- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
I believe it was the knife sheath that caused my Uncle Joe Jackson to refer to me as the Headless Horseman for a good deal more years than I'd care to remember. The horseman part came because I was a rodeo cowboy; the headless part was because of something I'd done one day while we were fishing. We were in a little boat about 10 feet off the shore of Day Lake, which is a tributary of the Trinity River in East Texas, close to Dayton. This was back in 1951, when I was a levelheaded 16-year-old who might have known an apple from an orange if you'd peeled them first.
I'd recently acquired a first-class filleting and general fish knife that cost about $15, which considerably damaged my dating and general running around fund. Naturally, I was proud of that knife and didn't intend to loan it to any careless persons with poor character references.
I'd saved up my money and bought that knife because my Uncle Joe had told me that any man who could stand upright in a fishing boat ought to have one. Now my Uncle Joe (whom I sometimes called Uncle Slick because of his bald head) was the best fisherman I'd ever known. I knew this was true because he'd told me so on several occasions.
On this particular day we were tied to the limb of a fallen cypress tree and were bobber fishing for perch or crappie or any other fish dumb enough to wander into our reach. We used minnows for bait. I realize there are sport fishermen out there who would cringe at the prospect of bobber fishing with minnows, considering such a practice as sport only for children using bent pins at the end of twine on a cane pole. They wouldn't have held that opinion long in the presence of my Uncle Joe. He was an iconoclast of the first water, a man whose main quarry was the "wily soccali," which was what he liked to call the black crappie or the perch. He didn't even like bass and would seldom boat them. As a matter of fact he often referred to bait casters as "evildoers who thrash the water to a froth and threaten to ruin the fishing for honest men."
I once went fishing with him in the company of the outdoors columnist for the Houston Chronicle. Uncle Joe and I were bobber fishing; the columnist was making long casts to the opposite bank in search of bass. He'd caught, maybe, a couple, the best going no more than four pounds. At some point I got lucky and snagged a lunker bass that may have weighed eight pounds. The columnist was at the front of the boat, I was at the rear and Uncle Joe was in the middle. I'd removed the hook from the bass and was sitting there grinning and holding it up for all to admire, when Uncle Joe reached over, took the fish by the gills and threw it back into the lake. "Get that eely monster out of the boat!" he said. The columnist never did speak directly to Uncle Joe again.
Despite his peculiar preferences, my uncle wasn't as casual a fisherman as you might think from his use of bobbers and minnows. On other occasions he was as dedicated in his pursuit of trout as any fisherman ever outfitted by Abercrombie & Fitch. His "cane" pole was the finest split-bamboo fly rod you could buy, and his line was a tapered, weighted beauty that told him exactly what was going on beneath the surface of the water. Even in bobber fishing, while the rest of us in the boat would cuss the goggle-eye perch that kept nipping off our bait, Uncle Joe would pop them into the boat for cut bait. He used to tell me, "Junior [which was a name I thought I hated until I became the Headless Horseman], you got to be smarter than the fish."
But back to our outing on Day Lake. I had snagged a pretty good perch and had boated it. The problem was that the hook was deep in its throat, and I couldn't get it out. So I finally took out my brand-new filleting knife and set out to cut the hook loose. It was going well until the fish gave a sudden flop, and its dorsal fin stuck me in the hand. With that, the fish and my knife went overboard.
Well, I was stunned. I was just flat stunned. I sat there for a few seconds and then in a fit of rage I hurled the sheath after the knife. Uncle Joe was in the front of the boat, and he turned around and looked at me. He didn't say anything for a moment. As I've mentioned, Day Lake was a tributary of the Trinity River—sometimes. By that I mean that, on occasion, the Trinity backed up into the lake, producing a current. This was such an occasion.
Uncle Joe said, "Junior, have you considered that your knife went overboard in about three feet of water and, since we've got the exact spot marked, you could probably find it by wading around for a few minutes?"
I slapped my forehead. I said, "Oh, hell yes, why didn't I think of that!"