Warsaw whistler feeds fish friends

Nature: Catfish learn to show up for dinner when Virginia man summons them.

October 14, 2002|By Lawrence Latane III | Lawrence Latane III,RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

WARSAW, Va. - Charles Lewis is the Warsaw fish whistler, but to the catfish in his creek, he needs no introduction.

They are jumping out of the water by the dozens, striking their best "Flipper" poses and swimming about in a splashy display of rubbery lips and whiskers.

Lewis blows another long blast on his orange dog whistle, and the surface of the tidal creek erupts again as he steps out on his dock and casts a handful of fish food pellets into the fray.

The catfish gulp and guzzle the floating pellets, vacuuming them off the surface while the ghostly forms of other catfish flash in and out of sight in the depths.

50 or 75 catfish

There must be 50 or 75 catfish churning and jumping at Lewis' dock. Some suspend themselves vertically so they can hold their flat heads out of the water. They seem to be waiting for Lewis to toss them a pellet like a dog begging for food. Others streak out of the darkness beneath the pier, seize a floating morsel and charge back to the shadows with a great splash from their tails.

"It's something you can't believe until you see it," Lewis boasts with pride. The catfish are working the surface white in their feeding frenzy. The splashing drowns the silence of the creek and its great flanking marshes.

For 10 years now, Lewis has been staging these spectacles to the delight of family and friends. Just the other day he escorted a deliveryman down the gravel path from his home to the creek.

"I said, `You don't want to leave until you see this,'" Lewis recalled.

But, not just anybody's welcome. "Nothing makes me madder than to wake up in the morning and catch a boat and somebody fishing by the dock," he declares.

A good old boy version of St. Francis of Assisi in blue work pants and suspenders, Lewis assumes the role of guardian to his flock. He's so protective of the catfish that he invites a reporter to his dock under one condition: No names with tales. "Don't name the creek," he implored. "Just say it's a tidal creek in Richmond County."

One time a fisherman in a boat motored around the creek bend just as the catfish were leaping for their daily meal. The man saw the splashing and hastily grabbed his fishing rod.

"I said, `What are you doing?'" Lewis recalled.

"You can't stop me," the man declared.

Lewis reached into his shirt pocket for his cell phone.

"I'm going to call the game warden and tell him you are fishing over bait," he yelled.

"That feller said, `Don't do that,' and pulled up his anchor and left."

Avoiding stress

The confrontations are few and something Lewis can ill afford. "The doctors told me to never get under stress, and that's what I try to do," he explained.

Heart trouble forced Lewis to undergo a five-way heart bypass in 1987. In February, he blacked out while sitting in his pew at Cobham Park Baptist Church. The minister led a prayer for him as people helped the unconscious Lewis off the floor. Two days later, doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond installed a defibrillator in Lewis' chest that will jump-start his heart should it fail again.

Through it all, those catfish still beckoned. From his bedside, Lewis implored his wife, Ethel, to go back home and feed the fish.

A retired farmer and textile worker, Lewis now keeps regular hours at his boat dock, striding down the hill around 9 a.m. with a bucket of commercial fish food - the kind that fish farmers use. When he sounds his whistle, puffs of mud and swirls stir the water and the catfish appear.

"After I feed the fish, I sit here and watch them jokers," Lewis said after the catfish had sated themselves and let the creek grow calm again.

A pair of herons flap across the channel, followed later by an osprey and finally a bald eagle on broad coasting wings. Side by side on a rough oak bench, Lewis and Ethel sit serenely and watch the timeless scene, awaiting what the marsh and the sky might provide next.

Lewis feeds the catfish every day from sometime in March until sometime in October. "Put it this way," he said, "when I get cold, I ain't coming down here to do it."

Next his attention turns to the migratory mallards and Canada geese that visit his marsh. Once the gunning season closes, Lewis and Ethel bag corn and lug it down the hill and broadcast it in the guts that vein the wetland.

"I think the Lord has left me here to do something like that to feed his critters," Lewis said. "Then I can set up on the bank and watch them."

He got the idea of calling and feeding catfish after visiting a catfish farm in Mississippi about 10 years ago. The farm used a broadcast sprayer mounted behind a tractor to scatter fish food into the ponds. Lewis noticed that the fish started jumping and swirling as soon as the tractor was started.

Back home, Lewis found a dog whistle and went to Southern States and bought a sack of bass food. For three days in a row he blew the whistle before tossing handfuls of the pellets in the creek. On the fourth day, three or four catfish appeared after the whistle blast, Lewis said. The rest is piscatorial history.

"It looked like they told more," Lewis observed, "and more came." Soon catfish by the dozens were responding to his call.

At the current rate, Lewis goes through 50 pounds of fish food every 20 days. Yet, as much as he loves to feed them and sit on his dock and watch, he doesn't measure time in bags of feed.

Lewis, who is 69, and Ethel will have been married for 50 years in 2006.

Mindful of the heart condition that has reduced his heart's capacity by 80 percent, Lewis has set that milestone as a goal.

"I think I'm lucky to be here," he said. "I'm going to make my four years for my 50th anniversary."

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