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Sunday, December 30, 2012

A redneck finds peace just inside cell-phone range

It was a Thursday and the forecast was for clear skies and overnight lows in the mid-50’s...perfect conditions for camping.  I had a new piece of gear that I wanted to field test and this weather was the perfect excuse to get away.  The only thing that stood in my way was Friday...and it’s a bit of a stretch for a grown man to skip work so he can go camping and fishing for a day.  Luckily I have some flexibility in my schedule...I decided that camping was the better choice and that work would be fine without me for a day.  

As soon as I saw the forecast I began a checklist in my head: tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, fishing gear...I wouldn’t need much more than that and it wouldn’t take long to gather it all up either.  I just about ran from the office once I decided I was going camping.  I had to gather up some supplies with a quick run to Bass Pro Shops and I had to swing by a buddies place to borrow some gear but after that all I had to do was hook up the boat and go.  

By the time my wife got home I was completely packed.  She had recently given me a BioLite stove that burns wood and has a USB recharger for iphones and other devices and I was excited to try it out.  Now you might be one of those types who decries technology on camping trips...but I derive great pleasure from snapping pics and sending them to friends who are stuck at work while I am playing hooky.  I revel in the insults they hurl back at me from their cubes as they wait for quitting time to come.  And if you take the anti-technology thing too far you end up looking like Ted Kazinsky (the Unabomber) lighten up.

After kissing the wife goodbye and giving her the grid coordinates to begin searching for my body in the event I don’t come back...I jumped in the truck and eased out of the driveway.  It is 100 miles from door-to-dock and I had no deadlines to keep.  I was going to be arriving at the marina after dark so speed was of no concern...launching at 9 PM was no different than 10PM as far as I was concerned.  I snaked across north Mississippi with the setting sun to my back and I just enjoyed the sights of wildlife coming to the fields and small towns slipping quietly past me in the fading dusk.  

Two hours later I was passing the small empty guard-house that sits at the entrance to the state park.  The park appeared to be completely empty when I arrived.  The only light around was from the marina and the full moon above.  

I went through my pre-launch routine with the intensity of a kid unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  I simply could not wait to get the boat in the water and slip out into the dark river channel.  Soon enough I had all the cargo from the truck loaded into the boat and was backing down the ramp.  After tying the boat to the courtesy dock I parked the truck and returned to the helm.  

Now it was real.  Now it hit me.  It was a weeknight.  I was officially skipping work tomorrow and I was sitting at the wheel of my boat...the sonar dimly lit in front of me, the motor purring softly and patiently behind me, a full moon above, and only one decision to make...which way to turn when I leave the marina?

Before I left the dock I snapped a quick picture to send to my wife (keep quiet all you anti-tech types) snugged up my jacket, and grabbed a plug of Redman.  I cast my lines from the dock and eased away from not just the marina...but from civilization itself.

Plan A was to head south for a few miles downriver and camp on a gravel bar where I caught a great smallmouth bass last summer.  I know the smallmouth may not be there now but the bronze-back battle that took place there has forever cemented the place in my is hallowed ground to me.  To camp at that place with a fire on one side and great memories on the other would be would verge upon being spiritual.  The wind was out of the north tonight and this spot would be sheltered by a big forested hill that rose steeply from my camping spot.  

As I slipped past the big rock-wall jetty that shelters the marina I left the artificial light of street-lamps and dock-lights and transitioned into a purer form of darkness.  This one lit only by the silvery-white light of a full moon.  The weather was perfect which allowed me to see as far downriver as I cared to look...and from my current location I could see that Plan A was not going to work.  2.5 miles away I could see the inviting orange-yellow flicker of a large campfire on the gravel bar I had intended to use for the night.  That was the only light I could see boats, no houses, no planes...just a single campfire in the wilderness.  Lucky for me I had a Plan B.

Plan B was to head a few miles upriver and camp on another gravel bar that forms the mouth of what is perhaps the most beautiful cove on the entire Tennessee River.  It is a cove with high walls on three sides that forms a bowl.  In the back of this bowl a waterfall crashes down from timbered heights into the placid waters below.  This place shall remain nameless in the interest of keeping it all to myself (BWAAHHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!).  

Giving one last wishful glance at the campfire to the south, I turned the boat north, hammered the throttle and enjoyed the rush of the boat getting up on plane.  The bow rose for a moment and as I trimmed the motor out, the hull slid effortlessly out of the water and began to glide right on top of the surface.  The water was uncommonly smooth which made for such an easy ride that if it weren’t for the wind rushing past your ears you might think you weren’t moving at all.  Forward into the darkness I went, the wind and the water my only companions.  My boat sits low in the water...low enough that I can reach out and touch the surface.  From this vantage point you are almost one with the water.  One of the simple joys of nighttime navigation is watching the very front of your wake splash across the glassy water next to you.  On a night like this when I look to the right and I see countless moonlit droplets of water being thrown across the glassy surface it looks like diamonds being strewn across black onyx.  It’s dazzling and twinkling white lights rolling across a glassy black is a captivating sight. If I left right then it would have been worth the trip.

A few minutes later I approached my destination.  There are a few coves in this area and in the dark it might take a few minutes to determine which one is mine.  The moonlight is enough to degrade my night-vision so all I can see ahead is a pitch black mountain of land.  I can see a rough outline of the ridge-tops a hundred feet above the water, and an occasional sliver of shoreline as small stretches of rock reflect the moonlight.  I pulled back on the throttle, idled closer, and then cut the motor.  Now the only sound that existed was that of the water rolling past my hull as I drifted to a halt.  Peering into the darkness ahead my body language transitioned from the craned neck and furrowed brow of a man trying to hear something, to a broad and relaxed grin as I heard the dancing sound of a waterfall crashing to the surface of the lake.

I’m here

I idled the boat the rest of the way in so I could enjoy every bit of my surroundings.  I pushed into the cove with the gravel bar on my right.  The water was low and the bar rose higher from the water-line in terraces to a height of perhaps 6 feet where it topped out in a wide triangular shape big enough for perhaps five or six tents.  The gravelly point soon transitioned to dirt and then woods and then straight up to the top of the hill that formed the right side of what is basically a bowl with a waterfall at the back.  

Louder came the splashing as I glided deeper into the hollow.  Soon I had reached the back and I killed the motor.  I sat in absolute awe, floating at the base of the falls.  The water cascading down those rocks in the moonlight looked like a mountain of pearls falling down a black marble-staircase.  In terms of natural beauty I don’t know that I’ve seen it’s equal.  The sight, the sound, and the surroundings combined to create what might be described as heaven on earth and...unbelievably...I had it all to myself.  It’s a bit surreal to think that these falls could be here every night looking this beautiful and for the most part nobody is ever here to see them.  Natures beauty exists all the time whether we stop to notice or not...I guess I could think on that the rest of the night.  At this point I was just glad that Plan A had gone to also occurred to me that it is an absolute insult to refer to this beautiful place as “Plan B”.  I might have to just call this “Plan A” all the time even if I don’t intend to start with it.

After a few minutes enjoying the beauty and solitude of the falls at night I decided I needed to get to work.  I nosed my vessel onto the sheltered side of the gravel bar, secured my anchor and began unloading the boat.  

I decided that the campfire would come first.  I also realized that the wind had picked up which made fire location a bit tricky.  I’m no Eagle Scout...but I do have Eagle Scout I know that there is an art to starting a fire...which is why I cheat.  I had no plans of trying to start a “one match fire” tonight.  I had a boat...and a boat can carry in addition to packing in my own firewood I also brought my own kindling...and...wait for it...a small ziploc bag of match-light charcoal briquettes. can thank me for this wonderful idea.  I bask in your applause and adoration as I get my fire started quickly and easily.  

After getting the campfire started I made a few trips to unload the boat.  As I was getting the tent set up I realized that there was already a heavy dew setting shirt was damp from the last 10 minutes of being exposed.  As a precaution I donned a jacket and threw the rain fly on tent.  

After a few more minutes of toiling I had my camp set up...and you tech-haters better cover your ears for this next part...I realized I had enough cell coverage to get a text message out to the world from my little peninsula of paradise.  This would be the start of several texts that would anger rednecks from South Carolina to Tennessee and motivate at least one to skip work with me out of solidarity.  This had all the makings of a  small revolution.  

With my tent set up and the fire taking hold I got to really sit back and relax.  As nice as the moonlight boat ride was...this was an order of magnitude better.  A 50 foot waterfall and a crackling campfire provided the soundtrack to my evening.  I sat on my campstool and looked across the river to the Alabama side and I could see nothing but wilderness.  I’d never noticed before but you can’t see a single bit of manmade light from this spot on the river.  Things just kept getting better.  

Sitting in the glow of the campfire I began playing with my new toy...the BioLite stove.  I packed it full of twigs and got a pot of water boiling, then plugged my phone in to slowly charge while dinner was cooking.  Ahh...the joys of being a modern high-tech redneck.  While the water was boiling I grabbed a fishing rod from the boat and slowly fished my way around this gravelly point.  I didn’t expect to catch anything but it gave me something to do while waiting on dinner.  Each time I looked back at the camp it was a reminder of how lucky I am to be here.  A rolling campfire casts a glow that just screams “warmth” and “comfort”...two things that were increasing in importance as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped.  

A few minutes later my water was boiling and it was time to take on the role of camp chef.  This involved pouring the boiling water into a foil pouch.  The directions tell me that 15 minutes later I should be dining on Pad Thai Noodles.  Can you imagine?  I’m sitting alone on a gravel bar on the Tennessee River, right next to a campfire and a camp-stove is charging my iPhone and I’m eating Thai food?  Dude...what are the odds of this?

The rest of the evening is spent exchanging insults with friends who have cursed me for rubbing this spontaneous trip in their faces.  The sounds of the falls and the fire are now joined by the occasional vibration of my iPhone as their digital responses arrive in my analog campsite.  The first message I sent was a picture of my Woodsman's Pal machete next to the campfire.  “Where ARE you?” came the initial inquiry.   This from a friend who expected to see me at work the next morning.  After telling him my location and advising him that he wouldn’t see me at work the next day he sent a message that’s not fit to print here...though it made me smile.  

Their malevolent responses and insults came and went like the wispy clouds that crossed the sky and they brought me no shortage of entertainment as I poked at the logs in the campfire and pondered the next days fishing.  As the night went on the one thing that really hit me was that I need to bring the family back here next time.  As good as this place is by would be so much better with someone to share it.    
Those were my thoughts as I watched the last of the logs burn up.  

A hot bed of coals beckoned me to stay awake all night but the day was done.  I needed to get up and fish in the morning.  I finished up my campground chores by stowing my leftover food so the raccoons would’t get it, I doused the coals with lake-water, and after one more glance upward at the full moon I crawled into the tent.  At this point I was very glad I had put the rainfly on because the dew was so thick it looked like rain drops on top of the tent...thankfully the interior was bone-dry and comfortable.  

I laid there in solitude with the waterfall lulling me to sleep.  The sound of the falls changed constantly as the water took an ever-shifting path from the precipice above to the lake below.  These subtle changes caused the sounds to echo and shift back and forth as if the water were sometimes drawing nearer or moving further away.  Slowly and without a care in the world...I fell asleep.  

Call of the Redneck

For those unfamiliar with the sound of a Pterodactyl I urge you to Google the sound of a Heron.  This is a wonderfully graceful bird whose voice couldn’t possibly be more mis-matched with it’s visage.  Imagine a ballerina who sounded like Janice Joplin.  Or a small child who sounds like Jabba the Hut.  This is the type of mis-match I am trying to convey.  The heron is a stands tall and lean and graceful in the shallows as it stalks it’s prey.  With lightning speed it’s sleek body strikes...its a wonderful bird to of the few I would take the time to watch really.  But it’s voice sounds like a lifelong smoker hawking up the worst sort of lugie you could imagine.  And it was this sound that awoke me from peaceful slumber at exactly 3 AM.  

My first thought was “you’ve got to be kidding me.”  My next thought was that I need to go out there and run that thing off. they say “third time is a charm” third thought was that I have no neighbors...I’ll just lay here and yell at that thing to leave.  Which is what I did.  The call of the heron was answered that night by the call of the redneck.  In that little slice of paradise I described earlier it went like this:

All silent in paradise as gentle waves lapped at the shore and the waterfall remained engaged in it’s game of perpetual motion when a great heron silently glides through the dark of night and gracefully lands on a gravel bar totally unaware of the tent 20 yards away.

The bird feels the need to express something...perhaps it feels the need to shout about the sheer awesomeness of it’s surroundings so it says at the top of it’s lungs “GRAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGHHH!”

From my spot in paradise it sounded like the Jolly Green Giant just puked on my campfire.  Though I’ve heard it a million times before, I couldn’t believe the volume or the ugliness of that sound waking me up in the middle of the night.

After running through my options I called back to the bird at the top of my lungs “SHUT THE @$%# UP!!!”  The bird harfed another lugie as it took flight, and then made fading puking noises as he flew off into the night to bother someone was kind of a doppler effect of vomiting.  

I smiled at the fact that I could yell that as loud as I liked without waking or offending anyone.  That was one of the simple joys in life...and I was still laughing about it as the bird left and I fell back to sleep.

I awoke the next morning to low grey skies and powerful winds.  I decided to skip breakfast and get straight to fishing before the weather got worse.  I soon got a text message from a friend advising me to fish fast because nasty weather was soon to be upon me.  

As I broke camp and stowed everything back on the boat I noticed something.  At the edge of the gravel where the hillside starts to climb is where the first vegetation exists.  Under grey overcast skies and amid the dull browns of the late fall woods something blue popped out of the ground clutter.  I wandered over to it and was amazed to see a single blue flower growing here.  

Even to an ordinary redneck this would be something worth looking at...but to a married redneck it’s even better.  You anti-technology folks pay attention here...I took a picture of this beautiful blue flower and texted it to my wife at home.  She awoke to digital flowers from her husband who was away...BOOM...instant points with the wife.  Write that one down...use don’t even have to give me credit...but trust me, it will help you get away on more fishing and hunting expeditions.

I wish I could regale you with stories of huge large-mouth and stout fighting smallies but the fishing portion of the trip was a complete bust.  I motored over to the falls to get a quick picture and when I turned around to leave I was floored.  As I looked at the mouth of the cove it appeared as though the wind was pushing the lake like traffic down a busy highway.  There were 2 to 3 foot rollers and white caps rolling south (left to right) like a freight train.  A quick word about my boat is in order here.  You might recall that I said my boat sits really low to the’s not a big craft.  It’s 18.5 feet long and it doesn’t like rough water.  This water was rough...almost ugly...and my small craft certainly doesn’t like “ugly” water.  Luckily they were heading my way so it wouldn’t be too bad...but the trip back wasn’t going to be fast or fun.  

I caught one bluegill before leaving the protection of the waterfall cove...then hopped from cove to cove as I headed south.  I got a call from a buddy while in one of those coves who said that after seeing my pics from the prior night he decided to take a day off and go deer hunting.  We wished each other luck and then got back to our tasks.  

I left the lake with no luck on the fishing but the peace I found that night at the falls is as valuable a memory as any I’ve ever had on the water.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The good days are great

Last minute trip

I ran to the lake yesterday afternoon to see if I could catch a few fish before Hurricane Isaac brought rain to the entire region.  I was hoping that it would be better fishing than this past weekend.  Last weekend was a brutal grind…it was exceptionally slow and emotionally I wasn’t ready for another trip like that.

Around 3 PM I pointed my truck east and started my trip to the lake.  I had 100 miles of ground to cover on gently rolling highway that makes a straight line through the farmland of north Mississippi and southwest Tennessee.  In that 100 miles I passed through six or seven speed traps, got stuck in traffic due to an accident on the highway, was hit by a downpour of rain, and found out that the fuel dock at my marina was closed.  I took all of it in stride.  I stopped at an auto parts store and bought a gas can along my route, found a detour around the accident, and bought some non-ethanol gas for the boat right before I go to the marina.  Now all I needed was for the fish to bite.

The weather was partly cloudy and windy…and the parts that had clouds were big dark clouds.  I was also worried that the wind might have the lake chopped up with heaving rollers which would severely limit my options and likely my success as well.

I backed the boat out of its stall and eased around the other boats resting in their slips.  When I got around the end I could see the rock wall jetty that separates the marina from the main lake.  The wind was fairly strong but due to its direction it couldn’t really chop the lake up…another good sign.  I idled over to a large rock wall that forms one edge of the marina and planned to fish my way along it with a spinner-bait to see if I could get some action before I left the marina. 

I put my trolling motor on autopilot and pointed it parallel to the wall and started pitching a white and chartreuse spinner bait.  I made perhaps 20 casts with no action before I got to the mouth of the marina.  The wind was a lot stronger here as it blasted through the opening between the high rocky point on my left and the long rock-pile on my right.  I was now sitting right in the middle of the entrance to the marina…a gap maybe 60 yards wide and the fish finder was going nuts. 

Frenzy in the gap

With the fish finder going crazy I figured I better investigate the area thoroughly before moving on.  I had just cast my spinner-bait out toward the rock-pile jetty and was walking back to look at the sonar when I got hung on something.  “Dang” I thought…”I’m hung up on something deep”.  The wind was blowing, the water was moving, I was walking, and the boat was slipping backward in the water a bit so it was tough to tell exactly what was going on.  I pulled harder on my line trying to free it and it looked like the line was moving…but so many things were moving at the moment that it was tough to tell. 

I reeled against the line and it appeared to be coming in…but it was still heavy and still deep…and then the line really started moving.   It took off to the right, straight toward the “no wake” buoy in the middle of the entrance channel.  I wasn’t even out of the marina yet and I had a fish on the line!  That first fish fought like a champ…ultimately he was fighting way above his weight class.  He was only a 2.5 lb. largemouth but I’ve had bigger fish fight less.  It was a nice start to the evening trip.

Now I was really curious about this spot.  I had the lake entirely to myself at this point. One or two fishing boats had come in off the water but there was nobody left.  The parking lot was empty and the only company I had were these fish and about 60 boats lying empty in their slips. 

It was late afternoon, it was quiet, not too hot, and the wind removed any hint of humidity that might have been there.  Amidst this solitude the circus began.  I could now see schooling fish rising from the depths and racing each other to hit smaller fish on top.  The sonar was still going crazy with beeps indicating fish in the area and there were sporadic top-water strikes all around me. 

I saw a feeding frenzy on top not 15 feet from my boat so I put the spinner bait down and I grabbed a spinning reel rigged with a green Senko.  A Senko is the most plain-Jane lure ever created.  It is a stick of rubber designed to look like a Bic ball point pen…very unremarkable.  But the action of the lure turns out to be wonderful.  It floats horizontally, and if you give it a twitch it darts one way of the other and then resumes its horizontal float.  This makes it a very tempting target for a predator like a bass.  It’s long and skinny and helpless looking and it makes a huge tactical mistake every time it moves.  It bolts quickly which gets everyone’s attention (Look at me!  Look at me!) …and then it stops…which makes it ridiculously easy to kill.  This thing is about as tempting and vulnerable as bacon on an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Everyone likes to eat it and it can’t get away.

So I toss my Senko into the fray.  I was amazed to sit there and watch these powerful green fish racing alongside each other as they competed to see who ate first.  This was the food chain in action...survival of the fittest in real-time.  I watched as the four-fish group quickly hammered their target and then broke away from each other in different directions.  Once the crime had been committed they scattered…and one was moving directly toward my Senko.   He was making a gradual descent into the green depths as he approached my boat and when I thought the timing was right I twitched the Senko once…then twice…then BOOM.  He had it.  Fish on!  This was a smaller fish and I caught it just a few feet from the boat so there wasn’t much of a fight but it was fun and I had clearly stumbled onto something here.  I had just caught two fish on two different lures at the mouth of the marina. 

OK…that was cool.  But can I catch another one from this area?  This time I started casting toward the outside of the rock jetty.   I wanted to see how much of an area these fish were occupying.  After a few casts I hooked up with another hard fighting bass.  This was crazy.  I enjoyed the fight, the weather, the solitude, and the surroundings.   After landing him I quickly tossed him back started to think.

What was the deal?  Why was the fishing good right here, right now?  What are the conditions that are driving this feeding frenzy?  A quick survey of my surroundings gave me some clues.  The wind was pushing hard straight into the mouth of the marina.   This could be causing some current that is forcing bait fish into the area where the predators are stacked up and waiting on them.  As much as it’s a success story about bass fishing it could alternately be written as a shad’s worst nightmare…a strong current pushing you down an alley full of murderers bent on your destruction.  Yeah…that’s a small fish’s nightmare for sure but today it was a dream come true for me.

After giving some quick thought to the conditions that might be creating this frenzy I had to get back to fishing.  I picked up a rod loaded with a chatter-bait and I tossed it toward the cliff that formed the left side of the marina entrance.  The chatter-bait vibrates like a small jack-hammer as you wind it back to you.  It wobbles and vibrates and puts off some commotion that makes it easier for a bass to track it.  It feels kind of like you’re holding an electric toothbrush when you’re working it…until something hits it…which happened at that moment with a hard thud.  The small vibrating retrieve disappeared with a heavy thump and my line started cutting toward deeper water just outside the marina.  It was a good fight but this fish wasn’t getting away.  It was destined to see the inside of my boat just as the others had.  The fight grew a lot harder as I drew the fish toward the boat…which made me think it might be a smallmouth.  Closer and closer it came diving deep each time I got near it.  Ultimately I pulled a bronze colored smallmouth bass from the water.  Now I had another fact to ponder.  The largemouth were all caught to my right where the deep water meets the man-made rock-pile jetty.  This smallmouth was to my left where a natural cliff/rock wall fell to the water line leaving a scattering of small boulders lying about before descending to deeper water.   I filed that info and got back to work. 

Moving on

I wanted to see if I could catch some more smallmouths so I eased out of the marina and worked the natural shoreline to the left because it was the same boulder strewn landscape where I caught that last fish.  I worked methodically for the next 50 yards but I came up empty.  Now the plan was to go back and work the other direction…along the man-made rock-pile jetty.  

I figured I’d ease my way down 50 yards of that structure and then move on.  There were several other places I wanted to try out while the fish seemed to be in the biting mood.  I hated to leave a big school of biting fish but I really wanted to try some other places and techniques while the conditions seemed optimal. 

I got one strike as I moved down the rock-pile to the right of the entrance.  It wasn’t a really committed strike and nothing came from it.  After 50 yards I pulled up the trolling motor, sat down, fired up the big motor and started to idle away…but then I saw something on the sonar.  It looked like a big ball of baitfish sitting on the bottom with some other larger fish around them.  A fleeting thought turned into a plan and then into action as I killed the big motor and grabbed a rod holding a heavy jig.  Out of sheer curiosity I wondered if I could put a big jig down there in the middle of that action and draw a strike.  Normally I wouldn’t waste my time with such a move…after all I had just fished along the length of it with no luck.  But today I was brimming with confidence…I was on a roll.  Why not try it?  I pitched the huge jig with a tube trailer straight toward the rock-pile that was perhaps 40 feet behind me. 

After it hit the bottom I heaved it up twice and let if fall back down…nothing.  I heaved it up twice again and let it fall…BAM!  Before it hit the bottom something smacked it.  I heaved back on the rod and felt it load up heavy…something was on the other end now.   I was laughing as I brought this fish up.  It was clearly another largemouth bass and I could see my orange/brown lure in his mouth when he breached the surface trying to shake loose. I wanted to tell him that it was a waste of time fighting…today was my day and there was nothing he could do about it.

In just over half an hour I had used five different lures to catch five bass.  This was so easy it was like I was the king of these fish…I was ruling them…everything was working.  I was catching fish at will with any lure I chose to use.  At this point I felt as if I could just slam my hand down into the water grizzly-bear-style and snatch a fish up.   It was ridiculously good fishing.  It was the type of day that keeps you coming back for the rest of your life.  I was putting a bona-fide MMA type beat down on these fish.  I was dropping elbows on them, putting them in rear-choke-holds…heck I even put a fish in a Kimora…and that’s tough to do because fish don’t have arms.

After catching the fifth fish I sat down at the console of my boat with a huge smile on my face and I surveyed my surroundings.  Here I was on the Pickwick Lake, surrounded by high forested hills and bountiful waters.   A huge lumbering barge slowly churned its way toward me in the distance.  It was the only other boat on the water and it was perhaps 4 miles away.  The sight of that barge set against the tree-topped rocky cliffs behind it was a sight I could have sat and watched for an hour.  It’s serene.  I fish a lot of places and see a lot of things on the water…but when I see a barge pushing through the river channel with those hills behind it I know I’m home.  Sitting here alone catching fish, with no traffic, no phone, no e-mail…no stress. 

Decision Time

Now I had a decision to make.  Do I stay here at the marina and keep pounding these fish?  Or do I try to take advantage of these conditions by seeing where else I can catch them (and learning more lessons in the process)? 

Ultimately I decided that this was the perfect time to move on.  I’d caught a limit in a hurry which meant that as long as I didn’t get hit by the only other boat on the lake (the barge) the day was a complete success no matter what I did next.  I decided it was time to do some learning.  My next stop was a hump out in the main river channel.  The idea was to throw a heavy jig, wait for it to hit the bottom, and then hop it back to me along the bottom.

The first part of the plan went great.  I heaved that big jig down river toward the barge in the distance and then I watched my spool.  I watch the spool so I can tell when the jig has hit the bottom.  It will give line continuously and then stop when the jig makes contact with the lake floor.   Then I start my retrieve. 

I was casting into maybe 30 foot of water so I knew about how long it should take before I’d see the spool stop.  I’m looking straight down at my reel the whole time.  After about 10 or 15 seconds the spool is still going.   “Hmmm…maybe I’m stronger than I realize and I tossed it way out into deeper water.”

The spool continued.  I watched as the spool got to “new line”.  This was line buried so deep in spool that it had never seen the water on a normal cast.  I was shocked that this much line was leaving my reel.   What on earth could be going on?  I looked up more to make sure my trolling motor was holding my on my spot than anything else when I realized my line wasn’t where I cast it.  It was now far off to the right of my boat.  Could a fish have hit it on the way down?  No way…but I’d better set the hook just in case.  I yanked back hard on the rod but he jig just came toward me with no resistance. 

I was confused…so I figured I’d start over.  Again I cast downriver toward the barge and again the reel gave waaaaaay too much line. Then it dawned on me…this is current…a very strong current.  Pickwick is a power generating lake with a hydro-electric dam at each end.  When they let water out they can use one or more generators…the more they open the more water they “pull” from the lake.   This was more current than I had ever seen on the lake.  I’ve got a heavy jig with a tube trailer on my line and it simply cannot reach the bottom in this current.  It is being swept sideways and past me on every cast.

Now a light has really gone off in my head.   The fishing has been so good today because all of this current.  The combination of the wind and the current is changing the playing field.  Now I just need to read the landscape to find places where the baitfish will be pushed…and I’ll find the bass. 

With the puzzle finally solved I set out in search of places “like” the marina entrance.  I wanted places creek mouths with deep water nearby and potential “slack water” areas where fish could stage...and the wind had to be pushing into the creek mouth.   Basically every creek mouth for the next four miles should work…I just had to hit them to see if the fish were home. 

All good things…

It was getting late and the sun had just dropped behind a huge cloud bank on the western horizon.   As it did so it set the edges of the cloud ablaze with a fiery orange fringe that made the cloud itself seem impossible grey.  I had to work faster than the sun was dropping if I was going to get to all the places I wanted to hit.   The only bad feeling I had on this trip was when the sun started getting low.  It was a timer that couldn’t be slowed and it was reminding me in the starkest terms than my great fishing day would soon be over. 

I hit the gas and went to my next spot.  Despite the wind, the water was still pretty smooth and I flew up river with the water rushing by and new sights coming into view and just the most unbelievably comfortable weather you could ask for.   Spot after spot I checked with not much success.  The final spot I had picked out was just covered up with fish.  The sonar was beeping like a terrorist going through a metal detector and I was really excited that the plan was working.  Before I could make many casts it was dark.  I have no problem fishing after dark but I had told the wife I’d be home to hang out with her by 9:30 and I had to leave now to make that happen.

I left with a big smile on my face and nobody around to see it.   I had a short 2 mile run back to the marina but I could see 6 miles downriver.  I saw no one.  It seemed as though I had the entire 50 mile long lake entirely to myself.    I flew along in complete peace making only one stop right there at the mouth of the marina for “one more cast”.  I pitched a few more times for good measure but nobody wanted to play. 

I put the boat back in its slip, jumped in the truck and drove home victorious.  This morning the wife asked me how I slept and I said that I slept great…unlike the fish who slept with shame and fear and embarrassment if they slept at all.  Oh yeah…and sore mouths.  The trash talk really never stops when you’re having a good day. 

In fishing, as in life itself, you don’t get too many days like this so you just have to sit back and enjoy them when you can.  Tomorrow it will be the fish’s turn to gloat but today…today it’s mine. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Stripers in Vegas

I feel like a man who’s been away for a year.  I just awoke from 10 hours of sleep in my own bed and I still feel tired.  The last month of travelling has been hectic.  New York City for three days, California for four days, and I just capped it off with a three day trip to Las Vegas.  In the past four weeks I think I’ve been in 12 airplanes, 6 airports, 5 hotels, 2 homes of friends, rental cars, cabs, and a conference hall…oh yeah…and I leave again tomorrow morning on another plane for more rental cars, hotels, and conference halls.

So here I am, sitting on my couch, steadily drinking coffee and trying to piece together every moment of the past 24 hours.  I just returned from my first ever trip to Las Vegas.  Before you start thinking of the cliché “Vegas trip” of a booze-laden outing that consists of crawling from one bar to the next, let me point you in the right direction.  This was a trip designed to abruptly transition from business to fishing.  There was no drinking or gambling in the schedule.  The adventure we were looking for was far away from the bright flashing lights of “The Strip.”  Our biggest gambling losses would be the money we spent on gas and bait…and even if we caught nothing I could hardly think of those as “losses”.  No matter how this trip ended I’d have spent a good bit of time on a new lake with an old friend…I was winning no matter what the fish did.

Before we go any further let me rewind the tape to give you an idea of how this came together.  A few weeks ago my good friend Tony told me that he would be attending the conference in Vegas.   As soon as he registered for the conference he called and told me that he thought he could line up a fishing trip for us on Lake Mead.  “Great” I thought…I was scheduled to speak at the conference but this now became the main reason for going. 

Tony is one of my Monday morning redneck e-mail pals.  Every Monday the e-mails start flying asking “how’d you do this weekend?”  Everyone exchanges tales and pictures of adventure if they have them.  It’s a fun way to stay in touch.  Tony is the author of some of the most adventurous tales on the Monday morning circuit.  He’s up for anything, and I have yet to learn of an obstacle that can stop the man from hunting or fishing.  The only time I know that he has had to cancel a trip is when his canoe tipped over and dumped him and his gear into an icy river.  He said he had to call the trip off so he didn’t die of hypothermia but I suspect he would have risked it if he still had his gun…it went to the bottom of the river when the canoe tipped over. 

He tells of days when he has had to break ice at the boat ramp to get on to the lake.  There are stories of pulling his boat on church trips “just in case” he gets a chance to slip away to a lake that he knows is nearby.  And after watching Tony this weekend not even bat an eye in the face of a 25-30 MPH wind forecast I realized that he is like a black lab or a retriever…if there is water nearby…he will be there…and he’s not coming off until he’s dead tired or someone literally drags him away.  He might be the ultimate fisherman. 

So Tony is the man who set up this trip.  He has a good friend just south of Vegas who has fished Lake Mead for 20 years or so.  The striped bass population is supposed to be very robust.  Our goal is to leave the conference at the Mirage Casino, head down to Henderson Nevada, and do some fishing.  Our plans have been a little vague as so how much fishing we’d be doing.  We’d basically have 17 hours before I have to leave for the airport.  Plan A was to fish just Saturday morning…meaning we’d rise at 0230, on the lake by 0300, and fish til 0900).  Shortly after Plan A was formulated, someone hatched Plan B…which was to fish Friday afternoon, head back to the house around 11 PM to catch a few hours of sleep, then head back out at 0230 to implement the aforementioned “Plan A”.  I don’t know what you really call that….a hybrid plan?  I guess it doesn’t really matter because before long another plan was created…this one had us hitting the lake Friday afternoon and spending the night on the boat…then we could fish until I had to leave for the airport.  The planning process reminded me of a group of 9-year olds planning something.  The plan started with something great and just kept getting more outrageous every time there was a chance to make a change.

I had no idea which of the plans would be executed but I was excited and along for the ride.  When we got to Johns house he gave us some bad news.  The wind was forecast to be at 25 MPH for most of the day and late into the night.  My heart kind of sank.  I have the same size boat that John has and when I see winds over 15 MPH I cancel my trip…no questions asked.  I figured our afternoon plans were sunk.  When I glanced to my left I saw that Tony’s expression hadn’t changed a bit…he was totally down with hitting the lake in 25 MPH winds.  I don’t think he cared at all…he wanted to go fishing and if we died in the process I guess he was cool with that…this was tenacity like I’ve not seen in a fisherman before.  I’ve never been striper fishing before but I started thinking that this must be some kind of great fishing if we are really talkin’ about taking at 18.5 foot boat out onto a big lake with high winds. 

After running down some essentials like fuel, ice, drinks and snacks we hit the lake.  We hadn’t solidified our plans…we still had no idea how long we’d be out.  In typical 9-year old fashion…we’d just figure it out once we got on the lake. 

Lake Mead

For those of you who have not been to Lake Mead let me take a moment to tell you about this place.  The lake is situated just a few miles outside of Las Vegas but it might as well be in a different world.  It is a deep and clear lake that sits in the middle of a rugged and mountainous desert landscape.  I fish in the south so I’m used to seeing lots of trees on the shoreline and covering the rolling hills that surround my local lakes.  Lake Mead has no trees.  It’s nothing but rocks and mountains, and craggy gullies literally as far as you can see.  There are the occasional clumps of trees around a homestead or campground but for the most part it is barren of plant life. The colors here are all various shades of tan and black right up to where they meet the blue sky.  It is a stunning landscape…beautiful in its rugged simplicity.

Waiting for my first Lake Mead striper

In the middle of this dramatic moonscape sits Lake Mead.  It is a very deep lake by my standards…in many places our depth finder was reading over 200 feet of water below us.  In my part of the world 50 feet is deep…and you never fish in the few areas that go down to 90 feet.  I’d be lost fishing this lake by myself.   Luckily for us we had Tony’s good friend John as our guide.

Captain John

John is one of those guys who when you meet him you like him immediately.  If you’re an outdoorsman you’re going to feel like you’ve known him half your life.  He’s an easy going guy with a ton of great stories, a terrific sense of humor, and a depth of knowledge on local history that was enough to answer every question we could throw at him.  To give you an idea of how great a guy he is…the local high school named their gymnasium after him…and it wasn’t one of those deals like at a college where the name goes to the guy with the most money.  He’s just a great guy, and he has volunteered to take us out and show us his lake and we couldn’t be any more excited. 

First strike

We hit the water late Friday afternoon with a plan to hit a spawning flat in 50 feet of water where John had caught a few fish earlier in the day.  We pulled up on a place just off Boulder Beach, tossed out our anchor, and John started chumming the water with a mixture of corn, anchovies, and shad.  If we got stranded I guess we could survive a few days on the chum alone if we really had to.  The fishing was slow starting out…and for a change the weathermen were correct…it blew every bit of 25 MPH while we were there.  It blew hard enough that our anchor lost its grip and we kept drifting off our spot. 

I could see the concern on Johns face.  He really wanted to put us on some fish and he was working really hard to make it happen but it just wasn’t looking good.  We kept reassuring him that we were having fun regardless….but the stress was obvious…he wanted to catch fish. 

Second strike

After a short while of being blown around like a paper sack in the wind John made a call to run down the lake to a more protected spot where they had laid into some catfish that morning.  With the wind at our stern it was easy going and we made good speed over deep water.  Along the way he pointed out local landmarks on the lake like Black Island, Battleship, and Sand Island.   There was also a big pumping station that pulled water for the city that looked basically like a tall oil rig.  It was about 100 yards high and perhaps 150 yards offshore with a bridge leading back to the top of a tall cliff where the pipeline started.  We ran past the pumping station, weaved our way between a few tall islands that jutted up from the depths, then turned left and made our way down past Sand Island and into a place called the Vegas wash.  The terminology was a little different than what I was used to.  They called it a “wash” but it looked like a “creek” to me…a creek with no trees and surrounded by a moonscape but still…a creek.

We set up again and John chummed the water with our emergency food supply of anchovies, shad, and corn while Tony and I waited dutifully with our bottom bouncing rigs.  We were essentially tight-lining shad and anchovies with an egg sinker in 50 feet of water.  We’d see schools of fish cross the depth-finder, with occasional swarms of fish so thick that you’d think it impossible to not catch something…but nothing hit.  We got a hit here or there but nothing was happening.  Just before sunset Tony’s rod bent, he snapped it up, and he had our first fish of the day.   It was fun to watch him battle our first striper to the surface…we were no longer getting skunked.  Success was now on our boat. 

Over the next hour or so we watched a perfect sunset turn the sky to dusky hues of orange and gold.  It simultaneously turned the western horizon into a gorgeous jagged-silhouette of a desert sundown and set the slopes of the mountains to our east awash in a soft golden glow as their peaks fell from great heights along sharp cliffs and ridge-lines that ultimately slipped away into the depths of Lake Mead. 

With sunsets like this, who cares if the fish are biting?

As we watch the sun set it became obvious that most of the fish were stacked up on Tony’s side of the boat.  We’d catch one here and one there but almost all of the bites were on the port side of the boat.  It’s one of those things that make you think the guy was just born to fish.  We are sitting side-by-side…literally one foot apart…and the few fish we are catching are on his hook like a dog on a bone.  Ultimately we caught maybe 8 fish in that spot.  From his demeanor you could tell it was far fewer than John was expecting.  

It was now dark and the little blip in the action that we enjoyed at sunset had abruptly stopped.  We’d had no action in a long time and John began to ponder our plan.  He was weighing two big issues that were staring us in the face.  The first was that the fish simply weren’t biting.  The second was that the wind hadn’t died down at all.  This was a tough set of factors to sort out because on the one hand it made a great deal of sense to call it a night, head back to the house and get some sleep.  But on the other hand we had the weather, which was going to serve as a huge obstacle to getting home. 

The wind was supposed to have died down by now…but it hadn’t dropped a bit.  It had now been blowing at 25 MPH down that lake for hours…which turned the surface of Lake Mead into an angry, heaving mess.  It was also pitch black because the moon hadn’t come up, we had big rollers to deal with, and the stretch we had to cover is one that the locals call “cape fear” due to the way it behaves in the wind. 

I looked alternately at John, who sincerely thought that leaving was the best option, and Tony, who it generally takes a hurricane to dislodge from a lake.  I was a guest so I was up for anything.  Ultimately John decided we’d head for the boat ramp. 

The trip back was an interesting one.  The wind was high, the waves were high, and the going was slow.  A lot of water came over the front of the boat and in a way it was like a slow motion shower on a roller coaster.  John took the brunt of it as he was piloting the boat and didn’t have the luxury of hiding behind the windshield like I did.  Every 30 seconds or so it was like someone took a 5-gallon bucket of water and just threw it in his face.  To his credit…that wind-whipped water lashing at him from the dark never seemed to dampen his spirits…he just chugged along with a smile on his face…I wish I had one-tenth of that guys patience.  After a while we made it around the “cape fear” area, we saw the water pumping station that made such a great landmark, and calmer water made high speeds possible.  We jumped on the gas and headed for home. 

You'd never know the boat was about to sink from looking at Tony

I don’t know what time we got back to the house but I think it got in the bed around 11:45 with a wake up time of 3:30 AM.   If I was lucky I’d get just over three and a half hours of sleep.  This fishing-pace was making our Las Vega casino-pace look like an old folk’s convention.  At the casino our lives were never in danger and we were getting at least six hours of sleep…this fishing was an adventure.

Wake up

3:30 came very early. It was made earlier still because of the cultural differences between Nevada and Tennessee.  In Tennessee if someone wakes up at 3:30 in the morning the first thing they do is make coffee…there are no exceptions to this rule.  You make enough coffee to last until you get to your fishing spot, or until you can reach the first gas station….where you get more coffee.

Today there was no coffee…and nobody mentioned coffee…so like a redneck, kung-fu, zen-master I made like water and just went with the flow.

Third strike?

In no time at all we were back on the water.  Our plan was to head back to the beach we started at yesterday afternoon.  The wind was calm and John was able to put us right on a spot he thought would work.  It was getting light out and the pending sunrise was turning the desert landscape from shades of shadow and grey to lighter colors that allowed us to slowly make out details on the shore. 

Fishing buddies always look wise when set against a sunrise.

Soon enough John was chumming and Tony and I sat monitoring our two rods for any sign of activity.  The first 15 minutes saw our enthusiasm cool a bit.  We saw a few fish on the graph but there was no activity.  After sitting for 20 minutes with no activity John again showed signs of stress…he really wanted to put us on some fish. 

Even when viewed through the fog of sleep deprivation the backdrop was just as beautiful as it was the night before.  The sun was rising over the eastern peaks and there were a few signs of life on the shore.  Suddenly one of Tony’s lines bent over.  It was a deep bend in the rod that caused him to instinctively set the hook.  The first fight of the day was on.  A minute or two later he landed a beautiful striper that might have weighed three pounds.  The timing was perfect, our confidence had just begun to get shaky and John had just begun talking about moving to our secondary spot when Tony got hit. 

A few minutes later another rod bent over…this one in a rod holder at the front of the boat.  BAM!  It jerked down hard.  It’s funny to watch the process.  The rod bends over hard and the guy on that side of the boat has a lag time between recognizing that a fish is hitting, then he has to get to his feet, then he has to sprint 10 feet or so across a crowded boat to get to the rod.  By then you have to hope the fish is still on.  Tony made it in time and caught another fish.  Two fish in just a few minutes was a good start. 

It started to look like it was going to be another day when Tony’s side of the boat got all the action when my line got hit heavy.  I lifted the rod tip and I felt the weight of the fish and started reeling hard…then it went slack…he spit it out.  Tony was still in the lead.  I lost a few fish that way over the course of the morning but we were starting to get some real action. 

As I was explaining how the fish spit the bait out Tony got hit again.  He quickly landed our third or fourth fish of the morning.   The graph showed a near constant procession of fish crossing underneath us.  It was very promising.  John kept chumming the water and handing us rods when they got hit at the front of the boat.  It kind of crept up on us but before long it was a running-riot on that boat. 

There were times when we had three or four fish hooked at a time with lines crossed and three guys handing fish to each other over-and-under the others lines as we tried to untangle them.  It was like a redneck jigsaw puzzle. 

Bam, another fish.  BAM!  Another one.  Rods were deeply bent, drags were screaming, we no longer had time to ask “you got one?”  It was a crazy pace.   Gone were the comments about how pretty the sunrise was or how great the mountains looked this time of day…there was no time for it.  Now it was all business…it was fast and it was furious.  John had summoned a violent gang of fish to gather under our boat and they were absolutely crushing everything we threw at them.  We’d unhook them, throw them in the cooler, and re-bait as fast as we could.  It was moving so fast that we hardly stopped to take any pictures. 

At one point we had a moment that to me seemed like a scene out of a war movie when someone announces that they are out of ammo and everyone stops in the midst of the chaos, looks at each other, and tries to come to terms with the significance of what they’ve just heard.  Tony turned to us and announced “’we’re almost out of room in the cooler.”  Everyone stopped and looked at each other.  Someone mentioned using the live-well, it was a great idea…and we all went back to hammering the stripers. 


What happened next surprised us…John began openly contemplating leaving early.  He was deeply conflicted about pulling us off a bite like this.  First of all, he’s not the kind of guy that would ever pull off a bite like this…it just doesn’t happen every day.  Secondly I thought that maybe he feared a mutiny if he tried it…maybe not so much from me as I was just a guest…but I don’t know how Tony might react to such an idea.  He’s a laid back guy but crazy things happen in a feeding frenzy like this.  

At one point I had just put a fish in the cooler, John was reeling one in at the front of the boat, and I looked at Tony on my right and he was holding two bent-over rods.  He had two stripers on and no way to bring either of them in.  He handed me a rod and we both began fighting these fish to the boat.  I looked over at him with a smile and a look of disbelief and he was looking back with the same expression.  Here we were on Lake Mead absolutely hammering dozens of stripers.  His plan had come together in a major way. 

At some point John said let’s give it five more minutes.  That would give us time to clean the fish and get me to the airport in time for my flight.  I can’t recall how many more fish we caught in that five minutes but it was enough to convince me that we could have continued catching them all day at that rate.  Picturing it from a side-view it was a frenzy on top of a frenzy.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of fish were schooling frantically below us…and 50 feet above them floated a boat with three sleep-deprived rednecks working rods and reels as fast as they could while the action lasted.  We boated 43 stripers in two hours that morning...that combined with the eight fish from the night before put us over fifty fish our first time on Lake Mead.  It was an unbelievable day on the water. 


To John and Tony I say “thanks”.  Thanks for introducing me to Lake Mead and to striper fishing.  After our trip to the cleaning station the guys tried to force some filets on me that I could take home.  The logistics of flying with fresh fish weren’t going to work for me that day but I assured them that there is no amount of fish they could put in my carry-on luggage that would equal the amount John had already given me by teaching me how to fish for stripers. 

If you ever get to Vegas, leave the strippers in town and make a trip to Lake Mead for stripers you’ll never forget.