On the banks of the river with Hobo


G. Sam Piatt



Hobo’s home is the last one on the right on Third Crossing Street, which deadheads at the top of the riverbank.

I slowed my pickup as I passed. I really would have liked for him to go fishing with me, but I knew he wasn’t home.

Hobo had lived in the tiny Ohio River village of Beattyville all his life. The river was just a stone’s throw away (sometimes just a step off the front porch).

He had fished the big river’s waters almost from the time he was big enough to walk. He knew how to land the channel cats, skin them out, cut the white flesh into steaks, and fry them to a mouthwatering golden brown.

I parked at the top of the bank, grabbed my rod and reel, the can of nightcrawlers, a fold-out canvas camp chair, a novel I was halfway through, and made my way down through a strip of horseweeds and then the willows.

A gentle rise had pushed the water over the sand and gravel shoreline and up to the edge of the willows.

The first order of business was to cut a forked limb and push it into the soft earth. I located a small flat rock I could lay on the butt of the pole, which is rested in the forked limb.

It’s a good idea to place a heavy rock on the butt of the rod. This process is essential for bank fishing with an unattended pole in a river that has some big and powerful fish swimming in it.

Besides, everybody knows that if you hold the pole in your hands the fish won’t bite. They will hit only after you set the pole down and pretend to turn your attention elsewhere.

I baited the hook with a lively ‘crawler and cast the flat, lead sinker far out into the river. The fog still clung heavy to the surface and I couldn’t see the sinker hit, but I heard it go “kerplunk.” The line went slack, and I set the pole in the fork and placed the rock on the butt.

Then I pulled out the novel and sat down. Lazy man’s fishing it was, very peaceful and relaxing.

This was the same spot where my father used to spend many weekends after finishing his week with the railroad. He would bait and set as many as a dozen poles, then sit down with a good Zane Grey novel and wait for the fish to come to him.

I hadn’t gotten through two pages before something flipped the rock off the reel’s butt and nearly yanked my pole out of the forks. I leaped up and reeled excitedly. The channel catfish would have gone close to six pounds. I removed the hook from his tough lower lip with the needle-nosed pliers and released him.

Over the course of the next hour, as the sun burned off the fog and sent light rays bouncing and sparkling off the ripples on the surface, I landed a sheepshead, two hybrids, three white bass and another catfish, smaller than the first.

That was enough action, I knew, to have pleased Hobo.

I gathered up my gear and headed back up the hill to the truck.

I started the engine and drove off to visit Hobo. A half-mile down the road I turned left into Collier Memorial Gardens.

Hobo saw two brothers and two sisters, as well as his mother, die of cancer. He suspected that, in his case, the disease was hereditary – not, as some tried to say, from a heavy diet of Ohio River catfish.

He became a strong and active “born again” Christian. He visited homes and hospitals, praying for the sick and anointing their heads with oil.

In the end, before his 70th birthday, cancer claimed him, too.

The engraving on his tombstone says, “Harold “Hobo” Cooper, Sept. 21, 1932 – June 23, 2002.

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

And battled some dandy Ohio River catfish.

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G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at gsamwriter@twc.com or 606-932-3619.