The Phantom Cat
"That monster has snapped two of my best rods." That was the first time I had heard anything about the big catfish. Red Watts was complaining about his bad luck to the local "spit and whittle club" at Bill Summers' store on top of Federal Hill. I was 8 or 9 years old and accompanied Dad or Grandpa Guy up to the store often. Here the area outdoorsmen met to compare stories. There was more fur, feathers and scales on that floor than you can imagine. And imagine is exactly what we mostly did there.
I was lucky enough to have spent my childhood days growing up in a small town in southeast Missouri. Flat River was far enough from St. Louis to be tranquil, but close enough to be handy. I had lots of relatives still on the farm, and my life was close to perfect for a young boy.
But this catfish story of Red's had my undivided attention. A monster around there? My ears became as big as saucers.
"It was about three years ago," he started. "I had three rods out. Two with minnows and one with chicken liver, for catfish. I'd caught a few small crappie, nothin' much, when my catfish rod all but jumped in the water." Then he added, "I set the hook hard and he headed upstream toward the gravel plant.
"He stripped every inch of line and then broke the rod off at my hand," Red whined.
"He tore my limb-line plumb off the tree," another voice joined the conversation. It was a familiar voice. I turned around to see Grandpa's face twist with anger as he told how the big fish embarrassed him.
"He stripped all of my line, too, Red," Grandpa said. "All the way down to the spool. Then snap, it broke the line right at the reel. I was mad, but at least I didn't lose my rod. I went back the next evening to try again," Grandpa said. "This time I'd be ready for that big fella." I sat there mesmerized by his story.
"I took a full spool of heavy line. Not that new monofilament stuff either - good, heavy braided nylon line." Grandpa's voice was slow and solemn now. He was serious not only about the fish, but about his story as well. He had the full and undivided attention of everyone in the store, including Boots Mouser, who had come in 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."