To Take a Sucker

In the year two thousand and twenty two, an eclectic band of writers, hunters, and other celebrities descended on southern Missouri for their annual gathering.

They all looked forward to their usual camaraderie and rabble rousing in that corner of the state. However, it was unseasonably hot, and downright miserable in the autumn sun. 

Someone proposed “gigging,” an ancient pursuit steeped in mystery. It apparently consists of stabbing at sucker fish in the dark with shamefully narrow forks mounted on unwieldy poles. Nobody knew much about it, on account that it isn’t much practiced anymore.

At any rate, it seemed a decent escape from liquors and gambling at the hotel, so there was much negotiating for slots on the only boat to go out under the full moon. 

At last a quorum of the most adventuresome lunatics was assembled. Included was Trent the Spy, Jeremy the Traveler, and Alan the Outsider. 

The other was a musician, who proclaimed proudly upon entering the boat that he had been gigging for over 20 years, and “how hard could it be, really?” All the others afforded him sufficient sideways glances and took their seats. 

At dusk the crew shoved off and motored upstream to a wide tributary where they waited for night. Swarms of insects arose as darkness fell.

Josh, their guide, assured them the plague of locusts would soon abate, and outlined the night’s procedures. Riley, his son and apprentice, readied the gear. Meanwhile, the Musician swatted and squirmed while the others watched with expressions that varied from nonplussed to calculating. 

At last, the Son hopped up and yanked the generator to life. Enormous spotlights lit the creek, the trees that lined the banks, and half the rest of the Ozarks. The Guide fired the motor and away they went, peering into the pea soup with all their might. 

“Isn’t this exciting!” blurted the Musician. 

“Yes, indeed. Care to make it interesting?” posed the Traveler. 

“Why not!”

It was agreed that each sucker would be worth two dollars, and other fish one dollar apiece. The Spy and the Outsider declined to try their luck, citing wives and outstanding bar tabs and such.

Finally, the Son shouted from the bow that the first sucker was in sight. The Spy took a stab just before it darted off. The Traveler jabbed casually from mid-boat as it passed, and pulled it aboard to everyone’s astonishment. 

“Good work!” said the Outsider, who snapped an image of the fish in front of the Traveler’s grinning face. 

“Lucky,” muttered the Musician, as he reached for the first bounty payment of the night. 

The boat skimmed along rigorously. Shadowy objects blurred past. As they got farther upstream, the water shallowed and cleared somewhat.

Suckers became more numerous. Some could be seen sulking on the smooth bottom, while far more were camouflaged perfectly among assorted detritus. 

CLANG!

Giggers jockeyed for position along the rail in front, pole ends of their implements ringing as they tangled. 

SPLOOSH-THWOKK

Haphazardly thrown spears skewered the rocky stream bed. Words of frustration bubbled to the surface. 

“Crap!”

“Come on!!”

The Spy stared with intensity, measuring his attempts carefully. The Outsider observed from the stern, noting various errors and plotting his own entry into the game. 

For his part, the Musician threw at every fish he could see, eager to reclaim his two dollars. 

The Traveler stood coolly in his corner. He was on a roll, soon dropping his third sucker into the bucket. The Musician informed him he was, regretfully, all out of one dollar bills. 

“Got a five? We can make change,” said the Traveler, eager to keep the action going. 

“I guess so.”

Suckers, both swimming and stationary, proved immune to the Musician’s gig. Every time he thought he had one dead to rights, his spear would pass over, under, or seemingly through without effect. They had an uncanny knack at darting out of the way, and were as ghosts to him as he stabbed frantically from the port bow. 

The Traveler simultaneously maintained a steady business from the starboard side. 

“Got a ten?”

In time, the boat returned to the main channel. Shad the size of dinner plates appeared, sometimes swimming abreast the boat. The Musician skewered one right through the middle, wheeled around, and swung it toward the Traveler, eager to claim a buck. 

“I’m on the board!”

The Traveler was already facing him, spear in hand—with another fat sucker. 

“Got a twenty?”

The Guide announced the end of the outing: “See the light over there? That’s where we started. Last chance to get your tines into meat!”

A cold sweat overtook the Musician. He darted from side to side, trying to spot just one sucker dumb enough to sacrifice itself for him. 

The Traveler sensed his desperation. “How about double-or-nothing on the next one,” he offered, setting down his spear. 

“Sure!” 

Just when the Guide cut the motor, a tubular shadow appeared off the port side. Drawing back with everything he had, the Musician took instruction from the Traveler.  

“Get real close to the edge now. Wait…wait…”

Everyone held their breath. No one noticed the starboard bow and dock were about to be reacquainted abruptly. 

The Musician was underwater before he realized his feet had left the deck. 

He thrashed his way to the surface, sputtering and moaning. The others pulled him back in by the shirt. 

Something small floated away, down the river.  

“Is that your wallet?” asked the Outsider. 

The Musician wiped his eyes and craned his neck over the side. 

“Yeah,” he said, rolling back into the boat. “It’s okay. There was only one dollar left in it.”

And that, friends, is how I began one of the best weeks of my life, in Branson, Missouri, soaked to the skin and plumb broke. 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman