When Your Best Fish Story Is About Catching…A Goat

"I started forward with a powerful heave ... and hooked my brother’s pet goat, Ramrod."

Nishant Choksi for Reader's Digest

I should have given up fishing, I suppose, after the goat. He was not a regular goat. He was more part goat, part rhinoceros, about the size of a small horse but with devil horns. He looked out on the world through spooky yellow eyes and smelled like … well, I do not have the words to say. My little brother, Mark, bought him at the sprawling trade day in Collins­ville, Alabama, for $75; I would have given him $100 not to.

The first thing the creature did after coming into our possession was butt the side of a truck. You have to be one terror of a goat to assault a Ford. His name, my little brother said, was Ramrod.

“Why would you buy such a thing?” I asked my brother. He told me he planned to purchase a bunch of nanny goats to “get with” Ramrod, after whatever courtship that goat required. Ramrod would beget little Ramrods, who would beget more, till the whole world was covered in ill-tempered mutant goats. I think, sometimes, we did not love that boy enough.

Ramrod moved into his new home in a beautiful mountain pasture in northeastern Alabama and, first thing, butted heads with my mother’s ill-tempered donkey, Buckaroo. Buck staggered a few steps, and his head wobbled drunkenly from side to side, but he did not fall unconscious. This, in Buck’s mind, constituted a victory, and he trotted off, snorting and blowing, like he was somebody.
My point is, Ramrod was a goat not to be messed with.

Later that year, I was fishing with my brothers in the pond in that same pasture. The water was mostly clear, and you could see the bream in the shallows and the dark shapes of bass in the deeper end. For a change, even I was catching fish and had pulled in a few nice little bass. My cast, to me, was immaculate, my aim perfect, my mechanics sound, especially for the clunky crankbait I was throwing.

Tatiana Ayazo/Rd.com
“But I’m not gettin’ much distance,” I complained to my big brother, Sam.

“It’s fine,” he said, and with an easy flick of his wrist, sent a black rubber worm sailing beyond my best cast of the day.

I decided to put a little more mustard on it. I let my lure dangle about a foot and a half from the tip of the rod, reared back, torqued, and started forward with a powerful heave … and hooked Ramrod, who had crept up behind me to do me some kind of grievous harm, right between his horns.

Ramrod, who for perhaps the first time in his long life seemed unsure of what to do, took off running. Sam, who has never been too surprised by anything in his whole laconic, irritating life, gazed at the retreating goat as if this were a thing he witnessed every single day.

“Can’t remember if that was a ten-pound test I put on that baitcaster,” he said, as if it made a difference. “You can’t catch no fish with heavy line. They can see it,” and he made another cast.

The goat ran on. I considered, briefly, just standing my ground and trying to reel him in, to play him like a great tarpon or a marlin. Instead, I began to run parallel with him, reeling in the slack as I did, as I have seen great anglers do with giant fish on the TV. I guess I thought I could eventually get close enough to reach out and snatch the hook out of his head. I truly did not want to hurt him, but that was foolish, of course; you could not hurt Ramrod with hammer or hand grenade.

As it turned out, the point of the hook, not even to the barb, had snagged in the bony base of one horn, and the crankbait jangled atop his head. He was not wounded; he was just mad. He quit running about the time I ran out of line, and my little brother, who had a sort of telepathic bond with this creature, calmly walked over and pulled the hook free while the goat stood there like a pet. Then he and the goat both gave me a dirty look, as if hooking him were something I woke up that morning intending to do.

Nishant Choksi for Reader's Digest

I went back to the pond, frazzled, and—I am not kidding—­immediately hooked a water oak, a blackberry bush, and a low-slung power line. I shuffled off with a rubber worm dangling high above me; it was Cherokee Electric’s problem now. I was done fishing that day and seriously considered being done for good. I walked to the house defeated but not ashamed, at least as far as Ramrod was concerned. That goat never liked me anyhow.

Great anglers, the kind who tie their own flies and read the tides and have fished the deep blue for leviathans, will most likely shake their sun-bronzed heads in pity and sad wonder over this. But the bad fishermen out there—you know who you are—will merely nod in understanding and sympathy and, I hope, some degree of solidarity. The only reason they have not caught a goat is that, so far, one has not made their acquaintance or wandered into the proximity of their backswing.
But perhaps the worst thing about it is that the best fisherman I know, my brother Sam, did not even think that, in the long, sad epic of my fishing life, this episode was remarkable at all. He did not even tell it to anyone, not in the decade since. To him, it was just the kind of thing a poor fisherman like me was likely to do, was somehow fated or destined to do, assuming of course that he did not first fall out of a boat and drown.

“What is it, truly,” I asked, “that I do wrong?”

He was too kind to give voice to it.

He just spread his hands, palms up, as if to say: Everything.

Sadly, as a fisherman, I am just missing something, something that is both mechanical and mystical and, I am sorry to say, apparently permanent. Still, fishing is the one thing I will get out of bed for in early morning … well, that and biscuits and gravy.

And, honestly, I’d rather be a bad fisherman than no fisherman at all.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.