The river ran fast and frigid, ice chunks rattling the wooden skiff’s sides as my father navigated between snowy banks with a pair of oars. My uncle perched in the bow, holding a hissing Coleman lantern high with one hand and pointing a four-pronged fish gig with the other.
He snarled and stabbed. Dad shouted encouragement. Something thrashed on the business end of the fish spear, dragging the pole down. Hand-over-hand, my uncle pulled in the prize.
It could have been a scene from Melville’s “Moby Dick,” except we weren’t hunting whales. Our prey was an aquatic denizen with a rubbery mouth and torpedo body. Really, we were after trash fish.
On the coldest night of my life, I was a spectator to the annual sucker run on Flat Rock River.
Fat snowflakes slapped my face. The wind cut like razor blades. I shivered and moaned in the back of the boat, canvas sneakers submerged in freezing water.
The skiff leaked, and my job was to bail with a tin can. Skeins of ice formed in the bottom. I had never been colder in my life. I couldn’t feel my toes or the end of my nose, and my sopping wet corduroy pants were frozen to the seat.
My company in the stern was a couple of large bloody fish, bobbing listlessly and being transformed into scaly silver icicles. I ducked as another redhorse sucker was flung off the gig at my face.
At age 12, I was the victim of another weird family tradition. This was the worst yet.
Suckers throng into small rivers and creeks during their spawning runs. The best fishing occurs in April and May. But my father and uncle had figured out that the bigger fish stage in deep pools from early to mid-March. Thus, their night-time forays on the Flat Rock River and tributaries.
But this was no balmy spring evening. Winter was hanging on, an especially bad one. Lots of snow had piled along the river’s course; temperatures down to 9 degrees were forecasted. I was already wet from head to toe.
“Mighty quiet back there,” my uncle laughed as he changed places with my father. The boat drifted sideways while he unscrewed the top of a dented Thermos bottle and poured coffee in tin cups.
Handing me one, he winked: “Ain’t hot chocolate, but it’s better than nothing on a Fish Blood Night.”
This is what my family called a son’s first sucker-gigging foray. Fish Blood Night.
It was a rite of manhood involving hypothermia and the risk of drowning. As if the single-digit temperatures weren’t bad enough, bloody freezing water tainted with fish scales and slime sloshed on your clothing and turned your Chuck Taylors into black ice cubes. Frostbite and pneumonia were definite possibilities, too.
Like learning to “grapple” fish with your bare hands in swamps and sloughs where cottonmouths and snapping turtles lurk, sucker gigging was another passage from boyhood to manhood. I’d already passed the grappling test with only mosquito bites and leech scars as my badges of honor.
Rites had to hurt to be worth much, according to the family patriarchs. Those guys were Old Testament all the way and took perverse pleasure in the younger generation’s suffering.
But was it worth it for a boatload of frozen suckers? To them, the catch meant fried sucker fillets (the tiny bones dissolved in hot oil after the meat was scored in a crisscross pattern), pickled sucker (yuck), fried sucker balls (like hushpuppies, sort of), smoked sucker meat (for fish dip and saltine crackers), and canned suckers (the pressure cooker dissolved the numerous bones so sucker patties could be made).
The Fish Blood Night ordeal of a son or nephew was inconsequential. What mattered was perseverance, guts and keeping a stiff upper lip. I had the latter in spades. In fact, my upper lip was frozen to my front teeth.
I never went sucker-gigging again. Although I have encountered ambient air temperatures of 38 degrees below zero, I was never colder than while sitting in the back of that leaky skiff in the wintery darkness of the Flat Rock River.
Recently, I visited the same uncle who put me through the Fish Blood Night trial (and several other ritual challenges on the way to becoming a man). My late father’s closest brother, he sat in a recliner, fragile and much smaller than I remembered when we fished and hunted together decades ago.
“The old cancer’s got me,” he explained, but he wasn’t going without a fight. We spoke of his treatments, appetite and visitors. Then he looked into the distance. His thin face cracked a grin. I knew he was gazing through a memory window.
“There’s one thing I been wanting to do for all these years. Don’t reckon I’ll get the chance unless …” he said in a whispery voice.
I leaned closer to hear, and he cackled: “Unless you’re ready to go sucker gigging again.”