Thursday, February 15, 2007
Author's note: A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Bubba Chronicles. By request, I'm putting up one chapter called "The Spot". I hope you enjoy it.
Every country boy has at least one special fishing spot, somewhere on the river where, by accident or by plan, he finds the right combination of luck, skill, chance resulting in success. Bubba's spot was located on the upper Delancy River, about 3 miles in from Peterson Crossing, on Bill Nevers’ land. If Bill was at the house to unlock the gate when Bubba arrived, there’d be a passable road providing it hadn't rained recently and made it a swamp. Bill didn't have the time to fish much, so he didn't mind if Bubba left him a couple nice channel catfish as a payment of sorts. Bill would never have asked for the fish, and Bubba knew that, but it was a small enough price to pay for such bounty.
Bubba left no clue that he had been at the spot, either-- not a wrapper, broken-off piece of leader-- nothing. Abel Strunk hadn't been much of a father to Bubba, but he had made sure that Bubba respected other folks’ property, not so much for some high-flown notion of ecology, but from the necessity of protecting a private treasure. "Bubba, if you find a place you like, either buy it or make sure that you can get yourself invited back." Since Abel hadn't been fiscally able to leave Bubba much of a grubstake for land ownership, Bubba was forced to resort to the latter.
The river more or less bent back upon itself at Bubba's spot, and was one of the few places he’d found offering natural deep holes fishable without a boat. Also, the current seemed to slow coming out of the bend, offering shallow spots at the edge.
One late afternoon, after setting all of his limb lines, Bubba stared at the bank on the opposite side of the river, noticed a hollow log, and recalled hearing the Nutter boys talk about a new way of catching big catfish, without rod and reel or hooks of any kind--noodling.
Noodling is the practice of catching fish with one’s bare hands. Normally, it’s attempted only after plying oneself with strong spirits, and the quarry is always catfish-- and the bigger, the better. No one knew why it was called noodling, but it didn’t require an over-abundance of imagination to conjure some less-than-sanitary notions about the origins of the word. The only requirement (other than a set of brass cajones) is a hollow log or two, sunk in a likely spot and left unattended for a few days. Catfish are opportunistic bottom feeders, for the most part, especially the bigger ones. They also tend to be extremely lazy when not really hungry. They'd just as soon be left alone, and once they've reached ten pounds or more they have no natural enemies, save man and bigger catfish.
The last time Bubba went to His Spot, he’d grabbed his chain saw and sawed a hollow log into three pieces, each about three feet long and two feet in diameter. He then picked up each piece and sunk it in the river at intervals of about five yards or so. Pleased with his work, he propped himself up against a big oak and listened to the crows and pondered his maiden noodling voyage, while sipping slowly on that long-neck bottle of August Busch's finest elixir.
As was his nature, Bubba was given to flights of fancy from time to time, and today his thoughts envisioned various scenarios of his friends accompanying him to The Spot. Not being the most confident guy in Alabama, he maintained, with a deep and abiding belief, situations never played out in his favor-- no matter what extravagant scheme he’d concocted. In the back of his mind he just couldn't quite convince himself that he wanted to give away his favorite spot until he gained some experience. His history replete with such misadventures, he had no desire to become the butt of yet another joke. Whatever self-esteem he could muster needed to be protected along with his sanctuary.
Bubba knew what he had to do-- a trial run. So, after hosing down his cement truck, Silver Streak, and putting her to bed for the night, he jumped into his pickup, made a quick pit stop for gas, and headed southwest into the setting sun, armed with a 12-pack of Bud and all the courage he could muster.
Bill Never’s wife, Esther, greeted Bubba warmly, smiling broadly when he drove onto the property. Their small talk lasted only a minute or so, as she explained that Bill had gone into town on business. Bubba merely smiled politely and said he'd be on his way. It would have been impolite to ask permission without her husband present, even though he was sure that Bill would not have minded if he used his road to The Spot. Instead, he drove back to Hatchet Creek, parked his pickup in a grove of trees and started walking, cooler in one hand and his bucket of tackle and blood bait in the other—there was no point in walking all that way without setting out a few limb lines along the way. In the heart of summer, evening would come slowly as the glow of late afternoon persevered. The last rays were still evident through the tops of the trees as Bubba scurried down the embankment toward the awaiting river.
The first three or four Buds had gone down very easily, indeed. The orb in the west dropped below the horizon, slowly replaced by the brilliance of a late summer lunar presence. That special light gave rise to shadows which shouldn't have been there and made Bubba a little self-conscious and uneasy. Water moccasins would be hunting tonight, also. Snakes were not his favorite creatures, especially cottonmouths. They were aggressive by nature-- Bubba had seen one jump right into a boat-- and left untended, a bite could be fatal.
By wading upstream toward the concealed hollow logs, he would not risk disturbing the riverbed around them, and although the fish probably wouldn’t be able to see his legs in the water, he didn’t want to spook them. The dark water rose to mid-chest as he approached his landmarks, making Bubba wonder if the logs had been forced into deeper water by the current. Taking short, measured steps, he felt his boot contact the first log. Summoning all the courage he could muster, the intrepid hunter forced air deep into his lungs and dropped to his knees beside the log, his hands probing the insides. He almost expected to start pulling out chicken guts, like that sideshow psychic healer last year at the Boone County Fair.
Having failed to find any occupants in the log, Bubba surfaced, content that he’d found the right spot, at least. He continued slowly upstream, keeping track of the number of paces that he took. After all, if he was showing all his friends this magic place, he had to be able to find the damn logs. His reputation (such as it was) depended on it.
One of the really neat things about wading in the river was that if you felt the urge to pee coming on, you just let it rip; although, the warmness did seem to linger a little… perhaps to remind you that, yes, you just pissed your pants. Bubba smiled and snorted at the thought and wondered how many of his buddies had thoughts like this, although he would never ask.
After seven paces, once again he felt a log, and his feet traced the contours below them in order to get the proper attack angle. Figuring the fish would most likely be facing into the current, he paused to prepare himself. Silently, the hunter closed his eyes, swept his arms from his sides, and felt that cottonmouth slither across the front of his chest.
The water instantly boiled, arms flailing, a piercing howl emanated from deep within Bubba's throat as he attempted to force the snake away from his body. Legs attempting to find the slick, muddy bottom in retreat, every reflex he possessed put all his gears in reverse, and his body instinctively backed into shallower water. At some point his efforts overcame the current of the river and his own inertia, and Bubba fell backwards onto shore.
He hurried back to the cooler, pulled out the flashlight, and immediately checked himself thoroughly. Finding no puncture wounds, relief swept over his body as he began taking deep cleansing breaths. The only sounds now were the crickets, the beating of his heart, and the hissing escape of gas, as Bubba lifted his left butt cheek slightly and farted, praying he hadn't crapped his pants. The crisis averted, he was free to evaluate his methods and strategy. This would require some serious thought and the better part of his remaining Budweiser stash.
Bubba had been taught to get right back on the horse after being thrown, so he needed to get back in the water before the night was very much older. It would take more than a cottonmouth to keep him from attaining his goal. As he replayed the recent events in his mind, it occurred to him that he didn't feel quite as mobile in the water as he would have liked. Wondering if he had gained too much weight, he pinched the love handles on his side; while they didn't seem to be excessive, maybe he should start drinking Bud Light. Billy Ray drank it now, and most of the kidding had started to subside, although it also was true that Billy Ray never got a lot of kidding, anyway, given the fact that he could body-slam a Volkswagen.
Bubba finally decided that the time was right to either return to the water or go home. He wasn’t a quitter, but tomorrow was another workday, and he could no longer pull the all-nighters he once had and still make it into the plant by six a.m. This time, he vowed that if Mr. Cottonmouth wanted to bite him, he better damn well get after it, because one way or another, Bubba Strunk would stick his hand in a catfish’s mouth somehow before he left the river tonight!
At that very moment, Bubba’s expression resembled that worn by Marines about to assault a beach while drawing enemy fire. It wasn't so much a grin as a leer; born of ignorance and nurtured by inebriation-- that dumbfounded deer-in-the-headlights stare. He was God's own drunk and a dangerous man!
Back into the water he ran, high-stepping until the depth made it no longer possible to do so, counting paces as he went. After some searching, he found the third submerged log with the toe of his boot. He un-sheathed the K-Bar knife he carried strapped to his side, put it between his teeth like some crazed pirate getting ready to board an enemy ship, and lowered his head into the water. Holding onto the sides of the log, he reached inside and immediately felt a sharp ribbon of pain explode in his head. Pulling back, his only option was to surface. As Bubba’s head came out of the water, a blood-curdling scream pierced the silence.
Bubba managed to raise his hand out of the water, a ten-pound snapping turtle attached to the fleshy web between his thumb and forefinger. He knew better than to pull on the turtle's shell. It would most likely result in a nasty gash through the meat of his hand. Instead, he backed onto shore, stabilized the turtle with his knee and reached for his K-Bar, which, of course, had fallen out of his mouth when he screamed.
Having no other choice, Bubba lifted the turtle, and started walking back to the pickup. Never had a two-mile walk seemed so long. Upon reaching the truck, his next problem became how to suspend the turtle while opening the drivers' side door, where Bubba’s hatchet lay under the front seat. He balanced the turtle on the side rail of the bed, lifted the handle and watched the door swing open. As luck would have it, he couldn't reach under the seat from that position, so while Bubba groped underneath for his hatchet, Mr. Turtle got to sit on the seat behind Blue’s steering wheel, an honor extended to no human.
Once again, Bubba picked up the beast, carried him to the back of the truck, managed to get the tail-gate down, and set his new-found reptilian buddy down. The Lord High Executioner awaited his signal to begin. Counting on his knowledge of turtles, Bubba began to pull steadily backwards, causing the turtle to back up slightly, extending his neck. He hoped he could chop its head off with one whack, envisioning how painful it would be if the turtle tried to suddenly pull his head back inside his shell. Also, he knew that his dexterity left-handed was not as good as he'd like, and there was very little available light. Changing his angle slightly for better vision, Bubba raised his hatchet. Suddenly, the turtle let go of his hand and retreated inside his shell.
At this moment in time, Bubba knew the true meaning of rage. Robbed of his dignity, viciously attacked, forced to walk miles on end carrying some ignominious creature not worthy of consumption, now he was being cheated of the one measure of revenge left, the demise of his tormentor!
As Bubba placed the snapper behind the back wheel of his pickup, a small inner voice spoke to him. Just exactly what the hell are you doing? Fool, you won't even eat the damn thing, why kill it? At that instant he knew what he had to do, so he picked up parrot-beak and started walking back to the river. Certainly not a Rhodes scholar, neither was Bubba a cruel, demented monster who killed for sport. Besides, he'd left his cooler on the riverbank and he needed to wade out and see if he could find his knife… might just as well throw the damn turtle back in the river, too. Scared by a snake, bitten by a turtle, still had no idea what it felt like to actually go noodling, what the hell else could happen to him tonight?