Old Men River
Why do they fish along the Tennessee's industrial banks? Because they can.
By Jesse Fox Mayshark
JUNE 14, 1999: It's hot along Neyland Drive on this Wednesday afternoon, the kind of early June hot that seeps in through your clothes and stays there, the kind that makes anything but flopping down somewhere shady seem like more than anyone with half a brain would undertake, more in fact than nature ever intended anyone to do.
Charlie Pruitt and Edward B. Jackson, who everyone calls "Boggie," which is pronounced bogie and not boggy, aren't given to fighting the dictates of nature. They are here in the gravel lot next to the American Limestone Company, doing as little as it is humanly possible to do and still be doing something. They're fishing.
It's a deceptive verb, "fishing." It sounds active, but it looks passive. Nothing's movingnot the four lines running from the four poles propped against the small cement wall, not the poles themselves, not Charlie or Boggie, not the silver Ford Ranger upon whose tailgate the two men are comfortably perched beneath the barely adequate shade of a faded white and gray beach umbrella. They own this spot, by virtue of both seniority and frequency. Of the many regulars who cast into the suspect waters of what used to be called the Tennessee River before someone decided it would sound better as a lake, there aren't many more regular than Charlie and Boggie.
"Just about every day," Boggie says, angling his head just slightly, eyes always on the water.
"Hell, I guess I been fishing ever since I was born," says Charlie. This river, in fact, is a birthright of sorts for both men. Charlie grew up in a house on the shore over near First Creek, him and 10 siblings. The whole family fished over behind the old East Tennessee Packing plant. Boggie was born a little downriver, near the Gay Street Bridge. Sometimes they still angle up there, casting for catfish along the new tourist-friendly waterfront. More often, though, they come here.
"I'm old and this is convenient," says Charlie, a sizable sun-reddened man still wearing the dark-blue coveralls of Eagle Brand Manufacturing, the company he retired from four years ago. "Just back up right here and throw out. You catch something, fine; you don't catch something, fine."
Charlie was 66 in March. Boggie, a smaller man in a white T-shirt and a sun hat who's retired from Kelsan Products at the Forks of the River, will be 70 later this year. When they're not fishing here, they fish all over East Tennessee (Boggie has a place on Douglas Lake) and even farther afield, in Florida and Alabama and the Carolinas. They've given up most of their other leisure pursuits.
"I used to like going to shoot pool and things like that," Boggie says, "but you get in trouble. I've quit drinking, shooting pool, cussin'. Well, I haven't quit cussin'..."
Just 50 yards or so from their spot, down at the mouth of Third Creek, there's a small white sign with black and blue letters that read as follows:
"I just take pictures of 'em and turn 'em back loose," Charlie says.
"I ain't never eaten no fish," Boggie says. "I never have."
But they know a lot of the other fishermen do eat what they catch, and they've yet to see anyone suffer for it. "Everybody eats them," Charlie says. Then he adds off-handedly, "I eat some of them. I just ate some a few months back. What I heard was you had to eat 50 pounds for that to hurt you."
It's not that they don't believe the river is polluted. It's that they've never known it to be any other way. In fact, Charlie says the water seems a lot cleaner to him since TVA took over river management. "Hell, in the '30s you had everything in there."
Some things have changed for the worse, though. "They got the damn speedboats," Boggie says. "Ski-dos. They cut the lines sometimes, come in real close."
They know most of anglers who work these banks, by face if not name. It's a mixed crowd, Charlie says, factory men and professionals, black and white, everybody collegial and laid-back. And then there's a guy named Bud. Bud comes down to this parking lot several times a week to feed the geese who congregate along the water. Charlie's convinced the birds wait for their benefactor. Not long ago, on a day Bud was late in coming, one of the larger ganders waddled tentatively over to Charlie's truck.
"It looked me right in the eye, and it went, 'Buud,'" Charlie says, elongating the last word in a guttural croak. "I said, 'No, I'm not Bud. He'll be here soon.' I swear it said 'Bud.'"
It's not just the camaraderie that brings the fishermen down here day after day, though. And if it's not the promise of catfish on the table, then what is it? Charlie flashes a crooked-toothed grin.
"I'll tell you like I tell everyone, and I don't want you take this wrong," he says. "It's like having sex. It ain't the throw out, it's the long drag in that I like."
And in this pursuit at least, it's all about size. Charlie ambles to the cab of his truck and comes back with a small stack of snapshots, highlights from the last few seasons. They show him, sometimes by himself, sometimes with one of his sons or friends, and always with a great gray mass of catfish. In one shot, he's holding a fish with its jaw near his belt and its tail dragging the ground.
"Over the last three years, I've caught some biggies," he says.
The biggest, however, was just a couple of weeks ago. He doesn't have the film developed yet, but he spreads his arms in the universal angler's gesture, "37 inches long and about 8 inches between the eyes." He holds his hands there in air, looking back and forth between them, measuring it again in his head.
It's not all fishing talk out here, of course. With hours to while away, the conversation can wander into anything from politics (the unfairness of the Social Security system) to mortality (Charlie just bought himself a gravesite last weekend, next to his family's plot). Eventually, even on these long hot evenings, the sun will go down. That's when the next shift arrives, a younger crowd Charlie and Boggie don't care for all that much. "The pot smokers, pill poppers, and whoresI don't know what you call them, that's what I call them," Charlie says. "They come down here." That's when he usually decides to call it a night.
Even if they go home without seeing their lines jerk once, the two friends don't figure it for a lost day.
"It gets you out of the house," Boggie says with a small shrug.
"Yeah, it gets you out of the house, keeps you out of trouble, and like I said, I'm an old man," Charlie says. "I'm not married, kids are grown..."
Charlie adjusts the tilt of his umbrella to keep the shade spread as wide as possible. Then he turns back to the water. "You have to have a lot of patience to do this kind of fishing," he says. "Sometimes, it pays off."
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