When I was a boy of about ten, running barefooted through the red clay piney wood hills of Northwestern Louisiana, I did a lot of adventuring in the little seasonal creeks that crisscrossed the woodland my friends and I called our own.
Early one thick-misted summer morning, I gathered up my necessaries: a couple of tiny perch hooks, four or so feet of cord borrowed from Mamma’s ball, a short pole from the hickory tree, and a can of about a dozen worms that I’d dug the evening before. I stuck my old rusty Barlow knife in my raggedy summer jeans and took off for parts unknown, past my territorial line, three or four miles distant, a la Huck Finn, to catch me some fish.
Now the little stream I started following by rights could not even qualify as a stream. An overgrown rivulet with high hopes might describe it better. However, I knew that sometime, somewhere along its trip, it would widen and deepen as they all did and that’s where I expected to get a fish or three. Mostly what we tow-headed boys caught were tiny sun perch, only an inch long and three quarters of an inch wide-absolutely gorgeous little miniatures, but a trifle difficult to catch enough of to eat, even if you could ever figure out how to clean one.
A boy of ten though, knows no bounds on his hopes, his wishes, his dreams. I knew I would catch fish that day, good fish, fish a fellow could clean and take home to Momma proudly, to add to supper. Little boys know anything is possible. Having left home at about seven, by eight thirty I was several miles into the woods-pine, oak and hickory, tracking my little watercourse. It had widened and deepened gradually and appeared to have some prospect of becoming a respectable, must-be-jumped stream, wanting to be a creek.
It was velvet luscious dark and cool shade now, deep in the trees, and the pine needles were a thick mat under my tough dirty feet as I crept Indian-style, crouched and looking from side to side furtively; my imagination had turned me into Daniel Boone, the character seemingly most suited to my location and actions.
The stream now ran under a huge old oak windfall and I clambered over its trunk and saw the prettiest little dropoff, just as it came from under the tree. It fell about a foot into a deliciously dark pool, a tannic darkness from years of oak bark staining the water. It was oval, about four-feet wide and six-feet long, caused by a debris dam of considerable age and solidity. The stream had found its way around the dam, but not before filling the hole left by the roots and base of another big oak windfall, which served as a basin for the little stream.
My excitement at this scene can be described only by saying it equaled the thrill of the bright red Schwinn bicycle I’d received the previous Christmas. My heart was thumping loudly, for I knew this was my fishing hole and maybe no one else on this earth had ever even seen it, much less fished it. Every real fisherman in the world will know exactly how I felt. Magnify that by ten-year old boyhood to get a general idea of my thrill discovery and anticipation.
Stealth became absolutely necessary. I sneaked slowly, silently around to the high side of the hole, which was banked in such a way that I could bait my hook and drop my line, without being seen, into the inky water. I’d guesstimated the hole was 3-1/2 to 5-feet deep so I set my little red and white bobber at about one-foot below the surface and my big white juicy milk worm began raising Cain, as who wouldn’t-in his position?
My bobber hadn’t been there thirty seconds when boom, down and away it went, stretching my line taut all the way! The fish was heading for his home, moving on out, and when he reached the end of my line he hooked himself! Hollering, jumping up and down, I was doing a little redneck two-step, but all I really knew was that I had a fish of some sort. I stood my pole up vertical so my line would come to me and was flabbergasted to see a huge beautiful perch (called a brim in the South) similar to a giant sun perch, come sailing out of the pool toward me. It surprised me so much that it went over my head. Then I quickly pounced on it in the needles.
Lord, it was pretty. It was beautifully iridescent, its rainbow color challenging the sky to match its beauty. It was about eight-inches long, five-inches wide and as fat as it could be. I guessed it weighed 3/4 of a pound, at least. It was really and truly like finding the world’s most beautiful pearl in a mussel shell.
I imagined that no one in this part of the country had ever seen such a fish from such a tiny stream. This was the king, the emperor, the world champion in its own world, the monster, the one that got away-only it didn’t. I’d caught it!
For awhile, I was so proud I knew I had to show it to everybody. But fortunately, in a few minutes the best part of me kicked in and saved the king, the world champ. This was too special, too unique a beauty for me to remove from its home and cause its death. My soul couldn’t handle that, even at ten, or maybe especially at ten. I revived the fish carefully, then slipped it back into its dark pool.
Lying in the luxury of thick pine straw and chocolate shade, I thought about what I had conquered that day: the woods, the water, the chase, the capture, the task, the resolution of the task, occurring when I eased the Emperor back into his element, my tiny hook having barely made a wound, and finally, the totality of my adventure. I’ve carried that story all these years, the day was a gift to last a lifetime.
Was there a luckier, happier ten-year-old on planet Earth that day? Maybe. But I “kinda” doubt it.”