It’s Not About the Fish

The 7-Eleven door burst open, bell jangling. A scrawny, one-legged, shirtless, bearded man in tattered pants clumped through on his one leg and a crutch. Eyes bulging, he shouted and waved his free arm. “My brother cut a feller… feller says he’s gonna get him a shotgun an’ kill my brother! Mebbe gonna come after me! Gotta call the po-lice!” Nick, Jim, and I poked our heads up over the gondola shelves where we had been browsing for goodies.  We looked for the store clerk. He had disappeared behind the bullet-proof transaction window. We ducked back down and crouched. We looked at each other. Knife? Shotgun? I had a Payday clutched in my hand, Nick a Hershey bar with almonds, Jim a package of Twizzlers. None of these items would prove adequate to defend ourselves.

We had pulled up at the 7-Eleven on Route 78 out of Tupelo to gas up, pee, and snag some munchies on our way to the banks of the Big Piney River of Missouri. Object: catch smallmouth bass. But we were caught in a rural feud between a one-legged man, his brother, and an unknown assailant. The door slammed again, bell jangling. After a time, I peeked around the gondola end, saw nothing. Nick took a gander over the top. The clerk and the one-legged man were not in sight. We dropped our loot on the floor and hustled out to the car in crouch mode. Tires squealing, we drove away on 78. We were safe, albeit still in need of gas, a pee, and provisions. (The bearded man’s actual words have been curated. This is a family blog.)

Our fishing expeditions to Licking, MO (pop. 2600) were adventures. Memorable events like the 7-Eleven escapade popped up along the way like pearls on a strand. We drifted down the Big Piney in metal, square-ended Jon boats, the guide carving the river with his paddle, perched on a seat at the stern. One of the paying cargos sat in the middle, the other at the bow. Ozark Mountain rock bluffs loomed implacably above, riddled by exotic rock formations, ledges, and caves, one of which local lore held to be Jesse James’ hideaway. Springs trickled down, sculpting the rock face as they went, framed by moss and ferns. Fall was a particularly good time to be on the river, as oaks, sycamores and elms burst with a riot of colors. Discarded leaves fell lazily to the river surface, became waterlogged and settled on the bottom. Where the river pooled, leaves lay below in layers. It was as if we floated in air over Mexican tile work six feet below – a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and oranges.

Our guide on a particular morning in October was Clay, youngest son of a farming family. He had been dragged from his warm bed, hungover from a night of boogying at the Big Piney Lounge (also referred to locally as the “Knife and Gun Club”). October mornings in the Ozark Highlands can be cold as bejesus.  He squatted shivering on the small stern seat, wearing only a Tee and a light jacket. As we careened out of a rapid, he tried to slow the boat by grabbing a low tree branch and was promptly jerked from his seat into the 65-degree water. Shouts, yells. Chaos on the Big Piney. The boat ground to a stop on a pebbled bar and he waded ashore, a very wet and by now very sober citizen. We scurried to fetch up driftwood and soon had a fire to warm him, his jacket and shirt hung on a low cottonwood. As I squatted by the fire, hands gratefully extended, I glanced at the wrack line of leaf and root debris that footed the cottonwoods on the stream bank. Out from under a leaf came a salamander. It paused and then accelerated towards the fire, wriggling as it came. I corralled it and was amazed to see a second one following the lead of its buddy. I tossed them back into the woods. To this day I wonder if they wriggled back to immolate themselves in the spent coals after we had moved downriver.

As with Huckleberry Finn and Don Quixote, adventures demand characters be met along the way. My friend Clyde and his friend Bob introduced us to the Big Piney. For years they had driven up from their homes in New Orleans to fish. They were elderly guys, like I am now. They were fond of gathering for genial discussions of an evening in their motel room with feet up, Scotch whiskeys in their hands and a platter of hot chili peppers on crackers nearby. At the end of one day’s drift, our boat had slid to a stop at the pickup point ahead of theirs. As they came into view, I saw Clyde and Bob slumped back in their folding seats, hands in laps, fishing rods out, lines dangling in the water. They were both asleep. They stirred when their boat crunched on the bank. “Clyde,” I asked. “What would you have done if a bass had hit your bait while you were sleeping?” “No bait,” he retorted. “Why ruin a perfectly good fishing trip?”

Why indeed?

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