by Hollis Baker
Way up Morgan Creek lived my friend Ray Woods. He lived past the slow moving pools that ran dark and deep to where the stream becomes smaller and faster and jumps from one ledge to the next. Ray lived by himself in a little shotgun cabin, the last one on Morgan Creek. Often he ventured downstream to take me squirrel hunting in the pecan bottoms or fishing for perch in the deep pools. I liked that best.
Ray was a friend of mine. He knew where to dig for the biggest and best worms to use for bait and how to thread them onto the hook to fool the fish. He could always find the finest willow limbs on which to rig our lines. Bobbing corks were made from stoppers he said were from medicine bottles, but Mother suggested they might have come from a different kind of bottle.
We always fished in the pools closest to the bend in the creek, for he said that was where the best perch lived – we never went farther downstream. Often we set throw lines, which we tied to young springy tree limbs hanging over the pool to catch catfish. We built a little fire there on the creek bank, and he told me stories of long ago and far, far away. Sometimes we caught a fish big enough to fry on that campfire. They sure did taste good out there in the open, with the frogs and crickets singing their serenade.
Old men told stories of a large catfish living in the bigger pools farther down the creek. They named him “Big-un” and said he broke fishing poles and tore up trot lines just for the fun of it. Those stories sure fired my imagination. There was where I wanted to fish.
One October evening, with a touch of fall showing in the leaves and feeling in the air, Ray came by with a strange look in his eyes. He said he was going down Morgan Creek to the Blue Hole and catch “Big-un.” Wow, was I excited?
“You can tag along, but you gotta’ stay out of the way and be quiet,” he said. “This is my mission.”
I was hurt, but I tagged along anyway. Ray set his line and tied it to a young, green cottonwood tree with plenty of spring in it. He lay back in the grass and did not say a word. How strange. I kept to myself as I watched the moon rise over Spider Mountain and fill the valley with silver light. Ray lay silent.
Into the water Ray dived with the line in his hand. He managed to get astraddle the fish, yelling all the time, “I caught Big-un! I caught Big-un!”
The line snapped from the limb, and the man and fish headed downstream and into the Colorado River. The last I heard of Ray was a faraway cry of joy, “I caught Big-un,” as they headed for the Gulf of Mexico and open water.
Years later I was down on Morgan Creek, near Blue Hole, getting a load of rocks to build a walkway when Ma called.
“Hollis,” she yelled, “you have a letter!”
Now who in the world would be writing me a letter? I didn’t know anyone outside the creek bottoms that would need to write me. I hurried home to see. Getting a letter in those days meant one of two things, glad tidings or sad news. The postmark and return address was Ma Smith, La Grange, Texas. It was easy to see an older person did the labored printing in pencil on the envelope. With trepidation I tore the envelope open. The letter read:
I felt you would want to know your friend Ray Woods died
a few months ago. We buried him here on the river bottom.
He spoke of you often.
I packed my pick-up and headed for La Grange the next day. I found Ma Smith living in a little shanty down on the Colorado River across from the town. We sat in a swing on the porch and chatted. She scratched out a living with the help of a beautiful garden and a few Rhode Island Red hens. She said she spent most of her spare time ironing for neighbors in town and fishing. The mention of fishing brought us to Ray.
Together we pieced the story of what had happened to Ray after he had caught the catfish named “Big-un” from Blue Hole on Morgan Creek. He probably rode him down the creek to the Colorado River, then through Austin, through Bastrop, Smithville and on to La Grange. There, along the banks of the river, a low hanging limb of a pecan tree knocked Ray from the back of the catfish “Big-un.”
Ma Smith said she found him clinging to the branch more dead than alive. “I nursed him back to health, and he lived in this area for the rest of his life. He was the greatest cat fisherman I have ever known. That is how he made his living: catching catfish and selling them in town. In fact, everyone around here knew him as ‘Catfish Woods’.”
We walked downriver, past his cabin, to a meadow where the folks had buried him beneath a mighty pecan tree. There he could keep watch on the river he loved so much.
I retrieved a Morgan Creek Blue Hole rock from my pick-up and set it at Catfish’s head. I trust there are plenty of deep pools full of catfish in Heaven.
Hollis Baker, a proud Texan, is 79 years young. He enjoys gardening and reading good books about history, anthropology and geology. He's also active in Toast Masters.
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