Working (Way Too Hard) For Dinner

By Melissa Petersen / Photography By Melissa Petersen | October 01, 2012
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Chef Miles McMath
There were no egos in that boat, and it really wasn’t about the food. Chef Miles McMath pulls a 40-pound cat from the river. Which river? I’m sworn to secrecy.

Noodlin’, blunders, and an inside look at a Mississippi tradition

It’s simply called “the Block House.” Sitting off a gravel road, a few miles from downtown Hernando, the cinder block building is nestled among some farms. There is no sign, and you’ll never just happen upon it. Don’t go looking. You won’t find it.

The Block House is home to Friday-night fish frys, pre-hunting breakfasts, and a pack of hunting dogs. It’s on Todd family farmland. A few cows graze beyond a good-sized garden and the chicken coop. It is the shared meeting space for the Todd siblings and the extended community. If you’re from the neighborhood, you can stop by in the morning on the way to work, grab a cup of coffee and a biscuit, and catch up on what’s happening in the community.

It’s been an unsung tradition for decades. And today I have an invitation.

The Todd Men
Block House
Walking the boat
Dale and Miles
Photo 1: The Todd men in 1947
Photo 2: The Block House
Photo 3: Dale walks the boat out.
Photo 4: Dale and Miles wrestle with a cat.

Miles McMath (who is known by his middle name, Tim, by his neighbors) has lived a great portion of his life in Hernando. As the director of culinary operations at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he has worked on a few projects with me. I think he’s trying to break my city-girl squeamish tendencies. Today’s invitation is for breakfast and a chance to go noodlin’.

As I understand it, fish stories need to grow taller with each telling. But when the fish starts out as big as a Mississippi yellow catfish, I don’t really see how it can get any larger.

I was game. But I knew from the get-go: I was never going to get in the water.

“You know a fish that big can drown you,” drawls a friend when I describe my upcoming weekend activity. Right. Along with the water snakes, the idea of being dragged downriver by a catfish as big as a six-year-old child isn’t appealing. But I trust Miles.

Noodlin’, hillbilly handfishin’, or hoggin’ is wading in a river, sticking your hand in a hole, and trying to pull out a catfish as they nest over eggs. There are nuances and numerous considerations, and we’ll get to them later. For the most part, these are not little, two-pound fish. The goal is 40-plus pound river cats. And a fish that big puts up a fight.

Miles and I drive to the Block House on the last day of the season in June. It’s 6:30 AM and already warm. The one room “house” holds a large table, plenty of chairs, deer antler décor, and a wall full of fishing photos. There’s storage and a well used stove with cast-iron pans in position. Outside, there’s a very large hook for hanging catfish.

The men are not loquacious at 6:30 in the morning. I expect some wariness because 1. I’m not from ‘round here and 2. Well, I’m a girl. And this is definitely a man’s hangout. But I am welcomed warmly with handshakes, an offer of coffee, and a perusal of their fishing scrapbook.

There is no timetable. They are not in a hurry. As one of the Todd brothers rolls out some biscuits — no recipe — another pounds out some venison steaks. A soup can with both ends cut out serves as the biscuit cutter. A coffee pot near the stove holds bacon grease, and as I watch him coat the biscuit pan, I am mentally thinking how this could be done faster. But this isn’t about “hurry.” He pours just enough grease in the pan, then slowly tilts it each direction until it is coated. Each biscuit is laid on the pan, flipped to grease both sides, and moved into place. The venison steaks are floured and cooked, along with sausage and fresh eggs. It’s a fantastic breakfast.

Though Miles grew up in Mississippi, this is his first time to fish this way. We’re waiting for our guide and teacher. Dale Cole arrives and I hear, “There’s no way that Memphis woman is going to be here this early.” I might be squeamish and a girl, but I’ve got a good track record for prompt arrival. I know I will commit a multitude of blunders today, so I’m happy to start the day by surprising him. Dale is quick-witted, funny, and has many, many years of teaching folks to noodle under his belt. He’s going to make this an experience.

Heaving In The Catch
Photo 1: Heaving in the catch
Photo 2: Ronald, our driver for the day

We’re in the middle of somewhere in Mississippi and we’re discussing shoes. Dale is trying to outfit Miles and me with well-worn tennis shoes from the back of his truck. Getting into the river is dirty, fishy business, and these shoes have seen a fair share of river time. We both decline Dale’s offer and spend a little time consolidating into two trucks. Ronald Kelly is coming along today to drive the boat. He’s quiet, but quick with a smile and a chuckle. As they hook up the trailer, I go visit the dogs and set them to barking. Ahh I’ve started my roll of blunders.

I have been asked not to tell you what river we went to, how we got there, or where the boxes are sunk into the river. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. We drove for miles on country roads heading north, south, east, and west. I’m not even sure if we were still in Mississippi. Once again, there is no sign. No dock. It’s just a hill that leads down to the river.

Dale, with a charming smile, tells me, “Ma’am, you’re gonna want to go look at the river…over there.” I slowly start down a pathway before it dawns on me that he doesn’t want me to watch them changing into swim trunks. I give them plenty of time and return with my contribution to the day’s fun — beer.

I was forewarned that my usual beer of choice — Ghost River — wasn’t appropriate. I was assured by friends that Miller High Life would be an acceptable offering. The gents thanked me for the beer, but explained that glass isn’t allowed on rivers. Being caught carries a $250 fine. City-girl blunder number 2.

With Ronald at the helm, we launch on the river. The water is extremely low this year and is the greenish-brown color of most rivers I’ve seen. The banks are choked with foliage. Ronald maneuvers slowly around the many snags that poke up. It’s quiet and beautiful.

I have envisioned that this whole escapade will take an hour or so, tops. My lack of appropriate estimating capabilities needs to go down as city-girl blunder number 3.

As we cruise upstream, Dale explains the process. Dale and Ronald have done this a long time. They don’t go sticking their hands into holes in the bank anymore. Snakes, beavers, and snapping turtles also hide out in those holes and they’re just more trouble than they’re worth. So, the men made gumwood boxes and sunk them in the river. We see the occasional barrel, but those are illegal and we leave them alone. Once located, the box opening is blocked with a net bag filled with scraps of foam and plastic (so whatever is in the box cannot escape). A pole is poked into the top of the box to 1. make sure there is a fish in there and 2. make sure it’s a fish. I am emphatically assured that snapping turtles will take a finger off, so feeling a hard shell with the pole means we leave that box for another time.

Once a fish is trapped in the box, the brave fisherman moves the blocking bag and reaches in with the goal of grabbing the fish by the lower lip. Some folks tough it out barehanded, but Dale has lost too much “hide” over the years and suggests gloves.

After a bit of wrestling, the cat is pulled from the box, and a stringer is threaded through the mouth and gills. The fish don’t thrash as much if they’re underwater, so it’s pulled near the boat and heaved in.

The process is much more physical than sitting on a bank waiting for a tug on a pole. The men go overboard, carefully walk among the scary underwater rocks, logs, branches, and snags, and hopefully graze a shin on the box. The men are such gentlemen, they apologize for the few expletives they let loose. I don’t mind, but I appreciate the courtesy.

We traverse upriver for several hours. Dale and Ronald point out where they think the boxes are, where they’ve put boxes in the past, and where they should put boxes next year. We’re going to check 15 boxes in all on the way back.

Dale and Ronald are all about teaching a man to fish. They are patient, unhurried, and have no need to take over as Miles ventures toward the first box. I stay in the boat (and they are fine with that). Miles scores on the first box, but the cat puts up a good fight and tries mightily to twist off Miles’s thumb. Ten minutes of struggle yields a 40-pound fish flopped into the boat.

I am in awe.

Yellow cats are ugly. The spotty, muddy-yellow skin has no scales. And fortunately, they lack the rigid pectoral spines that would likely make the day bloody. In early summer, catfish spawn in the manmade boxes, under submerged logs, and in bank holes. It’s the male catfish that tends the eggs. Male yellow cats can grow to more than 100 pounds and live up to 20 years.

Making Morning Biscuits
Hook For Cleaning
Photo 1: Morning biscuits
Photo 2: The hook used to hang each catfish for cleaning

Locating and investigating each box takes 10 to 15 minutes. Whether they find a fish or not, after hauling themselves back into the boat, it’s time for a little break. Time to crack a beer. Dale kindly offers me a pinch of his Redman each time he pulls the pouch from the dry bag. I’m not a fan of chewing tobacco, and I say, “No thank you.” But I think it’s cute that his Southern hospitality never flags, and he keeps offering. I know I’m incapable of spitting with the sharp precision of the men, so I’m actually avoiding yet another city-girl blunder.

It’s rare to get a few hours to just talk with friends, let alone chefs. But in between fish and boxes, I get to talk with Miles about his family and his plans for the garden and cafeteria at St. Jude. It turns out Dale works in the healthcare industry too, and he regales us with work stories that are just as amusing as his fishing stories.

The guys persist in asking me to get into the water. I remain firmly in the boat. We’ve been on the water for nearly six hours. I’ve enjoyed a few beers, but I can’t possibly keep pace with the pros. The sun has been blazing for several hours now, and the water starts to look less scary and more inviting. Each of the men is visibly sunburned, but they don’t seem to care.

Dale and Ronald venture out noodlin’ every three or so days during the season, and they seem to know every bend and fallen log. Dale points out particulars to help me along, but the entire length of the river still looks the same to me. Ronald spends a few moments at each box logging the location into a new GPS, so next year’s noodlin’ is easier.

The men have nabbed four fish — two 10-pounders and two 40- pounders. Not as much as they wanted, but better than they had hoped. It’s three in the afternoon, and we still have to get the boat out of the water, trek back to the Block House, and clean the fish. Since I haven’t eaten in eight hours, I pass on the fish-cleaning part of the expedition (blunder number 4). It’s not cool to leave the party with work to be done, but I have seriously underestimated the time to allot to this activity.

Dale and Ronald hang each fish on a gigantic hook suspended between telephone pole–width logs. They pull the skin from the fish and slice the meat off the bones. After wrapping, they pack it into one of the chest freezers. All this effort is for the Block House Friday-night fish frys. Friends and neighbors come to enjoy fried catfish and a deep sense of community. They bring drinks to share. There is always the promise of a homemade cobbler. There is no hostess at the door. You can’t make a reservation. There are no substitutions. And it might be the best meal you could ever hope to enjoy.

Recycling at the Block House
The recycling program at the Block House

During the 40-minute drive back to Memphis, I give some good thought to what I witnessed today — pure unselfishness and one of the best examples I’ve seen of putting community first. There were no egos in that boat, and it really wasn’t about the food.

Would it be easier to just pick up some filets at the store to cook? Oh, yes, but that is missing the point entirely. I got to be a part of a longstanding tradition today. Two really nice men shared their knowledge and wit. I got to know a friend better. Miles got to see how cranky I get when I’m hungry, thirsty, and sunburned, and he’s still talking to me.

I might be able to work up the nerve to someday venture out of the boat, but I don’t know if I can ever blindly stick my hands into a monster catfish’s mouth. And I may have committed too many city-girl blunders to ever be invited back.

There is one thing I’m going to get right though. Their fishing spots are safe with me. I’m not sure I could ever find the Block House again, let alone any spot on that unnamed river.

Melissa Petersen is the editor and publisher of Edible Memphis, a regular contributor to the Commercial Appeal, and a certified scaredy-cat.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

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