By Kenneth L. Kieser
June 8, 2011
Some nights are darker than others, especially on any river bank. Take away the moonlight and you have a very spooky place.
The men in my family are rough and tumble types. Our fathers were raised in much harder times and taught each boy in my family to be tough and self sufficient.
We were young men then, full of energy and confidence, not smart enough to understand fears and brash enough not to care. We easily averaged between 230 to 250 pounds each from a life of throwing hay bales and other work. We enjoyed each other’s company and sharp, sometimes insulting wit. We probably seemed hard on each other at times, at least to outsiders. Occasionally we fought with each other, but always watched each other’s backs with outsiders.
I make these points about my family before telling this story of camping and fishing on the Platte River in the early 1970s, just five miles from where it emptied into the Missouri River on the edge of Platte County. My older cousin called uninhabited river basins the last frontiers and he was right as usual.
The spring evening started perfect, with blue skies and warm temperatures. We worked together in setting up our large tent, big enough for several big men. We spent the rest of our daylight hours setting out catfish lines on the Platte River, except for one limb line, and then grabbing an occasional nap.
A friend had sent a dead chicken on this particular evening. We decided to hook the foul bird on a big snagging hook and 1,000-pound test line where the Missouri River and Platte intersected. My older cousin Ronnie soon found a stout limb that hung out over a deep section of cut bank. I was happy to see the nasty weighted bait disappear under the surface. We hoped a huge blue cat would find the chicken. A flathead cat would have been fine, too.
Darkness settled in and our campfire threw shadows across the river basin. We settled back in our lawn chairs and sipped beers while watching the fire. A Dutch oven full of pinto beans laced with hot peppers, carrots and ham sat on a grate my brother had welded together, fueled by glowing coals and we roasted hot dogs. Darkness became even darker as clouds started rolling in. Soon our campsite depended on our fire for light. We were the only campers in the area – most others by then paid attention to the weatherman.
We decided to wait at least two hours before running our lines and sat back, relaxed. I had to smile as flames created evil looking shadows on each face. I leaned down to light a cigar and looked up to stare into the face of a stranger. A chill passed through my entire body.
The man had quietly walked into our camp without a sound. He was dressed in old, dingy coveralls that had partly turned to rags and were white at one time. He had a white plastic construction helmet stained with mud on his ancient head. The fire reflected off his face, illuminating tortured eyes and a dark grin of discolored teeth with plenty of chin stubble. He was staring straight into my face and not saying a word, just grinning, and his features would have rivaled most Hollywood makeup artists trying to design a desolate look. Ronnie took notice of where I was looking, turned to see this unusual little man and shuddered.
The man held an old, rusted fish sack in his right hand and a trident mounted on a broom handle in his left. I could clearly see two prehistoric gar and a turtle in the sack. The man stepped closer, looked at everyone who by now was looking back. He continued to grin, looked at our pot of beans and stepped closer; his legs leaned against cousin Joe’s back who did not look happy.
“I’ll eat good tonight boys,” he said before turning to disappear into the darkness.
We traded looks without a word. I wished for the pistol that was miles away in my house. The strange man had given me no reason to want a gun, but that river bank was pitch black and his words and appearance were spooky. Suddenly, without a word, everybody walked to their pickups and started digging around under pickup seats and glove compartments for their frog and snake pistols.
Soon we were laughing about the incident. A couple of hours passed before Joe, Ronnie and I piled into the 18-foot aluminum Jon boat and set out into the still, calm darkness. We hoped to have a couple of big cats for the grill. We approached the first bank by lantern light, making the bank look almost three dimensional. I could see the limb line hanging without any pressure – no fish.
I leaned over to check the bait and something told me to grab the line high. I did and a huge shot of dirty river water splashed in my face. I flipped on my flashlight and looked down at a huge river mossican, nonpoisonous, but very aggressive and mean. That huge snake would have taken a generous bite of my hand had I grabbed the line a foot lower. The snake was not leaving, so we decided to check another line. Joe pointed his flashlight on the water as Ronnie rowed and noted, “The damned snake is following us.”
We could see his flashlight bean reflecting off red eyes in the water, sure sign of a snake. Ronnie took a boat paddle and slammed the water, trying to scare off this determined reptile. This clearly made the snake mad, who swam up and started striking at the boat. The heavy bodied snake made quite a sound each time his boney head struck the aluminum. Ronnie flipped on his ignition switch, kicked off the 20 horsepower motor and we quickly left the snake behind.
We motored down river a half mile where my best trotline was uncoiled in a river bend with current. I had purposely loaded this line with crawfish and goldfish in hopes of catching a big flathead or two. We gently pulled up with big flashlights shining after the snake incident and could see our floats slipping under the surface, fish on. Joe readied the net while I gently lifted the first line up. A dark shape appeared out of the darkness and a big gar gave me a toothy grin before dropping off and disappearing into the river.
Every line had a big gar eating bait. Each let go as we approached and escaped. Frustration was starting to set in. The prehistoric gar’s hard mouth bones were impossible to penetrate and our razor sharp hooks did little but display their dinner. We decided to move the trot line.
An hour later we motored down to the dead chicken. I lifted the bird out of deep water and gratefully lowered it back down into the depths where hopefully it would be devoured.
Our next trotline produced better results with three fat flatheads. We, at least, had something for our campfire besides beans and hot dogs. We returned to camp and found my brother and little cousin sitting back to back, looking in both directions.
“Something is moving around out there,” my brother stammered when we stepped back up on the bank. “I think he might be back.”
We sat around the campfire and started cleaning catfish by a lantern. I never noticed movement and figured they might have seen a doe wandering past. There have always been a lot of deer in that area.
We checked the lines one more time two hours later and called it a night. An hour later the sky opened up and drowned our campfire. We had a good, tight tent and the rain helplessly bounced off and rolled down to the river. During the night I woke up to see a shape illuminated by intense lightening. I sat up and realized that someone was moving around outside in the rain.
“Wake up you idiots,” I grumbled. “Think our friend is back.”
That woke up everyone who reached for their pistols. The following morning I found footsteps that moved past our campfire. He had evidently paused to open the Dutch oven and maybe grabbed a handful of beans. We tossed the beans and scrubbed out the Dutch oven.
I followed his tracks down the river bank, clearly old tennis shoes with a cut across one’s heel, and then they disappeared. I looked over the bank, nothing. He had vanished or the rain had washed some tracks away.
We pulled in our lines to find several flatheads, enough for a fish fry. We decided to give the little man one if he showed up before we pulled out. We visited the dead chicken one last time and found the hook straightened, perhaps a log out of the current or a giant cat.
River ways throughout our country are wooly, rough places. I will always wonder what happened to that little man and where he disappeared to.
Above, dusk on a river in the beginning of changes — even if they are one’s mind. Photo by Kenneth L. Kieser