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Fishing the River New


June 07, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

Ruthie Mae, the lady who took care of me while my mother worked, loved to fish. Under Ruthie Mae's tutelage, she did more to nurture my love of fishing than any other person.

Sometimes we went to Ramer Lake, but most often we fished the banks of the Alamo and New rivers for catfish.

Ruthie Mae's husband, Felix, would go with us sometimes. Felix had a unique method of baiting his hook. After hiding the hook with bait, he performed his mystical ritual of dousing it with ice-cold beer.

"Drives the human odor away," he'd say, "and makes the bait tastier to the fish."

Off course I would want to treat my bait too and poor Felix, being foiled by his own game, would dismally look on as his supply of ice-cold beer was poured over the bait and onto the ground.


It took a few years for me to catch on what Felix was doing. I was so naïve I didn't realize what was wrong when Grandma stopped me as I got a can of beer from the pantry as Ruthie Mae and I packed a lunch for a fishing trip to the West Side Main Canal one day.

The New River crossing on Highway 111, next to the Del Rio Country Club, was one of our favorite spots for catching catfish.

Ruthie Mae owned an old monster Buick. She pronounced it, "Buit." It had a three-speed shift on the column and a straight eight engine. Four chrome-plated holes lined both sides of the extended front hood.

With white sidewall tires and a two-tone white and powder blue paint job, no finer fishing machine ever existed.

The back seat could sleep three, the trunk was big enough to park a compact car-in, and the massive visor, which mounted above the front windshield, could be lowered to keep out the sun. Ruthie Mae was barely 5 feet tall. She had to sit on two pillows to see over the steering wheel and always had trouble with the pedals unless she drove with her shoes off.

Ruthie Mae wheeled her big blue "Buit" off the road and parked under a large tamarack. I broke out the Blue Diamond frozen shrimp and we baited up, cast out and sat down on the riverbank to wait for a bite.

It wasn't long in coming. We both hooked up at the same time. Fishing lines were going every which way as we whooped, hollered and ran in different directions, battling the husky catfish. And then it happened. Our lines became tangled and no amount of swapping rods over and under could undo them. Ruthie Mae yelled for us to throw our rods down and pull the fish in by hand.

Something wasn't right though. As we slowly gained line, what we had hooked pulled backwards like a tractor in low gear. Soon, yellow flashes could be seen underneath the muddy water and our prey appeared.

We both had hooked into giant softshell turtles almost two feet in diameter. As we pulled them up the bank they plowed furrows in the mud as they attempted to back down into the river.

Ruthie Mae warned, "watch out fo' dem teeth," but they didn't look dangerous to me. Actually they looked kind of cute with their soft shells and long pig-like snouts.

Ruthie Mae grabbed the pliers, unhooked one of the turtles, and it scurried back into the river like a bolt of lightning.

"Hey," I said to Ruthie Mae, "turtles aren't supposed to be that fast," but the next instant I was frozen as Ruthie Mae let out a screech that hurt my ears.

The softshell turtle had her by the thumb, blood was spurting everywhere, and he wouldn't let go. Cussing and jumping around, while holding her thumb and the turtle with her other hand, Ruthie Mae begged me to do something. Her screaming brought me back to my senses and I used my trusty Boy Scout knife to whack off the turtle's head, but even in death he got the last laugh. We couldn't get his jaws open so I wrapped everything in a towel and helped Ruthie Mae into her car.

But she couldn't shift the gears on her big Buick with her thumb cut to the bone, turtle head still attached, and wrapped in a towel. So with gears grinding, Ruthie Mae worked the pedals while I shifted the big car into gear. Helping her steer, we headed back to town and to Dr. Yellen's office. He did a fine job of removing the turtle head and stitching up poor Ruthie Mae's thumb.

I attended Ruthie Mae's funeral when she passed away. It was a great funeral. As I passed by her casket, she lay there dressed in her Sunday finest with both hands folded over her stomach. The long white scar on her thumb against her dark skin was plainly visible. If I didn't know better I could swear I saw a hint of a smile as I said my good-bye.

Outdoor Tales writer, Al Kalin, can be reached on the Internet at

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