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Out There: Pat and the kid

9/28/2004

The kid prepared himself for the strike, but when it came, his pole was nearly snatched from his hands. He braced himself, both feet planted firmly in the sand, then mightily he jerked. He came up hard on a solid live weight that pulled the pole down. Line spun off the reel. The pole bucked in his hands.

This is it, the kid thought. This is the fish I've been waiting for.

Since summer began, the kid's thoughts focused on a single goal — catching a big catfish. He read every catfishing article and book he could find in the little town library. He learned what they ate, where they lived, when they fed and how they were caught. He immersed himself in their murky-watered world, absorbing every tidbit of information that might aid him in his quest.

The kid knew big catfish lived in the river just outside town, but he also knew his mother would be angry if he went there alone. She clearly did not want him hanging around the pool hall, either, but she figured a boy his age needed a manly influence in his life, and maybe one of the pool-hall crowd would give in to the kid's pestering and take him catfishing on the river. Pat Murphree finally did.

"Tell me again about the big flathead you caught last year," the kid said to Pat while spinning on a barstool one day.

"I'll do you one better than that," Pat said. "Let's you and me go to the river tomorrow and see if we can catch one ourselves."

Pat felt softhearted for the kid. The boy's mother and father were divorced, so the kid didn't have a daddy to take him hunting and fishing. His mom worked hard to raise the kid right, and considering the hardships she'd faced, she'd done a good job. The kid was well mannered and smart. Del looked forward to taking him on his first catfishing trip.

On the way to the river the next day, they stopped at a pond and caught rice-field slicks for bait. "Slicks'll catch a big cat better'n anything," Pat told the kid, as he added water to the minnow bucket full of green sunfish. "And that fat one you put in there is sure to catch an ol' whumper-jawed catfish this morning."

The kid smiled. Pat grinned.

When they reached the river, they wasted no time. Pat baited the kid's hook, tied on an old spark plug for weight and lobbed the rig out in the river. "Hold tight, kid," he said, handing the boy the pole. "There's a big catfish out there, and he's calling your name."

The boy's heart raced. God, let me catch a big one, he thought, and I'll be the best kid in town.

At that moment, the fish plucked the bait. The feel of it electrified the kid. He waited, not knowing what to expect.

The strike came hard, but the kid stood firm. A great splash roiled the water, and the kid saw what seemed to him an enormous white-bellied fish, mouth wide open, fins erect, tail curled — a catfish.

The following moments were like one terrible age of confusion and stress. What happened the kid did not clearly see and could not truly guess. But the battle ended with the boy astride his opponent. He grabbed the catfish by its gills, then put down his pole and took a piece of rope from his pocket. He slipped it through the gills of the fish and lifted the cat for Pat's inspection.

"Look!" he cried. "Ain't it a big one? And I caught it all by myself!"

The fish might have weighed three pounds. But it was the kid's first cat, beautifully bronzed and speckled. To the kid, it was a whale.

That moment was forever etched in the minds of Pat and the kid.

I was that kid. My uncle, Pat Murphree, died years ago, but I'll never forget our times together on the river. I'll always remember the huge smile on his face when I caught my first nice catfish.

I didn't have a father at home to take me fishing, but there were many men like Uncle Pat in our community who made sure I was educated in the way of the angler and the hunter. I'm thankful every day they devoted some of their precious time to making my childhood joyful and full of memories. Because of them, I am who I am.

Tomorrow will be a good day to take a kid fishing. Catch some bait. Sit on the riverbank. Try for a big one.

Maybe you'll catch one. Maybe you won't. But one thing's for sure: you'll make some special memories for you and the kid.

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