Monday, February 27, 2017

The Loss of a Fishing Buddy


I recently received a brief note from a distant relative in northern Louisiana noting that my third cousin Elmer Ray Boljack had passed away while fishing. I was informed because as Aunt Emma said, “We was two jackasses both too stupid to come out of the rain.” He was the only relative I had in the south whose company I enjoyed, and while he had certain cracker tendencies, a bit foreign to my sensitivities, we both had a fond appreciation of fishing, hunting, and tossing down a couple of cold ones---and telling enhanced stories commonly referred to as BS.
While he was no spring chickadee, being taken out at fifty-four was way too early. The loss was taking everyone down there with alarm and disbelief. It didn’t help that it happened while he was noodling for catfish. It wasn’t like he fell out of the boat, shot himself while practicing his quick draw or had his ticker just quit. He actually died violently while in the water noodling.
For those who don’t know, noodling is a form of recreational fishing practiced by a handful of hardy individuals who have the audacity, and nerve not found in the average person. The fisherman uses his fingers as bait for the rather ferocious, and in some cases, giant catfish. One’s hand is inserted into the den of a hiding, and usually resting flathead. The fish, either out of hunger, or anger, latches on to the hand and won’t let go. The noodler, with the help of sidekicks, then pulls the fish out of hiding and flops it in the boat.
Elmer and I have caught a few but no big ones, nothing over 36 pounds. Admittedly, I didn’t much appreciate getting all scratched up and particularly didn’t take to getting fin spiked that one time. We’d sit around, suck a few beers, argue over global warming and farm fertilizer ending up in the water, which he thought was real good because it just made the fish get bigger. Hard to argue the point as it seemed to be true as hell, besides he said all my scientific training was fuzzy. Everybody was getting bigger cats, and more of them.
We’d eat some of them but to me it was like eating turnips. They were OK if you didn’t have anything else, and by making them blackened and sprinkled with PBR, they were fine.
After a phone call, I found the story worked out about like this. It was a normal day, sticky hot, and the noodlers were looking for a little water time. They chose to work an area where a number of larger cats were found to hang out in the logs and brush along the water’s edge. I have been in the same area and I remember being told, the big Flathead and maybe Blue cats, and we are talking up to one hundred pounds, were probably waiting for something to fall in the water, even though they generally feed on the garbage of the river, dead things.
Most of the serious hunters knew that a fish over 75lbs would take pretty good-sized animals swimming in the river---small dogs, cats, foxes, beavers, muskrats, anything that falls in dead or alive.
Elmer once said, “These here fish been getting’ bigger in the last twenty years ‘cause of fertilizer in the river and raising temperatures. Just more food. Noodlers love it. I ain’t never gonna bitch about it gettin’ warmer cause it makes ‘em  more ferocious and fat as a Missouri hog and that is the way we like ’em.” Interestingly, I now catch catfish on the Wisconsin River fly-fishing with a wooly bugger. They have become attack machines.

I asked at one time, maybe trying to see if there was a bad side to all this warming, which he generally waved off, “Elmer you suppose other things are moving in here, like maybe snakes”?
“Well, I ain’t seen none, but that sidewise-of-a-poacher up the river said he saw a Moccasin but we ain’t taken no stock of that. It’s still too cold and he’s dumber than a bucket of bolts”.
The way it’s told, Elmer Ray had found a hole along the bank that he could tell was extending back into the cut making a perfect place to hold a big cat. Like usual, he got in the eighteen inches of water, belly-first, and started feelin’, which is what you do.
“It is all about touch,” he would say. “gotta be slow and gentle at first. Eventually, you find the head and put your hand in front of the fish and it will latch on and won’t let go no matter what. Then your buddies, and I know they don’t look like much, will pull your ass outa there with the fish hanging on to your arm.”
On Tuesday, and it was a Tuesday, they were at this great spot with Elmer Ray, belly to the water and doing his reaching thing. This went on for a bit and it was clear Elmer Ray had made contact as he was twitching pretty good.
One of his buddies apparently said, “It was looking like he had a real serious piece of fish ‘cause of all the thrashing.” The two guys each grabbed a leg and began to pull, but damn, they couldn’t break him loose. They said they pulled so hard that one of them slipped off with a shoe and by the time he got back up amid all the mud and sticks, the other guy had let go from being over-powered. Try as hard as they could, and they were not softy city wimps, Elmer Ray just disappeared. There may have been a couple little ripples but they didn’t like what was going on.  
Totally beaten and terrified, they headed back for help. When they returned with eight guys, there was nothing to be found in the hole except some torn clothing. Elmer Ray’s favorite Toby Keith tee shirt, all shredded, showed up floating just outside the fallen logs. The spot was completely empty of anything.
By the time the sheriff’s people arrived, they were all speechless. Once back in town the deputy was heard to say, “I don’t know what them boys got into but it ain’t lookin’ real good. Something bad must be going down. ”
Somebody said a few days later, the paper out of Baton Rouge had a headline. University Graduate Students determine Caimans are Moving North due to Global Climate Change.

I wondered if they knew what caimans were?