The Best That Life Can Offer, At A Price We Can All Afford
Someone once said that three things no man can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else–make love, poke the fire, and run a newspaper. I’m not sure about running a newspaper. My list would delete the newspaper part of the deal in favor of running a tight Camp Catfish with the likes of Toad Smith and Zacker in tow. Make that then, make love, poke the fire, and run a tight Camp Catfish with the likes of Toad Smith and Zacker in tow.

Lord knows Toad used to poke the fire. Lord knows too that Zacker used to pretend he hated it. “Quit with the fire already,” Zacker, ninety-something, one of the few remaining real old-school commercial catmen would cackle as he squinted at Toad. Through a mostly toothless smile he’d then immediately continue, “Hot diggittity dang, but you always was and still is a pain in the arse.”

All part of the ritual, Toad would always begin to reply, “Well now, listen you arthritic old bird . . .” At which point Zacker, timing it just so, would always interrupt, “Arthritis, shmitus. If I weren’t 10 years older I’d whup your no good big butt.” Toad then would also, timing it just so and just as predictably, threaten, “Yeah, I suppose maybe after I dump your skinny little carcass in the river.”

“Lard butt.”

“Prune lips.”

And more.

That was them. The two of them, though, loved each other every bit as much as I loved them, and we all loved Camp Catfish.

Camp Catfish. In a world full of gizmos and gadgets, high-ticket this and thats, and enough advertising smaltz to stunt one’s intellect, Camp Catfish remained a nifty get-away-from-it-all get-back-to-the-wilderness-on-the-nearest-river retreat. Forget which river. It was the one nearest us, just as it is the one nearest you. That’s whether you live in what’s left of small-town rural America or in big-city Cincinnati or Kansas City or even Ottawa, Ontario.

Kansas City for example. Wilderness retreat on a river? Kansas City? The home of fine barbecue and some of the best deep-fried catfish in the universe? Well yes. Park yourself on the Missouri or on the Kansas river minutes from downtown Kansas City, particularly after dark, and you’re absolutely alone although almost a million people surround you. That’s as good as the wilderness gets for lots of people on short notice, and it isn’t just too bad when you factor in enough channel cats to feed a portion of the neighborhood, plus a chance at flatheads and blues big enough to chew the leg off a rottweiler.

Costwise, Camp Catfish isn’t exactly a trip to Alaska. Cheap? Well, go figure. Ok, you gotta eat. But then how much do homegrown vegetables–green beans and peas and beets and carrots and new potatoes–cost? Add plenty of butter, of course, and cayenne pepper, which always brings out the best in fresh buttered veggies.

Oh, Toad was a fast one, but always fair. He’d trade a few catfish fillets or a deer roast from the freezer for the veggies and maybe a couple young farm chickens, birds with flesh that looked like flesh instead of those pasty-pale birds that pass for chickens on most meat counters these days. Those “free range” chickens, as folks in the big city call ‘em today, led the good life until their time was up with Toad.

“Fast chickens,” Toad called ‘em. But not fast enough. A few of the chickens, as I came to expect over the years, would have a 22 caliber bullet hole placed just so. “No time to be chasin’ chickens,” Toad would say. What he meant, of course, was that he’d slowed some over the years. “You double ding-dang betcha,” Zacker would have agreed, cackling like the old rooster he was. Add to this larder of fresh veggies and fast chickens a few of the small cats we’d catch from the river. Call ‘em fast cats if you want. But not fast enough.

Camp Catfish? Cheap? Well, go figure bait. Even the bait’s free if you have time to catch it. Or do as I did and, using a shiny crankbait or two, negotiate a deal with the kids who hang around down by the river park in every little town upriver and down. “Deal,” you say, climbing slowly from your pickup truck, dark glasses propped just so. “These crawlers (two dozen–hand them over) are free. Whatever you catch goes in here (hand over the 5-gallon buckets). You get these (flash the baits). I’m up at the coffee parlor drinking coffee and trying out a few blond jokes on Mary Lou. Be back in an hour.” An hour later, collecting the bait–small carp and sheepshead, plus bullheads, sunfish, suckers, chubs, and more–be sure to announce “Here’s a couple extra big ones–and the ice cream’s paid for and waiting up at the coffee parlor.”

Then, too, it’s pretty much anything that’ll float, if you want to float, to answer that question. We usually took Old Sorta Red, Toad’s craft, a 25-year-old 14-foot Lund with a Toad-built livewell and a Toad-built front deck. A tribute to Lunds everywhere, you could still tell it was a Lund, even though the telltale red paint had been eroded by dents and dings, each and every one a story-worthy badge of catfishing courage–telltale accounts of rocks and rapids and logs and boat loadings on backwoods sandbars.

Toad ran Old Sorta Red with a 10 hp sorta Johnson with no skeg and a prop ground to midget dimensions by river gravel and sand, while I directed traffic from the center. Sort off. I’d point to one snag or another indicating my presumption of a hot spot, or wave “pass on by, pass on by,” meaning kiss this spot goodbye. Toad would calmly nod and we’d stop and I’d slip in the anchor or we’d keep on truckin’ downriver. Zacker, on the other hand, quit listening to folks and started doing what he pleased somewhere back in the 1920s or thereabouts. He was, as they still say, contrary. Contrary. Zacker used to say that when you’re two steps ahead of everyone else you can’t always be looking back and listening to those you’re leading. I’ve always pretty much thought he was right about that. So there was no real directing Zacker, although sometimes he could be channeled in one direction or another with slight of mind. But that’s one hellava ‘nother story.

The deck was Zacker’s domain. Sitting on a boat cushion up front, sometimes he’d fish, often he’d snooze, sometimes come September he’d whack away with a 22 at squirrels in the trees along the bank as Toad and I fished. Even with a touch of cataracts, he was a crack shot. Whack! Whack! Whack! And then his old Remington would jam. “Ding dang new fangled ammo,” he’d cuss.

By then, though, given that three shots meant at least a squirrel, he’d always look at the two of us in the back of the boat, pause, letting the moment build, squint for a second or two, swirl his lips around once, twice to get the spit to the back of his mouth, and then cackle a squeaky, wheezing “Fetch boys!” And a “Hot diggity dang!”

Now if this was by perchance unlawful–shooting from the boat, that is–well, all I can offer in our defense is that (A) you didn’t argue with Zacker when he was armed, and (B) shooting furry rodents from a boat didn’t seem like anything too serious given some of the more serious parts of Zacker’s past, which were rarely worth bringing up. And if any of you think you might want to turn him in, well, pretty soon I’ll be glad to tell you where to look him up. No need these days to take with you a large contingency of the local constabulary.

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