The hardwood fire smoked and sizzled in the early morning mist as Benny arranged the coals so they might support the weight of a cast-iron skillet lined with strips of fresh bacon. The smoke curled slowly — almost lazily — through the naked, gray branches of the cypress trees where it eventually mingled with the morning fog over the lake and seemingly disappeared.
Benny was the husband of one of my Dad’s coworkers. He spoke with a sleepy Southern drawl, and, by word and deed, was one of the funniest people I knew. Once, during a family weekend at Wright Patman Lake south of Texarkana, he got hammered and started lighting his farts, much to the delight of every pre-teen kid at the campground.
“You think I do it good?” he asked the kids gathered around while he held court. “You should see when Miss Rita does it. She could weld the bumpers of two Peterbilts together with a big one.”
He looked over at his wife, my Dad’s coworker, and grinned while the rest of us enjoyed our fits of laughter. She smirked.
“Oh, ha ha,” she said with a flat look on her face. “Very funny.”
He was the guy most of us kids idolized. He drove a truck. He drank a lot of beer. He owned a bass boat and a couple of Jet Skis. He was a man’s man, never without a clever reply or a slap on the back. His jokes were legendary. And filthy.
This particular morning, as Benny stirred the coals and sipped coffee that I’m almost certain was laced with a touch of Southern Comfort, he and I found ourselves on a spongy island on Caddo Lake, which straddles the border of Texas and Louisiana, not too far our home in Longview. We were the first two out of our tents. Two of Benny’s buddies were busy sleeping off the beer from the night before, and my younger brother, Brice, a notoriously late sleeper, was still curled up in his sleeping bag in the tent he and I shared. It was spring break for Brice and me, and Benny had offered to take us with him to the lake to fish for bass and catfish for a few days while we were out of school.
To say we were thrilled is to say the mice like cheese. We gathered our camping and fishing gear the night before and carefully arranged everything so we could prioritize. This wasn’t a quick overnighter out to the local stretch of undeveloped woods — this was a “big boy” camping trip, with real adults. We both wanted to look like we knew what the hell we were doing.
We were no strangers to camping — both Brice and I grew up on the edge of the Rockies in Colorado. We’d only landed in East Texas after our father took a middle-management job with an oil well servicing company — a gig that lasted a few of years before the bottom fell out of the oil market and my Dad found himself on the road with a traveling consulting firm. Moving from the Denver suburbs to rural East Texas was quite the culture shock.
My brothers and I struggled to understand our teachers for the first few weeks of school thanks to the almost-foreign East Texas drawl, and we were immediately branded as “Yankees” by our classmates — a badge of honor, as I learned in 7th-grade Texas History that it was a Colorado detachment from the 1st and 3rd regiments that beat back a Texas company led by Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. The battle took place in northern New Mexico in 1862 and denied the confederacy access to Raton Pass and Colorado. While it’s rarely considered by Civil War historians, it was significant — some even dubbed it the “Gettysburg of the West.”
But on that cloudy and misty morning on Caddo Lake, the Civil War was as far from my mind as could be. The bacon sizzled in the skillet, and the lake, a giant black-water pothole lined by cypress, oak, beech and gum trees, was brimming with potential. The bass were about to start spawning, and the lake’s notorious catfish were definitely on the prowl. I think I might have walked out of my tent with my spinning rod in hand, a 6-foot stretch of fiberglass equipped with a shiny, new Zebco 33, a closed-face reel armed with 200 feet of 8-pound mono.
“Whatcha gon’ do with that coffee grinder?” Benny asked me as he took a gulp of “coffee” and pointed at my strung-up rod, armed with a black and yellow Beetle Spin lure.
I grinned, knowing that when Benny decided to fish, he did so with a pricey bass rod and one of those complicated casting reels with the bail and the drag and all the over-my-head knobs, gears and bottle openers.
“Well,” I said with a snarky grin, “I thought I’d start with a fish.” Benny laughed and pointed to the lake.
“Uh huh,” he said, his countenance shifting from silly to serious in a split second. “Well those little lures are good for bream. It’s a good thing, too. You don’t want to catch a mud cat from this water. They carry syphilis.”
Having a very basic sex-ed understanding of what, back in the day, was simply known as VD, I looked out over the dark water of the lake.
“Really?” I asked, suddenly mortified at the idea of catching a massive, mottled green flathead catfish that might ruin my chances with Sheila Johnson — she sat behind me in algebra, and she was clearly interested. The last thing I wanted to do was acquire syphilis and crater a budding relationship before the first sock-hop smooch.
“I’m serious,” Benny said, his face completely blank. Then he pointed at a tent nestled into the undergrowth just a few yards away, where Benny’s pals, Bobby and Jacob still slumbered away. The trio had been up late the night before, working their way through a cooler of Stroh’s. Brice and I tried to hang, but by midnight, we both crawled off to our tent and crashed. “Just ask Bobby when he gets up. He caught one here a couple years ago, and he’s still got a rash on his dingaling.”
I let out sort of a half-laugh. Yeah, a dingaling rash would not impress Sheila. Not even a little bit.
Benny moved the sizzling bacon over to the side of the skillet and reached into the big cooler at his side. He pulled out a dozen eggs, took two from the package and cracked them into the pan over the sizzling grease.
“How do you like ‘em?” he asked me.
“Sunny side up,” I replied, still reeling from the clearly scientific notion that mud cats carried STDs. Good grief … how many flatheads had I pulled out of the Sabine River over the last couple of years?
The rest of the gang slowly stirred over the course of the next hour or so, and Benny masterfully put the skillet through its paces. Brice eventually woke up, and wandered sleepily out of the tent amid the smell of breakfast, wearing a pair of gray sweatpants and his favorite orange and black Spot-Bilt football cleats — on the wrong feet, of course.
“Plan on doing some running?” Benny asked Brice, looking at his odd choice of footwear. If you knew Brice, you knew this kind of thing wasn’t terribly unusual. While I packed for function, Brice was a bit more laissez-faire in his approach to everyday life. For instance, he always carried his favorite Def Leppard cassette with him, but rarely carried anything with which to play it. Football cleats on a fishing trip? I’m sure there was some logic in his head somewhere, and I’d grown used to his quirks. No sense asking questions when the answers would likely be nonsensical.
“Did you know alligators can run pretty fast on dry land?” Brice asked Benny. “These are my fast shoes.”
Caddo is, indeed, home to a robust gator population, but in mid-March, the big reptiles were likely in the throes of a metabolic slowdown. Water temperatures hovered in the low 60s, at best, and that’s not ideal for leftover dinosaurs who, during the warmer months of the year, boldly prowl the lake and its cypress backchannels. But like I said, Brice possessed his own logic.
“Well you better switch ‘em around,” Benny said, pointing to Brice’s feet. “You ain’t gon’ outrun no gator lookin’ like a duck.”
Eventually, we climbed into two bass boats — Brice, Benny and me got into Benny’s sweet, decked-out Skeeter, and Bobby and Jacob boarded Jacob’s older skiff. The idea, Benny said, was to set out a line of yo-yos for catfish, and then start casting toward the banks for bass and bream.
Yo-yos are as devilish as they are ingenious, and, at the time, they were perfectly legal. Essentially, they are spring-loaded cylinders that look a lot like a fly reel, but perform their dastardly mission largely on their own. Benny had a box full of them, and he’d pull the boat up under a cypress limb, where he’d attach one end of a two-foot-long length of braid to the limb and the other to the yo-yo itself. Then, he’d attach about 30 inches of 20-pound mono to a braided cord wrapped around the guts of the device, tie on a size 4 bait hook, and then pull out enough of the braid to ensure the bait — chicken livers, gizzards and hearts — would rest on the bottom with the help of fat, lead sinker. Then he’d “load” the yo yo’s spring and suspend the bait into the dark water.
When a fish came calling, it would pull the line tight from the yo-yo, and the spring would bounce back and set the hook. For smaller fish, like bream and crappie, the spring was strong enough to lift the fish, head first, out of the water. For bigger fish, like bass and catfish, it was powerful enough to ensure they didn’t run too far. It was pure torture for any fish unlucky enough to take a bite, and even at 13 or so, I was generally mortified at the contraption.
Nevertheless, we set out a couple dozen yo-yos and then proceeded to slowly motor around the edges of the lake. The weather warmed a bit, and I shed my light jacket. I cast my Beetle Spin as close to the cypress knees as I dared, and I picked up a few sunfish, but nothing big. We eventually met up for lunch with Bobby and Jacob. I took care not to sit too close to Bobby for fear of contracting some airborne strain of syphilis, but when Benny suggested Brice and I split up for the afternoon, I ended up in the bow of Jacob’s skiff with Bobby in the stearn.
We retraced our float from the morning, slowly approaching the series of yo-yos we’d set out. The first spring-loaded device was a bust. Nothing had taken the bait. Rather than leave the trap loaded for the afternoon, Bobby untied it from the limb and stowed it — even these Texas boys wouldn’t leave a yo-yo set for more than a few hours.
The second yo-yo was a different story. Not only had the device been activated, but whatever was attached was pulling hard — the limb to which it was attached vibrated wildly.
“Looks like something big,” Bobby said, slowing the boat down. “Reach out there and start pulling in that line.”
No matter how you fish, or why you fish, there’s always that innate curiosity associated with the pastime when it comes to something unknown on the business end of a fishing line. The heavy braid disappeared within a few inches of entering the dark water, so when I reached gingerly over the side of the boat to grab the line, there was no way of telling what lurked below, attached to the bait hook.
“Just pull it up,” Bobby said. “We have a lot more to check.”
I slowly started to pull the line up from the bottom of the lake. Whatever it was, it was heavy. And it wasn’t in a cooperative mood.
“Keep that line tight!” Bobby coached from the stern of the boat.
“It feels really big!” I exclaimed, excited at the prospect of bringing in a massive channel cat. I pulled with a bit more purpose, hand over hand. And then I saw it. A massive, whiskered maw appeared in the dark water — a heavy, mottled green flathead, no doubt infected with a fiery strain of syphilis.
I let out a little yelp and dropped the line.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Bobby asked. “Just bring it in!”
“It’s a mud cat!” I retorted.
“So? The water’s cold. It’ll taste fine.”
“You mean you’d eat one?” I asked, bewildered. No wonder this idiot wandered through life with a crotch rash.
“When they come from cold water,” Bobby explained, “they taste just fine.”
“But what about the syphilis?” I asked, earnestly, thinking of how I’d have to undergo some medieval injection regimen before I even talked to Sheila in math class again. “You still have it, and I don’t want it.”
Bobby paused, and looked at me from the back of the boat.
“What did you say?”
“I said I don’t want syphilis,” I said, and realized that saying it out loud sounded pretty silly. Then, sheepishly, I explained. “Benny said you had syphilis from handling mud cats.”
“Oh, he did?” Bobby asked. “He said that?”
I nodded. Bobby goosed the motor and grabbed the line himself. He proceeded to boat the big 10-pound catfish and flop into the big cooler in the middle of the boat.
“Well, then, it’s probably a good idea for me to bring the fish in,” he said, a sly grin creeping across his face. I nodded, but without much certainty. Was this guy owning the fact that he was a constant sufferer of some horrific venereal virus?
We continued along the water path, removing yo-yos and several more fish, including two more big mud cats, a few channel cats and one really nice largemouth bass. All were deposited in the cooler. We arrived back at the campsite before Benny, Jacob and Brice. Bobby and I carried the cooler brimming with syphilis-infected catfish up the bank. I took care to wash my hands carefully, and I watched in horror as Bobby pulled fish after fish out the cooler and onto a makeshift filet table, where he went to work carving them up. Eventually, only one fish — that first big mud cat — remained in the cooler.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Bobby said. “They don’t carry syphilis. Benny was just pulling your leg.”
“Really?” I asked, eyeing what I still believe to be among one of the ugliest critters on God’s green earth at the bottom of the big Coleman cooler.
“Really,” Bobby said. “Now take that fish and go into my tent. Slide it clear to the bottom of the bright blue sleeping bag. Tonight, Benny gets his.”
Later that night, as the fire started to die out and everyone started to wander to their tents, Bobby and I stayed up, sitting across from one another. As Benny stood from his camp chair and said his goodnights, Bobby smirked at me from across the dying blaze.
It took longer than I thought, but the shouts and curses did eventually erupt from the tent.
“Jesus Christ on a cracker!” Benny screamed. Bobby grinned big and wide from across the fire. Seconds later, the big, dead catfish rocketed from the from the door of the tent and landed heavily within a few feet of the fire.
“Ain’t Miss Rita gon’ be surprised,” Benny said, walking out of the tent in his tighty-whities. “I gone and got myself the syphilis.”