Utter those words to any of the kids in my old neighborhood in West Orange, Texas around 1984 and they would either burst with excitement or shiver in fear.
Big John was a very polarizing character you see.
Looking back, that is an impressive feat for an alligator garfish that allegedly lived in a tiny branch of Adams Bayou that crossed under Newton Street we simply called the “The Gully”.
Big John was very much like Bigfoot as sighting reports traveled quickly and the eyewitnesses met with a mixture of skepticism and fanfare.
Claiming you saw Big John would garner you a following among the dozen or so boys in the neighborhood and jeers from the girls who all thought we were off our rockers for pursuing such a thing if it did indeed exist.
This gully is where I spent much of my after school time and during summer vacation. And while the fishing was rarely outstanding; we did catch our fair share of spotted gar, grinnel, sun perch and mud cats.
At times, it was quite the social gathering as it was common for at least half a dozen of us to be wetting our lines and talking about whatever the current hot topic was.
One day it might be whether Gene Simmons from Kiss really had a cow’s tongue implanted to replace his own so he could look cool wagging it onstage and the next it could be a heated debate over who was going to win the title at the next Wrestlemania.
The conversation, however, would always drift to Big John and his latest exploits.
One kid swore to have seen him attack a calf that came to drink on the water’s edge while another claimed to have had his rod broken by the beast on three occasions. None of these occurrences ever happened when we were together, but no one questioned them aloud.
The stories gave us something to talk about and looking back, a unique means of bonding.
I never had an official sighting but once a kid named Joey was fishing with a hand line from the bridge that crossed the gully. I was on the other side of the road with two big lines set out when I heard frantic splashing in the water.
Joey was clinging on to his line and as I rushed over to see what was going on, his line snapped. I could see a large, dark shape move through the water as whatever it was swam off with Joey’s bait. That could have been many things, but of course, we thought Big John had struck again.
Big John was not the only legend in our gully. There was Catfish Charlie, a massive catfish spotted by me and a couple of other kids as it snapped my cane pole in two and took off with the live goldfish I was fishing. Looking back, it was obvious this catfish was a flathead, probably in the 30 to 40 pound class, but to us it had to have been 100 pounds at least. One of the kids fishing with me named the fish Catfish Charlie because he saw a tub of bait at the tackle shop with a big catfish on the label that said “Catfish Charlie”.
The name stuck.
This was in the middle of the Big John hysteria in our neighborhood and word of Catfish Charlie spread.
One of the girls in the neighborhood lost her teacup chihauha and all of the boys figured it went down to the gully and either Big John or Catfish Charlie got hold of it.
A boy from an adjoining neighborhood said he battled Catfish Charlie for an hour in the deep pool, a spot where the gully ran under the railroad tracks. He said the fish was six feet long and had whiskers longer than his arms.
By the next morning, the deep pool was covered with boys in the neighborhood brought multiple rods to try to catch the phantom fish. I even threw out a few jug lines but caught nothing more than a big red-eared slider turtle.
Not long after that, some high school boys came up with the idea of tying a nylon rope to the end of a truck, baiting it with a whole chicken attached to a shark hook and floating it out under a jug.
When the jug went under, they would crank up the truck and pull the behemoth ashore. All of the elementary school boys thought that was the greatest idea anyone had ever concocted.
The only problem was they were going to do it at the big pond on the high school agriculture department’s property where only Ag students could tread without getting in serious trouble.
Catfish Charlie hung out there too and fed on the turtles that would fall off of the logs in the pond or so we thought. This pond connected to our gully and the consensus was that Big John hung out there most of the time and left when the tides got high.
We would have to watch from the road and hope they could fit the creature in the bed of their truck so we could get a glimpse.
Half a dozen or so of gathered at the gully that day to do some fishing and of course see which of these legendary fish was going to take the bait. We just did not see how they could resist a whole chicken. There were two camps. One was pro Big John and the other pro Catfish Charlie. I must admit I thought Big John was cooler but Catfish Charlie’s legend began with me so I had to stick with him. After all, his mouth was big enough to eat a whole chicken.
After a couple of hours, we heard the truck crank up and drive forward. Our hearts raced as we wondered if they really had captured the fish that had captured our imagination for so long.
We could see that the small crowd of Ag students that gathered to see the capture of Big John were scattering like ants. They were running all over the place.
Were our fabled fishes so humongous they would run from it? Did it attack one of the bystanders?
Our imaginations ran wild.
It turned out, they had pulled in a nine-foot long alligator that was not very happy at being hooked and pulled behind a truck. I am not sure what happened to the oversized reptile, but our dreams of catching Big John came crashing down quickly.
If the big boys could not catch him, how could we?
As time passed on, our interest in fishing at the gully waned along with banter of Big John and Catfish Charlie.
Chasing girls, high school sports and fast cars now dominated the lives of the boys in my part of West Orange. For a while, I would still occasionally fish down there, but when I got a car, it made more sense to drive out to Lake Sabine or the Neches River. The angling prospects were vastly superior there.
Last week I drove by that gully on the way to my parent’s house and stopped for a brief look. Now, there is a “No Fishing” sign on the bridge and there were no kids there angling for garfish and dreams. No matter what happened in our lives, we always found sanctuary down at the gully fishing for Big John and Catfish Charlie. Wealthy, poor and middle class kids got along just fine with our attentions focused on finding our own white whale of sorts in this murky East Texas bayou branch.
As I drove off, I adjusted my rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of a large splash in the water. It was probably a school of mullet or perhaps one of the resident alligators playing around.
I would however like to think it was Big John, out on the hunt and making some commotion to say hello to an old friend while Catfish Charlie swam below. I would like to think that very much.
(This blog originally ran in 2009 but I decided to republish it for “Gar Week”.)