In the Missouri I knew as a boy, nobody called fishing a sport. Life was rooted in the land and fishing was mainly for food. To me, anyway, it was as natural as cutting wood, as sacking nuts or watching the men make whiskey. It was exciting, too, with strong pleasure and sometimes the splendor of magical events, like the Sunday afternoon we seined deep holes and took more fish than sacks to hold them, carp and catfish sliding from the truck bed as we bounced up the rut-torn hill. Or those November nights on the river with boats and lanterns and gigs pronged wide as pitchforks. I no longer fish, and the boy who did is 20 years into the past. Yet memories of that time come constantly to mind. They return to me, or I to them, as if they were my source, a keel of sanity in a world more gnarled and rotted than—at a right-angle bend in the river—the gigantic pile of driftwood and tree trunks we used to call Snake City.
Remembering begins with noon and the sun's raw glare. With hot fields and ridges adrift in the haze. Trees, bluffs, the land transfixed in windless air. And through the rinsing heat, a boy heading down to the river, down the dust-still road toward spots where rocks jutted into the stream or where a tree had fallen and jammed near the bank. He would know beforehand that big fish—bass and buffalo, carp and catfish and drum—were never caught that time of day. But there against stone or bunched roots the water rushed and swirled and dug out a hole. And there with cane pole and worms he could catch 30, sometimes 40, fish.
Perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed, the spread and thickness of a man's full hand. Sunfish with colors so finely gray-orange and green that holding one for a moment in his hands, careful of its spiny erections, he could not but wonder at the beauty of these small dumb creatures, so swift to strike, to jerk down the cork and be caught. They rose into sight and hit in a mass. They flashed fins and bright bellies against the hook's hold, fish after fish all afternoon. It became a small rite of plenty, of rapport with life at its ravenous source. The fished-out hole stayed empty but there were always others, always a piece of river secret and untouched. And now, going home, his worth was plain in the fat full stringer. The weight of his catch was proof of luck, of that primeval blessing which fishermen seek.
Almost all his free time he spent on the river. He came to know every hole, slough, creek mouth and gravel bar, every bridge and crossing down or upstream for miles. Where he went on any given day depended on the fishing he wanted to do. He loved best to take his fly rod—a ferruled cane pole to which he'd wired eyes and a reel—and start for the river at dawn. To enter the wet gray stillness of day before sunrise. To turn downhill from the sleeping town, with no sound but footfall and the waking cry of birds. Across pastures, thickets, fencerows, to come out finally on a mud road winding through dark trunks of timber in the bottoms. The world then was suspended in shadow and half-light, dense with the being of earth before man: unmoving quiet shapes and smells—of cattle and cut hay, of wet stones and dew—that in the keen air were like another language, older and more true. At moments like this he felt that nothing in the world was not essential. And when at last he came up on the bridge—a single span of iron rail and loud loose planks—he stopped to watch mist rise and drift above the silk black surface. He stood stock-still and let the purl of water come into his heart, until all the river, its force and grave repose, its life apart from human life, was in him, too.
Upstream the river narrowed with many rapids spilling into depth. Water sprawled spuming through willow and beds of blunt rock to deepen abruptly, six feet, 10 feet, and then go shallow again. It shot in chutes past sandbars and mudbanks to gradually grow broad and still in deep pools. To places like these he made his way, beneath trees arched like a vault, wading sometimes waist-deep to get around brush and the wreckage of trees. He worked then to set his fly down perfectly. It would drop and settle slowly, its small spinner flickering, and instantly his body was alert with waiting for the sudden pull. It came soon or not at all. When it did, up through the tremor of the bending rod sprang shocks of primal life. He could feel the fish as it fought, feel its veering thrust and surge. Each strike felt firm, deliberate, as if each time a bond were being joined. While the outcome was in doubt he wooed with magic and prayer the fish he could not see. Then it became visible, its dark shape forking toward him. He caught rock perch, crappie and bass, none of them so very big. And yet, through the mystery of that first contact, they seemed somehow huge.
He worked each place patiently, and as he fished the sun spread golden through the mist. It climbed, and light cut in shafts through the trees. The water turned from black to gold to transparent green, and then a different kind of fishing began. He replaced the fly with a hook and no longer stopped to try each tempting spot. He moved upstream, on the lookout for holes in which there would be a single big fish—a smallmouth bass charging back and forth in a rage. For some reason these warlike fish took over smaller pools. They did not defend a nest, so far as he could tell, but only the hole itself. They attacked intruders, they stayed in plain sight, and for a long time they were impossible to catch. Minnows, poppers, crawdads, too, he tried without luck. What worked he found by chance. He was watching one of these fish when a frog about three inches long jumped away from him into the water. It started kicking across the surface, and in a flash the bass was under it, churning in tight circles. The longer the frog swam the more enraged the fish became. It rushed to the end of the pool and shot back. It rammed into the frog with a vicious shake of its head, gulped, and went back to its irate patrol. That was how to do it. He would catch a frog and jab the hook through its belly. A minute later he had the bass on his line. These were big fish, five and six pounds, and more than once he splintered the bamboo rod.
He would take three or four bass like that and start home with tails dragging the dust. He stopped again on the bridge, this time to stare down through his own image and gradually make out, in the dark hole under the bridge, the most enormous bass he'd ever seen. It weighed 10 or more pounds, or so he guessed. It was there each time he passed, hovering mid-depth on the upstream side. And nothing, not lures, not live bait, not the many movements of men, disturbed its perfect calm. It seemed never to move, merely to appear and vanish, as if part of the river itself. He had seen men shoot fish from bridges (though not this bridge), especially the slow-moving carp that nosed along the bottom in bunches of five or 10. When one was hit, it zigzagged madly, its thick back cutting the surface, its wound white and pulpy, like a ripe rose. This fish, though, seemed apart from harm, beyond guns, dynamite, the unfair things men used to take fish, electric shock cranked into the water from an old box telephone. Maybe it knew, the same way crows or deer know, men armed from men unarmed. It seemed inviolate and wise, not at all like the brazen, nervous bass he caught with frogs. It seemed, in fact, the spirit of this place to which he came at dawn, and every time he saw it he felt deeply at peace.
The boy, of course, is myself, a self more vital, compact, pure, like wood within the inmost ring of a tree whose life has reached to many rings. Once, out for firewood, another boy and I crosscut a trunk of walnut that had lain barkless and rotting for maybe 50 years. When the yard-thick halves rolled clean we found the ooze of sap still live at its heart. Time remakes the meaning of such moments. They grow in memory and come finally to speak for the whole of one's life. I try, anyway, to stay loyal to those times on the river. Amid the damage of living I find purchase in that uncluttered coming to selfhood of a boy whose serious solitude began on clear-water streams, the Maries and Little Maries, the Osage, St. Francis, Castor, Huzzah, Black, Blue Tavern, Jacks Fork. Most of them were small enough to flashflood after a night's downpour. They fell to almost a trickle in late summer, and you could hear a boat coming miles off as it bumped and scraped through the shallows.
I fished alone often, but not always and not at first. Like any beginner I had to learn from someone: techniques, judgments, places. I had to receive a code of simple conduct, or merely an essential feeling, and this was my father's gift to me. It was a deep, unconscious giving, the only thing, I sometimes think, entirely his to give. He was a carpenter turned schoolteacher, moving from job to job, small town to small town, leaving friends, enemies, a string of half-built houses. Nothing much worked out, which might, perhaps, be said for most men. But my father, at least, knew how to retrieve himself from the debris of his life, and that knowledge became mine through him. From the time I was six we would dig worms and with an armful of poles take off at evening for the river. We would bait up and cast out to the channel, then sit back in the calm and watch the sun slant downward.
Sometimes we got ambitious and drove to special places, most often to one of the big dams—Bagnell, Wappapello, Clearwater—where fish gathered in great bunches along the edges of the spillway. You could see them, dark flashing shapes crowding the bank to escape the pounding of the water where it churned up from the floodgates. To fish close to the dam was forbidden, but with a treble hook—three big hooks welded back to back—we could cast upstream into that swarming mass and snag them with hard jerks on the line. Or else we fished the channel with heavy sinkers that dragged slowly downstream. Along the embankments of towering concrete, six-foot gar floated like logs in the sun, and at Bagnell, on the Osage, catfish large as men were said to lie at the base of the dam. The biggest one I saw was four feet, a blue cat with slit belly and guts cleaned out that pulled loose from the stringer and swam off. There we caught crappie, channel cat and, sometimes in great batches, the silver-bright humpback drum.