It was the summer of 1981. I was eleven years old, standing at my father’s side. I was still shorter than him at that point. The big growth spurt, the one that happened so fast my mom couldn’t keep me in jeans that weren’t ankle beaters and that lengthened me so violently it left stretch marks on my legs, was still a year away.
I positioned myself on the rock jetty so he blocked the sun off my face. My buddies stood to the other side of me. I was aggravated that Dad hadn’t brought good rods and reels for us that day. I guess his definition of fishing didn’t include spending his entire afternoon untangling line for a trio of grade schoolers. Ours did … if we would ever admit that we were all pretty terrible at casting. We were demoralized without the signature zing! of our Zebcos spooling out the line.
“Oh, dat’s a good one rat dere!” came the voice of the man just down the rocks from us. He waded out ankle-deep in the murky, salty Alabama Point water to help pull his son’s haul in. His boy was half our age or less, but he was out-fishing us flat-out. Their coal-black faces poured sweat in the hot Alabama sun. The father spoke with an accent that, were you to recreate it in television or film, those of sensitive political constitutions might consider an unfair stereotype. But I found him charming. I hung on every word.
“We use dat one to flavah da grease!” he laughed, unhooking the tiny croaker from his son’s line. “Dat’s rat! Use dat one to flavah da grease!”
He had a little propane burner set up right there at the water’s edge. He fired it up, poured some grease in a cast iron skillet that look older than him, and let it heat to a perfect pop and sizzle while he cleaned the pathetic catch. But when the minuscule sliver of silvery meat hit the pan … Mmmm-mmmm…
Like we, the demoralized few, the man and his son didn’t have fancy rods or spinning, singing Zebco reels. But unlike us, he wasn’t embarrassed by his fishing gear. To us, it just made us look poor. To him, there was no other way to catch fish. That’s because he knew what I couldn’t understand at the time …
Real Southern Men fish with cane poles.
I caught many a fish on a simple bamboo pole strung with a length of line and adorned with a red-and-white bobber: bream and croakers and, well … mostly bream and croakers. Maybe an occasional flounder, mullet or striped bass.
The only way you could simplify fishing any more than using a cane pole would be to just tie a line on a stick. But an oak branch or maple sapling could never capture the perfectly pragmatic spirit of the cane pole.
If you’ve never fished with a cane pole, it’s really quite simple: tie a line to the pole; add a hook at the other end of the line. If you want to go with a taught line, add a weight. If you want to see when you’re getting a nibble, add a bobber or a cork. If you’re line is too long, twirl it around the end of the pole. If it’s too short, twirl it back out again. With a flick of the wrist, toss your bait out as far as the line will allow … and wait.
In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes that all good things “come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” That may be true of fly-fishing, but from where I stood on the rocks of the jetty on a hot summer day at Alabama Point, that coal-black man and his son sure made it look easy to me. Of course, I was eleven. I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.
It’s not about the cost of the rod or the make of the reel. It’s not about the size of the fish. It’s about the wait … and the flavor of the grease.