The Fishing Derby

The Legend of Catfish Gary 

 The diesel engine of my pickup and the crunch of tires on the gravel roadway shattered the peace of Piney Point Resort as I rolled in after 10:30 on a Thursday night in late September. Steering into a pre-assigned campsite, I shut down thee engine, restoring the lakeshore hush, and settled in for the night. I had come for the annual fishing derby and looked forward to a few days of friendly competition in paradise. I would discover however, that sportsmanship fishes elsewhere.

Too early the next morning, my host banged on the camper door, “Hey Ron, do you want to go fishing?”

My old friend, Billy Watson, had invited me up to the rustic fishing camp on the shores of Sheridan Lake in B.C.’s south Cariboo. He, and his wife Laurie, were one-third owners and welcomed family and friends to join them whenever possible.

“Yeah, give me few minutes,” I yelled back.

“OK,” he responded, “meet me up at the office.”

I rolled out of the camper bunk, boiled water for coffee, and after morning ablutions, I gulped a cup of french-pressed Starbucks and wandered through the camp and up to the office, a room attached to the mobile home that served as the manager’s quarters. Billy wasn’t immediately visible so I checked out the bulletin board attached to the wall near the door. It had several notices tacked to the cork but two pieces, in particular, caught my attention. The first was a copy of an email signed by a “Garry Calavera”. The other, I surmised, was a response.

Garry’s was dated September 15th and it proposed the following rules for the Piney Point Fishing Derby:

1.                  Piney Point owners can only fish one hour per day. (“Rejected’ was written beside proposal number one.)

2.                  Americans are only allowed to fish from shore. (This was also rejected.)

3.                  Locals are only allowed to fish with bobby pins and dental floss. (Also rejected by the unnamed arbiter.)

4.                  No harassing past Derby Champions. (Another rejection.)

5.                  No dumping of animal waste in campground of previous Champion. Will result in disqualification. (At least this passed but I could only imagine what had prompted such a resolution.)

6.                  Foul language directed at past Derby Champions will result in disqualification.

The response to these propositions was posted below. It was hand-written and unsigned.

RULES FOR PRIOR WINNER OF FISHING DERBY (2+ years in a row ie Catfish Garry):

1.      Respect owner of resort. Keep his rye and seven full at all times.

2.      Be kind to your neighbours to the south (Americans). Take them to the areas where you caught your winning fish.

3.      Give all participants pointers on type of fishing gear to use. If they need gear, give them some of yours.

4.      If any participants start swearing at you or harassing you – smile and take it like a man.

5.      You will only be allowed on the lake for 15 minutes a day.

6.      Newlywed husbands that leave wife at home must be immediately disqualified. (I learned later that Garry had married his fiance’ at the resort earlier in the summer.)

The exchange left me feeling a little unsettled, as if I’d looked into a pretty lake and glimpsed something scary and unnatural lurking just below the surface but Billy appeared to shake me out my momentary gloom.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“So, how’s the derby going? Who’s winning?” I asked.

“Louise,” he said, “but it’s only four pounds, 3 ounces. I don’t think it’ll win.”

Billy has a habit of referring to everyone he knows as if I know them too. He’ll

never explain who they are unless I ask.

“Louise,” he said, “from Bellingham? Anyway, Garry hasn’t caught his fish yet.”

“Garry?” I ask.

“Yeah, Garry Calavera,” he said, “Last year’s winner.”

“Oh, right. I was just reading about him.” I said.

“Anyway, Garry’s the man to beat,” he replied, “No one knows how he does it.”

We met a man coming up from the dock carrying a fly rod and a tackle box.

“Have any luck?” Billy asked.

“Nope. Not biting this morning,” he replied.

I did not appreciate this news but fishing, like many of life’s pursuits, requires

faith in your abilities, and a big dose of luck.

“Gary, this is my friend, Ron,” Billy said.

I offered my hand, “It’s nice to meet you, Champ.”

The man looked at me questioningly until Billy said, “This isn’t Catfish. This is

Gary Jones.”

Gary looked as if he’d bitten into a lemon, “You thought that I was that Garry?”

“Sorry,” I apologized, “I didn’t know there was more than one Gary here.”

“Sure, just be careful about confusing regular people with Catfish,” he warned and continued up the hill to the campsite.

Down at the shore, we walked out onto the dock where another fisherman

prepared to shove off in his twelve-foot aluminum boat.

“Just going out, Gary?” Billy asked.

“Yup,” the man replied, “I think I can beat four pounds three.”

This must be Catfish, I thought.

“So you’re pretty confident about winning your third straight, eh?” I asked after Billy’s introduction.

Gary’s eyebrows rose causing a furrowed forehead that resembled a stormy lake.

Billy sounded a little exasperated, “No, no. This isn’t Garry Calavera. This is Gary from Vernon.”

“Sorry,” I muttered, turning away, “How many Garys are there around here?”

We organized our supplies and gear in the boat and left the dock a few minutes

later. Billy pointed the bow at the south point of an island not far from the resort and we dragged a variety of our favourite flies and lures for a couple of hours with a single, pound and a half rainbow to show for our lack of effort. After lunch we went out again with even less success. Our chances of winning the derby looked bleak.

That evening I finally met Garry Calavera. He was sitting under the awning of his

fifth-wheel trailer gazing across the bay. The setting sun cast a golden sheen over the man staring imperiously out at the lake. Not a large man, his face was clean-shaven and delicately patrician. He looked out of place and perfectly at home, at the same time.

Billy and I broke into his meditation but I was careful this time.

“Catfish Garry?” I asked before shaking his hand, “Two-time champion of the Piney Point Fishing Derby?”

“Two-time champion and one disputed,” he said.

“Very happy to finally meet you,” I said with relief, “Third time lucky.”

He looked as if he was going to ask me what I meant by that but I interrupted his question with one of my own, “What do you mean, one disputed?”

“A few years ago the tournament had separate categories for fly fishing and for hardware, I caught the same size fish on a fly as Louise did on a willow leaf but they made her the champion instead of me. It wasn’t right but I’m not bitter. Really.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said, “So how did you make out today? Catch anything?”

“Just a couple of two and a half pounders.”

“Tomorrow’s the last day,”

“I’m not worried,” he said, “Lots of time.”

“What’re you drinking?” Billy asked him. Catfish cupped a stemmed glass in the

palm of his right hand, swirled the amber liquid and took a sip before answering.

“Brandy.”

Brandy? Most unusual. I thought, In most fishing camps, where beer is the

beverage of champions, I’m scorned for drinking single-malt scotch.

“Well,” he announced after a short visit, “I’d better turn in. Gotta get up early and

get the winning fish.”

I walked away thinking that Catfish Garry was an enigma, wrapped in a New

York Times Sunday crossword and stuck in the back of the freezer.

Lights-out came early in the camp that night. We all went to bed dreaming that we

might land the “big one” on the final day, but nothing happened until late Saturday morning, when we heard a commotion on the dock. Someone yelled for an official weigh-in. Billy and I hurried down to the beach in time to see Catfish Garry carrying a beautiful rainbow trout.

Rhoda yelled out the door of her trailer, “John called from the lake. Garry caught a big fish.”

Someone called back, “Yeah, we know. He’s in already.”

More people crowded around the cleaning shack, jostling for position. I could

hear them debating the weight.

“It’s only four pounds,” one said.

“You’re crazy. It’s at least six,” someone countered.

“You’re both wrong,” said another, “but it looks bigger than Louise’s four pounds three.”

“Don’t we need Amy to make this official?” Garry asked, “Where is she?”

“I’ll do it,” Billy said.

“Are you sure that’s legal?” Garry responded.

“It’s my resort,” Billy retorted.

“OK, I guess so,” he said, “but I better not get screwed out of my prize because according to one version of the rules, Amy is the official weigher.”

“Don’t worry about it. This will be official,” Billy assured him.

We held our breath as he placed the fish in the tray under the large, round scale

hanging from the shack’s eaves. He let go of the gills and the big red arrow swung around with a jerk and stopped at 5. Five pounds exactly, and now the first-place fish.

The man who’d called his shot shrugged and grinned, as if we shouldn’t be

surprised. Technically, it wasn’t over until 4:00 PM but you could feel the air come out of everyone who still thought they had a chance to win.

            At that moment, Rhoda yelled again from her trailer, “Well, how big is it? John and the Americans want to know.”

After getting the news we heard her tell the people still on the lake that they’d

better keep fishing.

For the next five hours the tension increased at Piney Point. Boats went out and

boats came back but when four o’clock rolled around, no fish heavier than five pounds was recorded. At 4:01 a joyful whoop echoed through the camp, followed by a chant, I’m number one, I’m number one.

An hour later when the participants gathered for the gala wind-up, a potluck

dinner and awards ceremony, there were many disappointed faces among the crowd. I sat at a table across from Dewie, the former owner of Piney Point Resort. Behind me, one table over, was Garry Calavera. We ate and had a few drinks but by the time Billy stood up to hand out the prizes, the champion had dodged curses, threats and a beer can thrown by a drunken Dewie who yelled, Hey Catfish, catch this! as he let it go.

Louise, the runner-up from Bellingham, accepted her second place prize and on

the way back to her seat raised the middle finger of her left hand in Garry’s direction, to let him know that he was Number One.

Garry was gracious in victory despite the booing and hissing from the crowd. His

“happy dance” was an act of pure joy and his acceptance speech was, on the whole, self-congratulatory but brief. He did thank the organizers for not giving out trophies this year, since his case was full.

When it was all over, I accompanied the champion back to his campsite.

            “Rough crowd tonight,” I said, “At least it was all in good fun.”

“Was it?” he said distractedly, “It’s okay though, I understand their feelings.”

“Oh?”

“Sure, it’s hard to lose all the time.”

            I was about to say Good-night when he picked up his fly-rod, tossing a faux cast at the full moon that hung over the far shore of the lake like an oversized baseball leaving the park. With his right arm fully extended he left the tip of the rod pointed over the horizon. He held the pose and after a moment said something that I will never forget. 

            “Ron,” he intoned, “You’ve heard it said that Yankee Stadium is the House that Ruth built?”

“Of course,” I said, “Babe Ruth was a legend.”

“Exactly and, therefore, it must be said that Piney Point Resort is the house that Calavera built.” 

I couldn’t think of anything to say in response and he was still there, glowing softly in the moonlight, as I backed away.