Why We Catfish: A Guest Editorial by Corey Jenkins
Mom’s father, Dude, or PawPaw, as I always called him, had a way with names. The names he came up with were usually based upon a trait, fact, or characteristic that was typically obvious. I am confident PawPaw was never accused of being creative in the naming department.
PawPaw had names for just about everything. However, I only remember one catfish that he deemed worthy of a name.
PawPaw had a small catfish pond on the back of his farm. After a long day of work in the summer, we would often ride out to the pond to feed the catfish and, if I was lucky, throw his old Zebco rod and reel in hopes of catching enough catfish for dinner, or a “mess of catfish” as PawPaw would always say.
PawPaw loved his catfish and made sure they were well fed. I believe PawPaw’s catfish ate better than he and his family had eaten during the Great Depression.
When we threw feed in the pond, the catfish would always come to the top, and he would point out the ones that he recognized. We always looked for one specific catfish that had a scar down the left side of her head that he had named “Scarhead.”
I never understood PawPaw’s fascination with Scarhead, but I always shared it. I loved looking for Scarhead and seeing PawPaw’s excitement when she made an appearance. A few years before he died, PawPaw purchased another small farm that was a half mile or so up the gravel road from his old farm house. The farm was perfect for cattle and hay, but it was missing a catfish pond. PawPaw didn’t need much encouragement before he decided to build a pond on the new farm.
PawPaw brought in large equipment to build his perfect catfish pond, which he wanted to be twelve to fifteen feet deep beside the dam with a slow transition to the shallow creek and standing timber. After the pond was dug and before it had water, I spent many days in the hot July sun with PawPaw picking up every single rock from the bottom of the giant hole to make sure that our hooks didn’t get hung.
To make the work easier, I would often sit down in an area within reach of several rocks and throw them out while sitting. One afternoon as I sat at the bottom of the pond throwing out rocks, PawPaw looked at me and joked, “You are the only man I’ve ever known that could work on his ass!” We had a good laugh over the comment but immediately went back to work.
PawPaw left me with the rocks and went to take Red Tractor (as eloquently named by PawPaw) to check something at his barn. An hour or so later, as dusk was approaching, I heard his tractor just over the hill. As I sat at the bottom of the large hole that would later become a pond, I looked at the top of the pond bank as PawPaw drove by. PawPaw and his tractor were little more than shadows in front of the vivid orange and indigo sky. The view took my breath away, and tears unexpectedly came to my eyes as I sat there and relished the moment. I can still see PawPaw riding Red Tractor on the edge of pond bank that afternoon. It still takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes.
After a summer of rock removal, PawPaw decided that his perfect catfish pond was ready for water and catfish. The pond was not completely filled with water until that fall. After it was full, PawPaw stocked the new pond with fingerling catfish. PawPaw also wanted to move a few of the catfish from his other pond. He said he was speeding up the stocking process, but it really seemed that he only cared about catching and moving one catfish, Scarhead.
We fished several days that fall to stock the new pond. We would put whatever catfish we caught in an old black tub in the back of his Ford truck and take them to the new pond. Each time we released the fish in the new pond, he would say that we needed a few more. I will never forget the look in PawPaw’s eyes and the grin on his face when he finally caught Scarhead, lifted her proudly at the edge of the pond, and exclaimed, “Look at what I caught,” then gently put her into the black tub. After transferring her into the new pond, he said that we had enough fish and declared that the pond was finished. I was eager to fish in the new pond the next spring with PawPaw.
PawPaw was always an ageless superhero, working from daylight to dusk every day and never seeming to tire. For the first time the next spring, PawPaw seemed old and fragile.
PawPaw called me on a Thursday afternoon in spring and asked if I could help him till his garden the upcoming weekend. I always loved spending time with PawPaw and eagerly agreed to help.
I drove to PawPaw’s house first thing the following Saturday morning to spend time with him and help him with his garden. After working for less than an hour, PawPaw asked if we could take a break and talk. PawPaw’s idea of a break generally consisted of taking a quick drink while walking briskly to do something else, and only then after finishing what you were working on. I didn’t know what to think about him wanting to stop before we finished his garden, but I was excited to spend time with him, just the two of us.
For the next several hours, he and I sat at his oak kitchen table and talked about many things we had never discussed: his childhood, the war, the untimely death of his infant son, and how proud he was of me. When PawPaw hugged me that afternoon, he held on longer than usual. For the first time, I worried about PawPaw.
PawPaw was sick throughout most of the spring and summer. He would occasionally have a day where he felt well, but those days were rare and were generally followed by several consecutive bad days.
I was sitting in class in October when one of my favorite teachers, Ms. Smith, pulled me out of class to tell me that Dude was sick and had been taken and admitted to the hospital. I immediately walked out of school without checking out and drove to the hospital.
When I arrived at the hospital, I ran to the front desk to ask for PawPaw’s room number and hurried to the elevator. When I stepped off the elevator on PawPaw’s floor and turned the corner, I saw PawPaw in a wheelchair being pushed by a nurse. I walked over to him and asked, “How are you PawPaw?” Prior to that day, every time I had asked PawPaw how he was doing, he always responded, “I believe I’m gonna make it.” This time, as he struggled to lean forward to hug me, he said, “I don’t believe I’m gonna make it this time.”
I felt like someone had hit me in the gut. I shook my head and told PawPaw not to be silly and that I would see him back in the room after the tests were finished. For the first time, I knew that my days with PawPaw were numbered. I kept a straight face until the elevator doors closed behind PawPaw. As soon as he was out of sight, I leaned back on the wall beside the elevator, slid to the cold floor, and cried as I sat in the hallway.
I stayed with PawPaw at the hospital every day he was there. Over the weekend, PawPaw took a turn for the worse and quickly declined. The doctors told us there was nothing more that could be done and that we should say our goodbyes. PawPaw had been non-responsive for some time when I finally gathered the strength and courage to go and tell him “Thank you” and “goodbye.”
I was sitting on the right side of his bed and holding his hand with my head on the side of his bed crying and praying when I felt a slight squeeze. Convinced I was imagining things, I looked up at PawPaw and saw that his eyes were open. He gently squeezed my hand, shook his head, whispered “Don’t cry,” pointed up to heaven, mouthed “I love you,” and closed his eyes.
PawPaw passed away the following afternoon, on October 23. At the time, I was a sixteen-year-old kid who thought I knew everything. As I watched PawPaw take his last breath, I realized how little I knew, how much I had learned from PawPaw, and how much I was going to miss him.
That night, as I sat in the bed struggling with the loss of PawPaw, Casper, my dog and childhood companion, sat on the porch outside of the window howling and crying. As soon as I stepped on the porch to check on him, Casper, an eleven-year-old lab with bad hips, walked to me as fast as he could to lie beside me. I’m not sure which of us held the other, but I cannot imagine that night without Casper.
The next morning, I spent time alone with pen and paper to write about PawPaw. That paper turned into the eulogy that I read at his funeral. I haven’t written about PawPaw again until now.
I awoke with a heavy heart a few days after PawPaw’s funeral, on my birthday. PawPaw had always made a point to see me on my birthday and give me a hug. That morning, all I wanted was to see and hug PawPaw. Feeling lost and not knowing what else to do, I decided to spend the day alone at PawPaw’s farm and hopefully feel close to him.
While driving toward PawPaw’s farm, lost in thought and emotion, I had an overwhelming urge to take a detour down the county road to the cemetery. As I stood by the freshly dug grave praying and talking to PawPaw, I gazed at the sun, which had just peaked through the clouds, and closed my eyes to feel the warmth on my face. When I opened my eyes, I was mesmerized by a doe standing on the other side of the road looking at me. As I stood there watching the majestic animal, I was blinded by my tears. I looked down to wipe away the tears. When I looked up, I saw a white tail when the doe ran toward the woods. As the doe disappeared in the trees, I felt somewhat at peace for the first time in several days.
I have visited the graves of PawPaw and Granny at the same spot many times since that day. I have never seen another deer.
As soon as the doe disappeared into the woods, I left the cemetery to drive to PawPaw’s farm. When I pulled in the gravel drive, I decided to go the new pond, our pond. I filled a five-gallon bucket with catfish feed and took off up the gravel road. I hoped to catch a mess of fish for my birthday dinner and maybe see Scarhead one last time.
I was shocked and disappointed when I did not see a single catfish after dumping the first cup of feed in the pond. I hoped that the fish were just deeper or not hungry yet, and made a cast to one of the holes that PawPaw and I had dug out the previous year.
The chicken liver at the end of the line sat on the bottom all morning without a bite. I eventually threw the entire five-gallon bucket of feed into the pond, all without seeing Scarhead or any other catfish. I had a good laugh thinking about what PawPaw would have said to me for wasting an entire bucket of feed when the catfish weren’t hungry.
I was about to pack up and leave when I saw the line twitch for the first time that day. I grabbed the rod, pulled back gently, and, as soon as I felt weight on the line, set the hook fiercely. After a few minutes fight, I pulled the fish onto the bank.
When I looked down at the fish, I noticed a scar along the left side of her head. Emotions came pouring over me when I realized I had caught Scarhead. I sat there on the edge of the dam that I had helped PawPaw clear and cried as I held PawPaw’s favorite catfish, the only one he had ever named.
Through the tears, I couldn’t help but smile. For the first time since I met PawPaw outside of the elevator at the hospital, I felt completely at peace.
If I could choose one meal as my favorite or my last, it would be fresh catfish from PawPaw’s pond served on his old aluminum picnic table, and maybe fresh watermelon that we “borrowed” from his neighbor and best friend. I had set out on my birthday hoping to catch one last mess of fish from PawPaw’s pond. As I sat there holding Scarhead, I knew that I wouldn’t be eating catfish for dinner. Instead, I set up Mom’s camera to take a picture of Scarhead and me by the pond, thanked Scarhead and God for letting me see her one last time, gave a nod to the heavens, and released Scarhead. I never saw her again.
Every year on my birthday, I spend time alone in the outdoors and reflect back on PawPaw and that day. I still miss PawPaw terribly, but I am comforted by the fact that I will see and hug him again down the road and hopefully reflect on Scarhead, wherever she may be.
Scarhead first appeared in Corey Jenkins’ book, Lines, Tines & Southern Pines. Lines, Tines & Southern Pines is available in hardback, paperback, and e-book through numerous vendors, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. Visit Corey at www.amazon.com/author/coreyjenkins, on Facebook, on Twitter at @linestinespines, or at www.linestinespines.com.