Rick Bragg On Memories Of The Creek Bank: Life Lessons And A Little Fishing

Never Fish in a New Hat


As a boy, I believed that practically all I would ever need to know about life I could learn simply by watching and listening to sorry old men fish, cuss, smoke, and lie. The creek bank was my classroom, and they were my professors. While it is true that much of what I gleaned there would turn out to be pure nonsense or even downright dangerous, I cannot say that it was wasted time.

Sitting in the dappled sunlight alongside a stream the color of muddy jade, I learned how to tell a story...and a little about how to fish

I would have learned more if most of what they believed about the catching of bass, bream, crappie, and catfish had not been utter foolishness, what some Yankees would refer to as folklore. Later, as my vocabulary expanded in the world of steelworkers, coal miners, and pulp-wooders, I would find out that myth and folklore also go by another name—just not one that I can use in a magazine that tends to devote so many pages to window boxes and gazebos.

But at the time, I thought what I was hearing was wisdom.

They would cuss out loud if they saw a rabbit thump through the brush; everybody knew that didn’t bode well. They didn’t like to have a cat slinking around their bait bucket, but one rubbing against the legs of their overalls was a good omen. Everyone knew that too.

They spit on their hooks for luck, and it was more successful if they were chewing tobacco. Once in a while, one of the old men would slip a harmonica out of his pocket and blow a single, sad wail... “for good luck,” they said. It was even better to play a fiddle, but that was too hard to lug through the woods.

But nothing seemed to be as important to the science of attracting fish as wearing the right hat. They had ones that looked as if they had been through a war, crushed under a train, or buried in a coal mine. They had ancient fedoras, like the one my grandpa, Charlie Bundrum, wore, sometimes with fishhooks sticking in the satin band above the brim. He did not live long enough for me to see him in person, but he always had on that hat in the black-and-white photos I saw. He went fishing, cooked liquor, and roofed houses in it and would have worn it to church if he had been inclined to go.

Anyway, the old men swore that only a fool would go fishing in a new hat. The fish would surely shun you, and it could even portend misfortune. It was said that people had fallen out of boats and disappeared when wearing them.

As the years piled up around me, I would eventually come to believe that this—like the majority of what I had learned—was probably nonsense.

A few years ago, I went fishing with Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who would later go on to become a Senator. For the occasion, a foray into brackish water to catch some speckled trout, I bought a brand-new hat.

Once we got on the water, he informed me that maybe I should have looked a little bit harder at the label before making my selection.

“I think that’s a lady’s hat,” he said.

It actually was.

Later that same day, I tripped and fell over a tree stump.

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