Room 211 – Part 1

This story is a little different than the ones you usually read from me.  It’s more a story about the fisherman than the fishing.  It’s a tribute, and a release.  An affirmation of a life rooted in family and fishing, and an explanation of why trout fishing is so important to me…  And finally, it’s a story about my stay in a hotel, Room 211.

The phone call came early that morning…  you know the one…  the one that you dread…  the one that you’ve imagined coming for years every time the phone rings at an unusual hour…  the one that that when it finally comes, makes you feel terribly guilty, because a little part of you is somehow relieved…

I had, oddly enough, just woken up about 15 minutes earlier.  I had this absolutely wonderful feeling where everything was perfect.  I mean everything…  It’s hard to describe.  I felt at peace, I couldn’t feel a single one of the world’s cares.  I couldn’t remember a single thing that was wrong or troublesome…  then for some reason, I broke the beautiful silence and said to my husband, “You know, I kinda wish he had gone ahead and went last night…  peacefully, you know?”

No sooner had the words come out of my mouth, than the phone rang…  it was that call…  he had just gone…

Dial back aways…  a long ways…  to my youth, growing up on Lake Tapawingo, a small private community with a little 100-acre lake east of Kansas City, about 5 miles outside of Blue Springs.

That’s where I learned to fish with my Dad.  No Zebco’s for me; at 6 years old he taught me how to cast an open-face spinning reel…  said I might as well just learn once.  I pretty much grew up on the boat dock behind our house on that lake.  Dad had an aluminum fishin’ boat.  Crappie and bass were the thing there, and my Dad was known by literally everyone as the man to watch to find those fish!

He knew they watched him though, and when people were spyin’ on him (as he called it), he would intentionally go to holes where he knew there were no fish, and literally pretend to catch them!  Sometimes he would put a hook back in the fish’s mouth, and slyly lower it into the water while onlookers would watch him catch it again!  He got a real kick out of that.

And I’d go with him in the boat…  or we’d just fish from the dock…  I must have tangled up his reels hundreds of times.  He’d try to let me untangle it, but I’d typically make it worse.  He never got annoyed, never got upset.  “Don’t sweat the little things, Jewel”, he’d say.  Daddy always called me Jewel…

You know, I learned some pretty important life lessons from fishin’ with my Daddy…  One of them was self-control; after all, it is not easy for a naturally mouthy 6 year old girl to be quiet…  and I do mean quiet!  If I wanted to go with Daddy fishing (which I always did), I had to be quiet in that aluminum boat…  whispers only, no stomping around…  no letting the rod tap on the side of the boat…  quietly opening and closing the old, squeaky metal tackle box.

Another life lesson was, well…  about death…  of animals anyway.  I really didn’t know until I started fishing with my Daddy that we actually ate living things!  Pretty trippy concept to grasp, but I feel like it was important to my Dad that I understood it.

I recently came across a picture of him, when he was about 8 years old.  It was during the era of The Great Depression.  He literally had what looked like pieces of leather tied to his feet for shoes.  In one hand, a shotgun, and in the other hand, a couple of squirrels.  I realize now that this was breakfast…  how different the world is today!  I can’t imagine saying to your average 8 year old, “Hey, here’s the shotgun.  Could you go shoot us some breakfast real quick, please?  Thanks, Darlin’.”  But that is exactly how it was then.

When I was a little older, about 7 or 8, I told him I was ready to clean those fish we caught.  So, we went over the only rule he had regarding this…  No filet knives unless he was present.  Simple.  He taught me how to filet crappie, and I butchered many a nice fish in the process, because he would always let me try my hand at the larger ones because they were easier.

One day, Daddy was at work, and I was down by the water, as usual, fishin’.  Still about 8 years old or so.  We had catfish in that lake, too, and by some stroke of luck I had managed to catch a fairly good-sized one, for an 8-year old, anyway.  It was probably only about 8 or 9 lbs., but to me, it was the Loch-Ness monster!  I knew it was absolutely the biggest catfish in that lake!  (actually, there were 90+ lb. catfish caught every other year there, but you know…)

So, Daddy was going to be really proud!  And wouldn’t he be even more proud if I fileted it before he got home!  So, I take the fish up to the house, where we had a cleaning station in the basement.  Dropped the catfish in the sink, and went to get the step-stool so I could reach up to the cabinet to get that filet knife…

Got it out, climbed down, threw up the wooden cutting board on the counter, took the knife out of the sheath, and laid it down.  Now all I have to do is reach into the sink and grab that slimy catfish and throw him on the cuttin’ board.  OK, good to go, I remember thinkin’…

Now, the only thing I actually knew how to filet at this time was crappie.  If you don’t know why this was important, let me explain…

To filet a crappie, you lay them down on one side, put your left thumb in their mouth, use your first finger to hold their pectoral fin forward, and make the first slice just behind the pectoral fin until you get to the spine, then turn the knife toward the tail and cut down the body, before flippin’ the filet out, and then runnin’ the knife under the exposed filet to get the skin off.  Piece o’ cake.

Did I mention that works well for crappie?  Uh, OK.  Well, not so much for catfish…

Lemme tell ya’…

Even at 8 years old, I had a couple of last-minute thoughts that bordered on reason…  for example, to this day, I remember thinking, “Wow!  This catfish has a MUCH larger mouth than the crappie do…  wonder if I’m gonna be able to hold it down with my thumb in it’s mouth?”  Then, I thought, “Hmmm…  this thing is flat on the bottom, not on the sides like crappie…  Wonder if I can hold it still on it’s side while I cut it up?”  And finally,  “You know, that ol’ catfish already cut me up a little gettin’ that hook out…  their mouths are kinda hard!”

Alas…  those thoughts should have stopped me, but didn’t…  It’s so funny that I can remember everything so clearly to this day.  But the final thought that won out in my young mind was something along the lines of, “Man…  I will be in SO much trouble if my Daddy catches me with this filet knife out…  I need to hurry!”

And with this as my final guiding thought, I grabbed that catfish out of the sink and threw him on that wooden cuttin’ board.

He was sittin’ on his stomach on that cuttin’ board in front of me, fairly still, but his mouth wasn’t open.  Hmmm…  What to do…  What to do?  Gills were movin’ though, so I figured I would just turn my hand so the back of my it was facin’ me, with my thumb pointin’ down.  Then, I’d stick my fingers in his gill and grab him, and if he opened his mouth, I’d stick my thumb in the side of his mouth, and I’d have a really good hold on him!

Well, he started thrashin’, but so far, so good!  I had my fingers in his gill and still had a fair grip on him…  then he opened his mouth and I stuck my thumb in to get an even better grip…

All y’all that know anything about catfish know where this is goin’, don’t ya?  Uh-huh.

That catfish clamped down on not just my thumb, but the better part of my hand and almost half of my wrist and bit down hard!!!  I’m trying to pull it off, shake it off, smack it into the counter to get it off, and it ain’t comin’ off!

I knew I was in the battle of my life!  My 8 year old life was about to get snuffed out by a catfish!  I did the only thing I could do…  I grabbed that filet knife and started stabbin’ that catfish to make him let go!

I’m makin’ quite the commotion at this point, bangin’, hollerin’, smackin’ that catfish around and all, and caught the attention of my Mom, who was upstairs.  She was comin’ to investigate.

Well, right before she got to the top of the stairs, that ol’ catfish finally let go…  I was bleedin’ pretty good from my hand, but if you didn’t know, catfish actually have quite a bit of blood in them, too…  and I’d been stabbin’ that thing like Norman Bates in Psycho.

Well, between it thrashin’ around, it’s blood, my blood… you can guess that blood is pretty much everywhere…

Now, my Mom is the squeamish, city-girl type.  And I do mean really squeamish.  So she’s runnin’ down the stairs at this point and I’m standin’ at the bottom of the stairwell, holding up my hand, lookin’ at my thumb…  from Mom’s point of view facing me, she could only see the back of my hand and 4 fingers…  yes, from her vantage point, and with all the blood everywhere, it really did look like I’d cut of my thumb…

Mom sorta “melted-down” into the stairs, and kinda passed out for a minute, I think.  So, of course, knife still in right hand, I forget about myself and run to Mom!  I stand over her in the very narrow stairwell that leads to the basement, and start yellin’, “Momma, Momma, Momma!!!”  Of course, she opens her eyes to see me standing over her with the knife still in my right hand and blood everywhere…  I couldn’t understand why she seemed so terrified at first…  yes, for a moment I think she actually thought I was going to do her in…  “JULIA LACY!  PUT DOWN THAT KNIFE RIGHT NOW!!!”

Uh, OK, Mom…  not a problem…  glad you’re feelin’ better now…  Me?  Oh, I’m good…  No, no, that’s not my blood…  that’s the catfish’s blood.  Well, OK, yeah maybe a little of mine, but mostly the fish’s blood…  really, I’m fine.  We’re good.  Hey, I was just gonna clean this mess up…  how about that?  No, go to my room instead?  But what about the catfish???  Did you just say something about leave the *#%^#* catfish for my Daddy to clean up?  What does that word &*^$&% mean, Momma?  I don’t think it’s a good word…  OUCH!  OK, I’m goin’, I’m goin!


Learned a LOT of lessons from Daddy that day after he got home….

  • If your Daddy only gives you ONE simple rule to follow, don’t break it. (Adam & Eve, anyone?)
  • The only thing Daddy loves more than you is Mommy.
  • If you make Mommy unhappy, EVERYONE will be unhappy.
  • Catfish do NOT get filleted like other fish.
  • And maybe most importantly – NEVER underestimate your opponent, because in real-life battles, what you think you got beat might just fight back harder than you ever expected….

More on what My Daddy taught me about life & fishin’ in part 2…

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