Mike Wilson: Gar in the boat

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, May 25, 2023

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Mike WilsonI guess you can say I had a way of getting myself into unusual predicaments when I was a boy because I was so curious about nature and (this is up for debate) too ingenious for my own good. For some reason, the summer of my thirteenth year stands out in my mind thanks to a string of close encounters…

When school let out that June, I went with a friend whose dad was a Baptist minister up to the hill country near Standing Stone State Park and Dale Hollow Reservoir to give a Vacation Bible School for underprivileged children. We stayed in a lodge in the park and drove each day in a van to a small church in a remote community. During free time, I would go fishing (my rod was never very far from me in those days) in a nice, clear little stream that ran through the park.

I was standing on a flat rock that jutted out into the stream, and I had a few little trout on my stringer. When I bent down to string another one, I noticed a big V-shaped chunk was missing out of one of them. I watched a minute and, sure enough, a big snapper head came out from under that rock and took another bite. I decided I would stop that thievery and get a turtle to make into turtle soup, a delicacy I had heard of but never tried. The next time the head stuck out, I jabbed down with my folding fishing knife right through its neck and pinned it to the gravel bottom. Well, snappers are stronger — and their necks are longer — than you think; it was all I could do to keep it pinned down with both hands while it very slowly drowned and bled out. My knees were killing me from kneeling on that rock for half an hour, but I couldn’t let go. Cleaning it was no picnic either, but it was worth it. My host family’s mother gamely parboiled the meat and cooked up a sort of chowder with potatoes and a side of trout.

A few weeks later, the WWWC (Watsons, Wilsons, Wickers, and Coles, four families from the Cherry Road Baptist Church in Memphis, each with an eldest son and Boy Scout from my troop plus assorted playmates for my sisters), rented what was once a school at Ruskin Cave near Dickson, Tennessee. That big old building had a commercial kitchen and even a top-floor ballroom/gym where we had a blast. At night, the boys and fathers went frog gigging and would bring back a towsack full of big bullfrogs that the moms fried up fresh. One day when we were throwing baseballs outside, I saw a hawk fly right into a stovepipe that stuck out the side of the kitchen, and I reasoned that, if I got up on a ladder and held my landing net over the hole, I could catch that hawk. I took my place and recruited one buddy to hold the ladder and another to go inside and bang on the pipe with a broomstick. Well, it worked perfectly! And suddenly there I was with a very angry hawk tangled up in my net and screaming as I teetered on that ladder…I managed to keep it at arm’s length and make it back on the ground, where I dropped the net and ran since I had already had a close enough look and my curiosity was well sated. It managed to untangle itself and fly away in a few minutes; I was glad it wasn’t hurt.

Not long after that, I was up at Lick Creek to fish with my granddaddy. I was now permitted to go out alone with the boat inside the creek, so I would go out in the afternoons when he took his nap. Now he always carried in the boat a steel bar about .25 thick and 18 inches long with a duct-tape handle that he called his “shillelagh.” Because it cut through the water handily, it was good for subduing big catfish and especially gars if we found one on the trotlines. He always told me, “Never bring a gar into the boat.” He would whack them, get them off the line with pliers, and leave them for the turtles to eat.

One of those afternoons when I was out alone, I got a big gar about three feet long on a jug and hit him with the shillelagh, but I decided to keep him since I had read that the Seminoles had used their tough skins to make shields, and I wanted so see if I could make one for the Indian dances at Boy Scout camp. I grabbed him by the tail and pulled him aboard, and he picked that very moment to become un-stunned.

Friends, that gar started thrashing about and snapping at everything in the boat, and he managed to bite the pressurized fuel line such that gas began to spray all over the place from the pinholes he made. I had to just sit up in the bow — the farthest I could get from him — and wait till he finally expired from being out of water. I was afraid to start the outboard with all those gas fumes around — and it could no longer be pressurized with the little squeeze bulb anyway — so I wound up paddling with the little two-foot sculling paddle all the way back to the boathouse, almost half a mile. I had dumped the gar evidence, but I had to ‘fess up as to how the fuel line got damaged. Granddaddy was singularly unamused.

To this day, when someone in our family wants something — like a new and challenging and/or far-off job that seems a stretch to apply to — and then actually gets it, our immediate reaction is, “Gar in the boat!” I guess maybe you can see why.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.