One of our favorite Ozark activities was a good catfish fry. Once in a while Dad would get together with a couple of uncles or cousins and set out trotlines. They would fish overnight, then the next day we would have a fish fry right there on the bank of the river. The catfishing was usually good just about the time that field corn was ripening but was still soft and tender enough for good roasting ears to have with the catfish.
When a fish fry was in the works for the next day, we boys would be sent to a branch with a minnow seine and a small milk can in which to put the bait. While we did that, the adult men would go down to the river and get the trotline set out.
Seining minnows was a two-man operation. The minnow seine was a fine mesh net about thirty inches wide and six feet long strung between two poles we called “brails.” At a deep pook in the branch, we would shuck off our clothes and, one on each end, drag the seine across the pool holding the brails upright and keeping the bottom of the seine dragging on the creek bed.
At the far side of the pool on a gravel bar, we would bring the seine up with a scooping motion and carry it onto the gravel to sort the minnows from the small catfish and sunperch. Those we thre back so we could fish for them later with a hook and line. It was not fair to keep seined little catfish and perch and, anyway, we would have all the catfish we could eat the next day.
Someone would then come and get us in one of the old Model T fords and we would go bait the four or five trotlines that had been strung across fishing holes in the Little Sac River.
A trotline is long heavy twine or cord that could be strung from bank to bank and tied to tree roots. The hooks were on droplines about eighteen inches long tied at three or four foot intervals. Near each end of the trotline a big rock would be tied for weight to get the trotline down close to the bottom where the catfish would be feeding.
We boys would sometimes wade and set a trotline or two when we were fishing by ourselves and could not borrow a flat-bottomed boat, but the men liked to fish in deeper water so they always used a boat. The boats, which they usually made themselves, were shallow-draft flat-bottomed skiffs square on each end. They were usually propelled simply with a push pole since the river was never very deep.
There were other ways to fish for big catfish, some of which were not legal although we never worried about that since there was rarely a game warden around and we did not worry about getting fishing licenses like you have to do now.
One way was “noodling,” which is catching fish with your hands. Noodling was done in the spring when the female catfish went into holes in the bank to spawn, or sometimes you could corner a fish in a hollow log in the river. I once watched my father take an 18-pound catfish out of a submerged follow log using a baled hay hook.
|Twenty-five pound Ozark catfish|
Noodling was usually done along a clay cutbank along the river where the water was waist to shoulder deep along the bottom of the bank. The noodler waded along, feeling with hands and feet for a catfish hole. When he found a fish, the noodle simply reached in and got his fingers into the gills and mouth (a catfish does not have teeth).
Never liked noodling myself—I was always fearful that I would stick my hand or foot into a hole in the bank and find an old water moccasin in there! Water moccasin bit would make you mighty sick and the bite of a cottonmouth can kill a man in short order.
Another way to catch catfish—illegal even then, but they had to catch yuou at it first—was using fish traps. Dad never fooled with fish traps that I know of, but old Henry Asbell kept some set out most of the time. (Henry also made illegal homebrew, bottles o which he kept in a gunny sack in the cool spring on the bluff below his house. Know that for a fact because Gene Asbell and I used to swipe a bottle once in a while.)
To get back to a fish fry, I recall one that we went on one time with Henry and Maude Asbell and their two kids, Evelyn (Richard’s age) and Gene who was a year younger than me. Usually only the men and boys would camp out on the river bank to run the trotlines two or three times during the night; however, this time it was a warm clear summer’s night so both families camped on the riverbank.
Dad and Henry made a fire pit by proppy an old steel cultivator wheel on some rocks. The wheel was used as a grate on which to set the coffee pot and frying pans. (Actually, I liked it better when the men and boys camped without females in the spring when the lambs and hogs were being castrated. On those occasions our supper would be “mountain oysters.” They usually brought along some homebrew, too, and we were allowed to sip some to have with the fries although I never liked the taste of Henry’s homebrew much. I guess the ladies did not like the thought of eating testicles as we never had them at home. They sure were good, though, when they were split, dipped in batter, and fried golden brown—better than white meat of a chicken.)
On this particular fishing trip with the Asbells, we were camped on the riverbank under solme big sycamore trees right beside a cornfield. (Come to think about it, it was hard not to camp by a cornfield because so much of it was grown then. Nowadays, there are not so many cornfields. After WWII, Ozark farmers discovered fescue grass, plowed their cornfields under, and some of them got filthy rich raising beef cattle. Back then, however, no one was getting rich—we barely had “a pot to pee in and a window to throw it out of” as the saying went. Brother Richard used to say even the snakes were so poor that they didn’t have a pit to hiss in much less a window.)
I do not recall what we might have had for supper that night (the catfish would come the next day) but we never went hungry. We children did get hungry during the night, however. It was hard to sleep on a quilt pallet on the ground, too, so in the middle of the night we got up quietly, built up the fire a little, and put on a pot of water. Evelyn picked and shucked some tender ears of corn out of the field. When one of the adults woke they found Richard, Evelyn, Gene, and me sitting around the fire stuffing ourselves with corn on the cob.
To this day I think there is nothing much better than a big Missouri channel catfish filleted, dipped in batter, rolled in yellow cornmeal (white will not do but don’t ask me why), and fried golden brown over an open fire. We called the fillets “kitty cat pieces” because they did not have bones for a cat to choke on. Personally, I liked the center piece where you could strip the mean off the backbone with your teeth but it was all delicious—a far cry from pond raised fish and the little catfish they skin and cook whole.