By Ed Staskus
Even though Clyde was a bad egg, he hadn’t always been a stinker. He was well behaved as a child, civil and polite as a teenager, and hardworking as a young adult. But then he started putting on attitude and weight and before he knew it, he was big as a Volkswagen Bug with a muscle car roar. He started throwing his weight around. Before long he lost all his friends. Everything and everybody started to avoid him.
He was a channel catfish. Every summer he swam out of Lake Erie past the Fairport Harbor Short Pier and up the Grand River. Except he didn’t anymore. When he was a tadpole, he went upstream looking for pools 6 to 8 feet deep, where he could play for weeks with flatheads, bullheads, and walleye. But he got too big for that. He got sick and tired, too, of being fished for, having to fight for his life. The madder he got about it the bigger he got. The bigger he got the better able he was to fight off fishermen. The more fight he put up the more his legend grew.
A disgruntled angler who lost all his gear and his small boat battling Clyde posted a “Wanted Dead or Alive” flier outside Brennan’s Fish House. The picture of him didn’t do him justice, blurry and grainy. Clyde didn’t care. He wasn’t on social media. But just to set the record straight, he took a selfie and pasted it over the flier with spit.
“That way everybody will get a good look at my teeth,” he told himself.
Many people thought Clyde could sting them with his whiskers and barbels, but he couldn’t. What most of them didn’t know was that it was his fins that contained a venom that stung like hell and caused swelling. He didn’t usually try poking anybody with his fins, although sometimes he had to. When he stung people that was always the last time they messed around with him.
Brennan’s was built at the end of the Civil War as a hotel called the Richmond Inn. It wasn’t working out, so the owners put in pool tables and started selling pretzels and beer. George and Martha Evans took over in 1927 and made it into a diner. They raised their ten kids in the hotel rooms. Each one got his own room and a king size bed. Harry Jones bought it 40 years later and ran the show as a bar called “Harry’s.” He and his wife lived upstairs just like the Evans family had lived upstairs.
When Tim and Betty Brennan took it over in the 1970s, they changed the name to Brennan’s Fish House. Clyde was born before that time. After Steve and Sharon Hill took ownership in 2006, they kept the name. Clyde didn’t like fish houses but was glad the Hill’s kept the name. At heart he was a dyed in the wool conservative. If anybody had a problem with that, he was more than willing to tear their hanging chads to shreds with his grinding teeth.
There were plenty of tall tales about him at Brennan’s Fish House. None of them were true although all of them were true. The more people liked the stories, the more true-to-life they became.
One time Clyde got stuck in shallow water and a passerby threw himself on top of him, trying to drag him to land. Clyde jabbed the man with one of his spiked fins and pulled him out to deeper water, where he almost drowned. Another time the local scandal sheet raised the alarm. The headline blared “Giant Catfish Attacks Water-Skier!” The story said a 14-year-old teenager minding his own business while water skiing on Lake Erie suffered a vicious attack, with a photograph of bite marks up to his knee to prove it. Even though the boy had deliberately skied up Clyde’s back, and he had bitten the boy in self-defense, he didn’t bother writing a letter to the editor to protest the slander.
The day Oliver, the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County, his big sister Emma, and his parents were at Brennan’s having chowder and yellow perch, was the day a boat from the Yacht Club drew a bead on Clyde. It was a 70-foot Outer Reef. The man at the helm saw the big catfish, gunned his diesel, and made a beeline for him. Clyde spotted him and was faster than the all-powerful engine. He dove and the yacht glanced off him. Even though he wasn’t hurt Clyde was outraged. He got under the boat and started gnawing at the fiberglass. When he finally made a hole, it was the end of the yacht. Unlike wood, fiberglass doesn’t float. The bilge pumps fell behind and the boat sank like a shooting star.
Captain Ahab went down with his craft, but soon surfaced shaking his fist at Clyde. The irascible catfish snagged the back of his pants, hoisted him out of the water, and tossed him ashore like so much flotsam.
“That will show him who’s boss,” Clyde growled.
Captain Ahab walked the 200 feet from the Grand River to the 100-seat fish house. He threw himself down into a chair. From where he sat it looked like the sea, buoys, marine charts, brass lanterns, wooden ship wheels, and old diving helmets on the walls. From where Oliver sat, the skipper looked soggy and sad.
Fairport Harbor has a deep draft harbor, three boating ramps, a fishing pier, canoe and kayak access, and charter boat fishing. Oliver and Emma walked to where the charter boats were. Oliver had a postcard he had plucked off the wall at Brennan’s. They were looking for Stan the Man. When they found him, he was taking a nap on board Meals on Reelz, his 30-footer.
“Can you take us out to have a talk with Clyde,” Oliver asked. Stan said sure and before they knew it, they were on the catfish highway. He wasn’t hard to find. Oliver put on an Island Dry snorkel set and fins.
“Watch yourself,” Stan said. “They say he’s a thousand pounds of bottom-dwelling fury, don’t you know.”
The whopper wasn’t far. He was looking for his home hole along the shoreline. Oliver snuck up behind him. Clyde had excellent eyesight, though, and knew Oliver was right behind him. He could be ornery, but he could be patient, too. He stayed in place waiting for the Monster Hunter to tip his hand. What Oliver did was give him the postcard he had in his hand. On the card was a color picture of Mequinenza, a place in Spain where there are thousands of Wels Catfish, the biggest freshwater fish in Europe. At the bottom of the card was written in magic marker “4000 miles, go straight east.” Oliver pointed the way.
“What do I have to lose?” Chad asked himself. He had burnt all his bridges. He had no friends, only enemies. He was fed up with being the bad guy. In Spain he would be among his own kind, the kind of fish who would understand him. He could retire and live out his days in sun and surf, eating his fill of frogs, clams, and crayfish.
Clyde turned and gave Oliver a thumb’s up, even though he didn’t have thumbs.
“Hitch a ride with a freighter going that way,” Oliver signed in the sign language fish understand. “That way you’ll be there in two weeks rested and relaxed. You might even get a tan if the weather cooperates.” He handed Clyde a pair of Ray Bans. “These are for you if the sun gets in your eyes.” When the catfish put them on, they made him look like the Terminator. He liked the look. He nodded his thanks and set off for Spain. He wasn’t the kind of whisker fish to waste his time.
When Oliver and Emma and their parents got home Sly and the Family Stone, their family cat, came walking out of the woods behind their house. He had a bird in his mouth. The bird was playing dead, not that Sly was fooled. Oliver put on his fins and ran at the cat, lifting his knees high, flapping the fins like a madman. The cat was so startled he lost his grip on the bird, who flew away.
Sly and the Family Stone was disgruntled. All he had wanted to do was play with his prey. He narrowed his eyes, turned, and slowly walked back into the forest, looking for another friend.