Old Fish, by Nathan Tyree

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​.trick​with​aknife​.com and drinks.

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