Written by Gene Cashman III
Photography by Margaret Palmer
Many a morning Papa would recommend we look into a fishing excursion. He usually had the intention to spy some of his favorite fishing holes and would chirp about all the work to be done. Since Papa had so many other distractions in life, preparation for fishing trip was usually an all day affair. Many an afternoon, I observed Papa bent over a worn tackle box rummaging through various jigs, spoons, corks, spinners, and trebles, rigging up for an outing on the river; some of the tackle new, most of it as old as Papa's grandfather. Poles were inspected, lines re-spooled, tide tables consulted and gasoline tanks topped off. Incidentally, Papa usually got the itch to fish the low incoming tide because he preferred his luck when the fish schooled around oyster rakes waiting to enter marsh grass with the incoming water. Typically, and especially as a young man, this always seemed to occur around six in the morning. However, an early morning fishing trip was always better than anything else I could imagine, and even as an older man I could never really get good sleep the night before. The anticipation of a big day on the river would always fill my thoughts to the point of obsession, Papa too. Papa would methodically attend to details in much the same way, I am told, his father and grandfathers had instructed him as a boy, everything precise and organized. As dusk would fall and dinner time called the poles, tackle boxes, gas tanks, nets, and other assorted accessories lined the porch ready for the pre-dawn march to the boat. Then there was the matter of bait, always a lengthy conversation at the dinner table. Papa, except when pressed for time, used fresh caught bait. We fished in the inter-coastal waters and rarely needed or wanted artificial lures. This meant fresh, live shrimp, mullet, or other assorted bait fish were needed. The process of obtaining such creatures was almost as eventful as the fishing expedition itself. I will never forget the time when Papa, preaching from the bow on responsibility or some other lofty topic forgot to let go of the net and in all his piousness cast himself, along with the net, into the shallow muddy water, head first. Time stopped. In such circumstances laughter is a risky proposition, particularly for a petulant teenage boy. Yet, sometimes boyhood cannot be contained and deep laughter flowed freely; both of us enjoyed the day much more because of it. Anyway, bait procurement usually entailed rowing the small 15 foot skiff across the river to any number of small tidal creeks. This was done at the precise time when the tide was either beginning to run in or flow out of the marsh grass. A large weighted net was then skillfully tossed out in the form of a great circle to snare bait. This is a relatively simple sounding process, but in actuality it must be perfectly choreographed to come off without a hitch. To catch the bait, which congregates in shallow water close to the muddy banks and marsh, you must position yourself close to shore, in the tidal current. This is done so that you can drift down the shoreline pulling yourself along by the tide and the weight of the cast net. However, the river rarely cooperates. The wind and tide never seem to be going in the same direction. The net and its contents bring gallons of muddy water and flopping bait into the boat whose fiberglass bottom instantly becomes slick and dangerous. What usually resulted was a comedy of errors and curse words. Though Papa may never admit it my first foray into bawdy language probably occurred in some half drained creek as he struggled to balance tide, wind, net and young son. I don't hold it against him, there isn't a man or woman alive who hasn't shrieked to the heavens in frustration at some point on the river. But, when things did go well, a couple of quarts worth of bait were netted. The best case scenario was to catch bait on the way to the drop, but we never seemed to do this, therefore the challenge turned to keeping the bait from dying. This was an obsession of Papa's. He always tinkered with various ways to keep the fragile bait alive. This took the form of aerators attached to car batteries to 30-gallon trash cans, drilled full of thousands of tiny holes suspended from the dock. He did whatever it took to keep the bait alive. I am sure there are neonatal intensive care units around the county with less sophistication than Papa's contraptions to keep shrimp, mullet and menhaden living and breathing. When we were certain all the details were attended to we would retreat to bed, fingers crossed we would wake to live bait and hungry fish.
On more ambitious outings the men of the bluff would all rise collectively before dawn and set out crab pots and shrimp the nearby creeks for appetizers and bait. They would then fish until mid-morning, join the ladies on the sandbar for a burger, hit the swinging beds for a cat nap then wake up to a feast of crab, boiled shrimp and whatever species of fish were caught that morning. On days such as this it only took a short while, perhaps a beer or two, for the sun burned and happy men to retire to their cool beds, leaving the women to play cards and chat blissfully into the night. While festive and eventful I preferred the times when it was just Papa and I, together on the river. There was something deeply reassuring about the two of us, together. I always remember waking before dawn the morning of a fishing trip to Papa quietly bustling about getting final details in order, muttering that we must quickly get on the river; the tide waits for no man. Just as the sun would peek over the horizon we would shove off the dock in the stillness and coolness of the early morning river, the engine being the only disruptive sound. The boat always cut smoothly through the glassy water. The run to the first spot was usually brisk, but you always enjoyed the cutting wind because you knew as soon as the sun got high it would burn away the cool in a second's time. There were several "honey holes" we fished. A honey hole was a location abundant in fish. The locations of these drops were a closely guarded secret. The best was the entrance to a small creek, shielded on the outside by a sandbar and fed on the inside by several oyster rakes. There we fished for trout and redfish, or spot-tailed bass as we called them. These fish hang around oyster rakes and school into the area on the incoming tide to feed. A shrimp baited on a lead, topped with a bright orange cork floated just right usually netted a strike. You could always tell from the way a fish hit the bait if it were a keeper, a trash fish, or a crab. The keeper was any trout or redfish of admirable size and could immediately take the cork under with great strength. To hook one was a thrill and an experienced angler would know instantly when one was on the line. All others in the boat would cease their activity to assist or just marvel at the lucky one who battled what all hoped to be "the one." A trash fish, any such deplorable thing as a sting ray, puffer, toad, cat, or lady fish would pop at your bait, either stealing it or snagging itself on your hook. I always thought of trash fish as the riff raff of the sea; unscrupulous sots and rabble-rousers freeloading at the king fish's buffet. A crab would usually just pick your pocket. However, on a slow day when the winds, tide and fate all had your number it was sometimes essential to snag one of these lesser creatures just so you could proclaim, to all waiting on the dock anticipating a triumphant return, that you had not been skunked, or in layman's terms hadn't caught jack.
In the event of a slow day when only catfish and stingray were biting we turned our attention to food, life or how to create a fish story to impress the girls. Fishing tales weren't lies if you told them with enough sincerity; although we were such skilled anglers we rarely had to resort to such tactics. But in the rare occurrence we had to save face we would break out the cooler and plot. Yaya always packed her boys a cooler of soft drinks and sandwiches to enjoy on the river. Typically, when the sun began to get too hot or the fish slacked off a bit Papa and I would break out the ice chest, set up a canopy on the boat and enjoy a break from the fish and heat. In the summer this usually meant lunch occurred about ten in the morning, but this was a perfect time to enjoy the peace of the river and if necessary concoct a tale of outlandish proportions or simply talk about life. We talked a lot about life. This was the ritual way to wrap up the trip, a soggy chicken salad sandwich, a diet coke and a discussion on what not to do in life. Fishing alone with Papa in the tidal creeks of Port Royal, the Calibougue Sound, Daufuski island, Bull Creek, or the Savannah River blasted memories to the walls of my mind and allowed me to bond, to deeply connect, with my father. This is evident today in the ways I can read and understand Papa, in ways perhaps others cannot. I learned a lot about him when it was just us guys, fishing together away from the noise of real life. In some phases of life, for us both, such trips were the only way we knew how to relate. Fishing together was the easiest way for us to reconnect, sometimes if only through being in each others presence. Yes, the river gave me much more than tall fishing tales. The river gave me, us, a place to breathe, a place to retreat to when all else crumbled. Papa and I were always much more than two boys trying our luck with a fishing pole; but rather kindred spirits reconnecting to each other whenever we set out on a fishing trip.