The Outcast: Tales from the Worst Fisherman in the World
In a family full of fishermen, one hapless angler could hook just about anything except a fish. But that didn’t keep him from a lifetime of trying to land the big one
photo: Joe Ciardiello
I should have given up, I suppose, after the goat.
He was not a regular goat. He was more part goat, part rhinoceros, about the size of a small horse, but with devil horns. He looked out on the world through spooky yellow eyes, and smelled like…well, I do not have the words to say. My little brother, Mark, bought him at the sprawling trade day in Collinsville, Alabama, for seventy-five dollars; I would have given him a hundred not to. The first thing the creature did, after coming into our possession, was butt the side of a truck. You have to be one terror of a goat to assault a Ford. His name, my little brother said, was Ramrod.
“Why would you buy such a thing?” I asked my brother. He told me he planned to purchase a bunch of nanny goats to “get with” Ramrod, after whatever courtship it was that goats required. Ramrod would beget little Ramrods, who would beget more, till the whole world was covered in ill-tempered mutant goats. I think, sometimes, we did not love that boy enough.
Ramrod moved into his new home in a beautiful mountain pasture in northeastern Alabama, and, first thing, butted heads with my mother’s ill-tempered donkey, Buckaroo. Buck staggered a few steps, and his head wobbled drunkenly from side to side, but he did not fall unconscious. This, in Buck’s mind, constituted a victory, and he trotted off, snorting and blowing, like he was somebody.
My point is, Ramrod was a goat not to be messed with.
Later that year, I was fishing with my brothers in the stock pond in that same pasture. The water was mostly clear, and you could see the bream in the shallows and the dark shapes of bass in the deeper end. For a change, even I was catching fish and pulled in a few nice little bass. My cast, to me, was immaculate, my aim perfect, my mechanics sound, especially for the clunky crankbait I was throwing.
“But I’m not gettin’ much distance,” I complained to my big brother, Sam.
“It’s fine,” he said, and with an easy flick of his wrist sent a black rubber worm sailing beyond my best cast of the day.
I decided to put a little more mustard on it. I let my lure dangle about a foot and a half from the tip of the rod, reared back, torqued, and started forward with a powerful heave…and hooked Ramrod, who had crept up behind me to do me some kind of grievous harm, right between his horns.
Ramrod, who for perhaps the first time in his long life seemed unsure of what to do, took off running. My drag, which was not set for a goat of any size, sang.
Sam, who has never been too surprised by anything in his whole laconic, irritating life, gazed at the retreating goat as if this were a thing he witnessed every single day.
“Can’t remember if that was a ten-pound test I put on that baitcaster,” he said, as if it made a difference. “You can’t catch no fish with heavy line. They can see it,” and he made another cast.
The goat ran on. I considered, briefly, just standing my ground and trying to reel him in, to play him like a great tarpon, or a marlin. Instead, I began to run parallel with him, reeling in the slack as I did, as I have seen great anglers do with giant fish on the TV. I guess I thought I could eventually get close enough to reach out and snatch the hook out of his head. I truly did not want to hurt him, but that was foolish, of course; you could not hurt Ramrod with hammer or hand grenade.
As it turned out, the point of the hook, not even to the barb, had snagged in the bony base of one horn, and the crankbait jangled atop his head. He was not wounded; he was just mad. He quit running about the time I ran out of line, and my little brother, who had a sort of telepathic bond with this creature, calmly walked over and pulled the hook free while the goat stood there like a pet. Then he and the goat both gave me a dirty look, as if hooking him were something I woke up that morning intending to do.
I went back to the pond, frazzled, and—I am not kidding—immediately hooked a water oak, a blackberry bush, and a low-slung power line. There are witnesses to this. I shuffled off with a rubber worm dangling high above me; it was Cherokee Electric’s problem now. I was done fishing that day, and seriously considered being done for good. I walked to the house defeated, but not ashamed, at least as far as Ramrod was concerned. That goat never liked me, anyhow.
This is a true story. Great anglers, the kind who tie their own flies and read the tides and have fished the deep blue for leviathans, will most likely shake their sun-bronzed heads in pity and sad wonder over this. But the bad fishermen out there—you know who you are—will merely nod in understanding and sympathy and, I hope, some degree of solidarity. The only reason they have not caught a goat is that, so far, one has not made their acquaintance, or wandered into the proximity of their backswing.
But perhaps the worst thing about it is that the best fisherman I know, my brother Sam, did not even think that, in the long, sad epic of my fishing life, this episode was remarkable at all. He did not even tell it to anyone, not in the decade since. To him, it was just the kind of thing a poor fisherman like me was likely to do, was somehow fated or destined to do, assuming of course that he did not, first, fall out of a boat and drown.
“What is it, truly,” I asked, “I do wrong?”
He was too kind to give voice to it.
He just spread his hands, palms up, as if to say: Everything.
The proof hangs on the wall of the garage, row after row of tangled, rusty, and forever abandoned rods and reels, some of them hopelessly entangled with others. One day, with my toolbox and a bottle of good oil, I’ll resurrect them, or try. I’ve caught my big brother staring at them with the saddest look on his face. He used to fix them himself, till it dawned on him it was a thing without hope, or end.
I remember the first good fish I ever caught, the first one I was proud of, and it made me, for good and bad, a fisherman the rest of my life. I remember, most clearly, my bait, a knot of red worms in a clump of topsoil that was at least part cow manure. I kept them in a discarded blue plastic margarine tub that I had carefully, scientifically aerated, using a hammer and a nail to poke holes in the snap-on lid.
I was maybe seven years old, perched on a slab of rock by a jade-colored slow-moving creek that was easing toward the Coosa. I cast into the deep pools with a closed-face Zebco 202, not catching a thing at first, just loving the motion of it, and the peace it seemed to create inside my mind even then.
The sunlight was losing its battle with the thick trees, and I knew I had to be getting home soon; then, I felt that hard pull on the line. I did not have to set the hook, but I pretended to, to look like a big boy, and reeled in a pretty little bass, just a pound or so, even allowing for the inevitable lie.
For a few fine seconds, I just looked at it—the color, the pattern on its scales—and as I worked the hook free, it did what fish do, and as it squirmed, I hooked myself in the thumb.
I let the fish go, and a kindly old drunk man fishing upstream shakily but carefully unsnagged the hook, which had not gone in past the barb, from my thumb. I wailed.
“Hush,” he said. “You ain’t kilt.”
And while it hurt like hell, I knew, even then, two true and perfect things.
One, that I was bad at this, to the point of wounding myself, routinely.
Two, that it was a swap I was willing to make.
I know that I am not alone in this frailty, because I have heard other fishermen also lay claim to the title of worst fisherman in the world, since there is little point in being the second- or third-worst fisherman in the world. If you are going to be miserable at something, you might as well get a plaque for it.
You would think we would be too ashamed of our ineptitude to talk about it much, but there is a balm in knowing you are not alone, I guess in the same way addicts find solace in a circle of chairs and the company of the likewise afflicted. I guess we should all just line up on a creek bank, and confess: “Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I am a fisherman and I suck.”
Then, we would all file over to the snack table for Vienna sausages, saltines, and beanie weenies. I would be sure to invite my friend, the fine writer Sonny Brewer, who once looked me right in the eye and said: “I have never caught a fish.”
It took a man to say that. He has caught one in the ten years since.
But there is a special shame in this, for me. I was born to anglers. My great-grandfather fished for survival during Reconstruction. In the Great Depression, my grandfather pulled jack salmon from the water and slipped them in his coat pockets, and once lifted a massive, mean snapping turtle from the Coosa with his bare hands. Both my brothers catch fish. My big brother is almost a Zen master at it; he worked second shift at the cotton mill and fished bass tournaments at dawn, almost always finishing in the money and winning more than a few. My mother considered a rod and reel to be cheating, and used a cane pole to snatch a million bream from the ponds and creeks and backwater; she knew from looking at the sky if there would be fish for supper, and seasoned her cornmeal and set it aside before she walked to the water. She fished with red worms she gathered from under rotten logs; she never bought a worm in her life.
A man who could not fish was pitiful. Such men rode around without a spare tire, did not even own a toolbox or a pair of work boots, and got squeamish if they had to pull a tick off a dog. Well, my spare is aired up, and I have never seen a tick I wouldn’t pull. But as a fisherman, I am just missing something, something that is both mechanical and mystical and, I am sorry to say, apparently permanent.
It dawned on me, only in middle age, that as many times as I have fished with my big brother, it was never once in a tournament, never once when there was money on the line.
“You just don’t know how to feel,” my brother said.
I thought for a moment he was trying to be sensitive, but he was being technical.
“Look,” he said. “If you put some sticks, and rocks, and other stuff in a bucket, and you reach your hand in that bucket and feel around, you can tell, by feel, the sticks from the rocks, and all the rest of it, even if I hold it so you can’t see inside it.
“When you fish, you can’t touch the bottom, what’s under there, so you got to feel through your line, feel it when your bait slides across a rock, or almost gets snagged in sticks and brush and stuff, and feel it, ’specially, when he bumps that bait, and when he takes it. You got to feel all the difference in all of that, or you spend all your time gettin’ hung up, or you let the fish get off, or let him spit out that bait. You don’t feel it.”
He was not being unkind.
“You hadn’t fished enough, and you hadn’t fished when you had to, like Grandpa and them did, and I did. We had to catch fish. They had to fish to eat, and I had to fish good to pay for my gas, and for the entry fee. I can think of one time, maybe, that I didn’t weigh in enough to pay my entry fee, and my gas.
“You fish for fun. You don’t have to ketch.”
He had a point. I remember, a hundred years ago, fishing for crappie from Aunt Edna’s houseboat, and dozing off. I didn’t wake, even when a big crappie swallowed my minnow and began to pull.
My cousins would take the rod from my hands and reel it in, then put it back.
“Anything else?” I asked my brother.
“When you cast, you almost always make a bird’s nest,” he said.
“Not every time,” I said.
“Almost,” he said. “You spend all your time…well, the truth is that I spend all my time trying to get that bird’s nest out of your reel, so you can cast again.”
“I can drop a rubber worm in a five-gallon bucket twenty yards away…if there ain’t no blackberry bushes in the way, or tree limbs, or power lines,” I said.
“Till you make a bird’s nest,” he said. “You have to know exactly when you want that bait to drop, and where, and feel it as that line runs out, and…”
“Then why do you fish with me?” I asked.
He did not dignify that with an answer.
He is my big brother. I will always be his little brother.
Little brothers are chuckleheads.
But a lot of days, a whole lot of good days, there is no money on it.
Please understand that I have caught a lot of fish, in freshwater, in brackish bays, and in salt. I have filled coolers with delicious speckled trout, red snapper, and more, and turned loose big bass with a never-ending sense of wonder. I’ve fished in the Keys, and off Miami, and off a pier in Puerto Rico on a long night, when it seemed like I was the only man for an ocean or more. There are times when I think the best moments of my life have been filled, one cast at a time, on the flats of Tampa Bay. If there is a more beautiful sight than a speck almost as long as your arm cutting through that water to take the bait, I do not know it. A Spanish mackerel, nose to tail, is a work of art. Fishing is the one thing I will get out of bed for in early morning…well, that and biscuits and gravy.
But it just seems that, almost always, if there was a boat involved, or a hook, I could turn it into a dark comedy. On an alligator hunt in Lake Okeechobee, which is fishing of an altogether different reality, I miscalculated a leap from one boat to another in the middle of the deep rim canal and damn near drowned in the pitch dark with the red eyes of the alligators glowing all around me.
After a good day of fishing in Mobile Bay, I injured myself not in the boat but in a terrible fish-cleaning accident. I did not cut myself; I backed up without looking and fell over a tree stump.
In the Gulf of Mexico, in hundred-degree heat, I almost killed myself cranking in what had to be a record-setting red snapper only to land its lower lip…just a lip. My shipmates said it must have been a shark. I think I jerked its lip off, from sheer brute force, but have since been hooted down.
On another trip, sick of being cooked to a deep red by the Alabama sun, I bought a fine broad-brimmed hat.
“That is a lady’s hat,” said my fishing buddy.
“Shut up,” I said.
But when no one was looking, I checked inside the rim for the label.
There is a phenomenon on the shores of Mobile Bay called the jubilee, when a drop in the oxygen levels in the water, I am told, causes flounder, crabs, and other marine life to swarm to shallow waters, practically beaching themselves, and people along the shore rush among them with baskets and buckets and nets. Even I could catch a fish there, if someone would just loan me a bucket.
But it has never been truly about the catching. I love fishing, but sometimes, if I would admit it, I love more the idea of fishing, of being on the water or just at the lip of the pond, and the glide of a pelican, or the clean smell, upwind of the outboard motor.
“I think fish are beautiful,” I let slip once to a real fisherman, Skip Jones, who grew up on Mobile Bay.
I will always appreciate his answer.
“I do, too,” he said.
So the difference is merely in the catching, and I guess I’d rather be a bad fisherman, or a fake one, than no fisherman at all. I remember, once, watching a big ol’ boy fling his cast net into the bay for baitfish. The clumsy-looking wad of net fanned out gracefully into the water and came up shining with silver. I tried it, and it landed in a wad and came up empty, though I might have knocked a few baitfish out as I hurled it into the water. But you can buy bait, and you can, from time to time, get lucky, because even a bad fisherman, like the clichéd blind hog, blunders into something now and then. It really does not have to happen all that much, to feed the idea, and make me a fisherman, more or less.
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