Richmond, Virginia, is a city on a river.  A river with big catfish.  Seriously.  Huge blue catfish over 60 pounds.

When I first moved to Richmond, I had no boat, and didn’t know my way around.  But I had already heard about the big catfish.  So, within the first week I moved, I was on a mission to find them.

As I talked to the locals, I made the mistake of asking a question that was too specific.  “Where can I go to catch really big catfish?”  Everyone told me about a spot downtown where I could fish for huge cats right from the bank.  (What I didn’t ask was, “Where would YOU go to catch really big catfish?”)

What they DIDN’T tell me, was that it was in one of the sketchiest parts of town, and I’d be risking life, limb, and more importantly my fishing gear by fishing from the bank right downtown.

So, I headed down to find a spot along the banks and do some catfishing.  When I got to the place everyone described, I knew I was in the right spot because there were other people fishing there.  Good enough for the locals, good enough for me!

It was already after 10:00 pm and completely dark when I moseyed on up and asked if I could fish with them (there wasn’t much room of clear spot).  They were friendly and welcoming.  And that’s where I met “Grandma Catfish”.

Grandma Catfish was about 80 years old, but she didn’t look a day over 120.  Her face was more wrinkles than skin, and she had no “teef”.  She’d been fishing that same spot for more decades  than I had been alive.  And she knew everone there.  We chatted, swapped fish tales, and caught the occasional fish.  I was there for a biggun, so I was going to release all the little catfish I caught.  But GC would have none of it.  Everything I caught that I didn’t want went right into her cooler.  So be it.

I sat there with the rest of the crowd until some time around 2:00 am, at which point I had to go get some sleep since I had to work the next morning.  I’m still not sure how Grandma Catfish could stay up so late.  But she was there the next night when I returned.  And the next, and the next.

It was after a few of these nights that I entered a local tackle store populated with employees named “Bubba” and “Bud”.  As I was stocking up on some more catfish rigs, I off-handedly mentioned where I had been fishing.  Everyone in the store stopped what they were doing to pick their jaws up off the floor.  “You’re CRAZY!”  “You were fishing WHERE?!”  “How many times have you been mugged?”  These were the types of replies I got.

“What do you mean?”  That’s when they told me that the part of town I was in was known for drugs, crime, shootings, robbery, etc.  Especially guys with nice tackle boxes.  To hear it from these guys, apparently the crime lords of downtown Richmond had their eyes set on lead sinkers (to melt down to make bullets and put in paint, or something).

The next time I headed down there, I was a little more aware of my surroundings.  The gunshots were far enough away that I wasn’t all that worried.  But I did encounter my first “non-friendly”.

Some guy came up, obviously under the influence of something, and started hassling me.  Well, really he promised that I was his best friend, and that he really, really needed my tackle box.  This, in spite of the fact that he had no fishing pole, unless it was in the small paper bag he was toting.

Before I could say anything, Grandma Catfish came to the rescue.  “Leroy, you go on home!  You don’t need to be comin’ around here all drunk!  You git home now or I’ll tell Rita what you been doin!”

He staggered off muttering (I’m pretty sure I heard “lead sinkers” in there somewhere), and we continued fishing.

Hooray for fishing, transcending so many differences, allowing to make friends with Grandma Catfish.

(Editor’s Note: Todd wrote this story, but I added my comments in red.  At least I think it’s red, being color blind and all.)

Years ago when Matt and I first started fishing together, trips were pretty straight forward. We were both too poor for charter boats or guides, or even decent tackle. Back then, all the fishing gear I owned fit neatly in half of the back seat of my car with room to spare. In fact, that may be why the back seat of my car always had an aroma all its own, but that’s another story…

Since neither of us had a boat, we fished from every shoreline, beach and and pier within driving range. Looking back now that we both have boats and have fished all over the country, there’s a lot to be said for simplicity. (Dude…it’s called “desperation”.) We were never late leaving for a trip because the boat trailer lights quit working or because we left the plug for the boat in the “other” truck. When we wanted to go fishing, everything we needed was usually already in either his car or mine.

During early spring, one of our favorite spots was along the banks of the Patuxent River in Maryland, just below the fall line. We’d meet after work in the evenings and head straight for the river where white and yellow perch would run up the river to spawn. This particular hole was well known among the locals and if the weather was nice we’d have to wedge ourselves between other anglers to get a spot on the bank. This was minimalistic fishing… just a couple of rods for each of us, leaning against forked sticks shoved into the mud. After dark, we attached bells to the ends of the rods so we could hear when the fish started biting. On nights when the tide was wrong, we’d sit for a couple of hours without a single bite waiting for the tide to change.

(One note about this fishing spot. It was on a tiny peninsula that had the river on one side, and a swamp on the other. The little spit of land on which we sat was about 10 feet wide.)

One chilly evening in March, the temperature dropped and it started to rain. Everyone left but us. With an hour or so before the tide was going to change, Matt and I decided to scrounge some wood and build a fire. We’d seen plenty of other guys with fires along the river and never thought about whether or not it was a good idea, or even legal… we were cold and getting wet and a fire was just the thing we needed to cheer things up.

We picked up a pretty good pile of trash, stacked wood on top and pretty soon had a nice campfire right on the river bank. (“Nice campfire”?!?  As I recall, we had a stump made of petrified wood burning white hot.  I seem to remember us literally putting glass beer bottles we found along the river into the fire and watching them melt.  Seriously.) Before long, the rain stopped, the tide changed and the fish turned on. In just a few minutes, we were jumping from rod to rod catching four fish at a time to the sound of the bells attached to our rods in what must have resembled a weird redneck ballet. Neither of us felt the wind pick up until it was almost too late…

I don’t know if it was the sudden source of heat or the roaring sound we noticed first, but Matt and I both turned around to see that our little camp fire had jumped onto our “reserve” pile of wood and was rapidly heading into the woods along the river.

We wasted no time and leaped immediately to action. To the casual observer it might have appeared like we were jumping up and down, waving our arms and screaming at each other like little girls, but to a more experienced eye, it would have been obvious that we were energetically debating differing methods of forest fire management. My preferred method involved a sprint to the car and an anonymous call from the nearest phone booth. Matt argued that since we both had 5 gallon buckets and an entire river just a few feet behind us, we should probably just toss water on the fire until it was out. I quickly countered that his method involved more than a little risk of personal injury and possible jail time if it weren’t successful. Plus, we’d be doing the community a favor by giving the volunteer fire department a real fire to practice with. In the end, I gave up trying to reason with him. After all, some people just aren’t good under pressure.  (HA!  You make it sound so reasonable.  The decision was made for us when the aforementioned peninsula was on fire…between us and the truck.  I believe my argument in the debate was centered around the fact that on a cold, windy March night, it might be in our best interest to extinguish the fire between us and our means of escape rather than try to swim in the 34 degree water to get around it.  Oh…and you forgot to mention that when the fire was out, we kept fishing, of course!)

My wife gets this little eye twitch when you bring up the topic of coolers at our house. She swears that she wasn’t terrified of coolers until after she married me, but I have my doubts. Deep-seated fear like that doesn’t happen overnight.

Like any outdoorsman, I’ve had my share of coolers over the years that have met with various fates. I’ve had coolers fall out of the boat in rough seas, watched them fall out of the back of the truck going down the highway, and I’ve even lost a couple to forgetfulness.

Let me explain… The first cooler I lost to forgetfulness was when Nancy and I were first married. My best friend, Matt, had recently moved to Richmond and discovered that a small crowd gathered on the North bank of the James River at night to fish for catfish off an old abandoned concrete pier. Matt and I were both diehard fishermen and at the time, neither of us had a boat, so I drove from my house in Maryland to meet Matt and go for catfish at night.

We used a Carolina rig with chicken livers tied up in panty hose for bait. It was a messy business, but it turned out that the river was loaded with eatin’ sized blue cats, flatheads and channel cats. Being young and poor, the idea of catching dinner, or perhaps several dinners, was attractive, so I hoped to take a few home. When the drag on my reel started singing, I waited patiently, counted to 10, set the hook and felt a really nice pull. The excitement of a “big” fish drew a crowd from the guys on the pier and after a few minutes, I hauled in a catfish large enough that I had to bend it to close the lid of my cooler.

Driving home the next morning, I was pretty excited to show Nancy our upcoming dinner. I no sooner pulled in the driveway than I had the cooler and fish out to show off. Amazingly, the catfish, which had been on ice since it came out of the water, was still alive. That’s good, I thought, because I can take a shower and catch a short nap before I clean the catfish.

Of course, I’d forgotten that we were leaving to go on vacation the next day.

When we got back from vacation a week later and pulled into the driveway, the assault on our olfactory senses was blinding. It turns out that catfish may be tough, but a week in a cooler during the middle of summer reduces the fish to… well, words really can’t describe it.

My parents, who’d come over to pick up our mail and check on the house had left a message that we could come get the mail, but they weren’t even going to pull into the driveway until we’d “fixed the smell.” Our neighbors said that they’d almost called the cops because they thought someone had died in the house.

One sniff of the back porch was enough to draw several conclusions: 1) Opening the lid of the cooler was out of the question; 2) the cooler would never, ever recover; and 3) We couldn’t wait until the trash was picked-up to get rid of the mess. So I put plastic in the trunk of my car, tied an old, stinky shirt around my face and put the cooler in the trunk of my car and started driving.

I wasn’t sure where I was going with it, but after half an hour, I remembered that the auto mechanic who’d tried to rip me off a few weeks before had a dumpster beside his shop. I drove straight there and carefully tossed the entire cooler in the dumpster. Looking back, I guess that the mechanic was probably just a regular crook who preyed on the good folk of Montgomery County and didn’t deserve what he surely smelled on Monday morning, but that’s what you get when you mess with a forgetful fisherman.