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Monday, August 29, 2011

A return to fishing

Last year I started getting the urge to get back to fishing.  I hadn’t fished in years.  Once my first child was born something had to go…I could no longer hunt all fall and winter and fish all spring and summer.  My responsibilities as a father meant that a hobby had to go…and fishing went. 
I don’t know why the urge came to me last summer but if I didn’t start fishing again I thought I might go crazy.  I couldn’t get my mind off of it.  Eventually I called my brother in law and I told him that we needed to take his boat out and go catfishing.  This was a great way to get back to fishing. 
He and I had spent many a warm summer night sipping cold beer on his bass tracker on Sardis Reservoir and throwing stink bait to the channel cats.  One night a few summers ago we sat on that flat muddy lake in the pitch black of night under a billion stars in the July heat slowly sipping cold beer and spitting chewing tobacco while we told jokes we’d heard a million times before and waited for the fish to bite.  As this familiar ritual unfolded we saw a huge green burst in the sky to our south…fireworks.  A few seconds later we heard the boom.  As dark as it was out there it’s hard to believe that the boom could even find us.  The town of Oxford Mississippi was celebrating the Fourth of July that night and as far as I’m concerned the two of us had the best seats in the house…and we were miles away.  This was fishing.  It’s far more than just reeling something in; it’s just as much the adventure that surrounds the act of fishing that makes it so memorable.  With these types of memories in my mind imagine my anticipation when I called him and told him we needed to get back out there in his boat.       
Next imagine my surprise when he told me that we couldn’t take the boat out because it sank last week.
“Yep…I left it out at a pond after we chased some crappie and it came a flood, the lake crept out of its banks, the boat filled up with water, and the motor and all my rods and reels are underwater right now.”
“Wow….that sucks.”
And that’s how that went.  The urge hadn’t gone away and we were boat less.  I immediately began my search for a small used boat. 
The search
The first thing you realize when you start shopping for a bass boat is that you can spend a LOT of money on a bass boat.  Most of the new boats I was seeing were more expensive than my truck.  I couldn’t believe someone would spend $30,000 to $60,000 on a bass boat.  It made no sense to me…at first. 
The more I looked the more I liked them.  They were sleek, fast, and shiny...and they were packed with high-end electronics.  Marketing these things to guys is like hunting over a baited field.  It ought to be illegal.  Time and time again I had to fight the urge to spend huge amounts of money.  I decided that I would limit my purchase to $5,000.  With any luck I could score something for $3,000…maybe a used 16 footer with a tiller steer set-up.  Nothing fancy. 
The more I researched the more I realized that everyone wanted a lot of money for their old boat, and everyone claimed they had less than 20 hours on the motor…no matter what the age there were never more than 20 hours on the motor.  A lot of people lived a long ways away and I wanted to test drive the boat before I pulled the trigger.  Sometimes the boats would sell before I could arrange a time to drive them.  No big deal…if someone else would buy it sight-unseen then good for them.  I needed more re-assurance before pulling the trigger.
It was during this portion of the search phase that I really started to analyze how much speed I needed.  I knew how much I WANTED…but I needed to figure out how much I NEEDED.  As a rule of thumb…speed costs money.  Lots of speed costs lots of money…it’s an easy rule to remember…and I didn’t want to spend lots of money.  25 MPH was too slow…I can to that on my bicycle.  75 MPH was too’s expensive to buy and to fill it up.  Something in the 30 to 40 MPH range would do well.  This would allow me to quickly run the 9 miles from my planned launch site down to the dam…it was a compromise that would work.
Ultimately I messed around long enough that I found a real deal on a boat that was way more than I wanted to spend...but in all fairness it was cheap….really cheap.  The long story short is that I bought a new boat at a used boat price…it was a dealer display model…and they were going to hang a new 90 HP Suzuki on it for me.  Sweet…done deal.   After a bit of paper work I was the proud owner of my first boat.  The adventure started the moment I pulled away from the dealer with 18.5 feet of “potential “ being towed behind my truck. 
Taking it to the lake
I needed to get that boat wet as soon as I could.  I couldn’t bear the thought of the weekend going by without me putting my new toy on the lake.  I had a few small things to procure before getting underway (like life jackets, a fire extinguisher etc.) and I had a few days to get this done before the weekend arrived.  Once all of this was out of the way I waited for the weekend while continuing to plot my first voyage.  I studied everything I could about the lakes in my area.  What were the water levels this time of year?  Which ramps were best right now?  How crowded would they be?  What were the fish doing?    
For a new boat owner there are a lot of challenges…some of which can be fairly intimidating.  I needed to hook this thing up, tow it down the highway safely, back it in the water, and then not sink it.  At each step in this chain there is ample opportunity for stupidity to ruin your day.  I needed this to go perfectly.
Oddly enough, the most awkward thing involved might be backing the trailer up.  The process of backing a trailer is not one that comes easy to human beings.  It’s not something that comes natural…it’s all just a little off from how you think it should go.  If you’ve never done it just imagine using your toothbrush to brush someone else’s teeth….left handed.  You could eventually get it done but it’s going to take a while and some things might get banged up along the way. 
I had backed trailers before…but not a lot…and it wasn’t coming back to me like riding a bike does.  My biggest fear was getting stuck at a gas station or some other tight place I might not be able to back out of.  My second biggest fear was looking like an idiot on the boat ramp. 
Wanting to minimize the opportunity to look stupid I picked a lake that I knew wouldn’t be terribly crowded, and then I planned to check out a few boat ramps to see which one would be the easiest on a rookie.
Lucky for me it began to rain like crazy on the way to the lake (yes I remembered to keep the plug out).  When I got to the lake it was coming down in long, dark, grey, wind-whipped streaks across the water…it was a typical and torrential Mississippi thunderstorm.  The last place any sane person would be at this moment would be the lake.  This was perfect.  I had huge parking lots and boat launches that were completely devoid of vehicles.  I used this time to practice my backing skills.  I just drove around the parking lots and practiced backing into spots, backing around corners, down ramps, you name it and I backed my trailer down it or into it.  It was a great opportunity.  I couldn’t hurt anyone else and I couldn’t hurt my ego either…how often do you get a combination like that?
The weather breaks
Once the rain broke it ushered in a beautiful afternoon.  The sky turned blue, it was cooler, and the humidity level had dropped so much that it no longer felt like Mississippi.  It was time to launch.  This was it…the maiden voyage. 
A quick check showed that the plug was in, the boat was unstrapped, key was in the ignition and I was ready to go.  I had the wife back me slowly into the muddy waters of Lake Enid, I twisted the key, and the Suzuki four-stroke purred to life like a contented mountain lion. 
The first 2 hours of operation would be used to break the motor in per the manufacturer’s instructions so we putted around at low speeds, all the while playing with my fish finder.  After about an hour I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen a single fish on the finder.  I KNOW there are fish in this lake…why aren’t I seeing any?
A short time later as I was passing some flooded timber and telling the wife all about how these types of places hold fish, the finder beeped to indicate a fish was nearby.  I got more excited than a kid with his first BB gun.  I jumped up, asked the wife to take the wheel, and I grabbed my ancient Ugly Stick that was packing a white and chartreuse spinner bait.  A word needs to be spoken about the spinner bait at this point.  I’m basically a bank fisherman, and in all the years I fished from the bank I never, ever caught a fish on a spinner-bait.  I don’t even know why I had it tied it on.  At any rate the fish-finder said there was a fish here and I was going to catch it…with this ridiculous and historically ineffective spinner bait. 
I took my spot on the bow and the wife dutifully positioned the boat per my instructions and I made cast after cast into this triangle of water framed by tall dead trees looking for all the world like old telephone poles jutting out of the water.  On my third cast I felt an old familiar feeling.  It was the bump-bump of a fish hammering a lure.  I was so shocked that I almost forgot to set the hook. 
I pulled back on that rod and the other end of my line came alive!  Fish on!!!  I was so excited that I couldn’t tell you how long it took to get that fish in but when it was all over I was holding a Lake Enid Crappie and staring at my wife with a big, toothy, speechless grin.  Her expression back to me was one of shock…complete and utter shock. 
I couldn’t believe how easy this fish finder made things…I was really wishing I had bought one earlier.  You just drive around ‘til you find a fish then you catch it.  These things ought to be outlawed…it’s literally like shooting fish in a barrel.  A few pictures and high-fives later we get back to driving around looking for more fish on the fish finder.  These were big times and high adventures.
The rest of the day
The rest of that afternoon we just leisurely putted around and talked and enjoyed the view.  At one point we were way in the back of Enid where it gets shallow and were drifting in on some more flooded timber and right in front of us a huge bald eagle launched out of a tree, spread its enormous wings, and flew off over the lake to find a quieter place to spend the afternoon.  It’s not every day you get to see a bird that magnificent, that large, and that close.  This first trip with the boat was turning into quite the adventure.  It was kind of a cross between discovery channel and a fishing show…but it was real…not just seen from my couch.
I can’t remember exactly how or when we called it quits that day.  I do recall that I didn’t see any more fish on my fish-finder, and I do recall a long and satisfied ride home.  I had taken my vessel to the lake, I had competently sailed its waters, I had hauled in its bounty from the deep, I had seen a bald eagle up close and in the wild, and I had lived to tell about it…what a day.  It certainly beat sitting on the couch watching re-runs of Man vs. Wild. 
This was the beginning of my addiction.  It was also the beginning of my education on fishing and boating.  I’ve long since learned that the fish-finder doesn’t really work the way I thought it did on day one…and I’ve also learned that the more you go out there the better it gets.  That boat has helped me see a million things I couldn’t have seen from my couch.  It’s let me live those things as much as just seeing them.  From this boat I’ve seen countless sunrises and sunsets, I’ve seen giant orange harvest moons rising large over calm black waters at night, I’ve watched my kids catch fish of their own, I’ve seen my wife struggle to pull in a 10 lb. blue cat on a jug line, and I’ve seen everyone jump off it’s decks and into the care-free waters that surround it.  This is more than 18.5 feet of fishing vessel…it’s 18.5 feet of life itself.  It’s also infinitely large because there appears to be no limit to how many memories you can fit inside its hull. 
I’ll go to sleep tonight reliving memories I’ve made on that boat…and I’ll be amazed at how far we’ve come since its hull was christened in the muddy waters of Mississippi’s Lake Enid. 

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