Moulder Branch connected to Hurricane Creek, which fed into the Flint River much farther away than a person could hope to reach without a driver’s license. The Flint, in turn, made its loops away from the mountains through flat cotton and soybean country to pour into the Tennessee. This connection was immensely important, because it meant that big-water fish—river drum, carp, even striped bass and sauger, which we called jack salmon—could find their way during high water upstream into the hinterlands, where the water was born of limestone caverns and dark seeps in the low, flat-topped foothills of Alabama’s Cumberlands. I liked old ponds, their quiet waters weedy and concealing, trembling with the movements of bass and shellcrackers. But no mystery on earth meant as much to me when I was 14 as that system of creeks and small rivers braiding toward the Tennessee.
Moulder Branch began as Sneed Spring, a crystal-clear stream that emerged from a shadowed, fern-hung hole in a small cliff, one visible vein of a thousand that coursed unseen through the heart of the mountains. The rocks on its bed were covered with a black-green moss that shivered in the current, and small clouds of bright-colored dace and sculpin swept up into the darkness of the cave and back out into the sunlight, joined at times by other minnows who followed an opposite life and had no color at all, were clear as glass. If you could catch them, you could watch their organs working through their skin—yellow stomach, blue heart, blue brain.
During the third week of March, schools of spawning silver red-horse appeared on the gravel beds and shoals of Moulder Branch, about four miles below the cave. The creek at this point had been joined by the waters of two more large wet-weather springs and several washes and was about 20 feet wide, although it shrank to a trickle in the late summer. The redhorse were members of the lowly sucker family that spent most of their lives in the deep holes of the Flint River or in the giant Tennessee. Their traveling habits lent them a profound air of mystery, the attraction of the wanderer from far away who appears suddenly and gives beauty and energy to a creek that was, in its middle reaches, pretty ordinary. They were a striking red color in the clear water and ranged in size from a foot or so to about 20 inches. They traveled in schools of dozens, and in such a small and seasonal creek, they presented an amazing sight. To a boy who longed for trout and salmon, for wild Alaskan rivers, they were a priceless gift. I began to watch for them the first week of March, just after the close of rabbit season, when the trees were just beginning to bud. The pounding of rain on the roof above my bed would awaken me late at night, and I would imagine them, lifting up from the dark gravel beds and mussel piles deep in the muddy Tennessee, catching the taste of the rising waters there in Moulder Branch, a taste of rich loam washed down through sinkholes in the mountains, bloodroot, ginseng, polished limestone, the scent of subterranean creatures.
As I watched for them, I dreamed of the wonders that they must be passing in their journey: sunken barges, alligator turtles, catfish as big as a man, lost relics of war and human endeavor. From the muddy channel of the Tennessee they moved up into the Flint, where the water was stained red from the clay of the cotton fields, and the thick primeval salamanders called hellbenders drifted above a rocky bed strewn with potsherds and stone arrowheads. The Flint suffered from the runoff of a mixture of chemicals that we called simply “cotton poison,” and I don’t think the redhorse lingered there. It was another 20 river miles to the mouth of Hurricane Creek and at least 15 more to the mouth of Moulder. I don’t know when they started this journey each year, or how long it took them, but what they accomplished each spring was nothing less than a passage between worlds.
At that time in my life, I was intensely solitary, by choice and design. I have since struggled in fiction to capture the feeling that pervades my memories of those creeks and that landscape and that age. I felt then that I also passed between worlds that had distinct boundaries.
I had good friends at school, but I hated the confinement of school to the point that I was often physically ill. I never considered playing any sports that would require me to spend even one extra minute on the grounds of the school, and I rushed home to go immediately out walking or hunting or fishing. My real life, the one in which I felt at ease, was on the creeks and in the woods and along the edges of the fields, and I didn’t feel any need to share it. After the exhausting raucousness of a day of junior high, the silence of that world was like falling into a feather bed. Because even then landowners were jealous of their hunting rights and property lines, I was often trespassing, and my wanderings were best kept to the thickets and the woods. I traveled a lot during hunting season in the low beds of washes, following the tracks of coon and fox and coyote. Like them, I didn’t much care for open ground.
The place where Moulder Branch pours into Hurricane is narrow enough to leap across, and when I knew it best, it was partially blocked by a gradually tilting sycamore 3 feet through. The water had gouged a deep hole beneath the roots of the tree, and during floods it poured over the pistol-butted trunk, and the whole tree vibrated out to the tips of its branches. When the water dropped and changed from brown to translucent green, I could straddle the sycamore and watch for the flash of redhorse feeding in the hole. Until they reached the shallow spawning grounds, they would take a night crawler or red worm fished directly on the bottom, and I usually caught quite a few from the side of the creek opposite the sycamore, where the bank was low enough to land them. These fish I always released, because the hook in the mouth did not mortally injure them, and I didn’t really like to eat them. They were bony in the extreme, although between the bones, the flesh was white and firm. I eventually learned to pressure-cook them, a process that melts the smaller bones, but by then it seemed like too much trouble.
Later in the month, when the redhorse moved farther up the creek, the only way to take them was by “snatching”—that is, snagging them with a treble hook. I also hunted them with a light bow and old aluminum arrows, with frog gigs, homemade spears and a pistol loaded with .22 shorts. With these methods, catch-and-release was not an option.
The spawning grounds were along a section of creek lined with big red oaks and hackberries, with a thicket of sumac and locust saplings taking over a cow pasture on one bank and a cornfield on the other. It was one of the best places in the valley to hunt fox squirrels, which didn’t leave their nests until midmorning and foraged in the corn rather than frantically gathering nuts in the woods like their gray cousins. The redhorse gathered on a long, dangerously shallow gravel bed, with shoal water below, where the riffles would hide them if need be until they could reach a deeper section below a cut bank. No ospreys or eagles lived in that part of Alabama, and the trees on both banks met high above the water, shielding them from hawks. In days past, a lot of people, tenant farmers and sharecroppers who did not ignore free fish, came to take them with seines and treble hooks, but the land around there had actually lost population since the ‘50s, and those who remained were bent on other tasks. Although I never saw anyone other than myself fishing there, all the local old-timers who saw me knew exactly what I was doing.
The trick was to thread the brush and flood trash to the edge of the creek without spooking the whole school, cast the single treble across almost to the other side and let it roll slightly downstream. Then you twitched it, reeling in about 6 inches of line, almost exactly like working a plastic worm for bass. The redhorse varied widely in size, and you tried to pick an individual fish to snag. The hookup was usually not a great surprise, but because they were often hooked in the tail, and the right fish could weigh up to 4 pounds, the fight was dramatic and worthwhile. The struggle would put the whole school immediately to flight. Usually I would make several probing casts into the hole under the cut bank and take a couple more that way. After that, it would be time to walk, seek another gravel bed where another group was holding, or try whatever holes could be found along the way. A lot of times I would leave my rod and reel stashed along the creek somewhere and go off looking for snakes or studying the plants that came up specifically at that time. The fields and hedgerows that would be a jungle by mid-May were still bare or just beginning to green, but the delicate plants of the woods’ floor were already at the height of their flowering. The muted power of the March sun, falling unhindered through the leafless trees, was perfect for hepatica, trillium, troutlily, bloodroot. Later, when the trees had leafed and the tough plants of the fields were in full riot, these plants would have passed their prime and be barely noticeable beneath the deep shade of the oaks.
One afternoon, waiting for the redhorse to come back up onto the gravel, I heard a tremendous splash, and an eight-point whitetail buck came galloping down the creek, ran off the shoal into the deep, and swam below me, not a yard from my feet. Nothing was chasing him that I could see, and when he left the creek, he walked away slowly into the thicket.
Bow fishing for redhorse was not too different from snatching with a treble hook if you shot from the bank. Except for the fact that at 14 it was still wonderful to be out in the world with a powerful weapon rather than a fishing rod. The height of sport with the bow was to wade up behind the fish, which was almost impossible and which I accomplished only twice that I remember. Shooting into deep water was difficult because of the refraction problem, and when you did manage to hit one, you usually were in for a soaking when you went in after it. I had a bow-fishing rig, a coffee can wound with braided line and held to the bow with a long bolt and a piece of flat-iron. You could buy a special fishing arrow with a hole in front of the nock where you tied on the line. The first time I ever used this rig, I shot at a very large and very expensive grass carp that a neighbor had bought to control algae in his catfish pond. I saw the enormous fish, went home, got the rig and came back, obsessed. The first shot launched the heavy arrow about 10 feet before the braided line wrapped around my forearm, peeled off the skin all the way to my wrist, and then brought the arrow winging back at my face. The grass carp lived through this attempt.
So I hunted redhorse with regular aluminum arrows, the older the better, because they could survive only so many strikes into the rocks of the bottom. Broadheads hit the water and veered off to either side, so I used target points or the special flats I made up for hunting rabbits, with a .38 brass fitted over the tip. A strike anywhere in front of the dorsal fin killed the fish outright, and they could be retrieved easily as they drifted along, slowed by the dragging of the arrow.
Why, when I so loved to see the living redhorse on the shoal, did I need to kill them? Why would I wait for them, dream of their passage, depend on them as the true harbingers of beloved spring, and still creep up to the cut bank, point my cheap pistol down at the shallow water and shoot the biggest one I saw?
The question certainly never occurred to me then. (It might help to know that during those years I often lost the first fish of every trip simply because I was so anxious to begin fishing that I could not finish my knots correctly.) Only in recent years, after an intense and continuing apprenticeship in the art of finding game and taking fish, have I begun to wonder how it is that bloodlust and the love of nature could be so inextricably wound for me. During most of that apprenticeship, the desire to touch whatever was my quarry was foremost and assumed. Stints on commercial fishing boats (jobs I gleefully took on because they offered the chance to fish for fun during breaks and while traveling to and from the fishing grounds), working in seafood packing houses, and a very brief time hunting coyotes for hides, caused me to realize early that my very soul was imperiled by viewing living creatures as potential cash money. This view requires that the seeker abandon any concepts of the sacred nature of the creature sought and ignore its attendant mysteries in an attempt to bring it to hand in a practical and efficient manner. A swordfish, which is one of the greatest predators ever to swim the waters of creation, brings $4.75 a pound. A coyote, which you have followed and watched as it hunts mice, does inexplicable dances in morning sunlight and calls out in bizarre cadences to its fellows, brings $55 to $60, which beats wages working for someone else and allows you to wander around on the grasslands all during the late winter without looking like the slacker you probably are. Your .22 bullet takes the coyote in the brain while he is thinking…what? You have no time to ponder; you must immediately go looking for the next one. Rent is due; the clutch is going out in the truck. Reverence falls by the wayside. You cannot serve two gods at once. Sadly enough for me, since I live in good country and am usually unemployed, I believe that paid guiding for fish and game falls under the same cloud.
But what about killing for free? What about snatching spawning redhorse with a treble hook? I can only say that I had not evolved past the point where I wished mightily to hold in my hands the mystery that fascinated me. I still haven’t. I most appreciate the journey of the redhorse, the clear cave waters of the spawning grounds, the distant, muddy, secret world of its home, when I snag it, fight it, and hold it in my hands. Maybe it is the substance of creation that I want to touch. Trying to find a way to catch them, I studied them more closely than I ever would, had my interest been only in seeing them. This has proven true with every fish and animal I have ever sought to kill. The mystery expands as one enters it, like opening a door into a castle or entering a cave. Snatching redhorse, I was out on the creek almost every day for the three weeks the fish were there. I knew every hole, gravel bar, cut bank. I saw the same copperhead three times, the same crows, deer, skunks, the same trees until I knew each one individually, and I can see them all in my mind right now. It is in this study, this knowing, that reverence for the whole of the world that sustains us is born. This reverence can make us stronger, less careless, less destructive. It is a clear, good thing. I am grateful that I do not have to try to live without it.
Anyone may by now be justified in asking what I did with the redhorse that I snagged, shot, speared and so on. I strung them through the gills on a forked green ash or willow stick and dragged them up to the paved road that ran along the foot of the mountains at the far side of the cove where we lived. A mile or so back, there was a deep hollow, with another small spring creek, where an old man named Fred Johnson and his wife, Sary, held out in a partially collapsed log cabin. No one used the scrubby pasture of the hollow, and the cabin had been abandoned for 20 years. They owned no land, did no work that I knew of, paid no rent. A much larger clapboard house had stood at one time at the mouth of the hollow, closer to the road, and the old couple had lived in it for a while with an assortment of other relatives, but someone had burned it to the ground, and everyone had scattered except for them.
Fred and Sary Johnson lived without electricity or plumbing in the one, tight room of the cabin, growing turnips in the yard, foraging, killing coons and possums. They kept an assortment of “catch dogs,” small, often mangy feists that attacked whatever wildlife presented itself and relieved Mr. Johnson of the need to kill game with .22 cartridges, which cost money. These dogs were locally famous for disappearing and giving Mr. Johnson an excuse to travel far and wide in search of them across private lands otherwise off limits to his hunting. That was how I met him, far off in a place called Duskins Hollow, where we both were trespassing, looking for ginseng. When I arrived with the red-horse, Sary was usually sitting quietly on the porch in an old reclining lawn chair, wrapped in blankets against the chill of the March afternoon, the front door open, and a hot fire barely lighting the dark room behind her. She greeted me but did not usually rise from her cocoon. Mr. Johnson was usually there with her or within shouting distance in the woods. He was jovial, with a little bit of the friendliness of the con man in him. Sometimes he was reeling and red-faced with drink. He was seriously happy to get the fish. Once, he went back with me to the shoals where I had caught them and snatched some from under the cut bank with a willow pole, 10 feet of string and a treble hook that he borrowed from me and later returned.
Mr. Johnson had rebuilt an old flume that carried water from a seep spring by the cabin into a concrete cattle trough, and he cleaned the redhorse on a plank set over the outflow from the trough. If he was sober, he took a shovel and buried the offal carefully at the edge of the woods; otherwise, he flung it far and wide as he talked. I never hung around long, and I don’t remember how they cooked the fish, though I guess it must have been on a rack over the fireplace. Once the next fall when I met him on the road, he gave me two enormous ginseng roots, bigger than any I had ever seen, and I wore one of them on a string around my neck for a while, until too many people at school asked what it was. A year later, the Johnsons were gone, and a year after that, some deer hunters took over the cabin, used it for a few weekends, and burned it down.
It would be easy to close this story, or essay, or whatever it is, with a litany of destruction: cabins burned, creeks channelized, housing developments planned, the redhorse gone as surely as are Fred and Sary Johnson. And I could, in truth, write it that way. The fields on either side of Moulder Branch were sold to a farmer who was a devotee of clean farming, and he did channelize all the washes and scraped them clear of the hedgerows that had been the nesting place of quail and bluebirds and just about everything else. I met him once, and he looked out over the scarified land and said to me, “I’ve put a lot into this place, but I’ve just about got it looking like I want it to.” His efforts inspired the county to go on a campaign of its own, spraying herbicide on the hedgerows along the roads, laying in culverts, straightening side creeks. The runoff moved too fast down into Moulder Branch, and the bed of the creek no longer held enough water in the spring for the redhorse to spawn. Although Sneed Spring produces as much water as ever, during the summer the middle reaches of the creek are entirely dry. The lands all along the creek are leased for big money to urban deer hunters who brook no trespass on their investment. It is a stricter, balder, less sheltering world.
But, true to its ability to inspire my lifelong reverence, it is by no means a delicate world. The redhorse are there still, though they are limited now to the main branch of Hurricane Creek. March a year ago I was 32 years old, and home for a visit. My nephew, 8, was there with my sister. It was a close, warm day, building overcast, and I could feel the fall of the barometer in my sinuses. We rummaged through the equipment shed and turned up an old spiderweb-encrusted Fenwick spinning rod and a green-and-white ceramic Zebco Cardinal, the finest spinning reel available in 1976. We stripped a Jitterbug of its two big trebles, swapped the line on the Cardinal for fresh 10-pound test, and set off for the creek.
Moulder Branch was too low, even in the hole beneath the bridge, to hold fish of any size. We set off downstream to a place where another big spring comes in and builds the volume of the creek. Nothing there. I was worried that my nephew would tire before we found anything worth catching, but he was excited and up for the walk. I had forgotten how fraught with fantastic possibility a fishing trip can be when you are 8. A long walk down Moulder Branch searching for redhorse can be on a par with any trip to Alaska or the Congo. I wanted to feel the same way, and I did. At the mouth of the creek, where it pours into the main Hurricane, a wide fan of gravel had built up and created a shallows and shoal system that pushed the main channel of Hurricane far over. That main channel was deep, and dark green. The big sycamore at the mouth of Moulder Branch was long washed away, and the hole beneath it was filled with clean gravel. A group of big redhorse came up over the top of the gravel from the main channel and milled just below us. Smaller fish followed, swept in an entire school over the gravel and back into the channel. “There they are!” I said, thrilled. My nephew was solemn, staring at the fish. He grabbed for the fishing rod in a near frenzy and bungled the first cast, almost landing our only two treble hooks against a logjam. He reeled fast and tried again, this time arcing the hooks over the gravel bed, over the redhorse. “Now,” I said, “jerk and reel, not too hard, not too fast. Look, you can see the hooks there, just on the other side of that fish!” He jerked once, exactly right, and the rod bowed. The sound of the creek was the sound of beauty itself. The new leaves on the big hardwoods all around us glowed a dusty green. The light coming down into the water was a pure butter yellow. Off to the south was the thunder of a storm.