Appalachia Fishing

Of Catfish And A Smelly Old Codger

Photo of Bob Weekley and his father fishing in West Virginia

Photo of Bob Weekley and his father fishing in West Virginia 

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Of Catfish And A Smelly Old Codger written by Jim Casada

Of all the many and varied characters it was my privilege to know as a boy growing up in Bryson City, I reckon Al Dorsey had to be the most interesting. Over the years I have written about him on a number of occasions, and the better part of two decades ago a piece I did with the same title used here won a national award. His was a decidedly offbeat
personality, and as we shall soon see he had a sordid past. Yet to me, and a bunch of other youngsters who were sort of river rats in training while growing up along the Tuckasegee River in the 1950s, old Al was a man of almost heroic stature. After all, he was a wizard when it came to catching catfish, and in my adoring view that made him someone truly special.

The details of Al’s life are intriguing. He was born about as close as anyone from Swain County could ever come to having a silver spoon in his mouth; his parents were affluent pillars of the community. As a young man he garnered a reputation of being what old-timers used to describe as a “rounder.” Interestingly, the term is not found in that wonderful source, the “Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English,” but I heard it regularly as a youngster. Probably as good a definition for rounder as any would be hellion.

Dorsey’s wild ways eventually led to a tragic event. He killed another man in a shootout on the town square in an argument over a woman. I have heard various accounts of what happened (my father was a young man when it occurred and was one of the first on the
scene), but a local jury convicted him of murder. Following his conviction, Dorsey spent many years in the state penitentiary.

My acquaintance with him came long after all of that, when he had been released from prison and was back in Bryson City. He lived in a decrepit two-story house which had once been a mansion. It featured all sorts of fancy woodwork, cupolas at each corner, and a beautiful setting, but through years of neglect the house, which sat sort of catty-corner across the street from the Presbyterian Church in downtown Bryson City, had fallen into depressing disrepair. The house had belonged to his parents and surely would have been a showplace in its heyday. Since it lay not more than a couple of hundred yards down the hill from my parents’ home, I walked by it every time I went to town or school.

It was during a series of summers, however, from the time I was 10 or 11 well on into my teens, that I really spent time around old Al. Throughout every summer he fished the nearby waters of the Tuckasegee. He fished with a passion, never missing a day and often carrying on the quest for catfish well into the night.

He fished at night from the bridge, but during the day he ran trot lines, did a lot of pole watching on the bank, and also made his way up and down the river from a spot located about halfway between today’s two bridges (there was only the one on Everett Street then) to just below Devil’s Dip at Bryson Island in a flat-bottomed boat he had built. He was a master at poling that boat, standing up and never at a loss for balance.

Old Al was incredibly dirty. He was a stranger to soap and water, wore brogans without socks (you could literally see the dirt caked around his ankles), dressed in overalls that were stiff with catfish slime and never got washed, and smelled every bit as strong as the stink baits he used to catch his bewhiskered river prey. You didn’t want to be downwind of him in overly close proximity, but to a boy his knowledge of the river had a mysterious, magical quality about it that seemed almost Mark Twain-like.

Smell and shabby appearance notwithstanding, to Al’s considerable and enduring credit, he kept an eye on a number of boys who, like me, spent a lot of time fishing and piddling around at the river. Similarly, he readily shared his knowledge of how to catch catfish, and it was an aspect of sport at which he was a master.

He caught them a bunch of ways—trot lines, throw lines, limb lines, jug fishing and more– but the approach which I thought most unusual involved simple bank fishing. Al would set a bunch of cane poles—inexpensive rigs using black nylon line, a hook and sinker, and bait such as chicken entrails, beef liver, or shrimp. Somehow he knew, almost as soon as he set the hook on a fish, if it was a big one.

On such occasions he would throw the buoyant cane pole into the river, scramble into his flat-bottomed boat, and follow the pole about the river. Periodically it would surface and he would ease up to it, pull on it a bit to set the catfish off, and follow once more. At some point, when he considered the catfish sufficiently worn out, he would boat it. Not every catfish handled this way ended up on a stringer, but most of them did. He would take them home with him and had a special wire cage in Toot Hollow Branch, right next to his home, where he placed them. He would feed the fish two or three weeks, much like folks used to feed ‘possums to clean them out. Al then sold the catfish.

Everyone in town knew him, and when I was 12 or 13 he accomplished something which was the talk of local barber shops and the gang at Loafer’s Glory (as a bunch of benches on the town square was known) for weeks. One night while fishing off the Everett Street Bridge he hooked a mighty catfish on the only decent rig he owned, a steel rod-and-reel outfit. An epic battle ensued, with scores of people lining the sidewalk on the bridge to watch it unfold. After the better part of a half hour Al managed to ease the fish close to shore and then, carefully working the rod around a series of street lights which set atop the bridge railing, he made his way down the bank next to Conley’s Drug Store at the south end of the bridge. He then waded into the river, ran his arm through the mouth of the catfish, and wrestled it out onto the bank. It weighed right at 50 pounds.

I never knew about old Al’s criminal past until long after I was grown, although I always thought it a bit strange when Mom and Dad would say: “You really don’t need to be hanging around that dirty old fellow.” I pretty much ignored them and clearly they realized he was innocuous. Otherwise their strictures would have gone beyond mere verbal “keep away” warnings. It was only by accident, when browsing through a bunch of 50-year-old newspapers long when I was in my late 30s or 40s, that I read the headlines of his trial and conviction.

Decades after I was grown and gone from Bryson City some brightness came into Al’s life. By this time the once glorious house built by his parents had been demolished, and he had been reduced to living in what was little more than a shack thrown together out of rough lumber. Then through the efforts of a local minister he got religion and cleaned up not only in terms of behavior but bodily as well. In fact I have a photo of him from this time in his life, and he’s dressed in almost snappy fashion—a far cry from the bewhiskered, downright dirty curmudgeon I had known. He took to regularly attending services at the First Baptist Church, and some longtime members of that congregation still remember him. He was a character indeed, and never mind that he didn’t amount to much and had a troubled life, my memories of him and the place he had in my boyhood are fond ones. Fishing linked us in a special way.

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I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did! Jim’s memories of Al Dorsey made me think of the characters I’ve known here in Brasstown. 2 walked or caught a ride to reach all their destinations, the other that came quickly to mind rode a horse.

Was there a character from your childhood days you look back on fondly?

Tipper

 

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27 Comments

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    July 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

    So interesting!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 27, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Jim-I assumed, since the old codger was from a well to do family, that he had it squirreled away somewhere. If that is not the case then I apologize to you and posthumously to Noah, Thad and Alvah!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    July 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Tipper–I do believe Ed Ammons is trying to have a bit of fun with me at the expense of Noah Webster (and Thad DeHart, who likely taught me the ins and outs of vocabulary). A curmudgeon, according to the erstwhile Mr. Webster says a curmudgeon is “an avaricious, grasp fellow; a churl.” If Old Al was greedy, he must have majored in unsuccessful avarice, because he never seemed to have two nickels to rub together. On the other hand, he defines a codger as “a strange fellow; especially one who is old, cranky, or uncouth” (that was Al to a “T”).
    That being duly stated (and probably no one outside of native Swain Countians cares), he has Al pegged when it came to one of his favorite haunts. The south (downstream) side of the bridge across from Raymond Mitchell’s store and the pool hall was almost a second home to him. Incidentally, he often tied up his boat underneath the bridge at the same location.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    July 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    I enjopyed this very much.. My dad was a charcter for sure.. He could keep one entertained all day.. He walked to town back later on in his life. Sometimes he’d catch a ride with someone he knew.. Back before that he took an old wagon to town with is dad.. Thanks for sharing this with us…

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    What made Mr. Dorsey a codger and not a curmudgeon?
    The only image of him I can resurrect is of an old curmudgeon sitting on the rail of the old bridge, on the end nearest Raymond Mitchell’s store and the pool room. But he was definitely a curmudgeon not a codger.

  • Reply
    Bob & Inez Jones
    July 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks Tipper and Jim- Very enjoyable reading.A great fish story and a vivid look at the past. I am mostly a fish eater but grew up in a home with a Dad who was an avid fisherman. Many good meals where eaten when trout rolled in cornmeal and fried in homemade butter was at the top of the menu. Enjoying all writings this week.Inez Jones

  • Reply
    Ken
    July 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Tipper,
    Thanks for letting Jim share one
    of his childhood stories. I enjoy
    reading about anything he writes
    about, especially when it comes to
    fishing. I’ve had some real characters in my growing up days
    too. Some were kin to me and most
    either sold, drove, or made that
    ole hardstuff that was illegal.
    Those same folks proved to be
    real fishermen…Ken

  • Reply
    Wanda
    July 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Great story!! I’ve heard Mama call many a local hooligan a “rounder”. Wonder what the background of the word is?

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    July 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Wonderful story Jim, thanks for sharing.
    My dad ran a Pure Oil service station for several years in Ellijay GA. It was a wonderful place for a young boy to hang out. There was an old church pew under the awning that many of the old codgers would congregate on to have a bottle of Coke or Dope as it was called by many and a pack of crackers. I heard many things from that bunch, some good and some bad. If they got too rough in their language dad would have to call them down and tell them there were kids around. There was a lot of political talk, lies and even more B.S. than one could digest. One of them was an old house painter and a alcoholic. He was a nice fellow but when he fell off the wagon dad would have to hide the aftershave he sold because the guy would try to buy a bottle for the alcohol in it. He finally got so bad that dad told him not to come back. Does anyone remember punch boards? We usually had one there and would sell a punch for a quarter and after it was all punched out someone would win the prize such as a knife or wrist watch. I won a watch once and still have it. Sometimes me and my buddy would sneak down to the square and go to the pool room. It was not a place for boys to be but they had the best chili dogs around. There were some real characters who hung out there and some rounders too! We would get into trouble every time because someone would tell on us for being there. I had the best of both worlds, in the woods at home or hanging out at the station in town. The memories are many and priceless!

  • Reply
    Tom
    July 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Always enjoy reading anything written by the Casada brothers!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    I tried to think of people I grew up with and around who I would consider “characters.” Being from the metropolis of Needmore limited the number of individuals to consider. Each had their own idiosyncrasies. That is how I knew them and how I remember them. By nicknames, physical characteristics or speech patterns, etc. It would be much easier for me to identify folks who were not characters if I could remember any. I never was around any mundane, cookie cutter, same mold folks. It is still that way. I remember the “characters” and forget the rest.

  • Reply
    JOHNIE T. ARANT
    July 26, 2012 at 10:26 am

    TELL ME WHO THE WOMAN WAS
    IF YOU KNOW.
    p.s. i enjoy reading your
    letters.

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    July 26, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Al reminded me of an old fellow I used to coon hunt and later deer hunt with in my younger days. He was a farmer but spent probably more time hunting and fishing than tending to crops and livestock. A lifelong bachelor, his house was cluttered with stacked newpapers and old “Full Cry” coon hunting magazines. You had to work your way around the piles of them. He had only one setting of dishes and silverware, which more or less made him wash them up after every use. His hounds were his family. Only wish I could be half the outdoorsman he was.

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    July 26, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Isn’t it interesting how unknown history gives us a different idea of what a person presents. I’m glad that you didn’t know his past until you were much older; that way when you learned of his past you were able to make a mature decision. Thanks for sharing the story. I am sure he was a very lonely man, wanting some companionship, but didn’t know how to nuture it.

  • Reply
    Charles Fletcher
    July 26, 2012 at 9:27 am

    In the article I wrote yesterday about FISH I mentioned how good the Carp fish tasted.
    I am 90 years old and during the GOOD OLD DAYS we were so hungry that anything to eat tasted good. Even the board that the Carp was cooked on. We caught the Carp on dough balls in the Methodist Church Assembly at Lake Junaluska
    Charles Fletcher

  • Reply
    Shirla
    July 26, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Jim, I loved your story about Al. It’s sad to think how one’s life can change when they love someone enough to kill for. Unfortunately, I didn’t know anyone like Al to share their fishing knowledge with me when I was growing up. I caught the fishing fever somewhere along the way and envy folks like Al who can spend their days and nights on the river bank. For many years, my vacations have been to fishing resorts throughout the US. I am fascinated with fly fishing, but have never tried it.

  • Reply
    Uncle Al
    July 26, 2012 at 9:19 am

    A real good story that brings back memories for many a young’un, me included. We had old “Peg Leg Pete”. At fist we were all scared to death of him and at the site of him easing up the dirt road from the saw-mill towards our fishin holes we abruptly decided fishing wasn’t important anymore. Then we learned he was really good person. Funny how first impressions ( a wooden peg leg) can make you have a wild imagination.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    July 26, 2012 at 8:28 am

    I truly enjoyed your article. What a character Al was. More than a few around the town I grew up in too, brings back memories.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    July 26, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Ed–As Don suggests, some of the personal history connected with old Al is perhaps best not exposed to public view. However, I do know all the circumstances of the shooting. In fact, Don and my father was one of the first folks on the scene (Dad was a teenager at the time). E-mail me ([email protected]) and I’ll share all the details I know. In turn, you’ve already enlightened me, because I didn’t know about the two sons, and I don’t know that Don did either. I’m pretty sure they were gone by the time my memories kick in (around 1950). At the time Al was still living in the house Don describes, although it was quite run down. There were several others living there too–most of them distant relatives, I think. One was a classmate of mine, Landon Crisp, who still lives in Bryon City. I believe others were named Fisher.
    I’ll do a bit more research on them, and Don may know something more. He’s far more “up” on genealogical matters on the local level than I am, thanks to having done a lot of reseach on ancestry.com and in local records.
    One other thing I’ll include which should probably have been in the article. One of the more witty among the regulars at Loafer’s Glory once referred to Al’s wearing of the same clothes for months at a time in this way: “He’s been in that union suit (long johns) for so long without a bath that his body hair has done growed through it and now he couldn’t get out of his underwear even if he wanted to.”
    Jim Casada
    http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    July 26, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Tipper,
    and Jim…What a wonderful story.
    Two things especially caught my eye as I read the story. “Rounder”, I can still hear my Mother say, “Stay away from that bunch, I hear there’s a “rounder” living there..Also, the word “hellion”, I haven’t heard that one in a long time either…We certainly have a few hellions operating in the world to day..
    The way of cane pole fishing, I just wasn’t expecting. I have never heard of such a thing. The man surely had more patience than I would have. My heart and body would all skip beats, when the bobber or cane dipped down into the water. When watching more than one pole, it can be very exciting, yep even for a girl..
    I used to hate getting two bites while I was trying to secure another rod…LOL All baited again, all gets still, until another hit as you grab the pole, reeling in a fish, and having to watch the others to make sure you don’t miss or lose a rod in the river…
    They say that a great writer, writes what he loves and his own experiences…Jim I do believe you’ve got it…
    Thanks Tipper, and Jim

  • Reply
    Benny Watt Terry
    July 26, 2012 at 8:01 am

    After reading about Al I started thinking of my childhood. I lived in a small town, not on a farm. One of my favorite thoughts is going to the cattle barn with my PaPa (grandfather) on Wednesdays. I was about 7 or 8 and all the livestock was bigger than life to me, so I stayed close to PaPa. He loved to whittle and had a very dry sense of humor; I guess being a butcher had something to do with that. One Wednesday we were sitting outside the arena and PaPa was whittlin’ away when a man came by and wondered what he was making, PaPa said “nothin'” and kept whittlin’. Then the man asked if PaPa’s dog bit and he said no; the man reached down to pet the dog by PaPa’s feet and got bit. “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite” he said; PaPa said “he don’t, that’s not my dog”. This could be some old story that has been passed around, but I will never forget my PaPa’s words that day.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    July 26, 2012 at 7:39 am

    what a great story and a compelling character — one who would attract a young boy like a magnet!

  • Reply
    Bill Dotson
    July 26, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Sure enjoyed Jim’ writings, though I didn’t meet anyone like this guy but would liked to have. We did quite a bit of fishing but not to the extent of Jim, all we had was a small creek and and a small farm pond, Thanks Tipper and Jim.

  • Reply
    Ed Myers
    July 26, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Without the dirt, Old Al could have been my grandfather, who regularly fished a nearby stream from his shack/home, not far from Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN.
    Alas, the stream is now a toxic hazard p owing to questionable medical waste disposal by Baptist Hospital there, but in my youth, well before the stream was used for such, I saw and consumed many a cat and turtle fry from local fare he regularly pulled from this very little muddy.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    July 26, 2012 at 6:52 am

    One other comment regarding the home of the Dorseys on Everett Street which may be of interest to those familiar with Bryson City:
    In the 1930 census, the Dorsey home was valued at $10,500. To give a relative sense, the values of a couple of nice places which are still standing and located within a couple hundred yards of there were:
    Stanley and Marianna Black home: $9,000
    Mr. and Mrs. Black were pillars of the community – perhaps the most influential couple in the 20th century of Swain County.
    Calhoun hotel: $7,000
    This is not the one on Everett Street purchased by Granville Calhoun around fifteen years later (after leaving his Hazel Creek home). It was the large, two story structure run by Nora Lee Calhoun on Bryson Avenue. I believe it’s called Calhoun Inn and Suites today.
    As an aside, I got paid $3 to mow the Calhoun’s yard and $1.25 to mow the Black’s yard – both at the rate of $1/hr.
    (Apologies for the non-fishing tangents!!!)

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    July 26, 2012 at 6:29 am

    Al didn’t spend as many years in prison as Jim might have thought. The murder for which he was convicted took place in September of 1925. I don’t know the dates of incarceration, but by the time the 1930 census takers came around, Al was living with his parents and two sons on Everett Street.
    Details are best avoided here, but there were mitigating circumstances in the killing. Those, no doubt, had more than a little to do with the relatively short term he served as well as the life subsequently lived.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 26, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Jim- I enjoyed reading this article as I have many others you have written about him in the archives of the Smoky Mountain Times. On his WW1 draft registration he wrote his name with an h on Alva.
    Alvah Dorsey was the brother in law of my 1st cousin 2X removed. He had a wife Minnie and sons Wilson O and Verlin E Dorsey. In 1930 he was divorced and living with his parents and his sons. Do you know what became of his wife and children?
    Can you imagine how different Bryson City and your own history could have turned out had he not gotten in an altercation over a woman?
    Do you know who the woman was and what ever happened to her?

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