Stories of the Escatawpa
Trips with Daddy
In the Choctaw Indian language, escatawpa means where the cane is cut. However, the Dunaways and most everyone around Wilmer just called it Dog River or, more often, only The River.
The Escatawpa River’s headwaters are in the Washington County town of Millry, Alabama, the homeplace of my mother’s people—the Andersons. From Millry, the Escatawpa River winds its 129 miles of outside bends with deep and dark tannin-stained holes and inside bends of crystal white sandbars through southwest Alabama and southeast Mississippi eventually emptying into the Pascagoula River not far from the Gulf of Mexico.
It is in the stretch of the river quite a way above the Pascagoula River that the Escatawpa has created generations of Dunaway stories—and not a few legends! A common phrase amongst us old folks when we get together, us old folks being a select few family and friends who have traveled down the Escatawpa and returned is, “We need to make one more canoe trip down the Escatawpa.” It is a common refrain for those of us whose last trip was decades gone by and don’t have many decades left to go again and survive the trip!
My stories that begin here are my favorite stories. I could not tell everyone. Yet, everyone who has traveled The River has many different impressions of this lovely lady. I would enjoy publishing other versions of Escatawpa stories on Southern Exposures since everyone who has ever been on The River has many stories to tell.
Trips with Daddy
This title is a bit misleading because they were not trips with Daddy, they were trips with Daddy, Mother, and my brother Bill, and I. However, I decided to keep the focus of this story on Daddy because—oh my! —that man loved to fish as much as we all loved to eat these fish covered in cornmeal and fried golden brown.
If fact, my earliest memories of life as a Dunaway are of the greater-Dunaway-family fish fries. I fear I cannot describe how we looked without offending some ethnic minority, but here I go. In pictures that I still have, we kids looked like a bunch of refugees from any impoverished geographical region you can conjure up. Barefoot. No shirts. Just underwear. We were rednecks—pure, moral, and simple. And I am proud of that lineage. The adults were hard-working people who loved to fish and gather together the fruits of fishing trips for a family fish-fry under a huge water oak in the side yard of our shotgun house on the no-name red dirt road in Wilmer, Alabama.
I can still visualize the frying-pan-kind-of-affair that my Daddy used to fry the fish. It was built by a railroad man—my grandfather on my mother’s side whom I never met.
It consisted of a 26-inch piece of rebar pointed on one end that would be driven into the ground just outside the red-hot coals of the fire. The rebar had a welded ring three-quarters of the way up the rebar, and at that point, a horizontal piece of pipe 16 inches long slid with a vertical four-inch piece of pipe slipped over the top of the rebar and rested against the welded ring. At the end of this horizontal piece, another short piece of rebar was welded vertically. It was on this short vertical piece that the frying pan which had a receiving cylinder welded at the base of the handle where it attached to the fryer. This ingenious arrangement allowed the frying pan to swivel in three directions to get the fryer at precisely the right place over the fire and make sure the fire did not overheat the Crisco. The frying pan itself was about six inches deep and 12 inches in diameter to hold plenty of grease and lots of fish. After all, there were dozens of little ragamuffins running around who, even at an early age, could eat a plate full of those fried bluegills and catfish and never get a bone caught in the throat. On the rare occasion when a bone did get caught in a youngun’s throat, the universal Dunaway-Remedy was a piece of white bread (or is light bread?) rolled up into a ball and swallowed.
There was one thing that you must never do with fried fish in our family and another that you must always do.First, you must never eat fried fish and drink a glass of milk as it is sure to make you sick. Kinda like the old adage that drinking an RC Cola and eating Moon Pie would kill you. Or was it that it would make you wish you were dead? Anyway, we never ate fried fish with milk or consumed Moon Pies and an RC Cola.
The thing that you must always do is serve lots—and I do mean lots—of grits with fried fish. This is was what we did in the Dunaway clan. My wife had never heard of it when we got married, but 50+ years later, we still eat grits with fried fish. I used to have a fish fry for my staff when I was a high school principal on Lake Martin in Alexander City, Alabama, and they were also baffled by the grits we served.
It was not until I moved to the Carolinas and discovered shrimp and grits that I discovered the source of the tradition. At some point, some Dunaway came through Charleston, SC, and brought the grits and fish recipe back with him.
It is time to bring this essay back to fishing with my Daddy. Daddy could fish at any time, and as the old saying goes, catch a fish in a mudhole. Most of our fishing with the entire family came during his one-week vacation from McConnell Pontiac in Mobile, where he worked as a mechanic.
The rules of the Daddy’s fishing-vacation were these:
Get up at 3:30 am so as to get to the Escatawpa River long before daylight. According to Daddy, if you were not running down the river before daylight, you might as well turn around and go back home.
The night before, gather up the wigglers and get the brown bag of catalpa worms out of the refrigerator (the refrigerator put those caterpillars, who had been plucked from a catalpa tree, into a state of suspended animation). Seems like Mother put a little cornmeal in there with them, too. Don’t know why—perhaps because they had to last the entire week. We did not fish with crickets as we considered cheating!
Of course, the old wooden boat with the 7.5hp Johnson outboard was already hooked up to the trailer hitch, and the poles and other accouterments were in the boat and ready.
Now, that Johnson was another story.
After we had arrived in the dark of night at the landing and slid the boat off the trailer to the glow of the brake lights, Daddy would get in, put the motor into the water and try to crank that cantankerous piece of marine machinery. Honestly, there were a few days that we just turned around and came back home because, no matter how hard or how many pulls Daddy made, that motor was not going to crank. But that was the exception.
After Daddy cranked the motor, the rest of us (Mother, Bill, and I) would get in the 14-foot wooden boat and head downstream of Escatawpa River. It was still so dark that only my Daddy and the hoot owls could see where the snags and sandbars were in that river, and there were hundreds of them.
When Daddy determined that we were at the perfect first place to start fishing, Bill would tie the boat to one of those snags, and the boat would drift around with the bow facing into the current, and the fishing would commence!
When we caught a fish, we would put him into the ice chest along with our potted meat, sardines, Vi-eenna sausages, and Cokes. We fished using a tight line hooked to the end of a cane pole with a hook and the bait at the end of the line and a sinker just an inch up from the hook. To fish in this manner, you dropped your line into a likely spot, held it little above the bottom, and waited for the tap-tap-tap of a bluegill, or a redbelly, or goggle-eye, or a stump knocker. Then you gentle raised the line up to set the hook and bring the fish aboard. That is unless you were me in my younger days. I have jerked many a bream out of the water, and if I was lucky, over the other side of the boat. If I was unlucky, it did not clear the boat and hit someone in the head!
Once the fish quit biting in one hole, we would move further down the river. Seems like we must have fished until about one or two o’clock or until the fish quit biting, and we headed back upriver—now seeing all of those life-threatening snags that Daddy steered around in the dark—and back toward home.
Once home, there was no nap to be had until all the fish were cleaned, and the boat and equipment were readied to the same thing to happen again for four more times that week. Daddy was not going to miss an opportunity to fish, and if Daddy went fishing, we all went fishing!
Thanks, Daddy, for that family rule. A lot of families could to do learn that rule these days, it seems to me.