This is a fish story, but unlike most you’ve heard, this one is different. It’s true, attested to by four witnesses who can’t forget what happened 39 years ago.
I grew up on McKinney Sand Pit in Great Bend. When we were kids we had a lot of time on our hands. We spent it on the water — fishing, swimming and catching things. The rest of the time we wasted.
But there was a certain legend about that lake: when I was 6, one of the neighbors — a Mr. Nuss — caught a 40-pound drum. A species not identified in biology books at St. Patrick’s Grade School and unknown to Sister Mary Rose, Sister Monica and the other Dominican nuns, this added to the lake’s mystique. Strange, odd species lurked in the depths, coming out at night, which is when we would attack — setting poles, jug lines, limb lines, trot lines.
Frequently we’d return in the morning to broken lines, bent hooks, poles drug into the water. Monsters laughed at our incompetence.
And so on Aug. 23, 1971, our fortunes changed. We landed a flathead catfish on our trot line. It weighed 23 pounds with a protruding belly, grey, almost black look to it. Flatheads, like all catfish, appear prehistoric; they aren’t like largemouth bass, which are elegant, classy, worthy of mounting.
And we put it on a stringer, hooked it on the dock, and alerted our world that we had captured a beast. And the world obliged. On Sunday after church we had many visitors. Everyone said the same thing: "That’s huge!"
Our fishing entourage included a non-Keenan — a neighbor who lived two blocks away, a kid named Bert Unruh. He was older, bigger, and had another characteristic that set him apart; he was a Methodist. But he was Tom Sawyer and we were Huck Finn, with a friendship forged over a common love of the outdoors.
After five days, we needed to clean our catch. And when that time arrived, a light bulb went off in Bert’s head. "Before we clean him, let me go down to the bottom with him. I want to see his world."
It was pure genius. Bert had a few unique qualities — skipping rocks, for instance — but his most unusual attribute was an ability to hold his breath. His lungs were enormous. In seconds, he was wrapping rope around his forearm and through the fish’s gills. They were one. He took a big breath and the fish swam away, taking Bert with him.
I don’t know for sure how long he was under. It seemed like a day. Silence came over the water. My two brothers, Tim and Marty, stood on the bank and waited. Eventually he rose to the surface, 200 feet from where we stood. Bert, a man of few words, said even less then. He didn’t need to explain. We understood. They say when someone goes to the other side, they don’t like to talk about it. Their eyes reveal everything you need to know.
My dad, over dinner that night, agreed. "He met the fish’s mom. He didn’t feel right about taking her son." There was no question about it.
"It was awkward, I’m sure," dad explained. "Bert probably wanted to let him go, but knew he couldn’t explain that to you. So he brought him back to the surface."
None of that stopped us from sending the big cat to the chopping block. "Catch and release" was not in our lexicon. The next two summers our fishing stories would make Harold Ensley blush, as we landed trophy bass, catfish and even a state record — a 36-pound smallmouth buffalo head, another rare fish found in a special place.
But of all our exploits, nothing rivaled the day Bert went down under and returned to the surface a changed man. My brothers and I went separate ways from Bert and over the years I’ve since tried to find him. I’ve Googled his name a couple times, had a hit, but I’m pretty sure he’s not a home decorator in Wichita.
He’s a fishing guide somewhere, someplace, looking for the next McKinney Sandpit. Godspeed.
Matt Keenan’s book, Call Me Dad, Not Dude, is available at Borders and online at thekansascitystore.com. Write to Matt at his Web site, matthewkeenan.com.