In places, the French Broad River lays like a great floating corpse in the Tennessee Valley. It is stagnant, and no amount of wind or gravity can stir it into life. Trees line the river like brooding mourners of its passing, spreading their tepid branches out over the expanse as if to goad the river into animation. Even the sun shields its eyes from this unmoving trickle. Dark shadows of clouds pass over the water, and dark shadows of unseen things pass beneath. The water licks the muddy banks hungrily, as if ravenously seeking to consume the borders of its own grave. Few folks visit these darker waters, but there are some who do, for even with all their deterring facilities, these places are still the best to catch the elusive Flathead catfish. Flatheads are popular among various fishermen because of their immense size, their strength in battle and the sweetness of their meat. They never come up to the surface, even when hooked, they fight from the bottom, as if dredging their strength from the mud in which they dwell. Fishermen have been known to fight a single Flathead for fifteen to thirty minutes before bringing it to the surface. It is quite a thrill for the avid sportsman, so it is little wonder then, that Columbus Esslinger came to the banks of the deserted river every Saturday morning, bait and tackle in hand, with dreams of great Flatheads swimming through his mind.
There was a thick blanket of fog over the river one Saturday morning, like a morose burial shroud. This was nothing unusual, airplane pilots had often passed over certain stretches of the river and remarked that it looked like a swirling mist, like white lava flowing out of the mountains. This phenomena elicited strange tales, as one would imagine, from the simple folk in the vicinity. Stories of "haints" and "boogers" and sometimes even of the baneful Banshee from some of the older inhabitants, who said that her cry could always be heard the day before the church bell rang out the call of the dead. Columbus was not to be put off by these tales, because he knew that Flatheads were caught before the sun came up, and no amount of superstitious banter could deter him from his task.
He unfolded his lawn chair close to the river's moor, and went about preparing his spot for his stay. He placed a plastic bag next to his feet, for easy access. There was a pinkish blob inside, which was his bait for the day. Flatheads loved chicken livers, and the bloodier the better. They can smell blood, any fisherman can tell you that. They are like freshwater sharks, swimming through the murky water looking for death and decay. Columbus readied his rod, and delicately took the three inch, steel, barbed hook between two fingers. He pulled a mushy gob of dripping flesh from his bait bag and pushed it slowly, always mindful of the barb, onto the hook. There was a heavy sinker about two feet up the line from the hook, which was designed to take the bait straight to the bottom. He reared his rig back over his shoulder, and with a heavy heave, he flung his tackle out as far as he could.