Tall Tales and Fish Tails

Somewhere down south, nestled in the Appalachian foothills, there’s a small town called Old Hundred. Main street consists of a general store, a barber shop, a town hall, and a chapel. It boasts a population of 173 citizens (not including Mrs. Simpson’s upcoming eighth child). They fly the flag proudly, root for the home team, and watch each other’s backs. But the gang of kids in Old Hundred is constantly up to mischief: so grab a sweet tea an’ I’ll give a few examples!

 

Tall Tales and Fish Tails

 

Those breezy, blooming days that had reigned in May and June were over. Now the blistering heat of July was dictator over every living creature in Old Hundred.

Songbirds had run out of cheerful tunes to play, and only sat on the leafiest branches, rather limp and bedraggled looking. Chickens sprawled in their dust baths under any source of shade, eyes blinking wearily and beaks wide open. Every cat in the county found a porch railing to hang over, while the dogs took refuge under the porches with their tails between their legs. Only Farmer Hoover’s pigs were happy; they took to the mud as if they had been born in it.

The children of Old Hundred felt as if they had been cheated somehow. As hot as summer was, they had always looked forward to splashing in pools and lakes and the long summer evenings catching fireflies. But here they were, forced inside because of a heat wave. The adults sat around and talked over their tinkling glasses of sweet tea and strawberry lemonade while the young ones sat listlessly, watching TV and nibbling snacks because they had been told to.

Things were just as hopeless in the McCloud household. Fourteen-year-old Danny took to the bedroom he shared with his brother and shut the door, earbuds and iPad in hand. And when six-year-old Heidi ran to the shelter of the cool garage with her toys, brown braids bouncing on her shoulders, Abe felt he had been officially and royally snubbed.

What to do? It was one of those days in which you felt as if the only things you could do were sitting, breathing, and blinking. The eleven-year-old’s older brother had taken the only source of TV in the house. Abe meandered into the garage, where his father was only half visible under a client’s car, tinkering and clanking with tools. Heidi was in a corner, setting up a small doll house with some metal scraps and putty.

“Hey, son,” called Mr. McCloud. “Why don’t you finish that sign for the shop? I need something more official than the banner outside.”

Abe glanced at the long wooden placard, tools ready to wood burn the inscription. Part of it had already been carved out: Chip’s Au—. It was supposed to finish: Chip’s Auto Shop, Inc. Not the most imaginative name, but decent enough for Chip McCloud.

Abe shrugged off the suggestion and wiggled under the car with his dad. “Whatcha doin’?” he asked.

The man was spattered with grease and grime and he looked even dirtier in the eerie light of his headlamp. “Aw, just tightening a few odds and ends on Mrs. Miller’s car. They were getting pretty rattly.”

Abe jerked and bumped his head when he felt someone pinch his toe. He scrambled out from under to see Heidi. “Brudder,” she said, “I need some help with my house. The walls won’t stick together.”

Her brother almost brushed her off, thinking he would watch his dad some more. Then he remembered the previous winter, when Heidi had almost drowned in the icy creek and Abe had dragged her out. Ever since then, he’d been more careful to include her in whatever he did. “Okie, twerp.” He tweaked her braid.

The morning passed better then, but after lunch, the heat was miserable and the emptiness of the afternoon stretched before Abe. He was rummaging around in the shed, looking for the bike pump, when he stumbled over his old fishing rod. Without another word to anyone, he triumphantly heisted it onto his shoulder and marched out to Persimmon Pond.

After a half hour of catching small minnows for bait in the brook, Abe wondered if this had been such a good idea. I might end up with heat stroke, he thought wryly as he swiped a bead of sweat that tickled his ear. He impaled an orange-tinted minnow onto the hook and expertly cast the bait where he wanted it. The red and white bobber marking his spot bounced cheerfully in the murky water.

Nothing. He sat in the chair of tree roots behind him and dismally stared at his limp line. Sweat dripped down his back and his sandy forelock hung in his eyes. Another half hour passed. That minnow must be soggy by now, he mused. He reeled it in slowly, watching a suspicious ripple behind it. The reeds swayed in the wind. This was his favorite place to fish, because the marshy end of the pond was usually haven to large-mouth bass. Still keeping an eye on the interesting bubbles that kept reappearing in different places, he discarded the minnow, chose another, and cast the line just to the right of where he had last seen the bubbles.

Without warning, the line yanked him nearly into the water. His cap flew off and the breath was jerked out of him in one second. With not another moment to lose, Abe gripped the rod and clasped it to his chest in an effort to keep it straight and strong. With the other hand he played with the reel. It was hard to keep calm. Judging by the incredible strain on the rod, this was some fish!

The line was taut and glistened like the string of a spider’s web in the glaring sun. Whatever was on the other end was swimming furiously from side to side as far as the line would let him. Every time, he edged farther and farther away. Abe gritted his teeth and gripped the bending rod until his knuckles were white. There was nothing he could do but hold on!

With an ear-splitting crack, the rod snapped too fast to see. Abe pitched backwards into the matted tree roots. When he had shaken the stars out of his vision, he groaned loudly to see half of his rod—along with his very limp line—floating in the water. It had been a rather expensive rod. He picked up the pieces and stormed off, looking back at those curious bubbles among the reeds every now and then.

What a fish! He was going to have to outsmart such a big bruiser and come back the very next day, before the fellow got too full of himself.

The next day, he snuck off once again, this time with a home-made rod. It was a short, thick stick with no reel. At one end he had whittled a small slit big enough for his line. Thinking that the flimsy fishing line might snap this time, he had braided three strands of it for extra strength. He had a new hook, and a fresh bucket of the same rust-colored minnows. Abe settled himself in the same spot as the day before, cast the baited line out, and waited.

He did not have to wait long. Abe once again catapulted forward, nearly face-planting in the reeds. He scrambled up, clutching the rod against his chest with his left hand, and controlling the line with his right. The fish was frantically churning the water, back and forth, around and around. The boy began to see bits of it as it rose near the surface—the tip of a fin, the end of a tail, fish scales gleaming under the water. Abe planted his feet in the roots of the tree and stood his ground, gradually leaning back and winding the braided line around his hand. He clenched his jaws against the line cutting into his flesh and concentrated on the fish.

All of the sudden, the bass made a giant leap against the force of the line. Abe seemed to freeze in his tracks as more and more fish rose out of the water! Almost a yard of fins, tail and scales launched out of the pond, tipped on its side in a graceful arc—then splash!

Abe found himself lying face down in mud. A reed was tickling his ear, and the minnows (escaped from his can) were nibbling at him from all sides. Spluttering, Abe threw himself onto the bank, hands groping for his rod. There it was—a few feet away in the water. It was intact, and so was the line… but the hook and minnow were snapped cleanly off. He stared in disbelief, first at the severed line, then at the peaceful pond. That fish must have been the granddaddy of all largemouth bass. Danny would never believe this! He stood in awe for a minute more, then packed up and went home.

 

Danny broke out in rude laughter, setting down his milkshake with a thump on the bar counter. “Abe, you must have hit your head out there. No bass that big lives in Persimmon Pond.” Amused, he slurped up the rest of his milkshake and sat back in his chair with a sigh.

His brother slapped his forehead in frustration. “Danny, I ain’t fibbin’! Two days in a row now, I nearly caught him. First he snapped my rod, then he took my hook clean off!”

Danny’s dark blue eyes twinkled. “And so, my dear brother,” he said, “How big was this bass?”

Abe stopped, remembering. “I reckon about thirty inches long.”

A loud guffaw startled them from a corner of the general store. Harold Cheever and Bobby Mack Hill had paused in their checker game, listening skeptically to the boys at the counter.

Mr. Hill chewed on a stem of wheat and squinted at Abe. “Upon my life, son, you spin the best fishin’ yarns I heard in ages. And how many pounds ya think this giant was?”

Abe turned pink from his collar to his scalp. “I don’t rightly recommember, Mr. Hill,” he answered stiffly. “There ain’t always a way to judge that just from the size of a fish.”

Mr. Cheever nodded sagely. “To be sure, to be sure,” he agreed. “But, a’course, I must know what you had for bait. I’d like to go out and try it fer myself.”

The younger boy squirmed. “Creek minners, sir.”

Their laughter filled the room. Even Danny joined in. “I’m sure,” said Mr. Hill. “Then you could also catch a whale with a common river trout!” They let out another bellow of laughter.

“It was on my string, I tell you!” said Abe hotly. His hands were balled into fists.

Danny gave him a hard older-brother look. “Shut up, Abe. It was funny at first, but this is too much!”

Abe stared at him. “You don’t believe me?”

“Why should we?” His brother leaned back confidently.

Abe was just about to leap off the bar stool and storm out of the general store when kind Mr. Ross Slater (who watched the store) laid a hand on his arm.

“Perhaps young Abe here has got something to his story,” he said.

Abe looked up at him gratefully. “I do!”

The men at the checker table gaped at him. “Ross Slater, tell me where in Persimmon Pond there is a thirty-inch largemouth bass.”

Mr. Slater crossed his arms. “I’m sure there’re some lurking in those marshy spots on the far end.”

“Yes!” Abe yelped. “My favorite spot is the super deep cove by the huge water oak.”

“I propose,” said Mr. Slater thoughtfully, “That we all go to that exact spot early tomorrow morning, and watch exactly what Abe does. We can’t help him, but if he lands a thirty-inch largemouth bass on the shore, Mr. Cheever and Mr. Hill will apologize and Danny will do his brother’s chores for a week.”

Abe nearly fell off the stool in excitement. “I’ll be there at six a.m.,” he announced, “Whether anybody is there or not.”

Mr. Hill stopped chewing his wheat stem. “But Slater—,” protested Mr. Cheever.

Mr. Slater held up his hand, then made Danny another milkshake. And that was the end of it.

 

“Are we all here?” asked Mr. Slater. Mr. Cheever and Mr. Hill nodded grudgingly, as did a few other local gray-beards, who had joined in when they heard about the hullabaloo.

“There’s Danny!” said Abe.

The dark-haired boy came at a run across the meadow.  “I brought a camera in case anything interesting happens.”

“Abe, cast your line.”

The boy settled his cap on his head, baited his new hook, and carefully tossed it into the reeds where he had the days before.

“What kind of a rod is that?” Mr. Hill mumbled around his straw stem. “It doesn’t even have a reel.”

“Why are you casting it in the reeds?” demanded Mr. Cheever. “It’ll get caught!”

Mr. Slater motioned for quiet. They all shut up and stood for what seemed like an eternity to Abe. Finally, when his forelock was soaked with nervous sweat, he saw a filmy line of bubbles suspiciously circling his line. He put a finger to his lips, then pointed. Mr. Slater elbowed the sleepier gents, who immediately jolted awake and ogled at the bubbling surface.

Abe gripped the stout rod with one hand against his chest, and used his other hand to gently play with the line and tease the fish. When he had a gentle tug on the line, he immediately jerked it up. In no time at all he had a sunfish gasping on the bank.

Disgusted, he tossed it back in amid the shouts of laughter the men gave. Danny looked very smug, while Mr. Slater offered a reassuring smile to Abe. “Try again,” he urged.

Abe tentatively tried again, only to bring up a bunch of soaked reeds caught on his hook and sopping minnow. The laughter redoubled while his face tinted the hue of his mother’s homemade raspberry preserves. Some men started to leave, but Mr. Slater stood in their way. “Give the boy one last chance.”

Under the scrutinizing gazes of chuckling men, Abe very slowly hooked another silvery-orange minnow and looked again at the reedy water. There were the bubbles again. When he had hooked the sunfish, he wasn’t quite sure that it had been the source of the mysterious bubbles. Probably it had gotten lost in these reeds away from its normal spots and was dodging the giant bass. Abe was getting hopeful as he detected some more delicate bubbles popping in the sun. “Here goes nothin’,” he muttered, and carefully cast his line to the right of the bubbles.

With a yell, he was yanked into the water. He rolled onto his feet and stood his ground in the thick mud on the edge of the bank and pulled with clenched teeth. The men were stock still, rubbernecking at the furious water. There it was! The bass leaped out of the water and dove with a sharp choofnk. But Abe had doubled the strands in his braided line and was prepared for a fight. Again! The bass twisted through the air, scales glistening in the sun. He was bigger than Abe had remembered!

Over and over the bass jumped, battling against Abe tooth and nail. The boy gripped the rod till he thought his arms would fall off, but he stood staunchly.

Step by step, however, he was inching backwards. The bass was struggling more aggressively when he realized what was happening. “Get the boy a net!” someone called.

“No!” Mr. Slater commanded. “Let’im land it himself!”

Abe had the advantage on land. He braced his feet in the roots of the water oak. The bass jumped higher than he had before, but Abe gave a mighty tug while the fish was in midair. In a split second, Abe landed on the fish, ferociously keeping him pinned to the ground. Danny snapped a picture of the giant under Abe’s grasp. Someone got out a measuring tape.

“Thirty-one inches,” proclaimed Mr. Slater. “Judging from the size, I’d say he’s about nineteen, twenty pounds.”

Abe stared down at the fish beneath him. He still writhed, trying to get out of his prison, but the boy held firm.

“So, young fella,” said Mr. Cheever. “Looks like we’re in for an apology. I’m truly sorry I gave you such a hard time.” Mr. Hill added his regrets and Abe said not to worry about it.

“What’ll you do with him?” asked Mr. Carroll. “Mount’im? Have fish steaks? I kin give you my wife’s recipe for some doggone tasty fried bass.”

Abe shook his head numbly. The menfolk trickled across the meadow, and Danny ran home to start his new bout of chores. Finally, Abe made a decision.

“Sorry about this big ol’ deal,” he told the fish, gently unhooking him. “Why, would you look at that! You still have my other hook stuck in your cheek.” He looked at it for a moment, then left it in. “Maybe if anybody else ever catches you, they’ll know you were the fish I caught. Thanks a million, ol’ boy.”

He stepped in the squishy mud and looked one last time at the big bass. The fish was quiet. Then Abe bent down and the giant slipped silently back into the water. Abe gathered up his pole and minnows, watching the curious bubbles glide away.

A few steps farther, he turned to take another look at the bubbles. But they were gone. Not a creature moved on the surface of Persimmon Pond. Only the trees whispered goodbye.

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