Tales My Father Told Me: Trotline Treachery

by jimowensjr

My father’s father, Chester Owens, was born in the late 1800s. Because he died when I was a small boy it is difficult to separate my memories of him from the stories I’ve been told. Grandaddy Owens was an electrician who worked in underground coal mines of Alabama, he was a storekeeper, a farmer, a generous man, small in stature, large in his impact, and a Sunday School Teacher. My father says many considered him the only man whose class warranted their full attention. There’s a church named after him, Owens Chapel, near Empire, Alabama, named such because, along with my grandmother, he gifted the land on which it sits. And yet this gift was for the start of a new congregation, not his own.

My father tells me his Dad once overheard my paternal grandfather, Lattus Bishop, also a miner, unaware of my Granddad’s presence nearby in the dark of the mine, describe him as a “pretty nice fellow for a red head.” This was lavish praise, I suppose, for men hardened by the dark dangers of working hundreds of feet below ground in the early 1900s. But nice and generous should not be confused with afraid to stand up for what was rightly his, according to one tale my father told me.

While bass fishing and “noodling” (catching large catfish with one’s bare hands buy thrusting ones hand into the mouth of what must no doubt be a shock for the catfish) are done for sport today, in my Grandfather’s time, fishing was for food and the dinner table. They ran “trot” lines along the river, from which are suspended baited hooks. They are left in the water until checked a day or so later when someone returns to inspect them. And trotlines and their bounty belong to the man who set them. No one else.

After several trips back to check his lines without any catch, my Grandfather began to suspect someone was stealing from his lines. His solution was to ease onto the banks and conceal himself, along with my father, in the brush just above the spot where he’d set his line, along with a pump action shotgun. As dusk settled in on the water a small boat moved quietly up the river. Soon enough several men guided a small boat against the bank and stooped to pull my grandfathers trotline from the water. Their quiet efforts were abruptly interrupted by the distinct sound of pumping a shell into the chamber of the weapon. Though I’m unsure, I suppose these men needed a fresh change of undergarments that evening.

This sound alone was enough to dissuade the men from continuing with their plans, as I recall my father telling me. Each man set about grabbing paddles and rowing with sufficient energy as to get their small boat “on plane,” meaning the bow of the boat was rising out of the water from its growing speed. I imagine them fumbling about, trying to stay low in the boat lest they hear the unwelcome blast of the shotgun. But that sound never came. The mere threat of it probably turned men of evil spirit into righteous believers begging the Good Lord to just let them live and promising they would never do such a deed again if He would spare them. And He and my grandfather did just that.

I have no suspicion my Granddad would ever have shot at these men. Though he might have peppered the water nearby if they’d continued their pursuit. He was defending what was rightly his own. And after all, “he was pretty nice fellow for a red head.”