FULL DISCLOSURE: While the following trip DID happen and we DID capture a very nasty snapping turtle (who lived in an empty metal chlorine tablet bucket in the backyard and eventually died a lonely, miserable death (in said can), we did not catch him (or her. Who the hell could tell with those things?) like outlined below. The swamp existed, we did go fishing for eels, and Mom absolutely loved egg-salad sandwiches and was amazed that we didn't. Also, this is a rather lengthy post, so get comfortable and prepare to
fall asleep be entertained.
Once Upon a Fishing Trip
As I searched the pantry for something good to eat one Saturday morning, I heard a racket coming from the backyard. My desire for cereal coated with obscene amounts of sugar momentarily forgotten, I gently eased the back door open.
I quietly peeked over the back railing to see what all the commotion was and froze. My father’s rear end was poking out from the storage space underneath the porch. Flying from its dark, spider web-filled confines shot lawn furniture, yard equipment, and battered toys.
When I heard a muffled gasp of triumph, I quickly shut the door. My heart pounding in my chest, I flew into the living room where my brothers and sister were watching TV.
Gary was engrossed in a Magilla Gorilla cartoon and didn't notice Kathy, Phil, and I dash from the living room. Like a field mouse snatched unawares by an owl, he would be easy pickings for the Great White Fisherman.
Unfortunately, my mother also happened to be in the living room.
Setting her magazine on her lap, she frowned when Gary started to cry as we tumbled up the stairs like squirrels chasing cheese puffs.
“Hold on, you three!” she called.
We stopped, frozen in our tracks. Gary continued blubbering, his face a sodden mess. A little bubble formed under his nose and his watery eyes shifted hopefully to our mother.
“What’s going on?” she demanded.
Hoping it would somehow, magically, work this time, I answered, “Nothing.”
The back door creaked opened.
“Why is your little brother crying? And why are you all running upstairs?”
Phil chose the equally ineffective, “I don’t know.”
“Well, I should think you-”
“Who wants to go fishing?”
We turned to see our father, laden with fish gut hooks and muddy stakes, standing at the edge of the living room. He looked genuinely pleased that all of his children were present.
“Play dead,” I whispered to Phil. “He won’t choose you if he thinks you’re dead.”
Paying no heed to Phil and me flopping to the floor, my mother gushed, “What a great idea! Who wants to go fishing with your father?”
Kathy spoke first. “I, uh, need to go to Martha’s to work on some homework.”
The fact that we were on summer vacation completely escaped my mother. “Oh, that’s okay, honey. Phil? How’d you like to spend a day with your Dad?”
Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had escaped once more.
My father held up his rats’ nest of fishing line like Marley holding up his chains in Scrooge’s bedroom. “Plenty for everyone,” he crowed.
“That’s great,” Mom said. “Al, both you and Phil can go. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Gary was full on smiling now, the snot bubble having retreated back up his nose.
As the family station wagon pulled away from the shoulder of Burma Road, I glumly looked at the fetid swamp cheerfully known as the “The Great Stratford Meadows.”
“OK, fellas,” my father said, “let’s get to it.”
With that, he disappeared down the slope leading into the marsh.
I gestured to a miserable-looking Phil, charged with carrying an empty five gallon pail and the cooler, “What’d she pack for lunch?”
Before he could answer, I cut him off, “Wait, let me guess...baloney and egg salad sandwiches made from last Easter’s hard-boiled eggs?”
“With a couple of cream sodas for us and a few Schaefers for Captain Ahab?”
Resigned to my fate, I groused, “Great. Egg salad in a place that smells like rotten eggs. Perfect.”
Within seconds, we were completely enveloped by the cloying vegetation of the Meadows. Even though the highway was less than fifty feet away, I felt as if we’d been transported to Southeast Asia.
I imagined Walter Cronkite gravely recounting the grim tale of “two young boys swallowed up by the smothering embrace of a tropical morass poised at the edge of the Stratford Airport. And that’s the way it was.”
Passing traffic muted into nothingness, the chitters and chatters of unseen swampy creatures overwhelmed us as we struggled to follow "Bwana" deep into the darkness. My feet sunk deep into the sucking ooze and cattails pulled at my shirt like those annoying guys at the “Guess Ur Age-Guess Ur Weight” booths at the Danbury State Fair.
Wishing I had a machete, I pushed deeper into the marsh. As bad as they were, though, they at least gave me cover from the swarms of horseflies which attacked my exposed skin like miniature vampire bats. The razor-sharp reeds were much more preferable than those little bloodsuckers.
We heard a disembodied voice call impatiently from the other side of a stand of bulrushes, “Hey, c’mon! What’s taking you two so long?”
Pausing to rescue my sneaker from an especially powerful mud trap, I called back, “Almost there, Dad!”
Ignoring my struggles to slip a mud-covered shoe over an equally mud-covered sock, Phil pushed past me into the green curtain.
Shoes and socks covered in a tarry glop, I pushed through the marsh grass and finally broke out into the open. There, standing on the edge of a muddy bank were my father and Phil. Apparently, our trek through the swamp ended at the edge of a sluggish stream of murky water.
Even though the meadow continued on for several hundred yards before joining up with Long Island Sound, this was the spot my father had chosen to go after the catch of the day.
I dumped the bucket of stakes and the ball of fishing line on the mud. “This the place?”
“Where’s the boat?”
“The boat we’re going to use to fish from.”
“There is no boat.”
“We gonna fish here?”
“Yep, ain’t it great?”
“Ain’t what great?”
He gestured impatiently at the barely moving stream.
Oh, the creek. More like a clogged terlet, er, toilet, if you ask me. This just kept getting better and better.
Phil began chattering over my father’s head as he pounded the wooden stakes into the ground.
“Nope.” He dug into the cooler for a can of beer and said, “Eels.”
“Eels?” I asked. “Aren’t they snakes?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “No, they’re fish. Good eating, too.”
Yeah, if you’re a turtle, I muttered to myself.
“There’s a hit!”
Spurred into action by the sight of one of his lines bobbling madly in the stream, my father flung his baloney sandwich to the ground, knocking over his second can of beer. Reaching for the line, he began reeling it towards shore.
“Whew!” he grinned. “This guy doesn’t want to come in!”
Phil and I leaned over his shoulder as he pulled in his catch. The nylon fishing line bit into his hand as he wrapped it around his fingers for a better grip. As it got closer, whatever was on the hook broke the surface of the water in a mad attempt to escape.
“Al, get the bucket!”
With a gasp, he pulled the end free of the water. Wrapping itself around the line was what I would have sworn was a snake. At least, it didn’t look like any fish I’d ever seen.
My father grasped the eel around the back of the head with his free hand and twisted roughly. With a small crunch, the hook pulled itself free, leaving a tiny trail of blood oozing from the corner of its mouth.
Without a word, he flung the creature into the metal bucket and baited the empty hook with one of the nightcrawlers we bought at “Bill’s Boats and Bait” that morning.
“You guys get the next one,” he said. With that, he reached for his sandwich, brushed some mud off the crust, and popped it into his mouth.
Oh, joy, I thought, nothing better than wrasslin’ a fish snake into a bucket. Yeehah.
Phil pounced on a line several stakes over. “I got another one!” he cried.
Deciding to let him haul the line in, I brought the bucket over.
Pulling the line free of the water, Phil crowed, “Here ya go, Al!”
“Get him off the hook.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“Hey, I did the hard work.”
“What? Pulling the line in?”
“C’mon, don’t be a girl.”
Deciding it was far better to wrench an eel off a hook than be considered a girl, I grabbed the slimy little varmint. In a flash, it wrapped its body around my wrist and desperately tried to gum my forearm. I tried yanking the hook out, but it had swallowed the entire thing. Oh God, I’d have to rip its whole stomach out to get it out of there.
What was worse, its crazy jerking made it next to impossible to get a good grip. My hand kept slipping from the vile little critter’s greasy head to its tail.
Oh, to hell with this, I thought. I reached behind me for the rubber mallet from home.
Quickly placing the entire rig on the ground, I smashed the mallet onto the eel’s head. The critter immediately went limp and I easily pulled the hook from inside its body.
As I tossed the carcass into the bucket, Phil studied me, wide-eyed, and said, “I guess that’s one way to do it.”
I finally got the hang of pulling eels off the line and, in spite of my initial squeamishness, was having a pretty good time filling the bucket. But, as the sun started to dip into the western sky and the last of our baloney sandwiches were eaten-no one touched the hideous egg salad-we knew it was getting to be time to go.
“Alright, guys,” my father belched, “better start wrap-whoa! You see that?”
One of the lines jerked so hard, its stake almost pulled free of the mud.
My father jumped at the stake and yanked on the line. “Holy Christ!” he said. “This mother’s huge!”
He pulled tight and the fishing line grew taut as a guitar string. Little drops of water danced along its length and the line cut deeply into his hands. He dropped to his knees to get a better purchase on the mud, but didn’t notice that he was slowly slipping towards the edge.
Wow, I thought, that is a big one.
When it began to look like he was going to lose his battle with whatever monster was tugging him into the crick, my father grabbed the line with both hands. His eyebrows shot up as he edged closer to the water. “Al,” he breathlessly said, “bucket!”
As I turned, I heard a soft “ooomf!” followed by a splash. Turning, I saw my dad disappear over the bank into the brackish stream.
Almost immediately, he popped back out. He pushed himself free from the water, fishing line still gripped in his hand. His eyes wide, he gasped, “You should see that friggin’ thing!”
He struggled to his knees and backed away from the edge.
Watching him scuttle from the water, I wondered why the fishing line had suddenly gone slack. I guess whatever it was had either given up or had escaped.
Then, I watched a dark brown mass break the surface of the water. As it clenched the bank with two huge, yellow claws, I knew I was wrong on both counts.
The claws dug into the soft mud and hauled a turtle almost as big as Duke onto the bank. I saw an ugly head the size of my fist push away from a shell covered in what is commonly known in the world of science as swamp muck.
The razor sharp beak of this huge snapping turtle opened menacingly towards my father. Its beady little eyes glanced at us before turning towards what it perceived to be its attacker. It hissed a savage little hiss and started dragging itself forward.
My father fell to his backside and twisted away from the evil-looking creature. “Guys, you better get out of here.”
Phil wasn’t impressed. “Jeez, Dad, c’mon. It’s just a turtle.”
Yeah, I thought, a turtle that could snap your fingers off like breadsticks.
The angry beast hissed again. Wondering what to do, I hurriedly scanned the site for something to use as a weapon. Spotting the cooler, I shouted, “Phil, get the bucket!”
I reached into the cooler and drew out the untouched egg salad sandwiches. I quickly ripped the tin foil off one and held it at arm’s length. Not knowing exactly what to say, I waved them and called, “Here, turtle, turtle.”
Distracted by my gestures-I really don’t think turtles respond all that well to “Here, turtle!”-the snapper halted its approach. He turned his head slowly to me and fixed his eyes on the egg salad.
Deciding they would make a better meal than the creature scrambling into the reeds, he shifted towards my arm.
Finally figuring out what I was up to, Phil upended the bucket. The several dozen eels that we had caught earlier tumbled out onto the mud. Seeing their chance for freedom, they frantically slithered away to the water like a prison break from a pet store.
Catching the shadow of the metal drum hovering over its head, the turtle looked up. Just before the rim of the bucket came down around him, he opened his jaws and snatched the one dead eel that I had bashed in the head earlier.
It probably tasted better than egg salad, anyway.
“Damn stupid waste of friggin’ time,” my father grumbled as he sloshed ahead of us through the muck. “C’mon, you two, let’s go!”
Lugging the now-heavy bucket, Phil hissed, “God. It’s not like it was our fault he got pulled into the water, the big dope.”
I watched my brother struggle to get a better grip on the bucket’s handle-I would have left the thing back in the weeds, myself. As sweat ran like a broken spigot down his cherry red face, I’ll bet he regretted his decision to carry our catch of the day back home. No wonder he was a little cranky.
I agreed with him that our father shouldn’t take it out on us, though. It wasn’t our fault he was yanked into the drink.
Still, the dripping old man had a point. Considering how today’s expedition to the crick had turned out, I couldn’t blame him.
After all, all we had to show for our troubles was an ill-tempered thirty pound amphibian which could probably eat the neighbor’s dog.
On the other hand, it wasn’t a total loss, I realized as we climbed the embankment to the waiting station wagon.
At least we found a good use for egg salad sandwiches.