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Silhouette of fisherman on lakeshore at sunset

Closed Loop

By Benton Lowry

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Uncle O says that life is for the living, and so is the list.

 
No one used to eat them, not around here. There was a whole system in place to keep fish in there instead, but it got too expensive. Too hard. Too wasteful. My Uncle Oren told me all about it. He says we’re better off now, and I guess he would know better than I do. They’re easy to catch once you get going, it’s just getting your hands on some good bait that’s hard. Most people seem to think that the ranker and fouler the better, and they’ll settle for that in a pinch, but really they value freshness just as much as we do. After the first haul, bait’s no problem. The next batch will eagerly go after the heads and shells of the ones that came before. They’ve got no qualms about it, so I guess they don’t value all the same things we do. Folk won’t often devour their own, at least not so directly like that.

When Uncle O got started, he used traps that he made out of hard wire mesh and shoat rings. He’d drop the traps and they would just sit there on the bottom working while him and Gramby rode around in the dirty-engine boat trying to catch some of those fish. You can’t use traps anymore, it wouldn’t be sporting even if it were legal. People wouldn’t have it. Somebody watching would wait until you’d left, then they’d drag it up onto the shore and smash it good and leave it for you to find there like that. Maybe they’d go find some friends too, formulate a committee to educate you on good sportsmanship when you returned. I like handlining for them anyway, using a trap would be boring. I told Uncle O that. He gets it, but he says that if I’d ever caught one real fish then I would spend all my time trying to catch another one, and a trap would free me up to do that. He said there’s some things I’m better off for not knowing firsthand.

People always ate them other places, or at least for as long as anyone could remember. That’s where Uncle O got the idea, he read a magazine article about Deep South delicacies and recognized a local pest among the questionably edible offerings. Fisherfolk used to catch them by accident all the time, and they hated them because they would steal the fish bait away. Funny enough, that’s how they got to the lake in the first place. People brought them up to use as live bait for the fish. Nobody around here ever thought to eat one, though. Not before Uncle O. If one held on all the way back to shore then the fisher would just chuck it up into the rocks to let it die in the sun. Such wasteful times. Such wasteful people. That’s how Uncle O got the first one that he ever ate too. He just zipped it up in his pocket and kept it alive in there until he was done fishing. He read that you’re supposed to boil them alive, that’s the best way. That’s traditional. He says Gramby thought the whole business was nasty, and that Uncle O was a little nasty for getting into it. Not that Uncle O ever let Gramby’s opinion stop him from doing what he wanted.

Gramby was just old fashioned, even for those days.

He hadn’t expected to like it so much. It was good, not just “good for….” It was better than fish, even. That was enough for Uncle O. Their next trip, he came prepared. His early traps were simple, just a cylinder with inverted funnels on both ends. They were smart enough to find their way in, but getting back out was another challenge altogether. Over time they got smarter. All of the dumb ones were too busy being eaten to pass on their dumb genes. Uncle O got smarter, too. He stopped copying trap designs from old media and started experimenting with his own. He caught enough to pack up and bring home. He caught enough to share, enough to host gatherings. He became an evangelist, and his list of converts grew longer every year.

They had to implement a season because of Uncle O. Because of him and his apostles.

They had to implement a season because of Uncle O. Because of him and his apostles. The fisherfolk complained about all the floats, all the unattended tethers in the water snagging their hooks. Uncle O was still fishing himself in those days, as there were still fish to be caught.

He still thinks of himself as a fisher, even after everything, but a lot of folk came to see him and all folk like him as something else. So, the season got shorter and shorter until finally the traps got banned altogether. Of course, by then Uncle O and the others had already moved on to handlining for the most part anyway. A few people used long rods like the fishers would, but the handlines worked better and became a sort of tribalistic thing. The balance shifted year by year until the folk casting their rods became the oddity. A few diehards kept at it for years after the last time the lake was stocked with fish, chasing the notoriety of catching the last one as much as the fish itself. Uncle O had already given up on fish by then, he had more pressing concerns.

A handliner doesn’t eat fish, but what a handliner eats does eat fish. Even when the fish stocking program was working well, many of the stocked fish would succumb to their ordeal and sink to the lakebed. There was always plenty for a bottom feeder to eat. Then the lake started to change into what it is now. Uncle O says that the last days of the stocking program were the best days to be a handliner. Those fish would die within hours of hitting the lake water. The last desperate efforts of the fishers served little purpose apart from provisioning feed for our quarry.

That’s what gave Uncle O the idea.

Raising one animal to feed to another would have been every bit as cruel as it would have been wasteful. Every bit as immoral. Uncle O wouldn’t have supported it even if the money was still there. Nonetheless, they had to eat something. Maybe every now and then a wayward steer or a sickly elk might give itself up to the lake. Maybe a murder or a suicide would conclude along the shore. Surely a stalwart few would persevere within their cracks and hides along the rocky bottom, but such happenstance could never sustain the kind of harvest that Uncle O and the other handliners had grown accustomed to. So much taking requires giving back. Maintaining such a resource requires stewardship.

The stocking program was the fishers’ way of giving back to the lake. They poured their blood and treasure into massive hatchery troughs. Trophic loss and biological magnification turned it into catchable fish, and they replenished what they took by the truckload. In the end it wasn’t enough, though; it never could have been. It was unsustainable. A funnel, not a loop. Uncle O knew he had to do better by the handliners, he had to close the loop.

So much taking requires giving back. Maintaining such a resource requires stewardship.

O took what he’d learned from making traps and used that knowledge to design the feeders. The feeders didn’t need to be complicated, they just had to hold the food down on the bottom and let them get in and out to feed without getting stuck. He told me it was easier than he’d figured to get the permits for the proof of concept. There were three or four handliners on the commission by then, so he shouldn’t have been too surprised. Uncle O and a dozen volunteers met the penitentiary’s mortuary truck at the boat launch, and together they made use of the one resource that never seems in short supply.

A lot of the old timers weren’t having any of it. They said it was bad enough when you had to figure, and it was intolerable now that you knew for sure. Uncle O said none of that talk ever bothered him. Most of that generation was too stuck in the past to pick up a handline in the first place, if they couldn’t catch fish they’d just as soon stay home. Old thinking, old ways. So wasteful they dared even to waste time.

Gramby went down to close the loop. That was when Uncle O was in charge of the pilot program, before they made you sign up for the list. Gramby never would have agreed to it, but the timing just lined up. Massive hemorrhagic stroke. Folk in the agency thought it would be good for PR, let the people see that Oren was a true believer even when things got personal.

Uncle O sent Gramby down, and the next day he was out handlining again with a photographer in tow. Uncle O says that life is for the living, and so is the list. Only those who want to close the loop go down there now, no one need lose a moment of sleep over winding up there against their wishes. Of course Uncle O is on the list, and I signed my own name the day I reached the age of reason. The very first day I was allowed. Of course we’re on the list. We’re not selfish, superstitious, or stupid. We’re not wasteful. We close the loop.

 

 

Benton LowryBenton Lowry was born in the Midwest, raised in the Southeast, and resides in the Desert Southwest with his wife. His pursuit of interesting work has led him to dive bars, biomedical research labs, Christmas tree lots, and heavy metal soundboards, as well as various sorts of writing and editing. His fiction has been featured in The Raleigh Hatchet.

Header photo by yongjun li, courtesy Pixabay.

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