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August 08, 2003

Cat on a Fly

It started in one of those rambling flyshop conversations at Atlanta Flyfishing Outfitters. I think we took a wrong turn after talking about the article Grays ran on fishing for carp with dry flies —how some western fishermen were sneaking out to use them as warm-ups for bonefish. Matt dropped in, as an aside, how he'd seen a lot of big carp in Peachtree Creek. It was late summer. It was a hot summer. The mountain streams were running tepid and the trout were seriously stressed. Even the 'hooch, with that bluecold water coming out from beneath Lanier, was steaming. We'd seen heat advisory after heat advisory and it was getting to where taking a hot shower in the morning was the coolest part of the day.

I'd given up my plans to spend my month off from school in Florida trying to learn how to fish in salt-water after losing, the first day, my whole chain of keys in the gulf. Some things are just signs. I came home with the single spare key I owned —a car key I kept in my wallet— and settled down to a spree of lock changing before getting that antsy feeling that means I need to go fishing. It really wasn't the heat that got to me. At least I don't think it was.

Anyway, catfish came up in that conversation. I think I mentioned how down at Dad's lake they would come up with their whiskers waving as they vacuumed food down from the surface when Dad fed them. I probably wondered aloud what one would be like on a fly rod. That was when Matt shrugged and said, "I've caught catfish on flies."

A line like that can change lives. Mind you, it's not that I have anything against cats —catfish, that is— I've caught lots, and big ones, some as big as I was at the time. But never on lures, and especially not on flies. Always it was trotlines, big nets, spears —okay, okay, this wasn't in the USA. I grew up in the Amazon, but that's a different story. I just didn't associate cats with active hunting. I also thought of them as hunting by scent, or taste, rather than by sight. I wasn't sure a fly, despite the possible presence of organic material in the feathers or fur , would be quite to their taste.

Matt went on and explained immediately—as would any fisherman careful of his reputation. He'd been fishing for bass and brim with poppers on one of the reservoirs, Lake Jackson I think he said, and he saw a disturbance up in a little cove. With visions of hog bass dancing before his eyes, he laid his popper right up in there and to his delight saw it disappear in a swirl. But the fish acted weird. It pulled strangely. It dove with an odd sort of throbbing. It didn't do one of those line-zinging sideways curves that spells big bluegill nor did it come up for one of those gill-thrashing sort of lumbers that bass-fishermen call jumps. Well, you know the punch-line. It was a cat. He admitted he'd caught a few others in similar circumstances. All accidents, of course.

But it got me thinking.

That weekend I went down to Dad's lake. He was off in Papua New Guinea, but I hadn't planned it that way. I just decided that in hot weather it was probably better strategy to fish for warm-water fish. You know, bass, bluegills —not catfish.

The lake was a bit sluggish. As evening came on things picked up a little. I was taking a few decent bluegills on my own version of a wooly bugger, this thing I tie with bead-chain eyes, a bit of crystal flash, and not too much lead, usually in olive or black. My sister, Kanda, and her husband, Chuck, showed up about then with their big iron and set out cruising the lake in their little bassmobile, so I tracked down a paddle and piled into Dad's Grumman canoe, elegantly perching far in the stern so the bow rode about two feet above the surface. It was peaceful. They use an electric motor so the only noise was me dropping my paddle onto that bare aluminum. They were far enough off that I couldn't see any looks shot my way.

There's always a bit of competition between my sister and me. Nothing major, just this gentle teasing from me about proper ways to fish. There's also the implicit "I can catch as many fish with this weenie fly-rod as you can with your big ugly stick." Sometimes I do too. She doesn't let it bother her; she just matter-of-factly holds up each bass, not quite in my direction, before she lets it go.

I'd decided, not because she was there, but just because I was tired of bluegills, to go looking for some bass, so I tied on a larger version of my Bead-Chain Crystal Bugger ("BCCB" for short) and started casually chunking it at stumps and other bits of cover associated with bass. Fishing was slow. Kanda had only held up one yearling she'd dredged up with a plastic worm or some other monstrosity.

Then I saw this sort of half-splash, half-swirl just off the point of Dad's one island. I think he left that island there on purpose, for aesthetic reasons, but Dad isn't the sort to seem concerned with those kinds of things, so I haven't dared ask. I was afraid it might embarrass him. In any case, he has a wind sock out there for when he has to fly a floatplane in or out. Right in the shadow of that sock something moved in the water. The place had bass written all over it; and I seemed to remember Kanda mentioning to me that there is usually a nice bass hanging right around that point. She lives a half mile away; she has home-lake advantage: she knows these things. I figured it would be nice to sort of hold that one up in her direction.

My cast was okay. My BCCB blipped into the water about a foot from where I saw the swirl. Or where I told myself I saw it after seeing where my cast landed. I watched as the leader was slowly and evenly pulled under as the fly sank, then it sort of zipped a bit with that dart that says fish and I tightened up and felt a weight on the other end. Now, it could have been a snag; there was certainly a lot of brush right there in the water, that was what made it look so fishy. But there was that zip. That said fish.

I'd been having real trouble with the bigger bass in the lake. I usually fish a little 4 weight since that makes the big bluegills fun, but I always have a hard time setting up solidly on bigger bass with that rod. I'd switched to a 6 weight thinking a bit more spine might help me seat the barb. Now I reared back and socked it to what I hoped was a fish. I'd also gone up a few sizes on my leader; as a result I didn’t immediately catch six feet of my leader with my face. I considered a second or two, then I banged it in a couple more times. It is definitely not a limb. It is charging off to the left with a steady pulsing vibration that spells fish. These thoughts were swirling around in my mind as I was slowly swirling around and around in circles in that canoe.

From somewhere out there outside that spiral I think I remember hearing, "I think Dan caught one." It seems it was Chuck's voice, but I was a bit dizzy so I may have imagined it. I heard some chuckling anyway.

The fish was not coming up as bass usually did, and it was not sizzling off in a bluegill's sizzling arc, but it had not yet quite occurred to me what was happening. I was still imaging holding up a nice 4 or 5 pound bass to admire backlit against the sky (not in Kanda's direction) before, wistfully, letting it go. The fish was definitely headed to the bottom. I could feel it rummaging through the junk down there, looking for the perfect snag to wrap me on. I knew when it found it too. I felt it swerve and surge and then my contact with the fish got that feel it does when the fish has found a fulcrum with which it plans to move the world. Since I was in the canoe, which was spinning with both the wind and the forces equal and opposite to the fish's tow, my problem was not at all complex. All I had to do was hold on. And worry. I visualized what was happening those few feet down; I find it's easier to worry effectively when one visualizes what is going wrong. When I felt that change, stories from old Field & Streams issues floated up from my muddy memory: there were all those wonderful tricks the masters had used to stir up big fish that had found hidey-holes where they planned to wait things out. I picked one. I started strumming on that wire-tight line like it was a one-stringed banjo, and darned if that fish didn't respond to a little fiddlin’. It was soon out in open water again, where it had room to maneuver properly —and it went right back to twirling its partner, me, around the floor.

But I knew I had it now.

Fighting fish has phases. First there's that worry over establishing that the connection is real. Then there's the tentative struggle over who's going to control the relationship. Finally comes the waiting for the inevitable. We both knew now I had it —though it still looked like it had me from the way it was dragging me around the lake. But its circles became gradually more shallow and finally it was pushing a wake. I couldn't quite see the fish itself yet; the combination of a late afternoon sun and my position almost beneath water level insured even polarized glasses weren't enough to penetrate the surface. Then something odd happened: the line appeared in front of the wake. There was a second of wondering how on earth the fish managed to cook up that huge tangle of leader —then I realized I was seeing barbels.

I laughed at the inevitability of it all.

It wouldn't fit into my net so I towed it back to shore, beached both the canoe and the cat, then ran to the car for the Polaroid. The BCCB was set solidly in the fleshy corner of its mouth and I almost had to resort to surgery to extricate it. But finally the hook worked free. I knelt and let the cat slip back into the lake. It sashayed off, head high, whiskers waving.

Kanda and Chuck were calling it a day, slapping at mosquitoes as they loaded their bassmobile onto the back of Chuck's pickup.

"So, how big was it," Kanda asked.

I shrugged as I calculated, then added a pound. "Three or four pounds."

She nodded. "Nice fish."

I grinned, then walked over to show her the ghostly image of the cat appearing through the gray on the film.

She raised one eyebrow in a way she must have learned from Star Trek reruns, "A catfish?"

If I hadn't had that fly-shop conversation, if Kanda and Chuck had not been there to witness the water ballet, if Dad had not been out of the country (he loves eating catfish, so I wouldn't have been able to let it go) the poetry would not have been there. Yeah, catfish, poetry, the perfect pair.

I waved goodbye, then loaded my own gear and headed off, turning on the dome light occasionally to see how the Polaroid shot was turning out.

(published in May/June 2000, Fly Rod & Reel)

Posted by dan at August 8, 2003 12:43 PM
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