In the early evening on July 3, four local men went fishing.
Not raiding or robbing. Not pillaging. Not plundering.
You should have seen them out there, just below the Chickamauga Dam. Most of us fish with high-dollar rods and reels, dangling fancy Bill Dance lures, swiveling around in our shiny bass boat chairs.
These four guys? Riverbank fishing, with the barest of bares: a line, a hook and some bait. They were simple yet majestic men, pulling in fish hand-over-hand. Hemingway would have rushed to his typewriter.
Monday, I met them. I had lots of questions, but like any good Southerner, started with the most important: How many did you catch?
"Diez pescados," one of them replied.
It means 10 fish, but I didn't know that at first. Don't speak Spanish. And I'm betting the officer who arrested them that night doesn't either.
"All 4 men were placed in custody," he wrote in his police report.
Around 9 p.m., the men -- all from Mexico, without U.S. documentation -- were approached by an officer from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. According to his arrest report, he saw them "all using fishing lines manipulated by hand.'' So he asked to see their fishing licenses.
"Two days expired," one fisherman -- the police report calls him John Doe 3 -- told me Monday through a translator.
The officer then asked for a Tennessee ID.
"Which they couold [sic] no [sic] produce," his report continues. (Translation: which they could not produce).
So he then asked for an ID from any U.S. state.
"They presented me with IDs that apper [sic] to be from Mexico or another country," the officer wrote.
So ... he arrested them for illegal taking of wildlife and ...
"Fishing without a license," the arrest report reads.
More like Fishing Without White Skin. Or Fishing While Brown.
"I never dreamed I would be going to jail for going fishing," John Doe 4 said Monday.
Who ever does? I've fished without a license more times than I can count (I'm sorry, and promise never to do so again). Had a TWRA agent ever come my way, not in my worst dreams would I have ever imagined I'd end up handcuffed, arrested and taken to jail.
It's like a fish tale: no way such a story can be true.
"It isn't that uncommon," said TWRA's Law Enforcement Maj. CJ Jaynes. "It probably happens in Hamilton County monthly, if not biweekly."
Jaynes said TWRA policy requires an officer to cite offenders who cannot produce a license.
"If someone cannot give you proof of ID, you can't really write them a citation and let them go," he said.
Why not? And is it even constitutional for a TWRA officer to arrest someone because of documentation issues?
Our four fishermen came to the United States several years ago, all from Chiapas, Mexico, all hoping to find work here.
"This is the country where everyone can get ahead," said John Doe 2.
They enjoy fishing. It feeds them. Back home, they fished all the time ... and no one ever took them to jail.
"We were just fishing with our hands," said John Doe 2.
Monday afternoon, they appeared before Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge David Bales. John Doe 4 had paid his court costs and also purchased a fishing license (the TWRA allows nonresidents to buy fishing licenses. They cost $81).
"The case is dismissed," Judge Bales said.
John Does 1, 2 and 3 were an hour late. Apologizing, they said their boss did not let them off work.
"In Mexico, you have to work all day to make $10. Here they pay you $10 an hour," John Doe 1 told me.
Each but one had paid his court costs. Judge Bales gave the nonpaying Doe a month to pay the $242.03. He dismissed the other two cases.
It was early; plenty of daylight left for fishing.
"We were going to go again today," said John Doe 3, wearing a blue Habitat for Humanity T-shirt that read: give a hand-up, not a hand-out.
Like they always say: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.
As long as he has the right papers.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...