We Wells boys loved to fish but not necessarily with our grandfather, William Henry “Pop” Wells — also known as Catfish Willie. Here’s one example why.
It’s a blistering hot southern Louisiana spring afternoon, sultry as a steambath, and we’re out on the creosote-covered fender of a swing bridge across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the outskirts of our little town of Houma. Forget about shade or cover. I’m maybe 14 years old and have come with Pop and two of my five brothers. Wearing ball caps, cut-off jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, we boys are sweating like plow mules in the dead of August. No matter. We’re required to constantly work our oversized cane poles up and down with the promise — Pop swears — that if we jig our hooks baited with earthworms just right and at just the right depth, we will certainly catch a lunker cat.
It’s an irresistible notion. Awhile back, we’d stopped with my father at a roadside museum where hung an aging photograph of a 101-pound flathead catfish pulled from nearby Atchafalaya Swamp.
The only problem with this scenario is that there is only one way to jig these worms, and as many times as Pop has demonstrated how that’s done, it’s clear from the exasperated looks he throws our way that we’ve not yet mastered it. He may be right, because we’ve been at this for a couple of hours and have gotten nary a nibble. We’re now officially bored.
Pop, meanwhile, seems unfazed by the heat or lack of fish. His chief foil against the sweltering temperatures, other than the pith helmet he always wears, is a six-pack of Falstaff sitting on the bridge fender near his feet. He sips beer throughout the afternoon, even when it’s gotten as warm as dishwater. At the moment, his six-pack is down to a four-pack, and the beers will likely be gone before he decides he’s done fishing. The Falstaff solidifies Pop’s belief that there is nothing more important on Earth than catching a lunker catfish — no matter how long it takes.
But we also know that getting Pop’s jigging technique down might not be enough for us to conjure our own lunker because there’s another part to Pop’s ritual, which we decline to mimic. He constantly talks to the fish, staring down at the water and muttering something that starts to seem like a chant: “C’mon, ole son, I know you’re down there. C’mon, give ole Willie a thrill.”
We’ve talked this over with Dad and concluded that it’s surely impossible that the catfish and Pop are actually communicating. We say this, however, without total conviction. The hard-to-admit truth is that not one of us in a hard-fishing family — not even Dad, who’s won so many crappie-fishing trophies that my mother won’t let another one in the house — has come close to catching a catfish as large as Pop’s.
His record is 38 pounds, but that’s just the big one. He’s caught so many 20- and 30-pounders that he stopped counting. One day, he came home with 102 pounds of catfish in a giant washtub in the trunk of his old, battered Chevy — a pretty good stringer, as it was just five fish. All caught on a cane pole baited with worms.
Another reason we don’t outright dismiss this fish whispering is that there’s some evidence that Pop does have a way with critters. We live on a 6-acre bayou-side farm five miles out of town and keep free-range chickens as part of our menagerie. Pop and our grandmother Wells, Lora, who both grew up in backwoods Arkansas, live with us.
Pop and the chickens have this thing. In particular, there’s this white leghorn pullet — a scrawny, skittish, long-legged hen. That chicken, on the verge of feral, normally won’t let anyone come close to it. But about once a week, Pop will sit on our front porch steps, and when that pullet wanders by he’ll start clucking softly, and darn, that chicken will mosey over, hop up and perch on his knee. Then they have themselves a nice long cluck and cackle — an hour, longer if Pop has had a Falstaff or two. Pop pets that chicken like a dog. That chicken couldn’t be happier.
“What could they be talking about?” we’ll ask Dad.
“How would I know?” Dad will say, exasperated. “I don’t speak chicken.”
Which is why my brothers and I have tried to chase that chicken down. Maybe we could make it talk to us, discover some critter- whispering secret. But that pullet is faster than a scalded dog. It spooks if we even think about chasing it.
So maybe, just maybe, Pop speaks catfish, too.
Another two hours have come and gone, and the Wells boys have abandoned fishing for a shady spot under the drawbridge. Pop is down to two beers. He’s still standing ramrod straight, working that worm. Upon our retreat, he looked at us as if we were leaving a Christmas party just as the spiked punch arrives.
We’d driven here with Pop, but Dad — knowing Pop’s penchant for never wanting to quit till he catches his lunker — has promised to come check on us. When he finally shows up, we rush to the Jeep station wagon like shipwrecked people rescued from a desert island.
“No luck, huh boys?” he asks.
“Not a nibble.”
Dad looks at Pop and calls out, “You doin’ OK, Pop?”
Pop waves the question away as irrelevant. We hear him muttering. “C’mon, ole son. Pop knows you’re down there. C’mon …”
We drive off.
Just before dark, twilight peeking through the dining room window, we’re all at the supper table. Except Pop, of course. Granny Wells is getting anxious since it’s not implausible he’s keeled over from an entire day of drinking beer and fish-talking in the blistering sun. But just as she asks Dad to go check on him, we hear the unmistakable crunch of car wheels on the gravel driveway, followed by a riotous honking of a horn. We know what the honking means: Pop caught another big one.
Dad, who can’t always hide his jealousy over Pop’s way with catfish, won’t even get up to go look, though we boys stampede out the door for a gander. It turns out to be Pop’s record fish so far — a blue cat that goes 42 pounds on Dad’s 50-pound scale. “See, boys!” Pop says, slapping his thigh and cackling like that hen. “I told y’all there was a big ’un down there! Y’all left too soon!”
We thought Pop would never catch a cat bigger than that 42-pounder, but we were wrong. For one thing, how can you catch fish that big on a cane pole? Pop has his method.
He always fishes with the same rig — what he calls a slaughter pole. It’s a hollow length of bamboo, maybe 12-feet long, about 3 inches in diameter at the butt and tapering to a limber, pencil-thin end. He buys them at the feed store in town. Pop rigs this with 100-pound-test green line, tied off with a square knot about 3 feet below the tapered end and wrapped meticulously to the tip, where he finishes it off with a couple of half hitches. He trims the line so that it gives him about 10 to 12 feet of fishing depth. Add a sinker and hook, and he’s set. And worms, of course.
It’s probably not three months later, a Saturday as I recall. Pop’s been out all morning and pulls into the driveway, horn blaring, in the late afternoon. When we’ve gathered around, Pop says, “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this one.”
He pops the trunk. There’s a goujon — the local name for a flathead catfish — its gills still laboring. It’s spilling out of Pop’s washtub. I swear that thing could swallow a soccer ball.
“I stopped at the seafood place in town ’cause that fella has a good scale,” Pop declares. “Fifty-two pounds!”
Pop had also stopped at the local weekly newspaper, which by this time had run so many Pop-and-catfish photos that you’d wonder why they’d want to run another. Except, well, this one was a monster. And the way he landed it on a cane pole — probably only Pop could’ve pulled it off.
“Soon as I hooked him,” Pop tells us, “I knew he was special. Boy, did he pull. Straight down. Almost jerked the pole out of my hand. So hard that he broke the tip. I reared back on him but couldn’t budge him. He dove deeper. The pole broke near the tip a second time. At the third break, I knew I had to do somethin’ different. He was gonna break the pole below the last knot or strip all the line off. Or pull me in. I was gonna lose him.”
“So what did you do, Pop?”
“I tossed the pole in the water.”
“You did what?!”
“See, them big cats are territorial. I knew he wasn’t gonna run off. He was gonna hunker down in his hole at the foot of the pilings close to where I hooked him.”
Pop also gambled that the superbuoyant slaughter pole putting constant pressure on the hook in the cat’s mouth would cause the fish to swim up from time to time to relieve the pressure. He was right. The pole would pop up, Pop would reach down and grab the butt end, and the fight would resume. This went on for about an hour till the flathead surrendered, belly up, at the surface. Pop was pretty whipped himself. The bridge tender had to come down and help Pop pull in the whopper.
Catfish Willie died in December 1975 at the age of 83. He never stopped trying to catch a bigger catfish, although he never did. That bridge is gone, too, replaced by a high-rise span. But the old fenders are still there, slowly crumbling in their creosote glory. And every time I visit, I drive by and think of Pop and wonder if some giant goujon is down there prowling the deep holes around the pilings.
Maybe so — a monster just waiting for somebody like my grandfather who speaks its language to give it a fight.