Reprinted from the Sioux City Journal
He stood quietly in the doorway of my office. A small, wiry old man wearing dirty bluejeans and a white T-shirt stained with weeks of sweat, dirt and who knows what else.
He was about as tan as a white person can get, and from his leathery cheeks two week’s worth of pure white stubble protruded.
“You the guy that writes them fishin’ stories in the paper?” he asked.
“Yes, that would be me,” I replied.
At that, he walked in and slumped into one of my office chairs. He pushed the bill of his raggedy and stained baseball cap a little farther up and stared at me with watery blue eyes, eyes that had seen too much sun or maybe too much booze. Probably both.
“You don’t know a damn thing about fishin’ this river,” he sneered.
He stared at me with those rheumy eyes, watching to gauge my reaction.
“And you, I suppose are about to enlighten me,” I said.
“Boy,” he said, “you can take what you think you know, put it in a beer bottle, cork it and throw it in the river.”
My imagination soared. “And watch it bob and twist merrily out of sight on the currents all the way to St. Louis and maybe down to the Gulf,” I smiled.
“Think I’m kiddin’ you,” he snapped, leaning forward and wagging a gnarled, boney finger at my face. “I’ve fished the Missouri River and the Mississippi and the Ohio and others for over 40 years. Most every day. I kin tell you a thing or two, that I kin.
And I was sure I was about to hear it all.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
“Work barges. Done that all my life. Been on every river that can float a barge,” he said. “Fish every time we tie up. Catch lots of fish. Big ones, too.”
Suppose you tell me about some of those big fish,” I suggested.
And he did. They included 100 pound blue catfish, 50 and 60 pound flatheads and channel catfish to 30 pounds. There were sheepshead over 30 pounds, sturgeon and gar and walleye and sauger.
He talked currents and bait, weather and wind, muddy water and clear, logjams and rip-rap, baits and hooks and more.
For over 30 minutes we talked. He answered every question with a curt reply and then elaborated as if talking to a child, and frequently marveled at what a “sport” I was.
He hated “sports.”
“Flying around on them fast boats, never spending enough time in one spot to catch a fish, buzzing’ around the barge like it is another dock,” he growled. “A barge’ll kill you, It’s like a big vacuum cleaner. It’ll suck a boat right under it and you will be gone. Seen it happen.”
He went on and on.
I thought it was time to bring him down a notch.
“Well, sittin’ on my ass handlining off a barge, isn’t my idea of fishing,” I said.
He fumed at that, cursing my ancestors, my lack of river knowledge, my profession and all those who had associated with me on moving waters.
“I can tell you a thing or two about fishin’ off the bank if you want,” he finally concluded.
“Rip-rap is like a fish highway,” he said. “They’re all there. All the fish you want to catch. They’re there because there’s lots of food on them rocks. They’re there because there is hardly no current. Big fish can rest and eat just about anywhere on them rocks.”
“Well, there’s miles of rip-rap out there,” I said. “How do you know which spots are good?”
“Can’t tell you that. You gotta fish a lot of rocks. Then you’ll know,” he said.
“Everybody fishes the rocks wrong,” he continued, his voice rising a notch. “They all make long casts, way out into the river. Current brings them right back to the rocks, and then they snag up.
“Some people got no brains when it comes to fishing,” he added, squinting at me.
“No, you gotta throw a short line. ‘Bout the length of your rod. Just swing it out, and let it go straight down. No snags,” he said. “You can catch anything in the river that way. Night’s the time for big cats along the rocks. Won’t get much big ones in the daytime.
Then he left. He just got up and walked out of my office.
That was about 15 years ago, and I have not heard from him since.
But, about fishing off the rock banks. He was dead right. I’ve learned that since. He was also right about a lot of other things on the river. Learned that since, too. Sometimes it pays just to listen