Muddying the Waters
NOTE from the Editor
A week or so ago, my wife Sandy and I took our first post-COVID vaccination vacation down to Deep South Alabama to visit with friends and relatives separated from us by the quarantine. For some of us, it had been four years since we had been face-to-face with our loved ones for whom our married lives have run close to parallel. The births of children were close together, and the relationships between the kids have always been strong. There are many pseudo-aunts and uncles in our combined and solid Dunaway-Smith-Bryars-Tyler clan.
On our last day before Sandy and I headed back to spend a night with the grandkids in Atlanta on the way back to Charlotte, Bill and I managed to sneak in a half day’s fishing for bass in Sonny’s pond somewhere southeast of Montgomery. We talked about our Baldwin County conversations and eased into memories of growing up. Brewton was our epicenter growing up as kids, and Bill and I discussed our rich memories of that time. Not rich in dollars but in the currency that only families can print.
As we eased along the bank casting bass plugs with little success, I had the tiniest of memories flash through my neurons. More a feeling than a memory, and I asked Bill if he remembered something about muddying up a pond and having the fish float to the top? I knew I did not participate, but I remembered the event.
Bill began filling in the details, and I knew a good story for Southern Exposures had just reared its head. And with most stories about us Dunaways, it had to do with fishing. So, sit back and enjoy the story of “Muddying the Waters,” as told by my brother and fellow storyteller, Bill Dunaway. I must confess he let me do a little editing. So, any mistakes are all mine.
Muddying the Waters By Bill Dunaway
The muddy Conecuh River arises in the rich clay soil of Bullock County, Alabama. It flows southeast through the rocky limestone shoals left by ancient shellfish and through deep pine forests until it merges with the Escambia River. It then becomes the Escambia River and eventually flows into Escambia Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The name “Escambia” may have been derived from the Creek name Shambia, meaning “clearwater” or the Choctaw word for “cane-brake” or “reed-brake.” It is home to a wide variety of fish.
I lived in East Brewton in Alabama’s Escambia County for a short time in the 1950s. East Brewton was the red-headed stepsister of Brewton. East Brewton, I guess, was where the less reputable relatives lived. Most East Brewtonians would counter that Brewton was just a little redneck town that living above its raising.
Regardless of the town-to-town feuding, East Brewton was also home to a peculiar fishing technique unique, that as far as I now know, was known only to the Dunaways and Parkers (and maybe a few Fuquas living in East Brewton). Certainly, no one from Brewton knew about it, as you will see why shortly.
And herein lies a tale.
The Dunaway Patriarch and my Granddaddy (Herbert Dunaway) lived in East Brewton and loved to tell stories to us younguns running around barefooted and with dirty faces of his prowess as a fisherman growing up on the Yellow River in the northwest Florida region known as the Panhandle. My brother Mickey and I (sons of Glen) and our cousins, Pinkie and Jerry (sons of W.C.), were the Dunaway grandkids living in East Brewton at the time. Joining us were Liz and Danny Parker (daughter and son of Mildred Dunaway and James Parker), the Parker branch of the family also living in East Brewton. Finally, there was Sonny Hipp, son of Oma Lee Dunaway—his family having migrated to Mobile. These were the “cowboys and Indians” who often gathered on Grandddy’s porch to hear his stories told in his slow, gentle Alabama-Florida panhandle drawl.
To the best I remember, it was on a day in April or May sometime in the mid-1950s, but I know with a greater sense of relative truthfulness that it for sure came after a passel of spring floods when the Conech River would flood its banks and create ponds in the backs of some of the creeks that fed into it. It was to one of these “ponds,” Granddaddy was about to invite us to participate in a “ceremony” likely Creek Indian or at least Alabama redneck in origin.
Whenever it was, Grandaddy gathered us future rednecks into a circle to ask us, he said. “A secret question.”
“Secret question?” Of course, we were all now hooked for sure (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Granddaddy in a secretive voice asked, and I wonder to this day if our parents weren’t watching from the windows of his old weather-grayed clapboard house, if we would like to go with him and our fathers to the Conecuh River swamp to “muddy” a pond and catch us some fish for supper.
Once the secret was out, we all shouted, “YEAH! Let’s go right now!” I’m not sure who went that day—probably the older boys, Grandaddy, my dad, and an uncle or two. Brother Mick said he knew the story but did not go, although he says if it were him writing this, he would not leave out Cousin Liz!
Grandaddy told us to gather up hoes and rakes and a big zinc washtub (the kind we took our week baths in back then) to put the fish. If we took a fishnet, I don’t remember it. We all jumped in the back of a vehicle of some sort (no doubt old and creaky), and off to the Conech River swamp, we went.
The Conecuh River runs just south and east of East Brewton, so it was not a long trip till we turned off highway 41 onto a sometimes-dusty but mostly-muddy dirt road that led to the primordial swamp. After a short trip, we stopped, grabbed our hoes and rakes, and were led by the adults off into the river swamp. The Conecuh floods regularly and leaves the banks relatively easy to walk on. After ten minutes or so of walking, we stopped beside a narrow pond, maybe six or eight feet wide, about thirty feet long, and three or four feet deep in the middle. The water, obviously trapped in the depression when the river flooded, was dark but not muddy.
We grabbed our hoes and rakes and very gingerly stepped off into the dark water. The bottom was filled with wet leaves, sticks and was oozie and creepy. As we cautiously eased into the pond, Grandaddy told us to use our implements to churn up the bottom, making the water roiled and muddy. He said not to stop but keep on stirring the bottom. After a few minutes, the pond was so muddy, it seemed we could walk on it.
In a few minutes, we began to see the dorsal fins of fish break the surface. Grandaddy said to put out hands under the fish and flip them out of the water and into the zinc washtub. The smaller bream surfaced first, followed by larger bull bream (bluegills to Yankees!), and gradually we filled the washtub with frying-sized fish. Pinky spotted a fin breaking the surface just to his left, grabbed that fish behind the head and under the belly, and tossed a three-pound bass in the tub. Finally, when only small fish were floating to the surface, we called it a day and sloshed out of that mud-hole and back up and equally muddy and oh so slippery bank.
We made our way back to East Brewton as a wet and muddy bunch of kids, smelling of swamp gas, but with a washtub half full of fish and happy as only bunch of country kids can be when their beloved Granddaddy has taken them on a secret trip to catch a washtub full of fish for supper.
We cleaned the bream by scaling them with a spoon and then sliced them down the backbone, leaving the dorsal fin and tail on one piece and just the rib bones on the other filet. Nothing was wasted. The filet with the tail and dorsal fins was the most preferred piece, mainly by the adults.
Oil was heated, the fish dipped in seasoned cornmeal and popped into a cast iron dutch oven filled with hot grease—lard, no doubt. When the fish turned crisp and golden brown and floated to the top of the oil in the cooker, they were ready. As the fish were finished, the hushpuppies were plopped, a tablespoon at a time, into the hot oil. And like the fish, were done when they floated to the top.
A platter of hushpuppies—sometimes with whole kernel corn and always with diced onions—was required. Finally, it was not a fish fry in our family without a big pot of grits —and not the instant kind. We knew about fish and grits long before we had ever heard of the now popular shrimp and grits. Sure makes one wonder about ancestry. Doesn’t it. Sounds like we might have a Carolinian in our family tree.
Grits, hushpuppies, and crispy-fried bream tails—a meal fit for a Southern family!