Summer is the time for lazy fishing in the hot sun.  That calls for a fish story.  And what follows is no tall tale, although I think the moral of the story is quite significant.  For I am now willing to say, without exaggeration, that catfish perfectly symbolize our great national problem.

When I was young, summer vacations amounted to two things: fishing and visiting our people down in the Arkansas Delta.  Killing two birds with one stone, it helped that the Natural State is a great place to fish—not so much for the trophy kind, but for the eating kind, which in my opinion, and according to my raising, was always the point.

One summer in Augusta, on the banks of the White River down in Woodruff County, Uncle Jess (b. 1916) said that before we could set out our trotlines we’d need to stop by Old Lady So-and-So’s house.  She had our bait.  Now, forget your chicken liver and stink bait.  You haven’t truly lived until you’ve run a trotline loaded up with “catalfie worms.”  They are the larvae of the sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae), and they grow exclusively on the Southern Catalpa tree (Catalpa bignonioides), otherwise known as Indian bean trees because of their long, thin bean pods.

Catalfie worms look like a fishing lure you’d buy at a Bass Pro Shop.  These black caterpillars are flanked with yellow-green, almost fluorescent, sides.  That color (and the foul-smelling juice they squirt onto your hand when you pick them off the Catalpa tree) comes from iridoid glycosides in the leaves, chemicals that deter every other herbivore besides our little wormy friends, who spend their larval adolescence shredding the Catalpa foliage, stripping the trees nearly bare.  The “glycoside” part of the compound (also called Catalpol) means that a glucose molecule is attached to a monoterpene—a word that reminds us of turpentine for a reason. I’ll skip to the end of the redneck chemistry lesson: Catfish are drawn to the sugar, and being catfish, they aren’t put off by the turpentine.

In Old Lady So-and-So’s front yard was a Catalpa tree, and she was happy for us to remove as many of the seemingly unlimited catalfie worms as we liked in order to slow down the summer’s defoliation.  It took some effort, and that afternoon was a scorcher, but when I asked why we couldn’t just use cut-up liver like everyone else, Uncle Jess laughed.

In the middle of the night, after the bait had been down for a few hours, we ran the lines for the first time, swatting mosquitoes as we crept along the riverbank in his jon boat by the light of a Coleman lantern.  When we came to the tie-off tree, I shined the light onto the end of the old rope.  It was taut and vibrating.  I began pulling, working my way toward the first hook, anticipation building as I felt the weight, the submerged line shaking angrily.  I looked at him and raised my eyebrows, as if to convey Oh boy!  Uncle Jess laughed again, as if to convey I told you so.  Every hook on the trotline had a fish.  I took off the cat, put another catalfie on the hook, and dropped the line back into the murky water.  We’d run the trotline three or four times.

After posing for a picture hoisting the unbearably heavy stringers next to Uncle Jess’s fish-skinning tree, we spent the following morning cleaning the night’s haul.  Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that sleep-deprived boys are more enamored than sleep-deprived men of the task of smacking dozens of catfish on the head with a hammer (you don’t want to experience their horns as they flop around), skinning, beheading, and gutting them.  After the glorious carnage, Aunt Carmalee gave us a fish dinner for the ages—the fresh catch dredged in Martha White or Aunt Jemima and cooked in peanut oil, plus hush puppies, fried potatoes, greens, and sweet tea.

Halcyon summers inevitably end.  Fore stalling, our family didn’t leave the Natural State without stopping by the catfish market in Lake City.  Every year, Gramp would have several coolers prepared for a load of fresh fillets, and we’d pay by the pound for the privilege of having another massive catfish fry upon our return to the industrial Land of Lincoln.

These were farm-raised catfish—the result of an innovation that transformed many impoverished communities in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the 1970’s, creating jobs and an infusion of American-made product into grocery stores.  When the textile industry of the Delta got off-shored in the 60’s, workers found themselves in plants processing catfish and making ends meet.  Among the cotton fields, you’d see the rectangular ponds, where machines would fling feed-pellets onto the surface of the water, and schools of erstwhile bottom-feeder Ictalurus would swarm to the surface to feed and fatten.  Nets weighed down as if on the Sea of Galilee would bring up the finished product.  And wholesalers, like our little market in Lake City—with a stunner in place of the hammer—would let customers like us buy in bulk.

That market, the others like it, and more than half of the fish farms are now gone with the wind, gutted by global trade, crooked importers, and fake catfish from the humanure-rich waters of China and Vietnam.

To be continued . . .