Rheta Johnson: Creek-bank fishing in south Georgia

June 22, 2013 9:26:50 PM

Rheta Grimsley Johnson -


A few years back I wrote a story about a Florida panhandle folk artist named Woodie Long. Woodie died far too soon and left a beautiful widow and a country studio full of colorful, childlike paintings. His style was joyful. 


I have one of his paintings, "Creek Bank Fishing," hanging on the wall. It's as if he took notes during my own childhood. He got it right, from the cane poles and red clay banks to the corkscrew curls on the girl in a purple dress. 


Everyone knows creek-bank fishing is the best kind. It's what we did most often in South Georgia, where days were longer and hotter and snakes bigger than anywhere else on earth. My paternal grandmother in particular was happiest seated on a bucket turned upside down on a creek bank, a "bucket seat" before the other, automotive kind was invented. She didn't need a stinking boat. 


Grandma Lucille was one of the hardest working women I have ever known. She would scrub raw anything or anybody who did not escape. She didn't even like a dirty thought. Her modest house was a few yards from the pig pen and South Georgia swamp, and passing cars churned up wakes of white dust. Against all odds, Lucille's home was as clean as a surgeon's hands. 


Some afternoons, after a big, sleep-inducing noon meal was over and the dishes put away, she'd get a certain look in her eyes. Next thing you knew, she'd put down the pan of peas she was shelling, and my grandfather would be bringing around their old yacht of a car with poles sticking out the back windows. We'd all hurriedly load in, and Lucille would pronounce exactly what part of the creek bank was ripe for fishing, and, swear to Zeus, my grandfather would spray gravel roaring out of there. Nobody questioned Lucille. 


And once you committed your bucket seat to a particular spot on the creek, you left it there, sometimes for hours without getting a bite. Lucille's theory was that the fish eventually would pass by, that patience prevailed. It usually did. 


As a small girl I'd wear out a worm slinging it in and out of the creek, always grateful to miss the low-hanging branches and avoid rebooting. I liked to watch the mosquito hawks that landed on the end of the pole or the orange cork. I didn't catch much, but it was an excellent time to daydream about a future of prom dresses and orchid corsages and mansions on hilltops.  


Lucille always caught the most fish. Happy now with something else to clean, she'd announce it was time to get home and dress those fish. Supper was a given. 


This is the time of year when driving to town I meet monster trucks pulling big boats on narrow roads that all end at the lake. The boats look better designed for space travel than for wetting a hook. And once the glittery boat is launched, it doesn't linger anywhere long, but flies across the lake at speeds that presume the fish have all, en masse, gone to some specific location where they will stay only a pre-ordained three minutes. 


Imagine my surprise one day to see two youngsters walking along carrying fishing poles and a box of worms. I'm not sure exactly where they were going, because you have to own a million-dollar home or a boat to access the lake these days. Rich people frown on trespassing fishermen. 


I wanted to high-five the lads, but I don't think anyone does that anymore. The high-five is as quaint as catching lightning bugs, hand-cranking cream or creek-bank fishing.