I keep saying I'ma gonna head further South where the croakers, spots, and blues run. Maybe Solomon's Island, maybe Point Lookout; but I'm stuck on Lower Marlboro cuz the sunset there is to die for. In the middle of the summer it falls towards the horizon directly opposite the pier.
When evening comes the hot days seems to disappear and if you are lucky there is a cool breeze blowing off the water strong enough to keep the bugs away. Sooner or later, maybe just for a moment, you’ll realize the wind has stopped screaming in your ears. Then comes the gurgling of the water with the heavy current singing under the almost dusk. You’ll notice the sun staring at you like a giant reddish orange eye, like a god whose holiness won’t allow you to look at her straight.
But sunset at Lower Marlboro she allows you that.
Sometimes I think I’ve spent too much of my life chasing the bottom feeders with long whiskers who honk and wriggle every time you pull them out of the water.
Most of the people I know don’t eat them.
Cuz a catfish will eat anything. I have heard the stories of catfish with condoms found in their belly. I know it’s disgusting; but I grew up catching and eating catfish with my father. Of course we caught and ate other things; but that fat head catfish almost blue croaking out of the water functioned like a symbol of where we come from.
My daddy grew up eating the sweet meat of catfish like a whole lotta folks down South. If you ever skinned a catfish you will know the slime that sometimes seem to sliver up off his body. He's the pig of the sea. He's the animal whose skin says he's a different type of fish.
I also read once that some people imagined a pig as strong because it could eat anything. Here of course we imagine it as dirty; but I can buy that.
For years I became to smart to eat them; but grew to imagine my father's power as an ancestor too great to deny. He grew up fishing to eat in Georgia. So I began to view some of the five and six pound catfish I threw back into the water as a both a waste and denial of his lessons. And now, depending on the day, I take ‘em and place’ em in the cooler, bring ‘em back home cut off their heads and skin ‘em with pliers.
Skinning a catfish is always a messy dirty job.
The first time I did it, I was scared to death. Mr. Catfish’s got these spikes on his body like nails just below the head. He's got these long whiskers that jut out of his mouth. He'll jump up and down and make you think he's not really a fish. When he gets out a water he’ll jump and squirm acting like he can survive there for the rest of his life.
Not too long ago, there was a walking catfish who could survive on land for hours. He was vicious and would come up out of the water and eat vermin. Folks were scared. I imagined a man eating catfish in the dark night when I would fish up the road at Wayson's Corner, which is just a ways up from Lower Marlboro on the Patuxent. There I used to see snakes, raccoons, and beavers. One night I heard a splash in the water that sounded like a body being dropped over the bridge. Each one of those fears I ate. I trembled a bit, but I also knew they were not the man eating catfish and I was less afraid.
Truth is the thought of eating a catfish sometimes makes my stomach sick. Mr. Catfish is ugly and funky; and the ones I catch definitely aren’t farm raised.
Other times I watch the current get heavy and realize I have no idea what's under the surface of the water. Shit, there could be dead bodies-who knows what the catfish eat?
But I also remember as a tiny boy, fishing on the Potomac with my father in the late fall and watching that different river move with a similar current and force. On that day, my father hooked one so big, when he hoisted it up, It covered the entire length of his forearm and hung down at least a foot more. He carried it like that all the way to the car. It was his trophy.
"Oh yes, I'ma eat em." He said.
I wasn’t the best fisherman then, but I was hooked.
Many years later, someone scoffed at the fact that we had eaten a cat-fish out of that dirty river, and I thought about it. I was like damm, I'd seen the dirt and filth myself. My father was dead by then, and I meditated on him and learned another lesson about both myself and the man.
I usually fry the one's I catch, cut up hot peppers or habeneros and mix it in with some rice.
Yes, I'ma bottom feeder eater.
But I see all types of folks down at the pier.
I'm not the only one.
Most times I fish well past dark staring and into the night. I rest my old lantern on top of the ridge of the wooden pier near the tip of the rods for signs. I am an interpreter of the subtle movements in the river. They travel to my rod and mean something. Sometimes it's the current, sometimes it's the little ones nibbling on the bait, sometimes it's crab.
I watch. I wait. I stand up. I grab the rod gently. I meditate. I pay attention.
Fishing is the way I remember my father. Often I stare at the line with such intent I know he would never be impatient with me now. He'd be proud.
The road to Lower Marlboro cuts through the same terrain that surrounds Upper Marlboro; but it’s further down river. Closer to the city the river is hidden in the trees, and cuts under the highway here and there. We know it's there, but it is not important enough then. One could mistaken it for a stream or a creak. It is river that has not yet begun its majesty. In those parts one can be conscious of it, but not behold it.
Upper Marlboro is more contemporary location than Lower sitting in a congested part of Prince George's County that houses the County Courthouse and Executive Offices. With all the homes, and office buildings it is hard to imagine that there's a river flowing through the midst of what people are doing. Even there nature still shines her beauty. There’s a magnificent lake out behind the administration building with a beautiful pathway were one can talk calm and peaceful walks. The beauty of all of it cannot be denied. While developed there are enough trees to get a sense of the land as a beauty that somehow encompasses all the things humans create.
Upper Marlboro also houses the correctional facility for the county where criminal offenders get locked up. On the threshold of adulthood, a young man I grew up with would step out the house in fresh gear and mumble, " They'll take you down Upper Marlboro. Send'em down Upper Marlboro." at odd points in conversations at the basketball court or up under the street lights. Everytime he said it, it struck me as strange. He was learning about the drama of the world and what we now refer to as the path and challenge of young men. It was a distant world that he imagined somewhere far off. Some of us where going there like headed around the bend of a river-a place we could not see. I think he said it cuz he was traumatized by somebody he knew that got locked up. I think he was trying to acknowledge the mysterious nature of our trajectory forward and ward off the violence and fear we all felt. It was less fear and more mystery. The way he said it was hip. It had D.C., P.G. County gangsta accent all over it.
Lower Marlboro is different from Upper because it is the country. By the time you get to its piece of the Patuxent, the river is no longer a secret. By then all three branches of the River have joined into one large tract of water rushing towards the Bay.
The Patuxent is the largest River in Maryland with three main tributaries: The Lower Patuxent, the Middle Patuxent, and the Western Branch. The Western Branch begins not far from my house in Glenn Dale,
Where I live it seems like we have no rivers, but we do.
My father would always say life is as uncertain as death is certain.
Sometimes when I'm not fishing I wonder whether fishing for bottom feeders is a sign of some family tragedy of choosing the lowest point, the easiest and close to effortless task.
A few weeks back I took the drive down to the Lower Marlboro pier on the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland. I'd gone fishing with my two rods and old blue cooler packed with ice, shrimp and liver.
My tackle box is old and beat up and full of rusted the fisherman's junk and secrets. The hooks are all tangled onto each other and the sinkers are out of their packages. When I carry the box you can hear them rustle almost like loose change in a man's pocket.
Time at the river boarders on meditation, though I am watching the tiny tip of a rod to see if it moves; and if it does, I wanna know why?
But those are thoughts. The real action is the way you grab the rod and feel the connection with what’s underneath the water. You have to be patient-polite-gentle.
To catch a fish you have to learn what you don’t know. You have to communicate by thin line with an unknown you know but don’t see.
Many years ago I learned to fish with my father. Back then, I had not yet learned patience; and imagine he may not have either. Often when he called out to me I could here the frustration in his voice when I would cast my line over his, or miss a fish yanking on the line.
He was not raised by his father though he fished with his step dad and the father who adopted him. Patience is hard for those not raised by their fathers. A young boy without his father imagines he is self taught in ways that a father will contradict. I had some of both. My father was there and not there.
As a child only Christmas and visits from my father seemed to give me a giddy feeling accompanied by a sleeplessness that followed as I thought about what the next day would hold. Early in those mornings, I would wake up after sleep had taken me deep into another place. We would arrive early while the crickets were still swinging their legs together raising a song into the air into the damp world. There's nothing like morning's smell mixed with water on the edge of water as the midst and the sun rise up.
My parent’s divorced when I was seven. In his absence I would practice things meticulously. In his presence I would strive for perfection. More than anything I missed the joy of seeing my father come home and walk in the house.
I missed sidekicking beside him out to the ole shed if we was cutting the grass. If he was working, I'd watch. If he asked for something I would run as fast as I could into the house to grab the tool, making sure I was fast and right.
Water is worthy of worship, so worthy that to worship it makes the notion of blasphemy seem odd and ill. Of course, by worship, we do not mean water is God, but it is fascinating to watch and contemplate.
I thank my father now for teaching me to contemplate rivers and patience. His lessons were taught without teaching. One could never suspect that the river was the point of the journey. We had gone to fish. It was our only goal.
And often there were rocks, we would walk through slowly, as though they were an obstacle course. We were not outdoors men, but we were outdoors.
He was not a man of prayer, but when it came to fishing it seemed he was a believer in the patience required, the nature of the hook, the nature of the worms, the pace of the world.
To the left of Lower Marlboro you can see a bend. The current is always strong. People come by on their boats, some folks swim, some folks go back and forth, It's Maryland Tobacco country that ends on a pier in the Patuxuent River, where people sometimes fish.
In the old days folks would sail barges into the pier, pick up the dark musty leaves and sail the freight down into the Bay.
We know the river has always been a freeway.