I had an Uncle John. He was a heavier set man, jovial, a smoker, and a hell of an outdoorsman. He both entertained and frightened me. He was quick to laugh off the greater problems of the world, but also quick to inject a sharp-edged opinion about said problems.
I was occasionally sent to him as a child, perhaps as a way to keep me busy while we visited other family in Arizona. This was fine. Again, he was entertaining and it was always a thing of amazement to watch him fish. Whatever he wanted to catch, he caught it. It was also the way he fished as well. He was a master of fundamentals — knowing what tackle to use. The right rod, reel, line, knots, bait, lures, and jigs. JIGS. I recall one night before an early morning, he tasked me to literally hook about a seventy small custom rubber jigs. Needless to say, I was tired the next morning and had a few bandaids wrapped around my fingers.
On one of our outings we went night fishing on his boat. The aim was catfish. And he kept everything he caught, so we were taking no prisoners. I was a somewhat experienced fisherman. I knew enough to setup my rod, reel, and hook and this evening we were using chicken liver as bait (yummy). He tethered a small styrofoam spotlight, about six inches in diameter, from the boat; it would float facedown on the surface of the water. This attracted small minnow-like fish which would, in turn, attract the bigger fish. And it did.
I don’t think there was a limit on the amount of catfish you could catch. Although I think there should have been. We caught a lot. And if you didn’t know, catfish stay alive a long time out of water. A long time. John’s livewell (a kind of temporary aquarium for caught fish to keep them fresh) was actually an ice chest with three or four liters of repurposed plastic frozen coke bottles. So the fish weren’t preserved in water. They lied on frozen plastic for the ride home. As to why he had his livewell this way, I don’t know. Regardless, from the hour trip home, unloading the supplies, to laying out the catch on the driveway, the catfish were still taking small breaths.
This amazed me, but was no news to Uncle John who casually walked over and handed me a hammer.
“Hit them right on the head. The bone is thinnest there.” He then walked way, taking another drag off his cigarette.
I don’t know which was worse: Killing catfish with a hammer or telling my rough, blue-collard uncle, that I couldn’t go through with it. These poor fish. They deserved a better executioner.
There was about twelve of them. It took trying to kill the first four or so before I could calibrate my aim and force to deliver a single, painless blow. It’s a stark image that revisits from time to time — the “look” of the fish I couldn’t kill with the first strike.
The lesson? I’m glad you asked. In order for their death to be certain, my intention needed to be certain. You see, after the first four messy attempts to take their lives, I was frustrated. My uncle probably noticed this. Which is why he walked over, removed the hammer from my shaky hand, and without blinking, forcefully struck one of the fish dead.
“Swinging the hammer is easy. Deciding to swing the hammer is another.” Now I’m paraphrasing for him as memory serves, but what he said was brief and to the point. I hadn’t decided that I was okay with doing this yet. Once you decide, don’t go back. It started with intention. Even as an eleven-year-old, I loosely grasped the idea; enough so that the remaining catfish were thankful I had.