I wrote this a couple of years ago, when my cousin Hal Leary, my sometimes co-conspirator and often my dunking partner back in the day, wrote an essay on County Hole.
The black green water flowed steady through the underbrush reflecting off the black green leaves of early Sunday morning August. We checked each set off, slip sliding down the mossy bank in the openings that occurred about every twenty feet. Animals made the little slide areas, otters, turtles, gators, I really never knew. Each hook came up empty until we came to a line that seemed stuck. A giant turtle finally emerged.
We put him in the back of the station wagon and carried him up to the store at the top of the hill. Well, we did. But it wasn’t that simple. As we still had more hooks to check (nothing on them, it turned out), we let him slide back into the water. Then coming back, we pulled him out again. My father pulled him out, I mostly stood as far back from the bank as I could without getting too far off the path. Then he and my older brother toted him out of the woods to the car.
We gave him to a poor old black farmer who thought it was a blessing from God to get such a fine meal handed to him by a silly white man and his silly boys who knew no better than to give away good eating.
The creek bank was about as verdant of a place as I had been that wasn’t an outright swamp. I knew about swamps because we had one on the edge of our property. Almost cool, the wooded banks were full of flying bugs and scratchy plants. It was easy to imagine a forest full of wild animals a few feet into the tangle of bushes, vines, grasses and trees.
We set hooks there on a whim from my father, and maybe a bit of begging from my brother and me. Dad had told us stories about night fishing the creeks that surrounded his boyhood home of Soso, Mississippi. It all sounded like fantasy.
When he suggested setting hooks up from our swimming hole, it sounded safe and sunny, because as the dark stream ran under an old iron bridge it opened into a sandstone carved pool, a little bigger than a good size backyard pool. The creek dropped down six to eight feet from the surrounding woods and roadbed. The bottom of the creek was another ten or so feet down. I have no idea how deep the dark part of the creek was. I would not have swam up into those dark waters for all the money in Montgomery, but the “hole” was inviting, cold but inviting. The sun shown down on the water which reflected the yellow sandstone and it was a pleasing green yellow. The water was too hazy to see the bottom, but clear enough that you could see your feet as they dangled down three feet below. Perfect for tag, a game that was made the better for the lack of visibility.
That evening when we set the hooks, we parked in the premature dusk caused by the trees canopy. We lugged a bundle of sapling trunks already preset with hooks, and a couple of different baits, including something pickled in a jar. Dad cut the various bits of bait into appropriate sized pieces and my brother and I stuck the hooks through them. After awhile, Dad dug a flashlight out of his pocket and I held it while they jammed the trees in the clayish banks. Soon the mosquitoes and scary sounds had me flitting the light everywhere except where they were working. So I was retired and Alan held the light while Dad stuck the poles into the banks.
We came back after supper, but we had caught nothing. It was seriously creepy then. The next morning, as the sun was forcing itself amongst the shadows and turning the night’s cool dampness into a muggy daytime, the woods were still “dark and deep” but not near as scary, especially with my Dad and big brother there.
That was my only experience of “setting hooks.” And while it had its satisfactions, once really was enough for me. I preferred the swimming in the cold sunlit water past the bridge. What I liked even more was going down past the hole, to where the creek spread out maybe thirty to forty feet wide and came up to about a foot deep. You could wade into on the rounded river rock bottom, back towards the hole until your were about waist deep, or maybe just tad more.
This was the best place for a kind of water jousting we calling “dunking.” We would grab hold of each other and churn the water, grappling with our arms for leverage and shifting to blindly find the best foothold and try to push the other one under water. I remember this as great fun, though I do recall I had a temper and if I felt one of the bigger kids was getting an unfair advantage, I was not above violent threats and an occasional follow through, probably involving a river rock or two. Yet what I recall as the biggest threat were broken pieces of Coke and beer bottles that were donated by the local redneck population. The swift moving water carried most of the broken glass far down stream, but occasionally, one of us would slice a foot, ruining the sport and of course causing a few days of suffering.
Overall, I don’t think I ever spent more hours having a better time anywhere in my life. I would take you there, but it no longer exists. The gravel pit a short ways across the old bridge (the trucks and equipment entered further down stream as the bridge was never very crossable except for the first year or two we swam there) eventually expanded the operations to a point where the hole was destroyed.
One of the great treasures of Alabama, certainly, maybe the known world, alas, is no more. But I, and a precious few others, enjoyed its glory.