THE WALKING CATFISH
This story is a true story. I know it is true because it happened to me. (Sneeze)
I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, right on the banks of the Illinois River. My favorite thing to do when I was a boy was to go fishing. When I was sitting in the boat with my dad and we were rowing around whether or not we caught anything, I was in heaven. My dad would be telling me jokes and stories. I tell you, I was in heaven. I just loved to go fishing with my dad and I still do.
I'll never forget this one day: My dad and I were out rowing on the river. As we were rowing around I put a squiggly worm on my hook. I had a big lead sinker and my trusty Zebco 202. I was cat-fishing. I looked out and tried to figure out where are those catfish hiding. I cast my line… z-z-z-z... Splash ... it landed right where I wanted it.
Well, my sinker and hook landed right where I wanted it to go. Wouldn't you know it, just as soon as it hit the water this V started moving over towards my line just like it was meant to be. No sooner had my sinker sunk down to the bottom and I tightened up the line when I felt a little nibble. I knew not to pull too fast or too hard. I waited until that little nibble began to feel like a tug. When I felt that tug ... I set the hook and I started reeling it in! Whoa did it fight! It was pulling to the left and pulling to the right.
I reeled it in and got that catfish up next to the boat. I said, "Dad get the net ready! It’s a big one!" He said, "We don't have a net son."
I pulled it up. It was so big that I knew that if I tried to pick it up the line might break. So my dad reached in, got his finger underneath the gills and pulled it into the boat. My dad said, "Shoo-wee, that's one of the biggest catfish I think I've ever seen."
Now, I am not a very big man and I was smaller when I was a boy, but that catfish was almost as big as I was. The world record for flathead catfish is 91 pounds. The Illinois record is 78 pounds. My fish weighed 47 1/2 pounds, I was more than a couple of pounds shy of the state record, but none could argue, this was a big fish. I said, "Shoowee, that's the biggest catfish I've ever caught."
(I did see a picture of the state’s largest catfish. It was caught by a man who stood 6’3” and when he held it up by his shoulder it nearly dragged on the ground. That catfish was so big the picture weighed five pounds!)
In those days we didn't have coolers with lots of ice you. Do you remember those days? We would wrap fish up in wet newspaper to keep it moist and fresh. I took it on home and put it on the back porch.
I ran in the house and yelled, "Mom, mom, look at this catfish I caught, look at this catfish." My mom came running out onto the back porch. My mom said, "Shoo-wee, that's the biggest catfish I've ever seen."
I said, "Mom do you think that we could eat it for supper tonight?"
My mom has always enjoyed pulling my leg, that’s why I walk a little lopsided. She said, "Why that catfish is so big we could eat it for supper and breakfast and lunch and supper and breakfast and lunch and supper and breakfast and lunch and supper and breakfast and lunch ..."
I knew it was a big catfish and the truth is it could feed a family of 5 boys for several meals.
We unwrapped the newspaper and it looked kind of dead, its eyes were all bugged out, its lips were going: glub, glub, glub. I said, "Mom, dad, look, it's still alive! We can't eat it if it’s still alive, can we?” You see in those days we'd never heard of sushi.
My dad said he was feeling kind of tired. It was late in the evening. He said, "We'll just ice it down and leave it here on the back porch. We'll skin it up first thing in the morning and we'll eat it tomorrow."
Well, I didn’t like that idea, but my dad made the rules and I lived by them. He was the king, at least my mom let him think he was. I went upstairs and went to bed. I had trouble getting to sleep that night. You know how it is the day before summer vacation? That's what it felt like. I was just so excited, I just kept thinking about that catfish. I was just tossing and turning in bed all night. I guess eventually I fell asleep because the next morning, I woke up. And when I woke up I slipped on my slippers and I ran down to the back porch… and the catfish was not there.
I started looking around, I found it out in the back yard. It had squirmed off the porch into the grass and ... it was looking kind of dead, it's eyes were all bugged out, his lips were going ... glub, glub, glub. I said, "Mom, dad, come out here. He's still alive!"
My mom and dad came out into the backyard. My dad was still in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee. Maybe you were lucky enough to have a dad like my dad? I could ask him the craziest questions and he always had an answer. Sometimes I thought he was making it up, but I asked, “How come he is still alive? My dad scratched his head and thought about it. He said, "I guess there was just enough dew in the grass to keep him moist and keep him alive." I said, “If he is still alive, can I keep him as a pet please?”
My dad did just what you did, he laughed at me. He said, "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard. I've heard of people having a fish for a pet and I've heard of people having a cat for a pet, but I've never heard of anybody having a catfish for a pet."
I gave them my best puppy dog face and they finally agreed. We could keep it for a few days. Now a catfish that big, where do you think we kept him? That's right, we put him in the bathtub. I filled the bathtub up with water, a little hot, a little cold. I put my little elbow in to make sure it was just right. I needed help from my dad it was that big, and we put it in the tub. You could tell he just loved that water. He was so happy. Have you ever seen a catfish smile? Me either. I don’t think they can, but if he could, he would have been smiling. He looked so happy.
Now, it was a Saturday and I did have chores to do. I forget exactly, but I was either raking the lawn or mowing the leaves. When I finished my chores I went running upstairs to check on the catfish and the bathtub was empty… As he was swimming around his fin got hooked in the chain and pulled out the plug. All of the water had run out and he looked kind of dead… his eyes were all bugged out and his lips were going... glub, glub, glub.
I told you that my dad thought he was smart, he still is, but he never finished fixing anything. That bathroom faucet had a drip, drip, drip. That catfish got his nose in under there and there was just enough water to keep him alive.
I said, "Hey, he's learning to breathe air, look, the way his gills are moving he's learning to breathe air like a human being. I bet if he can breathe air I can teach him to do other things that people can do." My dad said, "Yeh, right, like what?" I said, "Well, maybe I could teach him how to walk." Now you might laugh, but I am not making this up. I read this in Encyclopedia Britannica and they never lie. Have you heard of the walking catfish that lives in Africa? I said, “If a catfish in Africa can walk, then why can't a catfish in Illinois?”
I stood him up on his hind fins and I gave him a little push. He wobbled at first but then he caught his balance and he started walking around the bathroom. I figured if he could walk maybe I could put him to work. I taught him how to mow the lawn. I could lean him on the lawn mower and it helped to hold him up. I fired up the lawn mower and I leaned him on it and he started mowing the lawn.
The neighbors were all watching, they couldn't believe their eyes. One neighbor Mrs. Gryzbowski said, "If he can mow your lawn, do you think he could mow my lawn too?"
That catfish and I, we made a lot of money that summer. We made $47.83. That was back in a day when $47 was a lot of money. Now most kids they make money and their parents take it away from them. Make them save for college. But have you ever heard of a catfish going to Harvard? He got to spend his money! He liked to go and see the movies. We would go down to the Rio Theatre. He loved “Flipper” and “Son Of Flipper” and “Return of Flipper,” anything with fish in them. “Free Willy III” was his favorite. At the end of the movie he had this big smile. He'd clap his little fins if he liked it.
Now I know that you might think that this is a pretty funny story. I’ll bet a few of you are smiling. But the truth is it's a tragedy. You see, one day I came home and my dad said, "Hey son, why don't we take that catfish of yours fishing?" I said, "Daddy, don't talk about fishing in front of the F-I-S-H. He might think that he's killing his relatives or something."
My dad said, "No-o-o, his brain is about the size of a lima bean. He doesn't know what's going on. Truth is he thinks he's a human now." You've heard the saying ignorance is bliss? He was pretty happy all the time.
My dad already had the fishing poles hooked up. We took him on down to the Illinois River. We put him in the boat. We started rowing around. He had trouble casting out. He had never been on this end of a fishing pole before, so I cast out his fishing pole for him. Wouldn't you know it, he got the first bite. He had a little trouble reeling it in and he was kind of slimy. When the fish pulled on his pole he lost his balance, fell into the river and he drowned. That was the end of Mr. Catfish.
This story is available on my River Stories I