Natchez: A Fish Tale
A magical Mississippi moment on a cross-country trek
by Lori Hein
When we rolled into Mississippi a few years back, my kids and I were a thousand miles into a summer-long journey across America. Since leaving our Boston home, we’d taken small routes instead of interstates and spent our time in places where people lived and worked, played and worshiped. Our trip thus far had been a connect-the-dots of a hundred proud downtowns.
When we got to Natchez, we sized it up as a good place to fish, and we drove to Bailey Park early one morning so Adam could spend some quality river time before the day’s high heat and humidity set in. He looked under the seat for his rod and tackle box. “Where are they, mom? I gave them to you to hold.”
So he did, back in Vicksburg, where I’d laid them down to take a picture. I felt worse than bad. Adam had been looking forward to this. Up in town, there was a K-Mart next to the Natchez Market, where the day before we’d spent a few fun minutes watching red plastic shopping carts roll through the downhill-sloping parking lot and bump into shoppers’ cars. I told Adam I’d replace his equipment as soon as K-Mart opened. But that was over an hour away, and I had ruined this perfect fishing morning. Adam was decent about not rubbing it in but did utilize his keen eye for opportunity: “Since I’m so devastated, can I have a root beer for breakfast?”
Two men in a pickup backed down the cement boat ramp pushing a Bass Tracker. “How you doin’ today?” asked the driver.
I pointed at Adam, sucking down his 7 am root beer. “Well, right now we’re trying to get over the fact that mom left his fishing rod in a park back in Vicksburg.”
John and Mac immediately became everything good about Mississippi that we needed to know. Our chance meeting meant they couldn’t solve the rod problem (“If I’d a known these kids was gonna be here, we’d a brought some rods – Mac’s got about ten,” sighed John), but they found other ways to show the kids a fine Mississippi River time.
They hoisted Adam, then 13, and his sister Dana, 10, into the bass boat and opened coolers holding yesterday’s catch. Three catfish, a whiskered one and two flatheads, each about six pounds, sat on ice. They looked huge to me, but Mac dismissed them as small, unprofitable fry he hoped he’d be able to sell. “The best eatin’ catfish are about eight to nine pounds. Size matters. Caught a seventy-six-pounder once. Nobody’d buy it. Bad eatin’. Too much fat.”
Then Mac pointed to a spot in the Mississippi and shared “evidence” of an alleged 110-pound flathead on the loose, a monster capable of turning the who-eats-whom tables. “Right out there. Eat a man whole.” As Adam listened to the fish tales, I imagined him wanting to get to K-Mart as soon as possible to retool so he could reel in one of these leviathans. And he probably envisioned me emptying the cartop carrier and filling it with ice so we could haul the thing around for a while.
Mac did most of the talking while John got ready to launch. He was crossing to Vidalia on the Louisiana side to check some catfish lines he’d sunk near a spot where a new hotel was going up, and he offered to take us along for the ride. It was tempting to go out on the Father of Waters and watch a Natchez fisherman at work.
But I couldn’t. While intuition sounded the all clear, on this trip I needed to err on the side of too much caution when it came to safety. Traveling alone with the kids required keeping my guard up, even if it meant missing some experiences. I had a fitting but truthful excuse.
“Thank you, but I’m afraid of the water.” Mac, either sharp, sympathetic or both, said he understood my fear. “So’s John’s girlfriend. She won’t get in the boat.” He paused, lowered his head, then added, “This river’s taken a lot of my friends.”
But he loved it. “I been on every inch of her. I’ve camped on all these sandbars, me and my wife. We got a generator and TV.”
The signature steel bridge that connects Natchez with Vidalia began to shimmer with heat as the sun assumed its position over the Mississippi. Mac and John told us that about four years back the water level was so low you could stand on the bridge and look down on a pile of cars and trucks, dumped into the river when a barge hit the bridge in 1945. “River’s got stories,” said Mac.
By now, John had an overdue date with some catfish lines, and K-Mart was open and ready to sell us new fishing gear. We shook hands. John looked at Adam. “Take care of your mama.”
We felt happy as we drove away. The whole day and the whole country were ahead, and everything we’d left behind was good. “Just think, Adam. Some kid in Vicksburg is catching catfish right now.” Adam smiled. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”
Lori Hein is the author of Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America (from which this story is adapted). Her freelance work has appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit her at LoriHein.com or her world travel blog, RibbonsofHighway.blogspot.com.