We sat in the boat watching the water, quietly waiting for him to surface. I was not worried, just sort of amazed. He’d been down this time for 30 seconds or so, only to rise again in his rather pink and glorious baldness, breaking the surface pate first, sputtering and spitting, sucking in one enormous gulp of air after another.
“Nothing in there,” he says, pinching the water from his eyes. “It’s clean.”
The man’s name is Benton van Winkle, although he answers, naturally, to “Rip.” He is 63 years old, now retired as treasurer of the Cracker Barrel family restaurant chain. And down there is his retirement home, sort of, down among the subaquatic shale and limestone caves of Percy Priest lake, a bluff- and cedar-rimmed reservoir on the meandering Stones River, 50 miles southeast of Nashville, Tenn.
Yes, these are the Golden Years for Rip van Winkle, the days of golf and grandchildren, of yard work and yearning, and, of course, of yanking monster catfish from the muck with his hands. Although an avid angler, Rip is no ordinary fisherman. His specialty is grabbling, also known as “hand-grabbing.”
And no ordinary grabbler, Rip van Winkle is instead a meticulous observer of nature with a particular devotion to a particular critter—the flathead catfish. Over the last 12 years, in fact, he has caught 1,121 of them, or 23,867 pounds, or 6.3 fish per trip weighing an average of exactly 21.3 pounds per fish.
All with his hands.
“I’ve built a program in Lotus Notes to keep track of every fish I’ve ever caught for the last 12 years,” he told me at the boat ramp. Unfolding his steel field notebook, he produced a seven-page dot-matrix printout of weights, dates, lengths, locations, tag numbers, release sites, and sundry other facts notated, collated, and translated in the manner of a crack accountant.
“I have learned that the flathead has an incredible homing instinct,” he said. “Once, I released one seven miles up the lake from where I caught it, and 11 days later caught it back in the same hole.” Although no scientist, his methods are that of basic biological study and all the more unusual for a fish that most anglers consider a little lowbrow.
Not so the flathead.
Though equally homely as its bottom-feeding cousins, the blue cat and channel cat, a flathead is at least beautiful in its voraciousness and predatory design. It is an eater of live things: a fact made intimately clear when you finally get out on the water with Rip van Winkle and, inevitably, he says, “Swim over here and stick your hand in this hole.”
With my chin at waterline, I breaststroke toward Rip, fumbling around obediently until at last my arm is lost to the shoulder in a watery crevice. “Now open your fingers and wiggle them,” Rip instructs. “When he bites, grab him by the lower jaw and pull him out.”
I can feel the fish moving, but only as currents that swirl in the darkness. Then a tail fin brushes my hand, and, as the fish circles, I build a mental image with my fingertips.
Alas, however, this cat has “sulled up.” He won’t bite, which I am hoping to God he won’t do anyway since Rip has already shown me the scars on his forearm where a big cat once swallowed him halfway to the elbow.
Eventually, the master himself extracts the fish, clutching against his belly seven pounds of squirming, whiskery blue cat. He weighs and measures it, and before he lets it go I say, “It’s pretty,” noting the fish’s neonatal blue cast.
“You think it’s pretty?” he asks, and then shrugs. To Rip, this fish is a folly, an amusement for the writer’s benefit. Although he has already caught, tagged, and released several small flatheads (17 pounds and up), Rip wants to show me a genuine, shovel-headed, whisker-faced leviathan.
I can feel the fish moving, but only as currents that swirl in the darkness. Then a tail fin brushes my hand…
For this he will use a length of river cane rigged with an offshore tuna lure and 500-pound braided nylon line. Down in the liquid darkness, eyes shut, Rip extends the cane pole into a cave. When a big cat hits, Rip can draw him toward him on the hand line. He then surfaces to catch a four-inch steel hook on the end of a fighting rod, and swims back down with that hook between his teeth. He lets the cat chomp onto his left hand so he can grab it by the jaw, and then hooks it to the fighting rod with his right hand. His largest fish to date—a flathead—weighed 56 pounds. Blue cats can well exceed 100 pounds.
Hole after hole Rip van Winkle bobs and dives, looking for the big one. Caveman Hole. Split Rock Hole. Groundhog Hole. Honeymoon Suite. He has 160 favorites and can be in one hole one minute, then blast two miles down lake and 10 minutes later be six feet below the surface with his arm to the hilt in another cave. Usually, he surfaces empty-handed. But often enough he bubbles to the top sputtering and spitting, his body jerking and twitching like a human bobber.
Motoring up to Cedar Stump Hole, Rip is over the side before we can cut the engine. His wife, Diana, climbs ashore to stand by on a rock shelf. Toes wiggling in pink water shoes, she extends a cane pole over the spot where Rip has just descended. “If it’s a big one, and he runs, he’ll take Rip with him,” she says pleasantly, holding her pole over the water.
Twenty seconds … Thirty seconds …
Rip rises, and it is, in fact, not a huge fish. However, at 38 inches it is longer than my 5-year-old daughter, and at 24 pounds our largest catfish of the day.
In four hours, Rip van Winkle has grabbled 12 flatheads that weigh a total of 203 pounds. Meticulously, he logs each fish into his logbook before release. Not for any grandiose reason. Rip van Winkle does this because, well, that’s what he does.
“Now come over here, I want to show you something,” Rip says, sitting half submerged on a shale ledge with the big catfish in his lap. Although it is June, Rip’s forehead is blue, and he is shivering. “Now look here … there’s a little parasite, or something, that lives in the fish’s coating.” He points to a small, whitish form skittering across the flathead’s soapy-slick skin.
“I don’t know if they’re harmful to the fish or not, but they all have them,” he says, watching the Lilliputian.
“And these blue patches on its back are probably scar tissue,” Rip says. Indeed, this particular specimen has worn two brutal wounds along its dorsal fin from wedging itself into a spawning cave. “When they’re done spawning, it’ll heal right up and turn blue. They must have some sort of healing property in their skin,” he says.
Rip notes that this is a male because of the exaggerated size of its head. “The male guards the nest and the young when they hatch,” he says. “But he’ll also eat a few just to say, “Hey, trust no one!’”
Rip pushes the fish off his lap. The flathead pumps its tail twice and sounds. The female from this cave was foul hooked with the grabbling line, so she is the one that will be dressed for the table. When it is over, Rip removes the roe and holds the mass in his upturned palms like two heaping handfuls of yellow pearls.
“What are you going to do with those?”
“Oh, they’re ready,” he says, cradling the eggs. “No doubt about it. The male will fertilize ’em and then go get another mate and bring her back, too.”
Rip Van Winkle sucks in a breath, closes his eyes, and then he is gone again—his cupped and outstretched hands full of fish eggs, his sunburned head, his bare shoulders, his pale legs, and finally the soles of his feet disappearing with the same liquid effacing of the fish, pumping and diving, slowly swimming back to the cold and blind-dark cave. ✦