My Uncle Tom is a whiz of a good fisherman. I say it that way ‘cause that’s the way he always says things; he kinda has his own expressions. Like if he’s happy about the way somethin’ went, then he’ll say it was “a whiz of a big deal”; if he’s not happy, it’ll be “rusty”, which means not so good. It’s just his own language, that’s all. But I ain’t got time to tell you about all that right now. What I was talkin’ about was fishin’ and about how good Uncle Tom is at boatin’ the big ones.
His specialty is smallmouth bass, of course, which if you call yourself a fisherman in East Tennessee and you plan to wet a line in a lake, you better be able to hook you some smallmouth bass. Now sometimes, sure, he’ll go crappie fishin’ in the springtime when the dogwood trees are in bloom. That’s the time the crappie will really be hittin’, sometimes on little spinner baits and other times on live bait like minnows. Uncle Tom likes to use the spinner baits. He says it’s just too much dang trouble to fish with minnows when them crappie is really bitin’ good, ‘cause you “have to hide behind a tree to bait your hook.” I think he might be stretchin’ the truth a little bit when he says that, but it really is so easy for him to catch ‘em, you’d think them fish was jumpin’ out of the lake and into his boat so they could go home and watch TV with him. But I ain’t got time to tell you anymore about crappie fishin’ right now, ‘cause I was tellin’ you about what a whiz of a good fisherman my Uncle Tom is and about how he fishes for smallmouth bass “ninety-nine point ninety-nine” percent of the time. Which brings me right to what I was gonna say and it’s this:
One day I was down at the dock when Uncle Tom came back in from bass fishin’ and he had the rustiest look on his face I had ever seen.
“What’s a’ matter, Uncle Tom, no luck today?” I asked him as I was catching the rope on the bow of his boat to tie it to the dock.
“Oh, I had luck alright, Donnie, ‘course they’s two kinds of luck a man can have, you know,” Uncle Tom said.
He moved a rod over to the side of the boat and lifted up his stringer which had three dandy smallmouth on it. One of ‘em was maybe a pound and a half, one would a’ gone between three and four pounds, and the third one, I bet, would a’ weighed over six pounds, ‘specially if a fellar was holdin’ his thumb in just the right place on the spring scales when he was weighin’ that rascal, if you know what I mean.
“Great day,” I said, “them’s three fine fish. What did you catch ‘em on?”
Now, talkin’ about the fish you catch and tellin’ folks how you caught ‘em and how hard it was to boat ‘em is almost as much fun as catchin’ them fish. I know this ‘cause I do some fishin’ myself and I have caught a few braggin’ size bass myself, not that I’m anywhere near the whiz-bang lunker-lander my uncle is. But last fall, I did catch two smallmouth bass just down off Hooper’s Point, one day when they was frost in the air and I was usin’ this new lure that. . . .but I ain’t got time to tell you about that right now.
I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Uncle Tom. Here he was holdin’ up a stringer of bass that if I had my camera we could a’ took a picture that I know they’d a’ put on the outdoor page of the sports section in the newspaper. And any man in town would a’ looked at them bass and wished it was him holdin’ that stringer. But here was Uncle Tom with his face just as long as if his favorite huntin’ dog had run off with his wife’s favorite cat.
“Well, I caught ‘em on my old standby, the Bass-Whacker,” Uncle Tom said.
I knew the Bass-Whacker was his favorite top-water lure and one he’d caught many a smallmouth on. You see, sometimes when bass is layin’ deep in the lake, the lure you want then is a deep-runnin’ plug, like maybe a Dive-Bomber, which will bounce along the bottom and wiggle a lot and a bass’ll think that dinner is served. Other times, when the weather is changin’ and the sky is the right shade of blue, castin’ a top-water plug like the Bass-Whacker is just like callin’ a bass on the phone and tellin’ him you’ve set an extra place at the table and he’s the guest of honor. He just knows he’s gonna eat and he’ll jump on that top-water plug and try to swallow it. Other lures that might catch fish for you. . . . .but, I ain’t got time to tell you about that right now.
The only thing I could figure was that maybe a really big one had gotten away. I sure didn’t want to make Uncle Tom feel any worse than he looked like he already felt, so I tried to ask in a way so that maybe he could tell me a good fish tale about it all.
“That ol’ Bass-Whacker sure is a good plug,” I said. “You’ve slayed many ‘a bass on ‘em; you didn’t lose a whopper today, did you?”
I figured that way he could say, “Yessir, I did lose one and it was a whiz of a good one, too; it would ‘a weighed seven pounds if it weighed an ounce. I had it hooked in the side of the mouth, and that rascal came up walking on his tail across the top of the water just like the Savior himself and he spit out that plug like a pitcher throws a fastball. That’s just my rusty luck and all I got to show for it is a bent fish hook.”
He could of said something like that and it would have been a good fish tale and nobody would ‘a felt too bad. But that wasn’t what he said.
“I lost one alright, Donnie, I lost my Bass-Whacker,” Uncle Tom said, “my good old faithful top-water favorite. I was castin’ in close to the bushes around the point and it got snagged on a limb and I broke the line tryin’ to get it loose and I couldn’t knock it down from there even with a paddle. I reckon I’ll have to take the pole pruner down there tomorrow and cut that dang plug outta there is the only way I’ll ever get it back.”
Well, now I understood. A fisherman and his favorite fishing lure; that’s almost like a love story in a movie that not just anybody who wasn’t a fisherman would understand. You know what I mean. But I still couldn’t figure out why Uncle Tom was so sad. After all, he did say he thought he could get his lure back. It’s not like if your dog gets hit by a car and dies. It’s not like if you leave your bicycle layin’ in the driveway and your daddy backs his pickup out and runs over it and it’s ruined and you get a whippin’ from your daddy, too. That’s what Ricky Ray Edwards did and he still hasn’t got a new bike. And it’s not like if you’re a grown man and your wife is carryin’ on with the Preacher and everybody in town knows about it and the next thing you know they’ve left town together. Poor ol’ Lonnie; that really did happen to him and now he. . . .but I ain’t got time to tell you about that right now.
“Uncle Tom,” I said, “I wouldn’t feel too bad. After all, you did land three good bass and you said you can probably get your plug back tomorrow.”
“I guess I can,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not what you lose, but what you don’t get that makes you feel bad. You see, after I hung that lure in the bushes and lost it, I started fishin’ around the next bend. Then I heard this big commotion back where I’d been, so I went back to see what it was. There was my old Bass-Whacker still caught in the bushes about four feet above the water. All that noise was caused by the biggest smallmouth I’d ever seen, he’d a weighed ten pounds if he weighed an ounce, jumpin’ up outta the water tryin’ to climb into them bushes so he could bite that lure.”
Uncle Tom was still gettin’ his tackle box and rods out of the boat. A trickle of sweat rolled down his nose and dripped onto his hand. He wasn’t lookin’ straight at me so I couldn’t tell if he was grinnin’ or not. He pulled out his billfold and I was pretty sure I knew what was comin’ next.
“Donnie, go on in the dock house and get us both a honey bun and a cold drink,” he said as he handed me some money.
Sometimes things are just what they seem to be and just what they should be. The sun on a boy’s shoulders feels good, the lapping of the water against the dock sounds just right, and life tastes as sweet as a honey bun.
I don’t know if that was a true story about that lure and the big smallmouth at the bushes or if it was just a story my Uncle Tom made up. Anyway, if it was just a fish tale, it sure was a whiz of a good one.