By Margaret Todd
Wednesday was always “fishing” day when I was growing up. My father headed out before dawn and stayed on the river until late afternoon. He usually went with friends, but on many Wednesdays, he took my brother and me. My brother was like my dad. There was no place on Earth he’d rather be than out in a boat headed toward those little saltwater creeks that snake in and out of coastal Savannah. My sentiments about fishing, however, were a little different from my brother’s. I could think of a thousand places that looked, felt and smelled a lot better than a day on the river.
Our fishing trip always started from an old, brown, barnacle-covered dock. Our fishing boat looked just like the dock — old, brown, and barnacle-covered. Marsh grasses growing along the shoreline provided us with a very distinct fishy smell, an odor that always brings my childhood back to me in a hurry. (You just have to grow up smelling that marsh grass to understand.) Hovering around our heads for the entire adventure were a myriad of whopper horseflies and those special gnats that only Georgia marshes can breed. Our warm sodas and mashed PBJs were inevitably seasoned with a few of those creatures — at least for Dad and my brother. I always skipped lunch on “fishing” day.
Our bait was never store-bought. It was abundantly furnished by the water itself. Actually, my only pleasant memory of fishing was watching my father cast for the tiny shrimp that he used for bait. It was a beautifully choreographed scene. With his casting net in hand, Dad planted his feet with care on the slippery floor of the boat and gently lifted an edge of the net toward his mouth. When a small sinker was secured firmly between his teeth, he sailed the net into the air. Fanning out in a perfect circle, it always lingered for a moment, completely horizontal, over the smooth waters. Then it sank, briefly leaving its imprint clearly etched on the surface of the river. The net returned laden with the treasured shrimp, a wayward crab or two and the signal that fishing had begun! (My mother always battered and fried the leftover fish bait. It was surely the best popcorn shrimp in the world.)
My father had a few fishing rules and they are as clear in my mind today as they were all those years ago. Saltwater cats, too bony to eat, were always thrown back. Stingrays were pulled up to the boat’s edge and whopped into oblivion with the wooden oar. Toadfish were tossed onto the bottom of the boat for a few minutes so that we could hear their funny sound and sharks were never, ever brought aboard. The most important rule of all was that we fished in silence. Talking, laughing and noise in general scared the fish away, according to Dad.
Fishing with my brother was a real pleasure for my father, but fishing with me was a challenge. I didn’t put anything on a hook. I didn’t take anything off of a hook, and I always turned my head away from any activity that involved a hook. To my dismay, that really never bothered Dad very much because he had a special job for me to do on “fishing” day. It involved a big bucket. I sat aft and made sure that Moon River stayed out of the boat. I was the “dipper” and it beat fishing any day.
“Dip, Maggie, dip,” came that voice from the front of the boat, and I obediently sent a bucketful of Moon River water over the side.
We usually did a little crabbing on fishing day, always using steak tails for bait. I grew up thinking that everybody crabbed with them, but that wasn’t true. My friend Patty and her dad invited me to go crabbing with them one afternoon, and we’d hardly left the dock when I got the shock of my life. Mr. Carson, Patty’s dad, handed me a crab line and then gave me some crab bait. It was a slimy, smelly chicken neck.
“Don’t you crab with steak tails, Mr. C.?” I asked.
“We eat steak tails; we crab with chicken necks,” he replied.
It was pretty obvious to me that I was on my last crabbing trip with Mr. Carson, but I knew something about crabbing that he’d never know: steak tail crabs tasted better than those caught with slimy, smelly chicken necks.
Our family eventually made a boat upgrade and my fishing job became obsolete. I never fished again, never got invited to go and never volunteered to go. My brother carried his love of the sport into adulthood and passed it along to his son and grandson.
In his 87th year, my father no longer trusted his legs to things that float on water. Fishing was over for him, but I wish we could go back for just one day. The marsh grasses would still reek of that all-pervading fishy smell, and today’s crop of bugs would probably be just as unrelenting as those of my childhood. And although my sentiments about fishing haven’t changed a bit, I’d just like to sit in the back of that old barnacle-encrusted boat one more time and hear my father’s voice —
“Dip, Maggie, dip.”
Margaret Todd lives in Newport News and remembers with great fondness her days in Savannah, Georgia, where she grew up. She can be reached at 757-243-8443.