At the gas station by the lake, the man behind the counter encouraged me to use the services of a Baptist church down the road.
"If you don't catch anything, you can always pray for help," he said. He sat behind a counter that displayed the fruits of many such prayers. It was cluttered with hooks, weights, bottle caps and snapshots of men hoisting giant, swollen-bodied catfish.
There is a certain culture to hunting the ignoble catfish.
My preferred fishing trip involves trout, clean water, Neoprene waders, a collared shirt and a trunk-full of gear worth more than the car it's in. But the profile of a catfish excursion is less genteel. A recent spring night's trip to Jordan Lake required a visit to Wal-Mart, 11 empty plastic jugs, a roll of duct tape, a banged-up canoe, dingy T-shirts and a box of canned beverages. Our mission was to snag a whiskered bottom feeder with the tried-and-true Southern tactic known as jugging.
Jugging was introduced to me years ago as the high peak in lazy man's fishing. It's accomplished by stringing together a few empty milk jugs and dropping bait below them. Then, you sit on the bank and watch, preferably with a beverage in one hand and a piece of deer jerky in the other. When a big fish takes the bait, it exhausts itself trying to drag the jugs underwater. When the jugs stop moving, you pull your exhausted quarry to shore. Dinner is served.
The catfish is no native brook trout, and those attempting to catch them adjust their tackle and tactics accordingly. No pastel pictures or lyrical Norman Maclean encomium for the vulgar mud-dweller. Catfish are ugly, slimy and mean, but they have a certain Darwinian fitness that necessitates a grudging respect. I once had to carve a mouth-shaped chunk out of the side of a plastic cooler after an 8-pound catfish that I thought was dead revived itself for long enough to clamp down on the cooler like a vise. You couldn't have pried its jaws open with a crowbar. Even in death, the catfish is tenacious and tough.
Some species survive by eating nothing but rotting matter on pond bottoms. The walking catfish can wriggle over long distances of land searching for a body of water. The smallest member of the catfish family, the Amazonian candiru, is a parasite that lodges itself in the urinary tracts of larger fish or, occasionally, soon-to-be-scarred-for-life humans. Catfish are thriving on six continents and destroying many a native ecosystem with their bull-headed, almost cockroach-like survivability.
To fishermen, catfish are a controversy. Some swear by them and claim they're strong, intelligent fighters who are good sport to catch. In 1987, Ronald Reagan proclaimed June 25 National Catfish Day. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for me, but a presidential proclamation isn't nothing.
I'm of two minds. To me, a catfish has the fight of a half-rotten log and rewards its captor with queer grunts, bites and thorny, often-poisoned fin stingers that will split your hand open if you aren't careful. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is hip to my first mind. Catfish aren't classified as game fish in the state, and thus their capture is nearly entirely unregulated. If it has whiskers and slime, and you catch it, you can do what you will with it.
On the other hand, it can be charming to sit next to a lazy lake in the dark watching a cluster of jugs for any sign of movement.
Basically, if I'm going to fish for catfish, I'm going to have a good time while doing it, because the fish itself isn't reward enough. We set up at dusk on a muddy beach with a plume of steam from a nearby power plant looming over the water. The serious jug fisherman can purchase special buoys, trotlines and fish-finding gadgets to enhance the experience, but we went the more authentic route, lashing together clusters of sealed jugs and dropping the foul-smelling bait six feet below them. A few tippy canoe forays later and our traps were set. And then we waited, sitting on the bank with a dim crank lantern and, sadly, no deer jerky. It was a beautiful, clear night, with the Spanish-language voices of men fishing off a nearby dock carrying across the lake late into the night. And then we waited some more.
Hope springs eternal in the jug fisherman's breast, and to us, every gust of wind or shift in current signaled a fish on the line. Most were nothing, but we had fun checking them out anyway. Some time around 10 p.m., one bundle of jugs started zigzagging on the surface. I pulled it to shore and there, thrashing in the mud, was a grunting white catfish. We cut it loose, and it flopped and disappeared into the muddy brown water.