My uncle warned me, “If the hole goes down, it’s a fish.”
I should have listened more closely. I took a deep breath and plunged down into the barrel-sized
We were fishing on Muddy Boggy Creek in southeastern Oklahoma. The men called it gravelin’. Nowadays TV shows call it Hillbilly Hand fishing or noodling.
The water was warm, and well, muddy. It was summertime and the fishing was good. There were about nine of us in all, my one-armed Uncle Jack, his friends and me. They were all good ol’ boys in their 40s. I was early teens. We had gallon jugs of bootleg bourbon. Good bourbon. I could smell the smokey charcoal from the oak barrels in the liquor. I liked that. We were having great fun catching lots of fish, enough fish that we could be choosy about which ones we kept. Channel catfish were well prized as well as blue cats and appaloosa. Gar, drum and mudcats were less desirable.
In this method of fishing, you don’t grab. Instead you feel around in the water until you feel something that feels like a fish. You can tell what it is by how it feels. If it has scales, it’s a perch, a bass or a drum. If it’s slick like a catfish, well you get the idea. Gently bend the fish, then tighten your grip, he can’t kick and maybe won’t stab you with his spines. You got ‘em. He goes in the tow sack along with the rest.
Without thinking, and against my Uncle’s instructions I followed the cave upwards. My head broke the water with just enough space between the water and the top of the cave for my eyes and my nose. My chin was still submerged. I caught a breath of air and wiped the water from my eyes and breathed. The air was OK, not that I thought about that beforehand. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I saw that I was inside a tiny chamber not much larger than an umbrella. The light was coming upwards from the water, eerily reflected into the chamber from outside. Slowly my eyes adjusted, focused, then fixed on an object ten inches in front of my face. It took a moment to realize what I was looking at, because of the dim light and because he was staring directly into my eyes. A cottonmouth water moccasin, a venomous water snake very common and very respected in the area. The unblinking eyes seemed to concentrate on mine as he swayed ever so gently to and fro. I wondered what to do next.
While feeling around the bottom or in logs, if it bites you then it might be a snappin’ turtle, a beaver, a snake or God knows what, and you may want to let it go. Not all water moccasins are poisonous, only the cottonmouth, so called by the white on the inside of his mouth which you will see just before it is too late. That’s why most discerning hand fishermen tend to give the snake the benefit of the doubt. I say most, but not all. My uncle handled them all, including rattlers and deadly copperheads. As a result, Jack had been bitten enough that he had a degree of immunity. I suppose the bourbon helped.
The serpent, unflinching, gazed at me impassively. I was clearly within his striking distance and I was concerned that if I moved, he would strike. I was more concerned that if I stayed there in his space, he would surely strike.
Slowly, gently, I sank back down into the warm muddy water just the way I had come. I backed out of the cave, all the way to the creek and resurfaced near my Uncle Jack.
“Well?” he said.
“Snake,” I replied.
The next set we made on the creek was up against a logjam most likely inhabited by beavers. So the men decided to play a little joke on my cousin Bob. They told Bob there were surely some big catfish under that logjam, if only he reach up into it.