River Therapy

Bandera is an enchanted Texas town situated in the valley of the Medina River where men have basked in the western ruggedness, isolation and esoteric beauty for over 180 years. The land’s history matches the harsh, impenetrable nature of the arroyo laden country. The souls from victims of brutal raids on the Polish and German settlers by the savage Comanche and Apache, sweat stained ranchers, and persevering families seem to have bled into the immense bald cypress trees and the fallen now stand sentinel as the rivers spills through town as light hearted summer vacationers float below in inflated tubes of black rubber.

old pic
Circa 1980, the author was still in diapers.

In college, my roommates and I would escape the urban and harried city of Austin for the therapeutic refreshment only the remote and austere canyon lands along the river could provide.  Sleeping under Texas’s version of the redwoods, we’d take part in various manly pursuits: like making chicken fried black bear steak over an open fire, shooting axis deer, and rock climbing.  A central moment of my life occurred while camping in Bandera and through extenuating circumstances, I happened to be completely naked.

guitar
We played guitars like we were Marty Robbins.

On our last trip before the land was cruelly sold and lost, my cousin and roommate Quentin gathered a number of friends to enjoy a final commune on the river. Though neither classmate in high school, nor member of their respective fraternities, I never passed up a trip to Bandera.  I’ve always been an unapologetic procurer of meats, and I planned on fishing and running a couple trotlines. Q didn’t fish much and was busy with host duties, so I doubted his buddies fished; but I’m a friendly guy and after tents were pitched and brews were cracked open, I asked if any of them would like to fish.   My invitations were politely rebuffed with a couple quick glances and a few poorly hidden smirks.  Of course, as I figured this would be their response. Anyway, I was relieved because I doubted Calvin Klein’s Obsession would be well received by the catfish.

That afternoon, we floated a 3 mile section of the river, ate dinner and relaxed under a dense canopy of cypress.  The day’s adventure conquered and bellies filled, the group turned their focus to the possible companionship waiting in the neon glow of Bandera’s multiple saloons and dance halls. Plans were made and baths taken.  Attired in Polo shirts and khaki pants, the ravenous pack of twenty-somethings set out to procure a meat of a different sort.  My engaged status notwithstanding, I still wanted to fish more than be their 13th wingman; so I stayed focused on my river pursuits setting my trotlines as they left.

wave
I stayed to catch fish.

There is a primitive enthusiasm experienced by those who’ve raised a crab pot, checked a crawfish net, or pulled a lobster trap from the depths that is physically and emotionally addictive.  Perhaps it’s DNA, some genetic trait that calls people like me to such pursuits.  A trotline is a long nylon string with hooks spaced at varying intervals from lines branching off a main line.  Shallow Hill Country rivers, limestone bottomed and meandering below fantastic cliffs, around brutally large boulders, and beside soaring bald cypress lend themselves well to trotlines set and run without boat.  Tying one end of the trotline to the knee of a cypress I carefully stretched the main line parallel to a boulder field where numerous underwater caves give refuge to assorted creatures in the vibrant watercourse.  You wouldn’t call the water stagnant, but it was not flowing fast enough to prevent the looming cliffs’ shade from lowering the water temperature several degrees.  The small brim and shad I used for bait flickered and danced in their struggle to escape the hook, all the while signaling the predators of the river a free meal is ready for the taking.  Before I finish setting my second trotline, I removed half a dozen nice fish from the first trotline and rebaited.

A quiet peacefulness reigned as I drank in a magenta sunset along with my Shiner Bock.  Currents of air brought chillness to the air reminiscent of early spring. Due to a packing failure, I left myself with one set of dry clothes.  Rather than relax in my slimy shorts from earlier, I changed into the dry.  Moreover, I decided the next run would be in the buff to avoid putting the nasty clothes back on, and to keep at least one set dry.

Two hours and a brief nap later full dark arrived and I slipped from my clothes.  Easing into the water, quiet ripples announced my presence in the Medina.   A minnow bucket full of terrified bait drifted listlessly at my hip as my progression stirred mud, leaves and turtles in my path.  The stringer of fish caught earlier in the day tugged uselessly from the other side; tired from hours of hopeless escape attempts.  The low hissing of the Coleman lantern released into the air smells of industrial fuel along with quiet whispers of danger as drops of water sizzled on the reflectors. I was drunk.

I waded cautiously, slowly, because the trotline was fifty yards downstream.  Each shuffle of my feet turned the yellow brown bottom into mushrooming clouds of silt slowly following me like the ghosts of fish poorly filleted. Wagon wheel ruts formed over ages unknown make travel slow and perilous.  I slipped several times but never submerged.

Shadows dance differently from lanterns above slowly moving water.  The combined reflection from water, boulder and cliff was disorienting.  My steps were not silent; rather they seemed to swallow the silence as the water moved around my waste in sounds not dissimilar to water flowing into a drain.  I avoided the big boulders and their caves underneath.

From the melancholy glow of my Coleman lantern I made out the signs of a desperate struggle taking place on the second hook of the trotline.  Slowly, I eased my hand down the throbbing trotline.  Mesmerizing rhythmic patterns of light and shadow slowly teased me with flashing glimpses of something prehistoric.  Naked, fish tied to my waist, I was overcome with the feeling I was now starring in a grotesque burlesque show and I expected to see Hunter S. Thompson float by momentarily.  I shivered.

For a moment the water and light acted in concert to freeze in time allowing me to fully recognize my foe.  Lepisosteus osseus, a long nose gar.  The apex predator of MedinaRiver eyed me warily as I took in all 40 inches of its bullet shaped torso with greenish black and brown spots reminiscent of both a boa constrictor skin and splotches on an old man’s arm.  The long nose gar commonly reaches 6 feet and over 30 pounds; still. gar are not man eaters, and my simple plan was to carefully unhook the small lead from the main line and let him swim away.

Slowly I negotiated the river bottom with my bare feet.  Bending at the waste, lantern held high above my head, I slowly reached for the clip.  It was then we made eye contact and he attacked.  I’ve read accounts of victims of tiger and lion attacks being overwhelmed with feelings of peace and tranquility during their attack. Whether it’s an odd reverse fight or flight serotonin release, or something supernatural on the part of the cat, I am not sure. What I am sure of, is nothing of the sort happened to me.

I lurched backwards, twisting from the rocketing missile of long sharp villiform teeth.  As I did so, my feet swept from underneath me and I fell back onto the trotline. For some reason, my subconscious would not let me lower my lantern hand into the water.  My face became enshrouded by the brown silt water and my nose burned from the rush of invading water.  Shoulders and head on the bed of the river, I spun back and forth like a zebra in the clutches of a Nile Crocodile struggling to regain the surface.  The moon shivered above through a lens of brackish river slime. My hands clawed at limestone and my head banged against wet rock.  I struggled to determine which way was up when I finally realized I had slipped beneath an overhanging boulder in my struggle.  Inching slightly forward I breached tangled in stringer, minnow bucket and trotline.  I screamed.

No longer oxygen deprived but with a tourniquet of trotline and stringer wrapped tight to my right arm, four foot of angry teeth snapped and spun wildly on my chest.   I managed to ensnare my arm with three distinct lines: the main trotline itself, the lead with the attached gar and exposed hook, and the stringer of 6 or 7 catfish with their 21 bony fins spinning randomly.  My vision was blurred from mud, blood and fish slime.  Water boiled around me drowning out all other sound and the rest of reality.  I was finned or bitten on the nose, I am not sure which.  I abandoned the lantern with an explosive crack as the glass shattered upon immersion in the cool river.  Broken glass was the least of my worries, so with one free hand, I beat crazily on my own chest sometimes connecting with fish, sometimes sternum. Apelike, I pounded my chest flailing at the terror creeping closer to my face.

Then there was silence.  I was exhausted, the gar was gone and two of my catfish were bludgeoned to death.  Carefully extricating myself from the tangles of four different nylon lines, I found I was surprisingly not mutilated and had no exotic piercings to be explained on my wedding night.  That made me happy.  The lantern obviously was done, and I didn’t find my minnow bucket until the next day. I wasn’t sure what to do and not entirely clear about what had happened.  In a dreamlike state, confused, I wandered down the rest of my trotline and removed four or five more fish by the light of the moon.

I suffered three concussions in high school, and thought I had another as I waded back to camp in the dark.  I heard the voice of women–young women.  Apparently, the 12 guys that went into town had returned with three ladies, in the loosest sense of the term.  It surprised me because we were camped about 10 miles outside of Bandera, 5 miles down a dirt road, and then about a half mile through pastureland; and then down a treacherously steep road cut into a cliff by major mining equipment. Tents pitched within a forest of cypress, a long way from civilization with no cell phone service and the only light from a fire ring lined with river stone.  The kind of place really creepy things could happen, and girls inclined to self preservation wouldn’t venture.  So, as I approached, I faced an obvious socially awkward situation, that would probably make me hate myself and my friends. Plus, I was naked.

I decided if I stayed back in the river, nude, in the dark, a long time, that would open me up to unfair accusations of perversion.  These weren’t really my friends.  As I contemplated my predicament, a spotlight shone brightly in my eyes and ensuing catcalls and guffaws met my ears soon after.  Simultaneous feelings of shame and anger rose into my throat. Then there was clarity.

My vision was hampered by the million candlepower light as I emerged slowly and deliberately from the river. The taste of bile mixed with fish slime.  Each step brought me into shallower water and with it an enhanced sense of self. The light was running out of power as my toes squished through the mud of the clay bank. I arose bloody, naked, and exhausted but with a firmly entrenched identity.   I shook the water from my hair. The jeers turned to cheers and shock as I boldly walked through the gauntlet of chinos and cowboy boots. Someone handed me a beer.  I put the string of fish on ice, clothed myself, and asked the young women if they were crazy.

boulder
Near the scene of the battle, this time I was clothed
two
Typical keepers.
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