The Village Idiot: The Contest

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Every June, my brother-in-law Dave, who lives near the river, is in a fishing contest sponsored by a local bar. Dave and his partner, Tim, compete against other teams to see who can catch the most flathead catfish in 15 days.

This, I quickly learned, is the WWE of fishing. No mercy is shown. The rules seem pretty simple: If there’s a fish on the line, they pack it in ice, take it to the bar, have it weighed, then rush the still-living fish (one hopes, at least) back to release it.

By the end, the team that’s recorded the most pounds of fish caught wins a trophy that proves that they are people of superior talent and grit who are willing to abandon family and friends to spend two weeks matching wits with large, dumb, slow-moving catfish.

The parking lot of the bar in the tiny town where all this takes place looks like a truck dealership. If you spot a sedan on Wing Night, you know someone’s relatives from the big city are visiting. In a small town, everyone knows who’s having lunch or sitting at the bar just by looking at what’s in the parking lot. If you buy a new truck, it will take a few days for everyone to realize that no strangers have moved to town, that someone hasn’t gotten a divorce, that there is no need to worry about creeping gentrification — Old Nellie has simply been traded for New Nellie. Still, people will talk.
Dave and Tim scout the riverbank each year trying to find the perfect spot to land the big ones. Once they’ve found a spot, they’ve got to bushwhack a trail to it so they can truck their catch in and out. What no one wants is a repeat of last year, when the granddaddy of all flatheads, the one that would have put them over the top into first place by 30 pounds, broke the test line and escaped, never to be seen again.

There is much good-natured teasing at the bar about who is ahead, who will win, who won last year and how much they cheated to win. But some chatter is not so good-natured. There’s always a suspicion that some team will just buy a fish and put it on the scale on the very last day and walk away with all the glory. It sticks in Dave’s craw every time he walks into Pam’s Place and sees the first-place trophy with Red and Junior’s name on it. Dave has vowed never to let that happen again; it’s just too hard to swallow. Not this year! Not this day!

The month of the contest, vacations are put on hold, family reunions are skipped, weddings are missed. Discussions begin and end with water temperature, river depth, current, flathead behavior, cloudiness of the water, recent rains, past experience, probable ages of the biggest fish, rivalry, trickery and the general no-goodness of the other contestants who will stop at nothing to have their names engraved on a first-place trophy.
Alas, there was no joy in Mudville for Dave and Tim last year. They came in second. On the day of the award ceremony, the winners gathered to collect their prizes and bask in the warmth of knowing that a beautiful statuette would sit in the rafters above the dining room of Pam’s Place for all to see and admire on Taco Tuesday and Roast Beef Friday.

Even though Dave and Tim had to settle for second place, it was fun to see the smirks drop from Red and Junior’s faces when the second-place trophy presented to Dave and Tim was four times bigger than the first-place trophy and three times as spectacular. The words “Second Place” were so small you’d need a magnifying glass to see them, but Dave and Tim’s names can be seen from 30 feet away.

It will probably be the last time they put Dave in charge of the trophy committee.

Contact Jim Mullen at [email protected]

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