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Out There: Dark waters, moonless nights

5/7/2004

It was a Jack-the-Ripper night. The sky was dark, the air thick and damp and the moon just a sliver dancing between flashing black thunderheads. Downstream, coyotes howled.

The river raged, high and muddy, so my partner and I opted to fish from a country bridge instead of launching a boat.

We fished by lantern light, drifting baits beneath a logjam around the pilings. By midnight we had four flatheads apiece, all 3- to 5-pounders. It was then a bigger cat hit … and it started raining.

Reeling in the smaller cats was kid's play; catching the bigger one — a 15-pounder — was not. The flathead fought valiantly deep within the log pile, and 30 long minutes elapsed before I
pulled it atop the timber. By then, my buddy and I were soaked.

All I had to do was get the hefty fish up on the bridge or on shore. I opted for the latter. While clambering down the rain-slickened bank, I did a somersault and landed on my face in the mud. Somehow, though, I kept hold of the rod, and the battle began anew. Miracles happen.

I managed to drag the flathead on shore after another short fight. Bending over to grab it, I slid and did a perfect belly flop into the river.

On occasion, I've enjoyed nightfishing for cats without such slapstick exercises, but those occasions have been few and far between. On most junkets, something memorable happens.

One night, I hooked my fishing partner in the ear on a bad cast. (It turned out to be the best fight I ever had on rod and reel.)

On another, my friends and I had to abandon our boat after a cottonmouth slithered in.

I was stranded on an island one moonless evening when my johnboat floated away in the rising river.

And once, while playing a big cat, I stumbled over the fire logs and burned the seat out of my jeans.

I remember those nights with crystal clarity.

I remember, too, a night in Mexico. My catfishing companion, Ramone, spoke little English. But as he gestured with a sweep of his hand, looking up at the Milky Way, I knew exactly what he said.

"Bonito estrellas."

Beautiful stars.

I've never seen a more picturesque sky.

I remember a night on the Mississippi River when freshwater drum added a percussionist's beat to nature's witching-hour rumba.

These big silvery fish were spawning, and their peculiar drumming noises boomed from the dark river. We could feel the deep tones as they vibrated our aluminum boat — a catman's rhythm and blues.

I remember the earthy smell of riverside woods after cleansing twilight rainshowers, and the flavorful aroma of coffee brewing over midnight campfires; the sweet taste of just-caught catfish cooked in a black-iron skillet, and the haunting serenades of owls calling from the darkness.

One night in particular sticks in my mind:

Fishing was good. We caught several flatheads, and a channel cat pushing 20 pounds. But it's not the fishing I remember most.

As we sat beneath the willows cuffing the shore, the trees began to sparkle. It started slowly, with short bursts of phosphorescent light punctuating the darkness. But the longer we sat, the more intense the light show became.

The lightning bugs seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. And before long, the riverbank was glowing like a courthouse square on Christmas Eve, the tiny taillights of countless fireflies flashing in the trees. It was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever witnessed.

Nightfishing awakens dulled senses. And when catfish are your quarry, you find yourself caught up in an undercurrent of mystery and expectation. When will the strike come? What will it be? Will I overcome it, or will it overcome me?

You hook something big, and you hope it's a giant catfish. But you're never really sure. You don't know what's down there, and you won't know for sure until you get it up. That's the mystery part — the mystery of the night that draws people like me to this sport.

Exciting? Definitely. Memorable? Always. Nightfishing for catfish is a sport like no other.

You can catch cats during daylight hours, especially during cloudy periods or when the water is muddy. The odds of success improve, however, if you fish the hours between dusk and dawn. Most catfish work the late shift.

Some folks say you can catch as many catfish during the day as you can at night. And maybe some folks do. I'm not one of them.

I've been catfishing since I was old enough to hold a cane pole, more than 40 years now, and my best catch came on a dark, moonless night in April while fishing from a sandbar on the lower Mississippi River.

In just four hours, a friend and I caught more than 150 catfish — mostly flatheads, a few blues and channels, several over 20 pounds. I've had 100-cat nights more times than I can remember.

I catch lots of catfish in the daytime, too, and, nowadays, I must admit, most of my fishing is done when the sun is up. But my best daytime excursions have never equaled my best nightfishing trips.

I still fish at night when time permits. The number of catfish I catch doesn't really matter, though. I fish at night for reasons that have nothing to do with mathematics.

I go to listen to the whippoorwills and owls. I go to smell the freshness of the night air. I go to feel the cool, twilight breeze in my hair. I go to
see the heavens ablaze with countless stars.

Mostly, I go to relax and enjoy some time with friends and family. If we catch a mess of catfish now and then, that's a bonus. If we don't, none of us really cares.

What's important is the companionship an after-hours catfishing excursion provides.

Sometimes one of us somersaults down a rain-slickened bank. Ears get hooked, snakes drop in, mosquitoes bite. Occasionally, a boat has been known to drift away, leaving us stranded.

Always though, it is memorable. And that alone is reason to try it.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.