This is a reprint with permission from Bernard & Associates from the July/August 2011 issue of “Sporting Classics” magazine. This particular story is from the “First Light” Column authored by Mike Gaddis, Copyright, Mike Gaddis.
A friend recently sent me a package here in Kandahar and inside was mixture of different outdoor magazines. While flipping through the various magazines I came across one entitled “Sporting Classics” and noticed it had a column written by Mike Gaddis who authored “Jenny Willow”. I read the article and really enjoyed the story, as it reminded me of an old man I once met, who faithfully pursued a big old catfish who lived in a deep cove at Crawford State Lake outside of Pittsburg, Kansas. Like the old man in the story, this gentleman had a name for his fish as well. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I did. If you have never heard of Sporting Classics magazine, I highly recommend giving them a look. You can receive a free preview of the magazine by going to http://www.sportingclassics.com/ I would like to extend a special thanks to Mike Gaddis for so quickly replying to my query and allowing me to reprint this special story.
Beneath the still, gray-green waters of Back Creek Lake, the meandering old streambed left Moser’s run, still cradling in its belly the cool, spring-fed headwaters of its birth.
Coursing south, it crossed the wagon road that once led to Taylor’s Mill Pond, looping inward to cut to the bank a shallow clay shoal. Restless yet, it wandered east…over the old, sunken fields that once pastured John Chandler’s mules…then south again, to undercut for a time a gently sloping flat.
When it had carved into the flat-once Maggie Chandler’s peach- a rugged, undershot bank, it did not stop but coursed outward and more deeply again- gouging as it went a jagged ditch between five great stumps.
Storms came and storms went, and with each the swollen flow of the old run swept a little more of the mud from the moorings of the blackened, old stumps. Upon which had stood the colossal white oaks around the old Chandler Home. Until, under the fourth and most massive, there was fashioned a dark secretive hollow. About it, the naked roots whorled, tight by the edge of the channel.
It was there the great bass held.
“Fish aren’t born with names, you know,” the old boatkeeper said. “They earn them.”
“This one was called Levi.”
The old lake had covered many secrets. Mary Lynn Chandler had just turned 16 that summer, many years before. She had been a beautiful, young woman, joyed with life and bent on living. No one knew the Lord planned different.
It reared suddenly, an ugly, black darkness unfurling in the distance. Thunder rolled and the wind roared, battering the trees about, sending the sooty clouds whirling. Close behind boiled the storm, and the sky fell to twilight.
John and Mary Lynn were gathering hay. Mary Lynn was on the wagon, easing the team along as they went. Now her long hair whipped wildly about her face, the same golden color as the sun-cured hay. John Chandler yelled, but she could barely hear.
“The barn. Get to the barn…”
Mary Lynn had hupped up the wall-eyed mules, and they were off, in a tear. It was all she could do to hold them. While her father ran behind. She made the safety of the barn, just as the rain came. Only a passing shower, as, miraculously, the worst of the huge storm had skirted them.
The sky began to clear, and they started back to the fields. Mary Lynn lithe as a willow frond, had clucked up the team, pushing ahead. She was laughing…the liquid laughter of hope, brimmed full of happiness…the bubbling song of a wren in the morning dawn.
Out of nowhere blazed a searing bolt of lightning, drawn to a single, obtruding nail on the wagon seat. The simultaneous peal of thunder was like the clap of doom. In milli-seconds the hot, restless electricity arced, jolting through Mary Lynn’s slender body and hurling her lifelessly to the ground.
John Chandler never had any boys. Mary Lynn was his all. Devastated, he had buried his daughter by the house, under one of the great oaks- the fourth and largest of the row.
And secretly, some say, and equally heartbroken boy of 17 had watched from the woods, as John Chandler had said his last words over her.
Most of a century had passed, folks forgot, and there, beneath the gray-green waters, Mary Lynn lay still.
Just as it was there, after all the many years, that the huge bass- the one they called Levi- came to hold.
The old boatkeeper shrugged. “Coincidence, most say, a travel of time and a twist of the river.”
One-by-one, they had cast themselves at the great fish, the various old men who fished Black Creek. Men who were masters at a steel rod and a Bristol reel. Until the fish became larger than legend. Until the submerged run and the fourth, gnarly oak stump on the drop off of Chandler’s orchard was called Levi’s Hole.
They would cluck up the lake with their one-lung Johnsons and Wizards, a sculling paddle aboard. Shut the motor off a hundred yards west, sit on the bows of their little boats, stay low, pull themselves silently into position. Throw their best at him- though probably, Levi was a slab-sided, old female.
The old fish was a warrior, and Levi Garrett was their strongest and finest chewing tobacco.
Each would throw and throw. Hoping that the fabled, old fish would roll from his lair and take a bottom-knocking River Runt that day. Or cruise shallow, along the lip of the break and fall for a Hawaiian Wiggler, or a battered, old Chugger. Come dark, they’d run their Jitterbugs, slow with a gurgle. Like a struggling muskrat. Or blurp along a Ding Bat, like a worked up bullfrog.
On the rarest of days, they would return- shaking their heads and telling of broken lines, wrapped hopes and shaken dreams. Of how, almost super-naturally, before they could roll him into the net, the great bass would make one last ponderous run or a last bull-dog throw of his head. Beating them. Leaving them hollow inside, and sick with nausea.
Most just gave up, never that lucky, worn to the nub.
For usually the old fish stayed deep, by the great stump- season after season- avoiding their most cleverly presented offerings.
With each cast, each passing day, the huge largemouth became more revered.
Of them all, Jason Cranford was the oldest, the hardest, the most diligent. Dangerously so, the other agreed. Because he would defy the meanest of storms, throwing and throwing- as they hurried in, to beat the blow. Leaving before day, returning after dark, with not even a lantern to mark his way. Somebody said he grew up nearby, knew it by heart- the old sunken home place, and the fourth, rugged stump along the drop.
More and more he sat there the entire day, in his little green scow, throwing and throwing, to where the big fish lay. It was unnatural even, bordering eerie, that one old man could be so determined. And soon the others grumbled between themselves, that too rarely now they got their chance at Levi.
It was if the old man came to no longer care. As if he became possessed…in a manner that left them hard-put to understand.
It was in Jason Cranford’s 91st year the great storm came. The old man was failing. They all sensed it; yet he would not relent. He was at his bespoken place that day. Where Levi lay.
The huge cloudburst had fallen without warning. The sky had darkened to night, and you could hear the wind coming, howling hard against the trees.
Its roar was as a great many lions at night, in unison, on an African plain. It ripped the leaves from the hickories and the oaks, sent them flying in bits and pieces across the churning whitecaps of the frothing lake. Tossed their little boats to the top of the swells and threw them helplessly into the woods.
Rain came in driven sheets, and the lightning walked on white, jagged legs across the coves. Until the air reeked of brimstone and the ground shook with thunder.
Finally it had subsided.
They had gathered their wits, and their little crafts… and limped their way to the boathouse.
And as they passed, none could believe…that there on Levi’s Hole, sat the strange old man…still.
At the boathouse the sky had almost cleared. They were clamoring among themselves, glad to be alive.
When out of nowhere, blazed one last, ragged bolt of lightning! So keen they could feel the burning breath of it, though it was almost a mile away. So deafening the clap of thunder, their ears rang.
“Mary Lynn…” I said, parenthetically.
“Yes,” the boatkeeper said.
Quaking from its shock, all agreed. It had hit hard by Levi’s Hole.
A half-hour later, the bravest of them had piled into their little skiffs, hurried there.
From a distance, they could see something floating, strangely white among the swells.
Pulling closer, they were struck with disbelief. It was the huge bass, belly-up on the dirty water. In his mouth was embedded a Jointed Vamp, and from it the belly of the braided line led to Jace Cranford’s splintered boat, and the rod that lay amidst the shattered planks of the floorboard.
But the old man was nowhere to be found.
They had searched for him- then and later- but the water was turgid, the bottom rough. Later, the mud had settled back and the turtles had done their work. If, indeed, there was work to be done, for the voltage that grounded through the True Temper rod was so violent it melted the reel to its seat.
“I was told there was nothing left to find?”
“Some figure different,” the boatkeeper said.
Our eyes met.
“That he’s down there…?”
The old man nodded.
I started slowly to leave, then stopped mid-stride.
“The boy?...the one who watched from the woods…?” “It was him…”
“Yes,” the old man said.
“It was him.”