Filled to the Bream

When two broods gather for an old-fashioned panfish rodeo, the only thing better than the fillets is the fellowship

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

The fruits of a day on the water.

Gibb, eight, is having trouble keeping his voice down. This does not help put fish in the boat. He’s even more amped having just watched his dad lead an unusually inquisitive four-foot gator in figure eights, chasing and snapping at his bobber. Six of us are crammed into a sixteen-foot skiff with a pail full of crickets and too many rods, trying to fill the cooler for the “Brim Rodeo,” the annual family fish fry that the Wilbourn and the Mahony clans have been holding together every spring for nearly twenty years at their hunting camps in southwest Arkansas’s Little River Bottoms. Some of the clubs here—with names like Po Boy and Grassy Lake, Yellow Creek and Cypress Bayou—date from the 1890s and are among the oldest in the state.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Click to see more photos from this story.

To patriarch Randy Wilbourn, the fish fry is “really all about getting the families together, especially the grandkids. And this is the place where the most children can get the most hooks in the water at one time.” It’s a fine sentiment, but only a man with a background in marketing could say it with a straight face. Because a fish fry is really about catching, frying, and eating fish until you can’t move. Bream, also known as brim—redbreast sunfish, near as I can tell—are sweet-fleshed, delectable critters, but you don’t get much meat off one. We’re going to need at least three hundred, possibly a lot more, to feed twenty-five people. Down at the boathouse the two families share, four motorized flat-bottomed boats bob in the water like willing quarter horses. We’ll need to put them all to work to pull this off.

The Bottoms are like Eden but with bigger mosquitoes—eighteen thousand acres of waterways, swamps, and bottomlands. They’re home to the largest breeding population of alligators in the state, venomous snakes (rattlers, cottonmouths, copperheads, and coral snakes), birds like the tricolored heron, the white ibis, and the wood stork, and virgin stands of 350-year-old bald cypress.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Gibb shows off one of the day’s catch.

Gibby may actually care about all this someday. It’s not that he isn’t trying or is forgetting his indoor voice. As his mother, Hayden Shurgar, explains, it’s that the boy—the middle of three children—never had an indoor voice. The adults are trying to hook fish for the kids to reel in. But Gibby’s chatter—can he tease the gator next time, have another soda, retaliate against his older brother for hitting him when no one was looking?—grows ever louder. “Gibby, honey,” Hayden finally says. “I love you dearly. But I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.” The threat has no effect. Hayden, an attorney, knows better than to prosecute an unwinnable case. She decides to pull the plug. Now. She will take the kids and their cousin Sylvie, who is six, on the daily run to Walmart—more crickets, disposable razors for a forgetful guest (me), and whatever the family needs six hours before the fry. Each child who behaves gets to pick out one item. “I’ve never been on vacation anywhere where we didn’t have to go to Walmart once a day for something,” she says, sighing. “After a while, you just stop fighting it.”

The run back to the boathouse takes just five minutes. As Hayden’s husband, Thomas, and I are gearing up to head out alone, inspiration strikes. He phones the house. “Babe, some margaritas down here on your way out would be awesome if it’s not too much trouble.” He falls silent for a moment. “Well, screw the triple sec then.” Five minutes later, Hayden delivers a thermos, ice, and red Solo cups. Thomas wraps my cup in a paper napkin, inserts it into a second cup, and fills it. “Redneck Yeti cup,” he explains. We head out, slaloming through the bald cypress and bois d’arc trees of Yellow Creek. The waterway is about forty yards wide and so uniformly gorgeous that I have to remind myself this is not a swamp theme park but the real thing. A white ibis stalks the shaded shallows, bent like an ancient college professor with his hands clasped behind his back. Egrets sail over the treetops. Mud clouds bloom underwater where bigger gators head for deeper water at our approach. Every so often, we pass a reflector nailed to a tree marking the channel. We pass a flattened can, bleached silver and nailed to a shoreline tree that marks a good hole. Thomas sips his drink and shakes his head. “Did I marry well or what?” he calls over the outboard’s buzz. “She’s taking the kids so I can fish. She brought us margaritas at 11:00 a.m. On Sunday morning.” Two drinks, two hours, and a great many fish later, he tells me this is the most relaxed he has felt in months. Thomas is a financial planner in Little Rock. Hayden is a former prosecutor who now does medical malpractice work. The couple moved into a bigger house and had three children in thirty months. The former was, naturally, in 2008, when the market lost half its value in six months. Thomas figures if they can survive that, they can survive anything. The redneck Yeti, by the way, is surprisingly effective.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

The Shurgars in the boat.

I like everything about Thomas except his offensive competence as a fisherman. It’s not just that he casts with unerring accuracy beneath limbs two feet off the water. It’s that he does so with a damn fly rod. Worse, he has the juju, the inexplicable ability to find the 1 percent of the water that holds 90 percent of the bream. In bream reproduction, the males do the heavy lifting, excavating beds and guarding the eggs. As many as fifty will bed in a stretch of water twenty feet wide. Find the beds and you find dinner. When I throw back a small fish, Thomas looks as if he had overestimated my common sense. “You eat shrimp, don’t you?”

I’m pretty accurate casting a lure, but a bobber riding three feet above a split shot and hooked cricket flies end over end like nunchucks. A distressing number of my casts snag limbs, creating tangles of astonishing intricacy. “Are you kidding me?” Thomas says of one. “That’s a damn squirrel hammock right there.” Actually, this one could comfortably suspend a small raccoon.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

The fillets pile up.

Around three, we have a half cooler of fish. We’re dedicated anglers and would keep fishing except that we’re running out of margaritas and ice. Back at the Wilbourns’ spacious wood cabin set among shade trees, the catch from other family members is waiting. Thomas and Randy wordlessly set to work at the two-sink cleaning station on the patio. They zip through bream with electric knives and toss the fillets onto a cutting board for me, the designated deboner. I remove the tiny ribs with a small, sharp blade. Finished fillets pile up in a colander under running water. We fall into a rhythm as Slim Harpo and Otis Redding pulse over the outdoor speakers. Hayden passes with a tray of mint juleps, lovely beads of condensation sliding down the sides of silver cups. Randy’s wife, Judy, materializes with hors d’oeuvres—smoked salmon, smoked mallard duck, smoked wild turkey. She is one of those effortlessly warm and elegant hostesses who flourish below the Mason-Dixon Line. With a horde about to descend, her only concern is whether the potato salad might have looked better on the blue platter and the local strawberries on the white rather than the other way around. “Oh, they’ll just have to suffer through it,” she says. The turkey is special because it’s the first that Kay Mahony, whose grandchildren are also here, called in and killed all by herself. The whole scene is almost unbearably pleasant and so welcoming that I feel no self-consciousness about eating the better part of a whole smoked duck single-handedly.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Getting down to business.

By five, the Mahonys begin migrating from next door. Like the Wilbourns, they have three-gallon ziplock bags full of bream fillets ready for the fryer. The two patriarchs, Randy Wilbourn and Emon Mahony, set up parallel operations. Thomas has already cranked up a high-pressure propane banjo burner—it’s round like a banjo head—which is quicker and more efficient than jet burners, he says. His can bring forty gallons of peanut oil to 375 degrees in seven minutes. Emon, who served seven years as chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, is a no-fuss fryer. He judges oil temperature by sight, breads handfuls of fillets in a ziplock bag filled with seasoned cornmeal, then drops them from his fingers into the hot oil. Randy is a perfectionist. He uses a thermometer, fries in small batches, and is a believer in the powers of Cavender’s All Purpose Greek Seasoning, made since 1969 by an Arkansas family. But the real secret—you should be paying attention here—is the Better Breader, a twelve-dollar piece of Tupperware-like plastic smaller than a shoebox. There’s a bowl, a lid, and a sifting tray. Dump your breading in the bowl, place your fish on the tray, close the lid, and shake. The result is perfectly breaded fish. More important, the remaining breading stays dry and clumpless. Emon’s fish is delicious. Randy’s fish is so good that you couldn’t stop eating it if you wanted to. Randy has to swat away his own family with a hot spatula to save some for when the meal actually starts.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

A full plate of fish with all the trimmings.

There are far too many of us to sit at one table. Groups form on the screened porch with its overhead fans, the patio, the back deck, and even in chairs on the concrete where Emon was frying behind the garage. There are ever-replenished platters of sweet, crunchy fish, hot hush puppies, green beans, and potato salad. There is a chocolate cake, pumpkin squares, homemade vanilla ice cream with the strawberries. There are juleps and margaritas, red and white wines, champagne and beer. There may even be appropriate beverages for the children. Thomas describes my casting abilities and coins the term “Heavey knot.” The kids whoop on a four-wheeled hand truck they have transformed into a go-cart. But they are passing too close to the still-hot cooking oil and are chased away. Laughter and the remarks that prompted it are passed from one group to another like condiments. There is talk of the upcoming annual family trip to Dauphin Island, of next duck season’s prospects. As darkness falls, we cluster around a fire bowl on benches and chairs. Judy’s son Rob is a professional musician. He breaks out his guitar and plays Robert Earl Keen. Randy beams quietly as he nurses a bourbon. He and Judy sit side by side holding hands, surrounded by their children and their spouses and their children and a few family friends.

Beneath a courtly demeanor, Randy was a hard-charging businessman for most of his life. He worked for Alltel Corporation and its predecessor companies for thirty-seven years, ending up as senior vice president for corporate communications, then left to start his own marketing and consulting firm in 2009. He still works hard, but he’s older now and sees things differently. Right now, he seems to be marveling at his children and grandchildren in a way that he hasn’t before. At this family that he has loved into existence.

So maybe he’s right, maybe it is all about the kids. Because they have returned the favor, loving him into a deeper existence than he ever could have imagined.