He would turn off the flashlight and from the darkness in the back of the small jon boat I would hear, “Push us out, Boy.”
My eyes were barely functioning from the harsh awakening five minutes before. It was 3:30 in the morning and was only one of the many trips made every three hours throughout the night.
Grabbing a paddle in one hand and rubbing the sleep from my eye in the other, I would then jab the paddle into the lake’s muddied edge. My palm would rest upon the paddle’s end, and with a strenuous push downward, I could barely pry the boat’s front from the clinch of mud. A few more attempts and the suction would give way with a noise.
We’d slowly float backwards. My father’s whispered expletives would begin as he primed the fuel and attempted to pull start the vintage Evinrude. It was a standard and ritualistic Parks’ incantation to get the “damn thing” to start.
I would sit down upon the cold aluminum boat seat, quietly wait, and wide-eyed stare into the black void about my face. I could hold my hand in front of it and only imagine it there. It was slightly creepy no matter how many times I had done this before.
The new quiet was interrupted intermittently by more gentle cursing and an occasional lapping of water against the boat’s hull. Soon, the motor sputtered to life and he would turn the flashlight back on momentarily to get a sense of approximate direction.
We were on our way to a secret location about the Clarks Hill Lake’s many recessed corners.
Eventually, my sight would get acclimated to the dark. The sparse moonlight was marginally enough to steer the jon boat around shallow spots and forlorn, yet hopefully resilient, trees emanating from the waters.
The trip to the lake’s secret cornered trotline always seemed long and would give me a chance to look up and see the abundance of stars and soft bands of the Milky Way. Even as a late teen, the grandness of the fleeting moment was awe inspiring and almost incomprehensible. I would briefly think about many things pertaining to this life.
Startling me from my upward fixation and balance, my father would shift his weight to the other side of the boat to check the outboard’s working order. I would turn back to see him affirmatively revert forward, adjust his cap against the wind and steely-eye the foggy directive ahead.
By now, the droplets of lake water spraying from below would prompt me to pull my cap down, flip my collar up and hunker down against the wind.
Once close, he would flip the flashlight on toward the land crest ahead. Stealthy like, and now slowing to the rumpity of an Evinrude idle, the flashlight’s beam would quietly pierce the foggy cove back and forth. Like sneaking upon an unsuspecting prey, we intently looked for the secret, white rock to break the brown shore’s edge. It marked “the spot.”
Once the carefully placed rock was spotted, he’d shut off the motor, and fix the flashlight upon it. I’d carefully paddle us toward it making every effort not to noisily bump the boat’s edge. We whispered anything necessary as quietness was somehow requisite. It added to the bravado of the whole process. Further, I’m not certain to the local legality of the fishing technique.
“A’ight, Boy. This is it,” he said with hushed anticipation.
We’d clumsily situate the boat horizontal to the line’s murky but predicted path across. Both of us would lean downward to the boat’s edge causing it to precariously lean to one side. Hands down below the water line, we’d both randomly fish elbow deep for a grasp on the white nylon cord.
Once found, our hands would carefully and synchronously walk the boat down the line outward. At one yard out, my father would always lift it high above his shoulder level and pause looking back at me.
He’d hold it ten seconds more.
“Didjoo feel that!?” he said, eyebrows raised and momentarily forgetting the requisite quietness.
As he held it high, I could see the nylon line wiggle at its ingress to the water’s surface ahead. We’d dip the line back below and continue our hand walk outward toward whatever was hooked first in the procession. Once close to a catch, the line would angle well below our hand’s upward counter. The greater the line’s angle, the bigger the catch. It was always a relief to see a catfish’s whisker twisting about and piercing the mildly murky water’s surface because you never knew what you were going to get. Your hopes and bets were against gar and turtles.
The turtles were obvious as the line wouldn’t wiggle and felt the same as the rock anchor holding everything to the bottom. When one was pulled into sight, it was accompanied by a scornful, “Sum beeech!”
More often, however, the cross-handed walk down the line yielded that perfect sized catfish for the next day’s fryer. We would re-bait each hook as we proceeded, giving us hope for the next harvest.
Once at the end of the line, my father would hold it up and pause with anticipation of a premature, yet bonus wiggle. If the nylon didn’t signal, he’d gently let it go and we’d watch the line quickly disappear into the cloudy depth.
With the flashlight off and the darkness again preeminent, the whispered expletives to prime the cantankerous Evinrude signaled a conclusion to this round. The stars above, once again, became the returning focus.
The vivid memories, however, never ended.
W. Patrick Parks is an optometrist practicing in Conyers, Georgia. He is an amateur writer, photographer and artist. He has many vivid memories of growing up around lake life. He and his wife hope to move to Lake Oconee in the near future. He and his father, Watson, both pictured at left, continue to make memories.
By Patrick Parks