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By Dan Magneson
From the May/June 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
In late spring of 2014, I visited family and friends in my native Iowa and spent time trying to land a big flathead catfish from the West Nodaway River. I knew I stood a better chance of success on one of the big border rivers like the Mississippi or Missouri, or at least one of the larger interior streams like the Iowa or Des Moines. But the West Nodaway was the river of my youth, a river of memories close to both heart and home.
There is a little tributary creek with a series of slow pools just upstream of its mouth from which I hoped to first catch some green sunfish for bait. The sun was dipping beneath the western horizon as I arrived with a little telescoping ultralight rod and reel. The western sky was lavender with blushes of pink, and thin slate-blue clouds stretched through the scene.
I attach a tiny bobber and thread a section of small garden worm onto a small hook and cast into the pool. Across the river is a broad expanse of blondish, driftwood-strewn sand. A young couple is fishing there, sitting close to a small campfire in the breezy evening, but even closer to each other.
I am reminded, and my thoughts wander to another time, another place, out on the Pacific Coast, this one complete with salt air, the sounds of surf and the scream of seagulls. But it’s a surprising similar scene nonetheless. And I remember her sunstreaked hair, those hazel eyes, that golden-toasty tan…
The bobber bounces and dances, then submerges and begins to be pulled from sight, and soon I pull up a little green sunfish between 4 and 5 inches long. Perfect. I fish a little longer and catch a few more of equivalent size. Darkness is falling by the time I rendezvous with a friend and his wife downstream.
There is an amazing cottonwood overhead, not so much impressive for its size or girth as for the fact that it is still standing: the roots for several feet beneath the point where the base of the trunk and start of the roots would normally intersect are in contact with nothing but air. The high flood waters have washed away the surrounding soil.
The strong, raunchy odor of rotting fish emanates from the riprap behind us. I have a stout rod and beefy baitcasting reel, and bait it with one of the sunfish. My buddy and his wife are fishing for channel catfish with pieces of shad. Despite the slow fishing, he remarks that he’d forgotten how enjoyable fishing at the river really was. And he relates an observation made by an acquaintance who fishes the Missouri River, who had noted that most flathead action seems centered around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.
The hours pass and still I wait. When using live bait between two-thirds to three-quarters the size of a dollar bill, it “highgrades” potential takers, deliberately excluding smaller specimens. By doing this, the wait can be transformed into a very long one.
Shortly after 1 a.m., my friends depart for home.
At 2 a.m., I note the couple across and up the river are gone. Their fire has died down to glowing embers, but an occasional burst of strong breeze fans it into ephemeral flame. I’m all alone now.
A friend recently remarked, with a downcast face that the worst part of being by yourself is being stuck with only your thoughts for company. I guess she must be quite the extrovert, because as a bona fide introvert, I revel and even wallow in such time.
Ultimately, I think the lure of the riverbank and flathead fishing is that life slows down so much. It is so very simple, so basic and elemental, almost like a form of asceticism. Life is reduced to its simplest terms. And except for it being strong and sturdy, you need little in the way of gear. But you do have to cultivate a lot of patience. You can unburden and unclutter your mind and are freed to think long, mostly uninterrupted thoughts.
When the bite finally happens, you move from one pleasant state of being to another: from utter relaxation to alert, ardent anticipation.
“Flathead catfish” is the antonym of “hectic” and the antidote for its meaning. Other than the chirp of crickets, there is only the sound of splashing fish periodically punctuating the night. When surrounded by so much quiet, it really startles you when it happens very close by.
I’ve seen no sign of the moon all night, but the constellation Cassiopeia is nearly facing me; I need only tilt my head just a bit left and upward. Craning my head further to the left I see the Big Dipper. Both seem to be slowly rotating in a counterclockwise direction around Polaris as the night wears on. Meanwhile, the Teapot rises from the southeastern sky, hugs the horizon and begins a southwesterly nosedive.
Errant June bugs blunder clumsily into me every so often, and there is a thick swarm of flying insects constantly orbiting the lantern light. When I lean in close to write in my journal, they bounce off my face. A gnat gets run over by my ballpoint pen. The lantern sits on a thin slab of wood atop the sand, and the harsh light projected from such a low angle onto the prowling spiders casts exaggerated, grotesque shadows across the sand beyond.
My stomach growls and my thoughts turn to food—and naturally, catfish as food.
No matter if I were fishing for flatheads up north on the Minnesota River, catfish are forever fixed in my mind as being distinctly and deeply southern. I envision a heavy, humid haze hanging over fields of tobacco and cotton, the call of a bobwhite quail, a little wooden farmhouse, magnolias and mockingbirds in the yard.
There’s a vine-covered porch and a swing within, a rickety screen door, the metallic stretch of a spring, the inevitable slap of wood.
Inside the kitchen, Mason jars line the pantry shelves, and the table is covered in red-and-white gingham. Atop that table is a feast: hushpuppies, buttered cornbread, collard greens, grits, fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes and thick gravy. Pecan pie for dessert and a squat, globular glass pitcher of cold buttermilk, beaded with condensation, to wash it all down. And on a big, oval platter in the center of it all, fried catfish…
My rod bounces so hard in its holder that it flips upside down. Then the clicker on the reel makes a buzzing-sizzling sound as the line pays out. A tingly rushing-rising feeling progresses from the tops of my shoulders up into the sides and back of my neck, then into my scalp.
At 3:45 a.m. I’m wide awake and fully focused on my fishing rod, the rest of the world falling away. I rear back. The line goes taut as a banjo string, the drag moans and the butt of the rod digs into the side of my belly. The fish is finally coming within reach, the rod is bent over in nearly a half-circle when the pressure suddenly releases. The rod tip reverses direction and shoots upward in the direction of the tree tops. Standing with now-slack line I catch a glimpse of a shadowy apparition about 2.5 to 3 feet long in the murky water. Then it fades back into deeper and darker water.
I quickly bait up and resume my vigil.
An 18-wheeler crosses the bridge downriver. The red and amber lights stun me with their vividly-intense color. It occurs to me that other than the few fireflies now abroad, the dying embers of that distant campfire and the pastel of the brownish-tan sand directly beneath the lantern, I’ve discerned very little in the way of color since nightfall. It’s been a world of black, white and grays.
At 4:23 a.m., I’m trying to decide whether the sky is becoming lighter. Then I notice the strong and steady light of Venus rising straight up from the eastern horizon and at 4:48 a.m., the robins begin calling.
By 5:06 a.m. I hear cardinals and killdeers. A great blue heron silently wings its way downriver over the opposite bank. It’s time to gather my gear and pack it in. I walk along the edge of a field of young corn and find my car soaked with dew. No wonder I feel so damp and clammy. It occurs to me that the last time I spent the entire night down at the river was nearly four decades ago, back on my 17th birthday, and coincidentally, in almost the same exact spot.
I start the car and head for home, toward bed, with heavy eyelids but a light heart. And despite the fatigue, I feel curiously younger.