It was an annual tradition in our small southern hometown. Everyone gathered at the little lake in the middle of town for the annual 4th of July picnic, games and the ever important “Fishing Contest.”
Being a family of five kids, it was a free event that soon became the highlight of our summers. Sure we had a bigger lake for swimming, biking down the hills until we fell into someone’s front yard or the opportunity to go up the tower in town and spit down at the tourists, but it was this fishing contest that always became our nemesis. None of the kids in the family had ever won this fishing contest, though we tried with every kind of bait you could buy or make. We felt that the rule of using cane poles was what was holding us back. Whoever caught the big one with a cane pole? Worse than that was that one of the requirements was we had to build our own cane pole. Lord Almighty, insult upon insult.
We started preparing at least a week in advance of the big day. Our Dad took us out where the old sugar canes and marsh canes were. You would have thought we were looking for gold. The fighting and scrapping that went on in that bog of humility was at a level only later we would see on America Wrestling with The Bruiser or Gorgeous George. These people had nothing on us kids! Eventually we found our poles. At some point my Dad would shove a pole in someone’s hand and say “There, you have your pole. Get to the car!” As you stomped back to the Pontiac muttering about if you lose it will be his fault, you devised a plan of action to ensure you were victorious!
We were three girls sandwiched between two boys. We didn’t worry about the youngest one, heck he could hardly walk and talk at the same time and was still in diapers. No competition there. It was the older brother that held all the cards. He had gone fishing with Dad and with Grandpa, and while he brought home fish and said he caught them…. I never really believed him. But there was that little flicker of fear that maybe he had. He instantly became my enemy.
Next we had to scrounge up line. I decided to do what every other kid in America does….. I went to Grandpa. Grandpa always had several tackle boxes that were filled with everything needed to win the contest and I made a beeline to him. The problem with going to Grandpa was that you had to hear “the story” about every size of hook, the lures, the line. You had to hear which fish took to what hook. I don’t really care, I thought, I just want one big fish to win. But I was dutiful and listened. I would shake my head and say “Yes sir” all the while dreaming of that big fish in the little lake.
The big day approached. We tried to keep our cane poles hidden from each other to ensure that they wouldn’t steal our ideas or our hooks in their sneaky attempt to win. As I sat on the banks of the lake to unwind my pole and bait my hook with my concoction of bread soaked in tunafish oil, I had a feeling I was going to win that day. I stayed away from my siblings and made sure they couldn’t smell my special bait, but I kept my eye on the older brother. Good Lord, I thought, he’s putting a minnow on as bait! Where did he find minnows? I secretly laughed as I thought “fish don’t eat fish.” My tunafish oil was more of a scent… a perfume that would surely bring the big one in.
The whistle blew and the contest began. Lines in the water… anticipation in the air. Then you heard “I’ve got one!” screamed out above the chatter. “I’ve got one” said another. It didn’t shy me away from what I came for. What seemed like an eternity, the bell rang for the final minute of the contest and I hadn’t caught a thing. I was desperate. Finally, just as the minute was coming to a close, I got a bite! It wasn’t a big bite, but it was a bite. I yanked and pulled and prayed and, yeah cried a little. I wanted that fish! I yelled “I’ve got one!” at the top of my lungs. The judges ran over to my site and watched as I pulled it in. It had to be a whopper! It was fighting and zig-zagging all over my little spot.
I pulled it in… walking backwards to get it up on the shore. I couldn’t see the size of it but I would have guessed five or ten pounds at least! A judge scurried and lifted it up. It was the smallest fish I had ever seen outside of a fishbowl! Geeze Louise! All this for a minnow!
The judge whisked it away to the judging table. Announcements were beginning and kids who caught the biggest fish went up to the table to collect their bounty. I was furious after all my dedication to fishing….. then I heard my name being called! As I sauntered slowly to the table I was trying to figure out why they were calling me. Had I done something wrong? Wrong hook? Wrong line? I was then presented with a wrapped prize for the “smallest fish” ever caught in that lake. Ha! I placed my beady eyes on my older brother and snickered in his direction. He had nothing and I had a prize!
I hurriedly ripped open the wrapping paper and couldn’t believe my eyes. I had won the best award ever. A brand new 45rpm record of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
As my siblings and I walked home that afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of lordship over my fellow kinsmen. “I wooon! I wooon!” I sang as I skipped down the sidewalk. I got home and played that record over and over until my Mother took it away from me and banished it to the top of the refrigerator not to be heard again for a week .
Elvis and a fish. What a day it has been!