It may have been the worst looking vessel I’d ever seen: a blue-hulled houseboat about 40 feet long, tied to a plank walk built out into the river at the landing. The fellow working on it often advertises himself with a paint-specked jambox blaring Night Ranger songs. “Lookin’ good, ” I call out to him one day.
He walks away from the radio and toward me. The plank walk shakes, and I study the water below, doing a quick reassessment of the construction under my feet. Once he reaches me, he turns again, taking in his creation. “Yeah, ” he says, “Gettin’ there.”
“Does it run?”
The man swells with pride. “Dang right. Got two diesels.”
“Gonna live on it?”
The man deflates. “If my old woman don’t get off my back … I’ve thought about it.”
I never cease to be amazed at the simple things that make swamp people proud. I once drove up to the landing to find my swamp friend Danny, sitting on the tailgate of a truck with three older men. They were drinking beer with two large coolers at their feet.
As I get out of my truck and approach, I detect mischief in their silence and expressions.
“Y’all knockin’ ’em back, Danny?”
“All day, ” one of them says.
“Yep, ” Danny follows up. “All day, and they ain’t pulled one fish in the boat.”
“Well, ” I say, “At least y’all had a good time.”
There is a pause while the three old men look at each other and smile.
“Check out what they caught, ” Danny finally says. He reaches down and lifts the lid to one of the coolers. It is stacked full with large blue crabs.
“Dang!” I say. “Y’all got crab traps out there?”
“Shoot no!” Danny says. “They caught ever gal-dang one on a hand line.”
I was familiar with hand lines. We’d used them growing up on the Bay. The basic idea is to take a piece of string and tie something heavy on the end to weight it. Then you attach a chicken neck or some other piece of tough meat near the weight and suspend it in the water. A crab will start feeding on the bait and hang on even when you pull the string up close enough to scoop the crab into a net. Sometimes, if there are a lot of crabs in the area, you can scoop two or even three at a time. It’s great entertainment for kids, but not the most efficient means for catching crabs.
“You lined all these?”
“Three coolers full of them, ” one of them boasts.
“How’d you have time to drink?”
“We found most of ’em an hour ago.”
“What is that thing?”
“That platypus-bill-lookin’ thing in your boat.”
“That’s the front end of a spoonbill catfish. You never seen one of them?”
“No. Looks prehistoric.”
Man swells with pride. “Hey, let me tell you somethin’. The government says they’re endangered, but I catch the ever livin’ hell out ’em.”
Other Skills Worth Boasting
“How long you think this’ll take?
Should I come back later?”
“You sit right there, and you’ll see it done in about 10 minutes. You’re lucky you got me, though.”
“Why? You pretty fast at puttin’ on trailer hitches?”
“No. 11 in the country.”
“They have contests for trailer hitch installations?”
“I work for U-Haul and they track that stuff. Corporate sent us a report. Said I was No. 11.”
His Trophy Camp
There’s this other fellow about my age, Hodgson, who is so henpecked that he doesn’t make it up to the Delta much. When he does, you can tell he’s having a miserable time just thinking about the hell he’s going to catch when he goes home. And, as if that’s not enough, all the swamp people pick on the poor guy so much that I don’t understand why he doesn’t give up swamp life altogether. But he won’t. He loves it too much.
He’s got his own camp, if you can call it that. It’s the tiniest, most lonesome looking thing I’ve ever seen. Nothing more than a 6-by-8-foot lawnmower shed sitting on some oil drums and tucked into this little cove where no one would ever go. I don’t see how he even stretches out to sleep in the thing, much less has company over. The swamp people joke about towing it off and hiding it someplace he can’t find it, but the prank has never materialized.
I like to question Hodgson about miscellaneous features of his camp, just to see if maybe he’ll admit one day that he wants something a little bigger. But he gives no indication that he’s any less proud of his place than I am of mine.
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer