Today’s guest post was written by J. Wayne Fears.
Not all the characters that frequented the remote mountain community of Tater Knob lived there. There was Catfish Gibson who had the reputation of being one of the best fishermen in the county. A cousin of Snake Baker, Catfish lived on the banks of the Tennessee River down in the lower part of the county. Catfish, like Snake, had an aversion to bathing on a regular basis and, according to Chipmunk’s dad, lived in an old shack that was made mostly of tin that had been blown off barn roofs from a tornado some years back.
Catfish, a 31 year old bachelor, came by his nickname honestly. He had big eyes that were more on the side of his head than in the front. (Jenny declared that the whites of his eyes were more yellow than white, and it was true.) His sun baked leathery skin was a dark brown-green color like a big yellow catfish. His head was mostly bald, but where there was hair over his ears, it was long, jet black and greasy looking. He sported what he called a mustache that consisted of a few long stiff black hairs growing under his nose that stuck out to each side of his face just like the whiskers on a big catfish. In low light conditions Catfish looked a lot like a catfish, thus his name.
Catfish was a true river rat and a full time fisherman. During the summers, he worked occasionally as a mussel fisherman on the Tennessee River. More often than not he had trotlines stretched across any little creek mouth that emptied into the river near his house. He sold fresh catfish to several restaurants in town and was known for getting into other trotliner’s live boxes and stealing fish. When the garfish were on the surface in hot weather, Catfish would be after them with his bow and fish arrows. When the red horse ran up Flint River to spawn, Catfish would be on a shallow gravel bar with a snatch-hook rig. During the dog-days of summer, Catfish would spend days catching catfish by diving into the deep holes in the Flint River and using his hands to bring up the big fish. It was called “grabbling” in those days and catfish was the hero of every would-be grabbler in the valley. Chipmunk, Jenny, Punky and I considered ourselves grabblers and often spent days at a hole in the river with Catfish studying his technique.
One hot summer day Catfish suddenly showed up at the old grist mill at the river unexpectedly and told Snake that he needed to stay with him for an unspecified length of time. It seemed that Catfish had gotten into the wrong trotliner’s live box on the Tennessee River and a few shots were fired at Catfish as he fled. He knew it would be some time before he could safely return to the big river and his shack.
We welcomed our mentor’s unexpected time to spend with us on the river and we used it well, perfecting our grabbling techniques, setting set hooks along the river and building a flat-bottomed boat from plywood that Catfish came up with from some unknown source.
One September weekend Punky invited Catfish to attend church at the valley Primitive Baptist church with his family. Punky thought it would help his own standing in the Tater Knob community if he were seen in public with such a famous fisherman. Well Catfish got religion, some said it was the recent shooting that motivated him, and within a few weeks word spread throughout the valley that Catfish was going to be baptized on Sunday at the Rat Tan Hole in the Flint River. No one ever thought that Catfish’s soul would ever be saved and so the baptism drew a big crowd.
Sunday afternoon after church, and dinner on the ground, the crowd drove down the dusty field road to the Rat Tan Hole. Chipmunk, Jenny, Punky and I wanted a front row seat to see Catfish being saved so we climbed out on a huge tree limb that hung out over the river. The baptism would take place right in front of us.
The Reverend Daniel, in his white robe waded out into the river and we could see that he was having trouble standing in the near waist deep swift water. He turned and in a booming voice invited Catfish, in his white robe, to join him. Catfish had a big grin on his face and waved to us as he joined the Reverend in the water.
After some praying, the Reverend put one hand in the small of Catfish’s back and the other on his chest and pushed him in backwards under the water. The Reverend stumbled and we could see instantly that something wasn’t right. The Reverend almost fell, face first, into the swift water. Regaining his footing, he turned to the crowd, wide-eyed, and held up his hands with no Catfish.
The crowd gave a loud gasp; someone said something about the devil claiming one of his own. Men came running down to the river’s edge. Someone shouted, “Get a boat.”
Then some 20 yards downstream, popping up from the rivers surface, was Catfish with a big green-tooth grin on his face. He pulled his hands up out of the water holding a big catfish by the mouth. A cheer arose from the crowd.
We clapped from our watery perch. Our fishing mentor had scored big.
I hope you enjoyed J.Wayne’s post as much as I did! Makes me wish I could have been at tbat baptizing.
The biggest catfish I ever saw was in the back of an old orange Monte Carlo car. I was still a teenager running around town. We stopped at Hardees and on the way in this man had a crowd around the trunk of his car looking at the fish. It took up the entire trunk and in those days car trunks were pretty good sized. He was literally shaking as he told about catching the big fish in Hiwassee Lake.