By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
Castoff scales from dressed crappie covered the ground like snowflakes around the work bench we’d made into a cleaning station, glittering white and silent in the sun. Spring break was over and school was back, but evidence of the prior week’s bonanza still lay in plain sight. Every spring since I’ve thought of those days, the most productive run of one-at-a-time pole fishing I’ve ever known.
The Old Men and I caught crappie on the newly-opened Tenn-Tom Waterway from daylight until dark, dressed fish until the wee hours beneath the stars and the hanging extension cord lights back home, then sailed again each morning for the same.
On the water, the fishing was fast. The hot spot was an acre’s tangle of honeysuckle vines, and hooks had to be replaced almost as often as rebaited. At home, though, the cleaning was a careful process. The Old Men were not of the filleting persuasion, any hint of meat left on the bone being a shameful waste, so we headed and scaled the crappie and froze them whole. You might think it would be hard to be thorough scaling scores of crappie in the semi-darkness after a week of days on the water, and you would be right. One of my mentors often excused such difficulties by saying whoever ate the most crappie ate the most scales. He wasn’t involved at our cleaning table, though, because the Old Men whose operation this was required perfection.
Over the course of hours, fish progressed in single file from my scaling station to the cleaning station, then to the final rinsing station, being reinspected for scales at each. By the time they hit the freezer they were guaranteed clean, though they’d all be looked over again before being battered and fried. While consciousness gave way to the rhythm of work, a bond was formed between us, though I couldn’t see it at the time, never suspected it until years later in fact.
As the last cooler’s trove slowly dwindled and the bottom came occasionally into view, the Old Men would begin asking, “Can you see him yet?” “Him,” in this case, being the last fish in the box. When the final fish did appear, the Old Men would say, “There he is! The one we’ve been looking for. Should have dressed him first and been done,” a joke that was shopworn then but a familiar favorite for me now.
Societies without a written language carry their history though spoken tradition, stories told across the ages from one generation to the next. The method is thought primitive, but there’s something vital caught in sound memories that printed words just can’t convey. When I tell their jokes now, I hear them in my mind as I once heard them told, refreshing a bond that remains strong as ever.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.