It was one of the few times Dad did not want to take me fishing.
Every day mom and I drove by a little gully on the way to school, and every time we passed it, I wondered what might lurk in its waters. I asked Dad to go there all the time, but he wanted to go elsewhere.
“The water’s too dirty,” he would say.
Now, Dad took me fishing a lot, but he just didn’t know why it was so important for me to go down there.
One day he relented.
We went down to that gully, and I will never forget soaking a piece of dead shrimp with the brand new “Fish Formula” a spray-on attractant that claimed to help get fish bites whether you used lures, live or dead bait. We ordered it off of television.
I will never forget within a few seconds of putting it in the water, seeing my blue, white and red bobber go under.
It was a big spotted gar, which means it was about two feet long, and I could not have been happier.
What Dad did that day by taking me down there, was unleash a desire to seek out fishing on my own. To this day, I have a deep appreciation for all opportunities to fish.
Some of my best days fishing were at “The Gully.”
The stories below were crucial to my childhood, especially “Big John.”
This was an alligator garfish that allegedly lived in a tiny branch of Adams Bayou that crossed under Newton Street. We simply called it the “The Gully.” Big John was very much like Bigfoot as sighting reports traveled quickly, and the eyewitnesses met with a mixture of skepticism and fanfare.
Claiming you saw Big John would garner you a following among the dozen or so boys in the neighborhood. It also brought jeers from the girls who thought we were off our rockers for pursuing such a thing if it did, indeed exist.
This gully is where I spent much of my after-school time and summer vacation. Although the fishing was rarely outstanding, we did catch our fair share of spotted gar, grinnel, sun perch and mud cats.
At times, it was quite the social gathering. Often, at least half a dozen of us would be wetting our lines and talking about whatever the current hot topic was.
One day it might be whether Gene Simmons from Kiss really had a cow’s tongue implanted to replace his own so he could look cool wagging it onstage. The next, it could be a heated debate over who was going to win the title at the next Wrestlemania.
The conversation, however, would always drift to Big John and his latest exploits.
One kid swore to have seen him attack a calf that came to drink on the water’s edge. Another claimed to have had his rod broken by the beast on three occasions. None of these occurrences ever happened when we were together, but no one questioned them aloud.
The stories gave us something to talk about. Looking back, it was a unique means of bonding.
I never had an official sighting, but once a kid named Joey was fishing with a hand line from the bridge that crossed the gully. I was on the other side of the road with two big lines set out when I heard frantic splashing in the water.
Joey was clinging to his line; and as I rushed over to see what was going on, his line snapped. I could see a large, dark shape move through the water as whatever it was swam off with Joey’s bait. That could have been many things, but of course, we thought Big John had struck again.
High school sports and fast cars now dominated the lives of the boys in my part of West Orange. For a while, I would still occasionally fish down there, but when I got a car, it made more sense to drive out to Lake Sabine or the Neches River. The angling prospects were vastly superior there.
I still drive by that gully every day.
Now, there is a “No Fishing” sign on the bridge, and no kids were there angling for garfish and dreams. No matter what happened in our lives, we always found sanctuary down at the gully fishing for “Big John.”
Wealthy, poor and middle class kids got along just fine with our attentions focused on finding our own white whale of sorts in this murky East Texas bayou branch.
Those early days were formative in my love of the outdoors. The gully provided so many fun experiences and lessons that taught me much about fishing. In my life, I have been blessed to have some amazing fishing encounters.
I wrote this story to inspire you to take your kids down to the local “gully.”
It might only be a bar ditch loaded with bullheads or a grinnel-infested slough. Yet, I know from personal experience that allowing kids to see adventure close to home will serve them well.
Being one who has decided to do my best to live below my means and forego owning a boat, it does not bother me at all to fish from the bank. After all “Big John” might still be out there, lurking in the dingy waters of the Newton Street gully waiting for someone to challenge him again.
I hope your children and grandchildren have their own “gully” and “Big John” in their life.
I would not recommend allowing them to go down there by themselves at a young age as many of us did. Times have changed, and there are dangerous people out there. However, I can’t think of a better way for you to spend time with them.
—story by Chester Moore