The Phantom Cat
for some cough syrup.
"I put out four limb-lines on stiff willows," Grandpa said. "I used the biggest hooks I could find. I had chicken livers on two of 'em and big bluegill on the other two. I had a thermos of black coffee and a bacon sandwich and planned to fish all night."
I wondered why he hadn't brought a cooler of soda, a couple of bologna sandwiches and some chips, but Grandpa explained, "I didn't want to have anything to tote out but that big flatheaded monster."
"It was about dark," he said. "I had just freshened the livers when the far line, one with a bluegill on it, started to shake like a wet dog in December. I moved to grab it, but before I could get there he bent it over and pulled the line off the full length of that little tree. It stripped off leaves, limbs and bark like running it through a sawmill." Grandpa sat down hard and took a deep slow breath.
Others told stories of big fish and big get-aways. A few even spoke of encounters with this same fish. The monster lived in a section of Big River between Mounts Gravel Plant and Highly Ford. This I-mile long stretch of the river was slow and deep.
Someone said, "Clyde Staples won't even let his young'uns swim in that hole." It seemed that not one soul had actually ever seen the big fish. We all assumed it was a catfish, but nobody knew for sure. Regardless of what else it was, it was a legend.
Later that same summer Grandpa's pickup stopped with a screech in front of my house. "Mike," he yelled from the truck window. "Mike, come out here, quick." I had been building something in the backyard. I don't remember what it was, but I'm sure it must have been important.
"Come get in fast," he huffed. "Somebody caught the big catfish out of Big River. They're all up at the store now. Let's go."
I hopped in the truck, and we were off to see the monster. "How big you think he'll be?" I asked. "Don't know son, but I bet his eyes are as far apart as a hammer handle," he replied. The crowd was already large when we arrived.
We approached to see a huge catfish on the tailgate of a truck. "Flathead." Grandpa said. "Knew it was a flathead." Everyone was buzzing. A couple of fellows were helping Bill Summers weigh the fish. No fish scales were big enough, so they were going to weigh it on the deer scales.
They hoisted the giant onto the hook. The needle on the scale danced and then slowly settled like a flag relaxing after a stiff wind. "Forty-one pounds even," someone shouted. "Oohs" and "aahs" filled the air.
I never really could figure out, in the excitement, who caught the fish. Everyone was congratulating everyone. Somebody even slapped me on the back.
Suddenly the crowd gasped, as if they all drew their last breath together. As the fish hung on the hook of the scale it made a slow half turn. On its underside, toward the tail, was a huge, seeping bite-mark. The people began to whisper. "What could've done that?" someone questioned. More silence.
"It's not him," roared the familiar voice of Red Watts. "It's not him for sure. This one's not big enough. This one just swam into the wrong hole at the wrong time. The one that made that mark on him is the one I want," Red said.
"Is he right, Grandpa?" I asked. "I'm not sure, son," Grandpa said. "But you're not swimming in that hole anymore, either."