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When I was a boy fishing the streams of Alabama the most renowned fisherman in our parts was a runty little man named Justin Wiggins. The only fish Justin considered worth catching were catfish; not just any old catfish, but the evil-tempered and battle-scarred creatures, locally called channel cats, that had staked out squatters' rights to potholes in the bottoms of most local rivers. The biggest of these cats ranged in size from 25 to 50 pounds, and on some nights, especially when there was no moon and the river was running fast and muddy, Justin Wiggins would haul in three or four.
Since Justin was too scrawny to stand up to a good-size Dominecker rooster in a fair fight, most people couldn't understand how he landed such monstrous cats until they examined his tackle. Justin used an old pool cue for a pole, a length of thin steel cable for a line and an enormous hook which he had hammered out of a section of brake rod from a Model T Ford. But the most important piece of equipment was Justin's own invention, and he was immensely proud of it. It was a four-foot-long shock absorber which he had made by braiding together broad rubber strips cut from an old inner tube and had fastened between his pole and line. When a cat struck, all Justin had to do was brace himself, hold on grimly, and let the cat beat itself to a frazzle with its own angry lunges against the elastic line.
One dark night Justin managed to become a local legend. He was drifting along the Black Warrior River in his small skiff when he hooked into a catfish that measured 5 feet 8 inches from the tip of its ugly bruised snout to the end of its lashing tail, weighed a shade under 190 pounds and possessed a temper which was all out of proportion even to its frightening size. It became the most epic battle to roil southern waters since the Merrimac tangled with the Monitor. All night long Justin and the enraged fish catapulted each other up and down and back and forth across a three-or four-mile stretch of river, menacing shipping and terrorizing dozens of innocent citizens who were out fishing, frog gigging or transporting illicit corn squeezings from local stills. One shaken native who was trapped in the line of fire told me about it later. "They slingshotted pas' me twicet afore I could even git mah anchor up."
Nobody knows how long the battle might have lasted if, at about mid-morning the next day, the catfish had not plowed into a mud bank. There it wallowed about fiercely for a couple of hours more before it finally choked to death on silt and, probably, indignation.
Justin by that time was an exhausted and spiritless man. When rescuers reached him and helped heave his mammoth prize into the boat, he looked at it a moment and then sadly turned his face away. "Hit's ruint mah life, boys," he said. "Nuthin' no smaller ain't never goin' t' please me—an' I jest ain't man enough t' hol' onto nuthin' bigger."
For years I thought this story merely funny, but now that I myself am a hopelessly confirmed fisherman, venturing into the shoals of middle age, I like to use the ordeal of Justin Wiggins to point out one of the historic fallacies of fishing. Although man has been fishing since the Euphrates was young, and over the centuries philosophers have worn their pens to nubs extolling their sport as promoting reflective contentment, fishermen are, in fact, a peculiarly discontented breed. Good fishermen are never satisfied. It is the only sport I know in which perfection breeds boredom. If a man fishes long enough, sooner or later, whether he likes it or not, his methods of fishing, his outlook toward fishing and, usually, his whole purpose in fishing will undergo more change than even his hairline or waistline.
More often than not the introduction of new equipment will cause the average fisherman to change his way of fishing. Ever since that far-off time when his forebears stampeded to exchange their gorges for new-fangled fishhooks, the fisherman has been a sucker for gadgets. Show me a dedicated fisherman and I will show you a man with the well-honed hoarding instincts of a pack rat. He doesn't seem to be aware of it, but in the short time since World War II the widespread use of the outboard motor and, more recently, the popularity of the spinning rod have almost completely revolutionized the habits of the weekend fisherman. The lofty fly-fisherman considers himself immune to these proletarian changes, of course. He simply struggles into a canvas-and-rubber costume that costs a minimum of, say, $75, drapes himself with accessories that cost almost as much, firmly grasps his mass-produced, customized $49.95 reinforced fiber-glass rod and ventures forth to commune with nature and practice his ancient art.
Money has a powerful influence on a man's fishing habits. I know a rising young Arizona contractor, for example, who was a cane-pole fisherman until he made enough money to give deep-sea fishing a whirl. He boated a marlin on his first trip, and now he flies out of Phoenix every weekend to fish off either Mexico or southern California. It costs him a small fortune but he doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he plans to go to New Zealand on his vacation to try for a black marlin.
Money, however, does not promote restlessness in a fisherman; it only permits him to indulge it. Without money, he still will find a way. I had an uncle, an accomplished bass killer, who was considered a sensible man until one day he happened to hook a sun perch about the size of a pocket watch. This set him off on a quest to see how small a fish he could catch on a rod and reel. He used the tip of a fly rod for a rod at first, but when this proved to be too big he began to make his own equipment. Finally, after more than a year, he was using a rod made from a shellacked stalk of Jimson weed, a reel made from the cogs of an ordinary casting reel, silk sewing thread for a line and a hook made from a piece of wire taken from a window screen. With this miniature tackle he finally snared a transparent top minnow about the size of his fingernail. This satisfied him. He had the minnow and his tackle mounted on a plaque and rejoined sane society.
At the other extreme there is the case of Roy Martin, the well-known angler and fish authority of Panama City, Fla. Martin has set half a dozen international fishing records for various species of fish with various types of line. Among his more commonplace feats is his ability to land jewfish weighing up to 200 pounds while fishing from bridges. A few years ago Martin established another record for pure audacity. He harpooned a 45-foot whale shark that weighed about 25,000 pounds and attached the line to his rod and reel. Martin fought the fish for seven hours and was firmly determined to fight it out to a finish. Unfortunately, it grew dark; the boat from which Martin was fishing had been dragged miles from shore. Its owner grew afraid that the shark might turn and sink it. Reluctantly, under pressure, Martin finally cut the line. This experience has not dampened Martin's enthusiasm, and it seems safe to assume that the world will be hearing from him again.