Black Gap – Raccoon prints busied the wet sand where a trail through the giant cane terminated at the Rio Grande. Pale green water meandered by. On the Mexican side a bluff of rusty sandstone rose high and leveled out with shoots of ocotillo and desert candles crafting dark stick images against a fading blue sky. Fish Camp No.7 is a spot among many in the 100,000 acre Black Gap Wildlife Management Area adjacent to the Big Bend National Park.
Surrounded by over a million acres of protected wild lands on both sides of the river, including the Sierra del Carmen in Coahuila, I swabbed the No.4 treble hook with Charlie Blood’s stink bait. The cast plopped the bottom rig at the edge of a bubbling midstream eddy. I reeled the slack out of the line and leaned the rod in the fork of wood stuck in the bank. The wind blew upriver, curling the surface while the long shadows of the giant cane darkened the shallows.
Going fishing might be the best thing in the world. Think about it: going fishing is a break from the mundane, an adventure, a mission, a way to get you out of the house, a space to re-think nature, re-think life. Who cares if you forgot everything except your fishing pole and a sleeping bag? Cognitive science now suggests that most people think about the same cluster of thoughts 90 per cent of the time. With gnats, mosquitoes, snakes, spiders, coyotes (both canine and human) and a fishing line in the river, who’s got time to default to money, Monday or mercury poisoning?
The moon is on the rise now, the sunset purples the sky and the rod tip jerks.
Catfish for the most part are nocturnal preferring the night to feed on other fish, like the Rio Grande Perch, or minnows, frogs, mussels, insects and they will not hesitate to suck down the melting flesh of anything dead. Because Catfish have no scales, they are sun sensitive and can easily sun burn, preferring dark and deep water. Barbels, the cat-like whiskers near the mouth are chemo-sensory organs that allow the catfish to taste its environment, hunting skills perfected over the eons that have granted the catfish a geographic range of six continents.
I reach the rod, sliding in the mud just before it goes into the river and pull back, setting the treble hook as the goliath on the other end dives then charges laterally, drawing line out of a light set drag. The translucent monofilament cuts across the current of the river as I finger the drag tighter.
The line goes slack.
A man at the edge of a river, scratching his head not quite ready to appreciate the slack silence, the truncation of purpose and the calming bubbles of running water. Lean in the moment, discover yourself raw, unfettered by goals. A perfect time for a primal scream – the best thing in the world, but quickly this odd sense of seminal humanness is repurposed: splash, the big head of the catfish breaks water again, the silver-blue body rolls, the dorsal fin a mute red in the dying light, as its tail spanks the atmosphere good-bye, diving, running toward the deep.
The line snaps.
It’s sardines for dinner and I hit the hay early with strange scrambled thoughts already in dreamland encouraged by the tune of a thousand crickets and a few bull frogs.
At first light I build a fire, set a can of Charro Beans in it and then bait my hook and cast into the greasy waters of the Rio Grande.
I pull in a four pound channel cat. Follow it with a two pound yellow. The small explosion at the fire lets me know breakfast is ready. I’ll use the can later to boil water for coffee, but for the moment the fishing is hot and who needs caffeine?
The sun arcs higher and they stop biting. A bubble of thought on unpaid taxes slinks down the dark runway in my brain. I skip a rock across the river and it’s gone.
Over the next two days I dressed 477 pounds of catfish (not really) but I do cut tissue samples and send to my friend Dr Matt Chumchal, a TCU biologist who will test the flesh for mercury.
Back home after the doc has cleared the flesh, my wife Lori and I sit down with our kids and eat fried catfish.
The kids think it’s the best thing in the world.