Tuesday 2 July 2024

The Paddlefish by Jim Bates, Arnie Palmer

The first time I heard the story was in the early 80s when we were sitting on the back of the houseboat where he lived after he came back from Vietnam. It was in a tiny marina on the Mississippi River just downriver from Wabasha, Minnesota. I was eight years old at the time. Uncle John was writing in his journal and sipping on his ever-present tumbler of Jack Daniels. Mom had dropped me off for the weekend.

“Have a good time,” she’d said. Then she winked, lit a Marlboro, and drove off in a cloud of dust to be with her boyfriend.

Uncle John and I had been spending a weekend a month together for as long as I could remember. I loved being with him, and I’m pretty sure he felt the same way.

He looked up as I walked onto the deck. “Hi Sport,” he said. “How they hanging?”

I laughed. I liked that my uncle didn’t pull a lot of punches around me. However, I did turn red at the comment before answering, “Fine. I guess.”

“Good.” He patted a deck chair next to him. “Come on. Sit and keep me company.”

Uncle John was a fishing guide. After he’d returned from Vietnam in the early 70s, he told people he was looking forward to spending time on The River as we called the Mississippi and that’s what he did. He used his savings to buy the houseboat we were now on and spent his time guiding fishermen up and down The River. They fished for largemouth bass mostly, but sometimes bigger fish like walleyes and northerns and even the occasional muskie. He was a well-respected guide because he was quiet and competent and knew the ways of the river well.

He pointed to a cooler next to us. “There’s a coke in there for you.” He grinned. “I know you like it.”


I took out an ice-cold can, popped the top, and took a long drink. It was late afternoon in August. The temperature was nearly 95 degrees. Even though we were shaded by the tall cottonwood trees on the shoreline, the coke tasted great.

Uncle John sipped his whiskey, made a few notes in this journal, and closed it. He turned to me. “Hot enough for you?”

I took another drink. “Yeah.” I wasn’t much of a talker.

He nodded and we looked out over the water. We were in a wide part of the river with the other side about half a mile away. Like on our side, the far shore was lined with tall cottonwood trees. Gulls flew back and forth and eagles’ nests were visible in the crowns of some of the trees. Up river a few hundred yards was the quaint town of Wabasha with a population of around 3,000 people. In front of us, we watched pleasure boats cruising up and down sharing the river with a smattering of fishing boats. I counted two heavily laden barges, one going upstream, one going down.

Uncle John looked at me. “I love it here,” he said. “It’s so peaceful.”

I grinned. “Me, too.”

He’d given me a book earlier in the summer called Life on the Mississippi and I was enjoying reading it. It was about Mark Twain (pen name for Samuel Clemens) and growing up on the Mississippi and working on a steamboat. I was fascinated by the history of back then on the river in the 1870s, and I loved being on the houseboat with Uncle John.

He turned to me and asked, “Did I ever tell you about me and the paddlefish?”

I was all ears. “No. Why? What happened?”

He grinned. “I caught one once.”

“Really?” Paddlefish along with sturgeon and channel catfish were considered the big three when it came to monster fish in the Mississippi.

“Yeah. I was about your age. My friend Eddie and I were fishing the shoreline a few miles south of here. We were in an old wooden boat and just drifting along using the oars to keep us straight.”

“What bait were you using?”

“Balled up dough and corn tied in a sack of cheesecloth.”

“Going for catfish?”

“Yep. Big ones.”

Channel catfish hid in the muddy banks of the river. They could get big, four feet long, and weigh up to forty pounds.


“Yeah. We fished for about an hour before we got our first bite.” He looked at me. “It was huge.”


“Yeah. It was so big, it started pulling the boat into the main channel of the river.”

My eyes went wide. “No kidding!”

“I kid you not. It pulled us downstream and then switched and pulled us upstream.”

“That’s incredible!”

“Yeah. We fought it for an hour.”

“What happened?”

Uncle John sighed. “We lost it. It broke the line.”

            “Yeah. It got caught on a snag or something.”

“Oh, geez, that’s too bad.”

“But we did get a look at it. It was a paddlefish. We saw the paddle. It was a huge sucker. Maybe six feet long. Had to weigh a hundred pounds.”

“Oh, man, that’s so cool!”

Uncle John grinned and took a sip of his whiskey. “It truly was.”

How could a young boy not love the Mississippi after a story like that? And I did. I grew up to work for the Department of Natural Resources and was eventually assigned my dream job of patrolling the Mississippi between Wabash and south to Lock and Dam Number Three. It’s been a great life.

I’ve read Life on the Mississippi more times than I can count. And I still visit with Uncle John. At eighty he’s as spry as ever. He still lives on his houseboat and even does a little guiding. These days I’ve got stories to tell him, and we talk a lot back and forth. But none of my stories are as good as the paddlefish that got away. Not even close.


About the author

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in over 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com

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