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Spoonbill Catfish

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Before I moved to the Mississippi River, I used to worry about God. He never seemed to have much fun. Oh, no question but that he did good work. His zebra had just the right proportion of black and white stripes, his giraffe's neck and back were so angled as to make you want to slide down it like a bannister, and his elephant looked exactly the way an animal named elephant should look like.

But God seemed so straight: "Let there be light." And then he says, "It is good." Wouldn't you have just sat down and giggled to suddenly see everything lit up like a Christmas tree for the first time? Too much protestant work ethic, is what I thought.

That was before I moved to Rock Island and found out about the Mississippi's spoonbill catfish.

You only need to see one to know that along about 3:30 on the fifth day of creation, somewhere in between the eagle and the great whale, both exacting work, God took a little dribble of extra clay and made a joke as boys will do when the study hall teacher relaxes her vigilance for an instant. In fact, he made two of them. One he put in China on one side of the world, and the other in the Mississippi River.

Have you ever seen a seven-foot spoonbill catfish? They look like a bloated shark that set out to swallow a canoe paddle and got bored with the job about halfway through. Or perhaps it’s a chronic head cold that gives it that nose.

Whatever the case, they rarely move from the mud at the bottom of the river. They feed by keeping their mouths open, hoping that food bits will find their way in. They won't take a fisherman’s bait.  Instead, you have to drag your hook along the muddy bottom hoping to snag one. Should you do so, you are in for the same thrill as pulling a waterlogged rubber boot to the surface except that the boot tastes better. The difference between spoonbill steak and spoiled lutefisk is not marked, or so I imagine.

All creation fits into some great plan, except for the spoonbill catfish. Yet I'm glad it’s there in the river.  Knowing God can take a joke ought to make us all rest a little easier.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.