116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“Turn off the light” I snapped. The light went out.
I tried to adjust my eyes and senses to the calm that came with the dark.
When you’re driving at night during a snowstorm you know to use low beams. The moment the high beams are lit, then most any snowfall blinds you as a blizzard of white swirling flakes.
When my son tripped his headlamp, there was a chaos of flying insect life that overwhelmed my brain’s ability to process.
I didn’t want to exist in that cloud. Safely back in the dumb of the dark, I relaxed. I was alone in the middle of the Wapsi with my son and five gallons of fire.
Catfish put unusual demands on anglers. That is, to stay up late so as to fish in the dark. Passive by day, catfish prowl the waters after dark when their prey lose their advantage of sight.
“Whiskers” proceed the sandpapered maw. That advanced guard detects quarry, relays information to headquarters, and then the mouth attacks. Instantaneous is a word that isn’t quick enough.
We were two fishermen, with four rods. Just upstream from us was one landmark, the Hale Bridge. Catfish were going to challenge us to stay up after the sun went down. To provide a little light and insect repelling smoke, I made a fire on our midstream gravel-strewn sandbar. I dragged along a five gallon bucket of kindling and wood.
The first order of business was to set the lines. Chunks of green sunfish or creek chubs adorned circle hooks. A lead weight promised to hold the bait on the bottom despite the current. By the fleeting rays of daylight we heaved hope into the river.
The way I figured it, we’d already had a successful trip. Our first stop was Indian Creek to catch bait. With little hooks and fine lines we did just that.
Blue, channel and flathead catfish course Iowa’s rivers. Blues are relegated to the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. A fish of such prodigious size needs equally large water. The flathead is our prominent piscine predator. It too needs bigger rivers to thrive, like the Cedar or Des Moines; though on the Wapsi there’s always a chance.
The agreeable channel catfish is at home in most any river. Channel cats are opportunistic eaters, they will gladly gulp live fish or worms equally with dinners of fish parts or dough. Like an aquatic leopard, flatheads demand live prey. Our bait was fresh, that is freshly dead. We had no expectations of hooking the fearsome flathead.
Rods arranged, it was time for fire. I assembled a small assortment of 2-by-4 chunks, maple shavings and a wad of The Gazette. The ancient matches appeared serviceable. Strikes one and two broke apart. Strike three was the trick. Hallelujah.
Violet hues backlit the old iron bridge. How many gallons of water have slipped under its decks since 1879? Maybe as many dreams of those who’ve fished by its watch.
By the dim flicker of fire, we could just see the rod tips bounce and bob as the bait was pulled by the current. Rogue throbs sparked hope that a catfish just made a mistake. We’d take up the line and learn quickly what it was: vain hope; recheck the hook and cast again.
Fires in the night are for reflection not words. Few passed between us. All too soon there was nothing but embers. I dashed water on what remained.
Near the singular Hale Bridge, two anglers pursued one of the three species of cats, with four rods. Our duration was a five gallon bucket of fire.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.