Down here the mining companies built the towns. Everyone owed their living to the minerals coming from the belly of the earth. Even if they didn’t swing a pick in the dark, they worked at one of the rooming houses, shops, or saloons that the miners needed. As things will, the shaft mining dried up. The bosses brought in giant electric shovels for strip mining and most of the miners, no longer needed, left to find work on farms or in factories. The big shovels tore wounds in the earth. to get to the coal, nickel and Galena hidden below. Those giant ruts stayed and eventually the sky filled them and they became lakes that would outlast the companies responsible for them. Around here they call them strip pits. Some of the pits were fed by streams and with the rains came the fish. They grew in abundant variety and every young man was expected to make his first catch in one of those pits. The giant shovels, abandoned, were left to rot where they stood; not unlike the miners that predated them.
When I was five my dad took me on my first real fishing trip. He would have gotten to it earlier, but he had spent most of my life on the road building a pipeline to move natural gas across the country. We took his little flat bottomed row boat out to County Pit 23 and shoved off into the water. He rowed while I looked around at the oak and elm trees that lined the banks. I was trying to spot a sassafras tree so we could dig up some root and make tea that night. My best memories of my dad up to then were of boiling the root, straining it then adding just enough sugar before we huddled together on the couch and watched whatever mindless thing the TV had to offer.
Dad found a good spot and handed me my rod. It was a trusty Zebco 33. His was fancier. We were after catfish and flatheads so we used chicken liver as bait. Chicken liver is great for catfish. When it hits the water the blood spreads and swirls and the smell moves out like a signal. Catfish are drawn like sharks from hundreds of yards away. Shad works well too, but you can never get the stink off your hands.
Dad popped the top on a can of Pabst and cast his line. Something hit almost immediately. He struggled a bit, then pulled in a small cat. It was too little, so he tossed it back.
“Grow some more, little man,” he said to the fish as he let it slither back into the murk.
Two hours of that and dad had hooked three good sized cats. All I had managed to catch was a baby drum, which I badly wanted to keep.
“No, son,” the old man said, “we’ll come back and catch him when he’s all grown up.”
I asked for help rebaiting my hook. Dad linked the liver over my hook then I cast into a shady spot near the bank and waited. Minutes passed. I kept watching the bank, wanting something to happen. Then my line went tight. Something big. I thought that I had the daddy of all catfish on the end of that line. The thing wanted to pull me into the water as badly as I wanted to pull it out.
Dad grabbed my arms and helped steady me while I fought. When the thing cleared the water I was terrified. The thing looked like a legless crocodile with fins. It was part monster, part dinosaur and part fish and I knew that it wanted me. Its dead eyes spoke of reptilian hunger and prehistoric rage. This was that creatures’ planet and he wanted it back.
I took hold of the rough thing and tried to work the hook out of its razor jaw. My fingers went too deep and I felt the fire as the sharp teeth sipped through my flesh. Blood seemed to be everywhere and dad moved so fast that the boat almost overbalanced. He tore the thing from my hands and cut the line with his pocket knife. The monster slithered back into the murky water with tangles of my skin still hanging from its teeth.
I watched the gar until it vanished into the mud and knew that I would never swim in that pit again.
Nathan Tyree is a writer from Kansas. He has been widely published in print and online. He edits http://www.trickwithaknife.com and drinks.