The Life Before Dawn

It is 5:30 as I head out to the barn, the light of dawn still a couple of hours away. A few hens, alert to my footstep, jump from their roost in anticipation of an early handful of scratch. Floating above the tree line, in the western sky, the moon is a slender crescent. The sheep are quiet in the barn, the roads empty. Perfect.

Life is at its best when I go to bed on time and wake in the early hours. The world seems both smaller and infinite. Like a fresh-fallen snow, these hours hush the bustle of the world of our making. The curtain is pulled back for a while to reveal something less demanding and much more impressive.

As a child, in a house full of siblings, I’d arise way before the sun to check my trotlines for catfish. That time was mine. Slipping silently out of the house, I’d walk through the dark yard to the dock and climb quietly into the jon boat. A push away with the paddle, no light in hand, and I’d coast into the peaceful winter’s morning. I’d hold off using the paddle for long moments, gliding on the smooth surface, enjoying the solitude. Then, after a minute or two, with a few swift strokes, I’d head to the cypress tree along the edge of the pond.

There was always an excitement in that first moment, when, still not using a light, I would reach into the cold, black water for the line and feel it twitch hard in my hands, telegraphing the number of catfish dangling along the hundred yards of its course.

Hand over hand I would pull the boat along the trotline across the pond, a hook hanging every foot. As each catfish came boiling into view, I’d pull up the line so the fish hung on the inside of the boat. The smaller ones would be released, and the big fat-bellied ones I’d drop into the bottom of the boat, where they’d thump about in the slosh at my feet.

It usually took an hour to run the lines and rebait each hook. A quiet paddle back across the pond, then I’d take the catfish up to the house and clean them in the light of the kitchen window. Dad would usually be up with a cup of coffee and the paper when I came inside. I’d put the catfish, two each, in clean empty Guth milk cartons. They’d then be filled with water, labeled, and put in the freezer. There, like ice bricks, stacked igloo-style, they awaited a spring thaw and fish fry.

These many years later, a good predawn ramble or spot of work done in quiet reflection still sets me on the right side when the sun comes up. The workload later in the day always seems lessened if I’m outside in the dark just before dawn — my time when the curtain is pulled back a little, letting in the soft glow of possibilities.

8 thoughts on “The Life Before Dawn

  1. That’s an interesting way of preserving the catfish, Brian. Why do that as against just freezing them? Was it to keep them a bit more moist?

    • Good question, it was just one of the things we always did with fish, game or shellfish. We’d also put duck that we shot in those half-gallon containers, fill with water and freeze. Since you raise the question and I think about it for a minute, none of it ever got freezer burned. Even today, if I buy ten pounds of shrimp I’ll sort it into half-pound sections, put in ziplocs, fill with water and freeze. Seems to last forever.

  2. I ran a trot line during the summer on Chicamauga Lake. I used, as taught by my Daddy, small cubes of Ivory soap, which floated and bobbed around in the current. We liked the blue gill catfish and also froze them in milk cartons filled with water.

    As a child, I loved the night and often slipped out when everyone was asleep to sit on the dock and fall into the Milky Way, which you could still see in our skies then…alas, no more.

  3. I’ll second Lennie’s motion. Quite poetic.

    Not from a trot line, but simply fishing in the farm pond down beyond the pasture a brother and I once brought home a stringer full of catfish that we could hardly carry. I think there’s a photo somewhere of the feat. My brother was still missing a front tooth, he had to be all of 6 or 7 at the time.

Any thoughts or questions?