I took off mid-week for a much needed day on the lake. As I pulled into the state park, a whitetail fawn bounded across the road ahead of me. “A good sign” I thought to myself. A few minutes later as I readied the boat for launch I heard a roar approaching from somewhere, it seemed to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. The only thing I was sure of was that the parking lot was getting much, much louder; then there was a great ripping sound as something tore the air. I looked up and a Navy jet trainer streaked across the sky just a few hundred feet over my head. He was banked hard to the right, standing it on it’s wingtip, and slipping sideways through the air as he pulled a hard turn. In a flash and a roar he was gone, blasting up the river. Another good sign, if the fish get too ornery I’ve got air support, no way this day ends well for the fish.
I launched the boat, got my sonars and camera dialed in, then headed south to see what I could see. It was a gray day, with dark, dull colors muting the hillsides. Most of the leaves had fallen already, exposing the forest floor and the ridge lines. The wind was out of the south but it was cool enough to need a jacket, rain was in the forecast.
There were a few coves I’d hit just off the main river channel to start the day. These coves are surrounded by steep, tall hills. From a distance these hills look like huge loaves of bread, lined up one after another. The steep, forested hills roll along the bank like that as far as you can see. In between many of those hills are coves that hold all manner of wildlife. Some of the coves are a few hundred yards wide and are big enough to hold a marina. Others are narrow affairs that lead you on a tight, twisty, watery path to the junction where the cove meets the creek that feeds it.
My first stop was a cove in which I sometimes camp. There’s a steep rocky cliff on the left side of the entrance, and a wide gravelly bar on the right with steep hills all around. The mouth of the cove this time of year is only a few yards wide. Once you pass through that gap you enter a very protected cove perhaps 60 yards wide that doglegs to the left after about 150 yards.
It was just after noon and I didn't expect the fishing to pick up until after 3 PM so just then I was focused on running the camera. Perhaps there would be something interesting to photograph in the cove. As soon I killed the throttle to idle through the mouth of the cove I saw movement. There, in the back-right side of the cove...coyotes! In the middle of the day I just bumped into a small pack of coyotes hunting along the riverbank.
There’s no telling what type of lunch a coyote might luck into here. A dead fish? A slow moving snake in the cool weather? Squirrel? Chipmunk? I’ve seen them all here, and clearly the coyotes have too. They don’t seem alarmed by my presence but they leave in a bouncing trot, following each other then splitting up and coming back together as they make their way around the cove. I got a few pictures but between the weather and the distance I didn’t get any GREAT shots.
The coyotes drifted off through the trees in the back of the cove, and I thought I might be able to intercept them at the waters edge one cove to the south. I eased the boat out of the cove and hit the throttle. The boat jumped up onto plane and I was cruising fast at the base of a series of small cliffs that drop from the hills above. I looked up at the ridge line that was slipping past me and wondered if I could climb up there and cut those dogs off in the woods for a picture. I quickly realized the futility of that plan. There were almost no leaves left on the trees, which meant every one of them was lying on the ground. There was absolutely no way to "sneak" across dried leaves. It would be like trying to "sneak" across a floor covered in Rice Krispies. If it had been raining the past few days I'd have had a chance because wet leaves are quiet leaves, but as it was, my only option was a water approach.
A minute or two later I turned right and into the large mouth of the next cove. This was perhaps 100 yards wide and 300 deep. Way in the back I thought I saw bass busting baitfish. Water was splashing everywhere in a classic sign of aquatic carnage. Then I noticed something small on top of the water. It wasn't bass, it was ducks. These birds were jumpy and it wasn't even duck season yet. I was several hundred yards away and they spooked. I was in the middle of the cove which meant they'd have to pass within 50 yards of me to get out. They were slow climbers and all of them passed on the left...Mergansers. I grabbed a few pics then got back to fishing.
While I waited on the coyotes I made a few sonar runs looking for balls of baitfish. That's the key this time of year, find the bait and you find the bass. It's not unusual on Pickwick to find clouds of baitfish that are hundreds of yards long and fill the water column from top to bottom. So far though I was only seeing small pockets of fish on the graph. I could tell there were larger fish feeding on the bait, but it didn't look like largemouth. I made a few casts in the middle of the cove just to be sure and pulled out a yellow bass. Not what I was looking for but it confirmed my suspicions. A few casts later I gave up on seeing the coyotes, they had a lot of options and it didn't seem like they were making a bee line for my location.
I left that cove and pushed further south and east, toward the mouth of Bear Creek. Along the way I bumped a pair of bald eagles from a tall pine on the waters edge. They were perched high, and when they left they stayed high. I had nowhere near enough lens to get a good picture of them at that distance but it was cool to see. If I'd had a 600mm lens I may have had a shot, but a Canon 600mm lens runs around $11,000 and a picture of those birds isn't worth near that much to me. I shrugged and let them be.
I continued south and east. I knew the wind was out of the south, and Bear Creek runs more or less north/south. I knew I'd hit some wind when I turned the corner into that creek. I was not wrong. As I rounded the point and entered the creek the water was rough. I was not going to make good speed in this water. When I fully rounded the corner all I could see was an angry gray sky and white-capped rollers that looked to get higher as you gazed deeper into the creek. It actually looked like the water was "taller" in the distance. The wind had whipped the water into a long series of increasingly tall waves. I could literally see the future and it was going to be rough and wet.
I had about four miles of this before I found shelter in a cove. The bow was beating down on the waves and water was flying everywhere. Without a rain jacket you'd be soaked to the core. I passed a huge flock of Coot who looked as though they'd given up. They were all floating in a huge group up against the rocks where the wind had blown them. They were bobbing up and down as the waves passed under them. Half were visible at any given time because the other half disappeared into the trough of a wave. If they were smart they'd have gotten out and walked to a better place.
A short time later i found shelter in a wide cove that starts with 30 foot cliffs, but gives way to a wide gravelly bay, and then to mud as the lake meets the woods in the back of the cove. There were signs of life, but despite a disciplined approach I didn't manage to catch anything. I got back on the gas and pushed down to the next cove.
Now a light, cold rain was falling. The water and air temps were both in the mid 50's, and with a cold wind blowing you could get uncomfortable in a hurry if you weren't dressed properly. Anyone can enjoy a blue sky, sunshiney day at the lake, but it takes a special type of person to stand alone in a cold, driving rain, on a gray, windy day and still be having fun. One might call that type of person an idiot, I call him an outdoorsman.
I slowly eased deeper into the cove. A hundred yards away it dead ends into a draw between the hills that surround me. Above and to my right I saw movement. A hawk was silently gliding over the hillside looking for a victim. He pulled up sharply, slowed, and landed on a branch high up the hill. Patiently, he waits. I cast again into the cold drizzle. As I slowly retrieve my lure I hear a pair of squirrels on the hill to my left. They bark and chatter as they run, making all kinds of noise on that hill. Apparently I’m not the only one who hears the commotion. The hawk pitched out of his tree and soared across the cove, taking up a perch near the squirrel fracas. I smiled and went back to fishing.
I don’t think the hawk ever got ahold of the squirrels because I never heard any screaming. As you might imagine, if you get attacked by a flying predator 20 times bigger than you, there’s going to be some screaming going on. Anyone who’s seen Lord of the Rings knows that much.
Under trolling motor power I pointed the boat toward the tan gravelly bank that meandered along the foot of the hills all the way to the mouth of the cove. It was quiet. I had only seen one other person in the past few hours. I stood there alone, surrounded by the muted colors of a wet fall day. Dark leaves covered dark hills under a dark gray sky that was spitting rain. The temperature was falling and I noticed the visibility was getting lower due to the rain. It was like the entire world was brown and gray, but in a beautiful, deeply saturated way. Somewhere behind me a Loon called. The Loon has an almost prehistoric sounding call. I've heard it described as "haunting" and it's a fitting description. It could easily be a sound effect from a Jurasic Park movie.
About this time a Loon popped up from under the water right next to my boat. I'm talking maybe 10 yards from me. Loons are a diving bird, they float around in loose groups and they dive for fish. This one had been working the bank and just popped up beside me. As slowly as I could, I put my pole down and eased toward the camera bag. I couldn't imagine that bird would sit still while I was walking around right next to him, but he did. I made it to the camera and snapped a few pics. Then he dove, and popped up on the other side of the boat where I got a few more pics. He dove once more and I started counting to see how long he would stay down. At the 30 second mark I started looking behind me, I figured he had to have popped up somewhere but here was nowhere in sight. "How long can that thing hold it's breath?" Still I counted. Just past the one minute mark I saw him pop up about 100 yards down the bank! He stayed under far longer than I thought he would have, and he covered a lot of ground along the way.
If you look close in the picture below you can still see water beaded up on his head from diving.
Sadly I caught nothing in that cove. I motored down to the next one and tried again. The wind had died down by that point and the water was getting calm. Another eagle swooped by and perched in a tree at the back of the cove. Even from a distance you can see their hulking frames in the tree. It cuts a menacing figure in the woods. Always sitting, always waiting, ready to strike. I made a note of his location and planned to beach the boat and stalk close with the camera if I didn't find some fish soon.
I was moving toward the back of the cove at perhaps half a mile an hour, just a really slow pace. I was casting in all directions trying to find some action when I saw more activity at the back of the cove. A flock of turkeys had come out of the hills and was pecking around by the waters edge. Unbeknownst to them they were also just about under the tree I'd seen the eagle land in earlier. I got the camera ready. It would be astounding to witness an eagle pouncing on a large turkey. I was ready with the camera but the eagle had apparently already left, ain't that the way it goes? As soon as you leave your spot and your quarry comes trotting by.
I came up empty handed again. I had one more trick up my sleeve. It was about 4 PM and I was on my way to my favorite spot. If I couldn't catch fish there then they just weren't catchable. I learned in short order that it just wasn't meant to be. On my best, most productive spot I got skunked. There was no bait in the area, the sonar made the place look like a ghost town.
I stood alone on the bow, surveying my surroundings. The rain was coming harder now, and at a slight angle driven by the wind. The world was quiet. The only sounds I could hear were the rain falling on my jacket, and the lonesome sound of a distant train horn. The solitude and the rain were washing away the stress, and peace was sinking into my soul like rainwater into the ground. A pelican flew by.
At that point I decided to start making my way back to the truck. I'd check a few more places, just to see what I could see, but the writing was on the wall. This was not going to be a memorable day of fishing.
By the end of the day I’d seen deer, a dozen turkey, five bald eagles, a pack of coyotes, a huge flock of coot, herons, loons, flocks of ducks, and pelicans.
I caught only a single fish that day, but I consider it a success. As Thoreau once said "Some men fish their whole lives without knowing it is not really the fish they are after." It's about peace, solitude, connection. It's about so much more than the fish.