trolling motor on his johnboat. He perched himself on the chair and blazed a cigarette.

“I just need some damn minnows,” said another man standing near the door in overalls and a dirty ball cap. “If I could grow’m at home, I would. I’d never bother with this shit.”

“My lighter isn’t working,” said Phil. “Say, this is Luis.”

Luis was a short man with a Puerto Rican accent. Everyone in the parking lot was smoking now, except Luis and me.

Phil’s lighter produced a tiny blue bubble from which he carefully lit his smoke. “Like a breath of fresh air,” he said, smiling, inhaling deeply. A smoke from his cigarette curled up over the bill of his ball cap. Two dirty and dented styrofoam minnow buckets sat at his feet.

A woman appeared from behind the ice machine. She carried a foul attitude and a great wad of keys. Comments about the young women, and their body parts, ended.

“Finally,” said the man sitting in his chair that poked from the prow of his boat. He looked like a dark lollipop that had attracted a sickly firefly. He huffed and flipped his cigarette to the parking lot and lumbered down from the chair.

The woman opened the door and let us in. Acid yellow lamps lit up rows and rows of brightly colored Culminators, Penetrators, Sneaky Snakes, and Rooster Tails. They hung from racks above fish finders, hooks, line sinkers, reels, rods, stringers, anchors and rope. In back was a row of hunting rifles and ammunition.

“Fine time for torture and hangin’,” Luis drawled, pulling his index fingers out of his pockets and pointing them around the store. “I’m the new sheriff here, boys. I’m the law. Anyone insulting the law gets my Culminator where the sun don’t shine.” Phil laughed. I smiled and tucked my head down. The rest of the crowd remained dour.

New styro minnow buckets hung above humming, bubbling tanks where minnows of different sizes schooled. The woman, not looking at the row of coffee-and-smoke breath men behind the counter, skimmed dead fish from the tanks and banged the net in the trash can. They looked like fuzzy, silver leaves.

“Any you boys need a license, get to the back of the line. Bait first,” she said.

No one moved. Phil was first in line and fingered slick copies of Missouri Fishing Regulations on the counter. Under the glass, top-water lures, spinner and spoons lay in rows next to electronic lures filled with lights, buzzers and rattles. “Gimme two dozen minnows in this bucket,” he said. “And a half dozen crawdads in the other . . . Oh, and a dozen nightcrawlers.”

Phil pointed to a styrofoam cup with a translucent plastic top. “Leeches, $2.25 doz.”—the ugly underbelly of bait fishing, I thought. The leeches made squeaking sounds against lid. “Gives me the creeps,” he said. “Never get there with fishing, I don’t think . . . to the point where I actually string one of those on some hooks, I mean.”

“I’ve had them on me,” I said, my hair standing on end, “swimming in a stream in the Ozarks.” Years before, I had spent most of a day in the water next to a canoe on the North Fork of the White River. I parted huge mounds of soft shrubbery that fluttered under the clear water. I found tiny salamanders and two-foot hellbenders. I scoffed at water snakes and drank beer until I nearly sunk.

When I finally climbed out of the water, I found leeches attached to my back, soft parts under my arms, and my sides. Several stuck flat to my legs. Panic sobered and made me shiver in the August sun. I frantically tore at the leeches and found them soft but coarse, like cat tongues. They left bloody streamers where I pulled them off.

The woman fished out Phil’s minnows and crawdads and my worms. We each decided to take our own cars to the fishing hole, an arm of the lake that had once been a large pond called Lake Wahoo Waters. It’s where we always fished when we went to Smithville.

We parked by a fence and entered tangles of brush and bramble that gave way suddenly to mature forest, where tiny saplings struggled in the half-light under the canopy of oak and hickory. Woodpeckers called through the woods and the cove. The path wandered down through some brush and mayapples and finally to the water’s edge. The cove was not grand, but comfortable. About a quarter mile out, the skeletal tree spikes ended in the blue mirror of the lake. Wispy red and purple clouds floated above.

Phil took up position in a place I knew he would catch no fish because everyone who ever came to Wahoo Waters fished off that point. A few logs stuck out from the water’s edge, testaments to men looking for places to sit.

Within minutes of our bobbers hitting the water, a bass boat motored into the cove, sending waves up over where we were sitting. The fishermen in the boat flopped huge lures with giant spinners up near the shore and reeled in quickly. I read a book, trying not to pay attention to men with big engines. They were gone as soon as they came and our dream of a cool dawn returned.

“Those guys,” Phil said. “I wish I could walk out and splash around in their boat the way they splash into our cove.”

I sat reading and watching my bobber out of the corner of my eye. Luis was content to flip lures along the bank.

“I’m going top-water,” Phil said several times, once for each pole he’d brought. But he baited three, one with a crawdad thrown to drown on the bottom, one with a minnow under a bobber thrown to drown several feet from the bottom, and one with a worm under a smaller bobber thrown to drown just below the surface. He finally tied on a large, glittery top-water lure on his fourth pole. I sat with my head in my book, thinking as many times as I’ve fished with Phil, I have never seen him catch anything with a top-water lure—throwing them as he does not where the fish are, but where his hooks won’t get caught in sticks and branches.

While Phil cursed, the sun rose and day joined us in the cove.

“The guy means well,” I said to Luis as we watched Phil cast across carp rolling like logs in the muddy shallows.

“Yeah,” Luis said. “It’s never about fish.” Luis smiled and looked at the towering oaks across the cove that rustled in a slight breeze. We listened to songbirds and a squawking blue heron that had flown into the cove in a crash of catalpa branches. Woodpeckers pecked. Warblers warbled. Flies flew. Phil cursed as he lost another lure to the cove.

Another bass boat with three beer drinkers sloshed into the cove in a puff of blue smoke. Waves washed away from the boat as it settled into the water when the driver turned the engine off.

“BASS,” yelled one of them—like Columbus discovering the New World. We wondered if it was a question, statement or an announcement.

Luis and I watched them become a storm of flailing rods and splashing lures. They tooled around the cove with an electric trolling motor. “This damn fish finder ain’t findin’ any damn fish,” one said. They cast and cast.

“You boys caught’ny BASS?” the driver growled finally.

“Nope,” I said. “Just some crappie about where your boat is now and some bluegill.”

“I said, ‘You caught’ny BASS?’“

“No BASS, just some CRAPPIE,” my voice boomed across the cove. “But you’ve washed them all ashore here, along with all the BLUEGILL.”

“No BASS! Shit.”

Just as suddenly as they came, they started the boat and roared up the cove and slalomed tree skeletons into the lake. Smoke floated up past the heron who took flight for cleaner air.

After several eventless hours, Phil and Luis decided it was time to move. I decided it was time to be alone. I wanted to read some more.

“Later, bro,” Phil said. “Come join us if you want. We’ll be at Trimble.” The place near Trimble was much like Wahoo Waters. The fish would be as quiet or busy there as here.

I sat reading in the quiet after Phil and Luis left. The sun rose over the trees after a while, and I took my shirt off to catch its warmth. I watched the water ripple. After a time, I reeled in, figuring crappie would continue to turn their hard little noses up at my drowned worm.

I clipped a Rooster Tail to my swivel and walked up the shore. I cast parallel to fallen trees and among roots, and bumped the lure over logs and rocks. I spied a particularly spiky stump and knew about the bass there. Moving the spinner in next to the trunk, the fish struck as if someone had tied a cinder block to my line and dropped it off the side of a building.

The fish dodged and dove, raced back and forth—an animal with a painful, deeply troubling problem. But when it rested I drew it toward shore. It jumped to get a look at what was going on. It dove again. Then, after an exciting fifteen seconds, it gave up. Bringing the fish in on ten -pound test line was like reeling in an old boot.

That bass was eighteen inches long, with a mouth nearly as wide as its body. I looked down the rows of gills and into the fish’s throat in awe. The fish, long and sleek, clean and healthy looking, twitched once or twice after I pulled it out of the water. Unhooking the little treble of the Rooster Tail with my needlenose pliers, I lay the fish back in the water. After a moment, it lumbered into the opaque green.

The rest of the morning, I worked my way up the shore out onto the open lake off a long point. The day was warm, but not unpleasantly so. Three more bass (none as big as the first), three crappie, and four bluegill (one a sizable nine inches), and two lost Rooster Tails later, I headed out up through the woods and homeward. I felt tired and good.

When Phil called later in the afternoon, I didn’t know what to say. A fish caught without witness cannot be bragged about.

“Dude, you shoulda been there. Man, we yanked’em outta that cove like mad.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Nah, not really. We got squatted on. We could have called that cove ‘Dick Cove,’ ’cause me and Luis caught dick. How’d you do?”

“I caught ten fish after you guys left.”

“My ass.”

“It’s true.”

“I believe you, bro. Luis got two. Everyone seems to do better than I do.

“Ten? Really?” he said. “What do ya got going next weekend?”

“I think I’m going trout fishing.”

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