They came to the river long after dark
And built a fire there, the four of them
They’d brought bait from home
A little tub of chicken livers for the catfish
And a coffee can full of nightcrawlers for everything else
They were too young for alcohol and, anyway
Higher than ever on the feeling of freedom
That a night on the water would give any fourteen year old
They casted into the nightblack river
And set their rods onto forked sticks stuck in the sand.
After a while they could see a line tighten and slice through the water
Away from the rod.
They waited till the fish stopped and only set the hook when it started again.
By midnight they had six keeping-size fish among them
Lashed through the gills on a woven nylon stringer.
They rinsed the blood and guts from their hands and warmed them over the fire.
He knew this one was a big one
The line stripped off the reel so fast
And carried across the river
“You better be careful with this one.”
He gave the fish slack
And, trembling with excitment and awe
He thought that the fish would never start again
And knew that he had missed his chance
That his hook was lying, cleaned
At the bottom of the river
But still he held and waited
His arms ached from holding the pole without moving
Till the fish moved again and the boy’s heart pounded
The fish went deep and the boy’s rod bent double
“Don’t pull too hard. That thing’ll snap that line.”
He lowered the rod a bit and stayed there
Waiting, again, for the fish to move
But he did not move
And the boy pulled on the rod to test the fish
And the fish did not move and was so fixed
That the boy was convinced that his line was now snagged on a rock or root
But then the fish took off again, straightaway from the boy
And the line snapped and whipped out of the water
And curled in the night air toward the boy.
When the bait was all gone they gathered their gear
Kicked the burning logs into the water
And listened to the coals squeal.