Thursday, March 28, 2019

Big Fish, Big Risk

      In my new book “Recollections of an Old-Fashioned Angler” I begin by writing about going trotlining on the river with my dad.  I was only 6 or 7 years old and I sat there in the old wooden johnboat watching him run that line, which was lunging in his hands.  Then I caught a glimpse of that huge fish coming up from the depths with a tremendous struggle, looking bigger than I was in that dim light.

       The story of that night, which eventually was featured in the ‘Believe it or Not’ section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, can be read in the book when it comes out this summer, but it is too long to tell here.

       Our quarry was never anything but big, hefty flathead catfish. The river had no channel catfish, but my grandfather said they were too small to interest him anyway. To me, when I began floating the river and camping on gravel bars, setting my own trotlines at the age of 13 or so, any catfish above ten pounds was fine. To Dad and Grandpa, a flathead, also known as a yellow cat, needed to be at least 25 pounds to be called adequate.

       But when you are as young as I was, setting and running those weighted lines that often lay across the bottom of 15-foot depths could be dangerous. Grandpa and Dad, as they trained me in all the ways of a riverman, stressed the danger of trotlines.  Grandpa told me of several men who had drowned when they became hooked or entangled in a weighted trotline after falling overboard or being pulled from the boat after losing their balance.
       Because of that Dad wanted me to wear a sheathed knife on my belt always. “If you get pulled over by a hook on a weighted line,” he told me, “hold that knife as tight as you can and cut the line.  If you drop the knife, you’ll drown.”  Because of that, I actually wore two on my belt.

        About a year ago I read and article about trotlining by a media specialist who had never been trotlining in his entire life. It never mentioned the things you learn by DOING what you write about.  It said exactly what a hundred such articles about the subject had said in the past.  Few outdoor writers who write about trotlining know much about it if they haven’t actually done it, and in this day and time, most writers haven’t done much of what they write about.
       In high school, I spent nights trotlining several holes of the Big Piney not far from my home, at the age of 13 or 14, trying hard to catch a bigger flathead catfish than Grandpa had taken. Of course I never did, he caught some over 70 pounds. It was easy for me to set trotlines in the river because Mrs. Kelly kept one of our johnboats on the river below her farm, and several big deep eddies were nearby.  When I was 16 years old, Roy Wayne Morton and I drove down to the Sweet Potato Eddy and used her boat to set a couple of trotlines in the deep water beneath the bluff, baited with live chubs and sunfish we had seined earlier in the evening.

       About 11 o’clock that night, we ran the line. About halfway across the eddy a hook was hung on something, likely a big rock.  In the dim light of a lantern in the boat and a carbide headlamp on my forehead, I stood up and began to yank on the line, pulling it for all I was worth.  It wouldn’t give… until it did; and I stumbled backward, caught my balance briefly in the rocking boat and then pitched forward right out into the cool water, still clutching the line.  A hook, sharp as the tip of a locust thorn, caught my jeans and bore into my thigh, instantly pulling me under.
       I suppose I have never been that scared in all my life, but I remembered what I had been taught, and with that knife I cut the stagion line attached to the hook.  Roy told me that even though I had been pulled under, I had held on to the edge of the boat with my left hand. It didn’t take me long to get back in the boat and cut the hook out.  I was so shocked it didn’t even hurt.

       I have taken lots of folks on trotlining trips since then, but I never allowed anyone to run a line unless they had a good knife on their belt and the training about what to use it for.

      Since that night there have been lots of big flatheads hooked and landed from my boat, many between 40 and 50 pounds.  Sometime this summer I will tell you about some of them.  But I will end this with a warning… do not ever go trotlining in a canoe or boat that you can tip over.  The only outdoor writers who will tell you that are those that have been there and done that, and perhaps have lived through the terror I experienced that night in 1963, many many catfish ago.

       If you want to contact me, or get one of our spring magazines,  just call our office at 417-777-5227 or email me at  Or write to me at Lightnin’ Ridge Publishing, Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613. 

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