Archive | August, 2010

Catfish Festival Memories

5 Aug

This time of year, I always get sentimental for the days of yore, a simpler time when the Catfish Festival was a very different event.  Please take a moment to share in my special memories. 

Shut up and listen, or I'll start over from the beginning and you'll never get to recess.

I remember back when I was just a young toe-headed pup, back in the early days, back when it was still the Shreveport Catfish Festival.  So much was different in those days, yet so many memories still mirror our modern, technologically-advanced Denver Catfish Festival. 

Before first light on Catfish Festival Eve, Uncle Wap and his buddy Merle would strap their ancient, dilapidated johnboat to the trunk of Merle’s Delta 88 and make their way out to Caddo Lake.  They always had a good set of jumper cables, but each year on the way to the lake they would slowly creep up to a darkended corner of the noodle factory parking lot and steal a fresh battery from one of the graveyard shift worker’s cars.

Merle's Delta 88. The old girl lost some lustre in the later years.

They’d fish all morning, picking only the most dependable and fruitful spots to plunge the electrified cables into the water then collect their floating bounty of mid-sized channel catfish, all the while skillfully dodging the Wildlife and Fisheries Agents patrolling the lake.  More than once they had to hide the old boat behind a cluster of Cypress trees and duck down low to avoid attention, but they never did have any run-ins with The Law.  I reckon that’s just part of the magic of the Catfish Festival.  

Eagerly anticipated by the entire village, they’d return mid-afternoon, quite inebriated but in possession of three #4 washtubs running over with fresh-caught catfish.  Granpappy and the other men would welcome them with handshakes and back-pats while all of us kids screamed and shouted and jockeyed for a look at the precious bounty. 

The menfolk would unload Uncle Wap and the washtubs and carry them to the back yard.  We’d always wonder how the toes of Wap’s shoes weren’t completely worn out, because they’d always drag the gravel whenever he was being carried.  Merle would shout at everyone and wildly swing his Ruger pistol (the one he’d gotten off a dead German in the war) in the air until his lady-friend-of-the-week would appear in the doorway to soothe him with a tomato-garnished Vodka and Tab.

After the men dumped the catfish out into the yard, little Cousin Hank would jump into one of the tubs and squirm about in the muddy slime, screaming, “I’m a catfish!  I’m a catfish!”  We’d laugh and throw sticks at him and try to get him with the jumper cables until he whimpered away quietly. 

The men, Pall Malls dangling from their lips, would cut off the heads and throw them in a pile, then pull the skins from the prehistoric beasts and hang them from the clotheslines to dry.  After the skins had been in the sun a few hours, the ladies would take them down and sew them into 8″ diameter circles.  They’d stretch them across the tops of wooden salad bowls, stapling down the sides, creating little percussion instruments to be played in the family drum circle later that night. 

We’d take a couple of the heads, grab our homemade wooden racquets, and head for the badminton net we’d set up out front.  We might not have had the white V-neck tennis sweaters and such like the Kennedys, but we had some lively and competitive catfish head badminton games that would last well into the evening! 

Once all of the catfish were cleaned and the drums assembled, the whole  community would gather around the bug zapper and listen to stories of past Catfish Festivals from the Elders, punctuated by the loud SNAP!  of a large junebug, horsefly, or hummingbird slamming into the zapper (we’d removed the safety screens to attract larger prey.)   Later we’d start hitting those drums, prompting Uncle Wap to jerk and snore-choke out of his “nap” and threaten to kick everybodys’ asses. 

Uncle Wap’s violent outburst was always the signal that it was time for the kids to go to bed.  We’d leave the warm glow of the zapper and go inside to lie down on the floor, visions of catfish and hush puppes frying in our heads.  Giggles would give way to long, deep breaths, then to silence. 

At first light, we’d rub our eyes and look out the window at the bright, glorious summer morning dawning before us.  I’d always be the first one to see the cloud of flies hovering above the pile of catfish heads.  

It’s Catfish Festival Day.

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