Thursday, June 10, 2010

Doomed Slue Was Scene of Fishing Adventure

This story seems an abrupt shift in topic from the last post, which concerned the children of Jamaica. This story is about youth, too - but youth in a different time, a different place. This story occurred to me when I was jogging in New York's Central Park and I saw a couple of kids squatted at the edge of a lake. Kids everywhere love messing around water. From the Herald-Citizen, February 6, 2010.


Before the waters of Cordell Hull Lake drowned it forevermore, there was Billy White’s Slue, a shallow two-acre lake standing in the bottomland of Smith Bend, in Jackson County, Tennessee. It could have been called a lake or a pond, even a swamp, but we always called it a slue. Each winter the floods of the Cumberland River filled it with backwater and fish. Then the floods receded, leaving the water and fish trapped.

Brush and trees lined its banks. River bottoms stretched beyond, fields of rich, black dirt strewn by flint chippings and stone tools left by ancient humans. The bottoms grew corn and soybeans, and dropped steep sandy banks down to a languid river. Plowed cropland abutted woodlots, thickets and canebrakes.

In the branches muskrats and raccoons caught crawfish, discarding pinchers and shell fragments on the bank. Lowlands oozed oily water and grew dense stands of swamp grass where cottontails and quail took cover.

When I was young, the slue belonged to Joe Myers. When he died in 1949 the farm passed to his son, Billy White Myers, who farms and lives there yet. He has always been called by two names. We dropped his last name and simply called the slue Billy White’s.

As a boy, I prowled that slue and all the land surrounding it whenever I could. Everything was there—squirrels, fish, turtles, snakes and, sometimes, ducks. I’d sneak up on the waterfowl with my .410 single-shot. They always flushed out of range of the little gun.

That patch of earth had everything an 11-year old boy needed. It had always been there. He could not have known it would one day be gone.

It sustained me until I grew up and left the Bend. In 1973 it slipped away, sinking beneath a cold flood that had come to stay.

Before then, though, it was the location of the great carp adventure. I think Carson Givens gave me the idea that led to it (I have changed his and his family’s names.)

Carson and his family lived in the three-room house near the bottom of the hollow on our farm. He rented the house for half of whatever he and his mules could grow on the farm, a typical arrangement for farmers lacking their own land in those days. “Sharecroppers” is the rude term, but we called them renters, and there was no shame in it. A man did what he had to do.

What Carson had to do was fish. It was a calling and a gift. He could catch fish better than anybody I knew. A place where he couldn’t catch fish was a place with no water. I admired him very much. Fishing was important.

He kept trotlines and funnel-shaped nets called fish baskets strung out in the current of the Cumberland River. Each morning and night he checked his lines and baskets, cranking up an old Ford sedan and bouncing a mile over the farm road that wound along the fields and across the spring branch down to the river.

The fish he caught he stowed live in a cage suspended in the river. Thus he always had fresh fish on hand when people came wanting to buy some for supper. He caught buffaloes, catfish, drums, jacks and carp.

His wife and kids helped with the fieldwork. That arrangement gave Carson time to fish. He made money from fishing, and it helped support his family.

This gave me the inspiration to cabbage the carp in Billy White’s slue and to sell fish steaks.
Carson’s son Harold and I threw in together. Harold was 11 years old, the same age I was. He brought along his young brother Pee Wee, not big enough to help much, but his presence increased Harold’s share.

It was a hot summer, and the slue was drying up. When we got there, all that was left of it was a yard-sized puddle of roiling gray water surrounded by two acres of cracked blue mud. You could see the hemmed-in fish as they sloshed and churned, their backs slicing though the gray water. We had a fish bonanza.

But we could not reach them. The mud near the water was worse than quicksand. The waxy sludge grabbed our feet and would not let go, and the closer we got to the water, the deeper we sank.

We solved the problem by finding a rotting flat-bottomed boat resting against the bank at the slue’s normal edge. We dragged it across the cracked mud, then got in and poled across the slime until we arrived in the middle of the gray puddle. There we sat surrounded by a swarm of agitated carp.

My frog gig was no help. The fish were so big, their scales so tough, the prongs of the gig bent each time I tried to spear one. Did not need it anyway. The direct approach was better. We simply reached over the side and lifted the sagging fish into the boat. Soon the boat bottom was full of flopping carp.

Getting our haul home was the next hurdle. We strung the fish up in three bunches, a small one for Pee Wee. To do that, we slipped a cord through their gills and out their mouths. Their lips would open and close in gasps, kissing the air. We each slung a string of limp fish over our shoulder and starting walking. The fish hung down our backs, nearly dragging the ground.

The weight was too great. The cord cut into our hands and shoulders. We had to stop and rest every few steps. Two miles seemed a long way. Finally, half a mile from home and just past our spring, we lightened our load, throwing some of the fish in a cornfield for the crows.

I arrived at the house with a lightened but still heavy haul. Harold and Pee Wee walked on with their share. I started cleaning fish, squatting in the backyard, working on a board. I figured that if people buy whole fish from Carson, they would give even more if the fish were already cleaned and sliced. Somebody would.

The fish scales were big and coarse, and scraping them off was hard work. My pocket knife was not big enough, and I had to borrow Momma’s butcher knife. Even with her big knife, it was slow going.

I put slabs of coarse, white meat into a pan. The pan filled slowly. I worked until nearly suppertime and still had fish left to clean. After working so long I was tired. I gave up on cleaning the last few fish and flung them over the fence, a present for the hogs.

Nonetheless, I had managed to build a hefty stack of fish slabs in the pan, and Momma agreed to fry some for supper. The rest I stored in the refrigerator until I could find buyers. I was hungry and ready for the payoff.

It did not come. The fried fish tasted just like the mud they had lived in, impossible to eat. I think Momma expected that. I had to throw away all that fish, all my hard work. A mouth full of that fish was like a mouth full of mud.

1 comment:

  1. Any chance that you have info that documents White Myers,uncle to Joe Myers, as son of Phillip Myers, my great great grandfather. Bob Kiger.