Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Trout and eternal salvation

A few years ago, my parents found a wonderful home-away-from-home nestled in central Arkansas. It’s just a little over one hundred miles from their house in Memphis, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. My father says the world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Heber Springs, Ark.* And, I believe him.

Sugarloaf Mountain, a 690-foot monument to erosion, looms over the front yard of their cabin, but it’s the backyard in which I love the most. It’s a most pleasant space, offering peace and privacy, but with a soundtrack supplied by the diverse orchestra of nature. It’s a piece of heaven delicately carved out of sandstone and dirt, of flora and fauna … where eventually all things merge into one. And, the Little Red River runs through it.*

I traveled west for Thanksgiving. Mom, Dad, Tim and Bumper the Wonder Dog were all waiting for me when I pulled into the driveway in Heber Springs after a surprisingly-easy, six-and-a-half-hour drive from middle Tennessee.

In my family, there is no clear line between eating turkey and fly-fishing.* In fact, the big Thanksgiving feast was sandwiched between trips down to the river, as we cast nymphs and streamers at the resident rainbow and brown trout.

Until recently, the Little Red River was home of the world-record brown trout. While the record has been broken, this gem of a tailwater still holds some amazing fish. In the fall, the river reveals some of its true trophies. It’s a time when the leaves drop from the trees, the weather vacillates between good and downright horrible and the brown trout begin their annual spawning routine.

Fishing during the spawn carries with it some ethical angling responsibility. Brown trout are at their most vulnerable, leaving their darker hideouts for the brazen shallows of the shoals. Their redds are easily identifiable in the clear stream, and they’re patrolled by some truly enormous fish. We were certainly haunted by these waters*, but we chose to leave these fish alone and to concentrate on deeper runs and less gullible trout.

Over the next couple of days, we spent hours on the water … and spent even more time talking with one another and catching up on the details of our lives.

My Mom is wonderful in so many ways, not the least of which is her ability to cook. She fed us well, culminating with the Thanksgiving dinner – which featured the traditional turkey and thousands and thousands of calories disguised as delicious side dishes. She loves her boys, and adores the fact that when they’re not sitting in front of the TV watching football, they’re fishing in the backyard, safely within earshot of her trademark whistle. Her keen eye is perpetually fixed on the river, sighting partially submerged trees and rocks, ever worrying about a quiet, but dangerous, rise on the river (But, her diligence has saved us on more than one occasion). Dad was his usual self, spending hours fishing, and even more at his fly-tying desk to try to duplicate the insects he observed streamside (to him, all good things – trout as well as really well-tied flies – come by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy*). He also tutored me on his home river, letting me in on several of its secrets and making sure to position me for success. It’s probably habit for him now. My brother Tim hurled rooster-tails in lieu of casting the long-rod, strummed his guitar, opined on various political issues and fed us a steady diet of quotes from South Park and Family Guy. And, Bumper? Well, he was Bumper, which was awesome, as usual.

On the final day of the visit, Dad and I worked together in the late afternoon to solve the fishing puzzle, identifying an approach to reverse what had been a pretty tough day to that point. The final cast of the Thanksgiving weekend resulted in the biggest fish of the trip – a fat, pre-spawn 23-inch brown trout.

Like all great visits, this one seemed way too short. As I pulled out of the driveway and waved goodbye to my family, I was truly thankful – not only for the fantastic holiday, but also for the many things of which I’ve been blessed. Seven hours later, in the half-light of middle Tennessee, all existence faded to a being with my soul and memories of the Little Red River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.*

* Apologies to Norman MacLean for borrowing and mangling many of his most famous lines.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Compleat Angler

Last year, while spending fall break with family friends down in the Tampa Bay area, my nine-year-old nephew, Easton, went fishing. Just like his father, Easton is a fishing fanatic. While his Dad has probably taught me more about angling than anyone else I know, Easton will most likely soon surpass my knowledge of the sport and begin mentoring me in the near future.

As evidence of that, on that warm October day, Easton grabbed his fishing rod – not Dad’s and not his older brother Parker’s, but his rod – and launched a cast into the gentle surf of the Gulf of Mexico. While his fishing companions went with shrimp for their bait of choice, Easton rigged up a feisty pinfish, hooking his bait through the lips to allow for maximum movement.

While the rest of the family and friends sat on the beach, enjoying the nice day and trading various stories of vacations gone by, Easton stared at his line, which bounced softly in the waves. He was in the zone. I’ve seen him do this. While most of his waking minutes are frantically spent in energetic bursts of activity, Easton can be impressively focused on fishing. He’s only nine, but fish already fear him.

Promptly, the pinfish began to panic. Easton noticed his line shake, then watched the tip of his rod deliberately nod to the ocean. He slowly gripped the cork ahead of his reel and carefully pulled the rod from the sand-spike. When he did, the line became taught and zipped through the rod’s guides, making a whistling noise that betrayed the presence of a large fish at the terminal end.

Easton held the line tight, as the circle hook set into the fish’s mouth and he listened to his reel scream as the drag labored to stop the initial run of his catch. Thirty-yards offshore, the water exploded, as an angry fish leaped and crashed into the surf.


Easton’s family, along with a throng of sunbathing onlookers, had taken notice and ran down the beach to watch the nine-year-old do battle with a trophy fish. He expertly played the line-sider, allowing it line when it ran, then reeling it back when given slack.

His Dad coached him, but it was simply an affirmation of lessons already taught and learned. Easton appropriately pressured the fish until it eventually wore down from the fight. He slowly guided the snook into the shallow wade-gut, where it was lifted by the waves and deposited into the foam on the beach. The celebration began as his Dad proudly lifted the flopping fish from the water and his Mom ran for the camera. The common snook measured 31 inches from nose to tail, and Easton carefully lifted the fish from the sand and posed for his trophy shot.

I’ve seen the resulting photo. The fish is huge and beautiful and the blond-headed, nine-year-old kid holding it has a little smirk on his face, as if he knew this would happen all along.

Last week, the nine-year-old got one year older. And for his birthday, I presented him with a painting of that magnificent catch.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fishing the Forgotten Coast

We’d been planning this trip for years. Season after season, either the logistics couldn’t be arranged or our attention was grabbed instead by offshore adventures. But, last week, everything finally came together as I joined three of my best fishing buddies for a four-day fishing extravaganza in northwest Florida.

The trip began on Wednesday as Joe and I headed south out of Murfreesboro. As we cruised down I-65 in Joe’s truck, we were literally surrounded with an impressive amount of tackle, including fishing kayaks, multiple rods and reels, sand-spikes and gear bags. Almost 10 hours later, we rolled into Cape San Blas with big intentions and high hopes for big redfish, speckled trout, pompano, Spanish mackerel and flounder.

The Cape is decidedly “Old Florida,” with a scattering of beach houses instead of high-rises, no golf courses, no jets-ski rentals and very few amenities (our first meal on the Cape was a couple of PBnJ’s, courtesy of the only gas station on the peninsula). In fact, if you want to eat anything here, you have three choices – 1. Bring it in with you. 2. Drive to Port St. Joe’s to get it. 3. Catch it, kill it and grill it.

We were also “blessed” by the lack of cell service, as we effectively left the real world for our little fishing panacea on the Forgotten Coast. By midnight, Fred and Steve had made it down to join us, unloading a veritable Bass Pro Shops' selection of surf-fishing gear … and some welcomed groceries they’d commandeered from a Piggly-Wiggly in Port St. Joe. We were now ready.

I woke up way too early on Thursday morning, but that was simply due to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee that Fred and Steve had admirably prepared in advance of a full-days worth of fishing. Thanks to the early breakfast, our surf-fishing efforts were ahead of schedule and we had lines out in the “new” Stump Hole by 8 a.m. An unusually tame tide (new moon) made for little ebb and flow, resulting in relatively-poor fishing, but we still had a big time catching a variety of sharks, a bluefish or two, a mogan ladyfish and several catfish. Those species weren’t exactly on the wish list, but they made for productive opening day, as we fished in nearly perfect beach weather for the better part of eight hours.

Since we returned to our rented beach house with no fresh catch for dinner, we headed east to the famous Indian Pass Raw Bar, and devoured the trademark raw oysters, stuffed shrimp and gumbo, closing the day out on a good – if not a little exhausting – first day. A couple of ice cold beers from the serve-yourself cooler helped us to unwind and, at least for me, forget about my sunburned feet.

Friday promised big things, as we rented a boat for a fishing cruise in St. Joe Bay. Unfortunately, we arrived at the dock to find our boat out-of-commission and no other rentals available. Undeterred, we rented some kayaks to go with the two I brought (we rented from Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost, a fantastically-friendly operation run by Cape locals Dan and Debbie; I cannot recommend this place enough – it’s a quaint, but infinitely-interesting experience; as you drive up to their house on the bay, you'll pass roosters, several varieties of chickens, a donkey and a horse … before being greeted by Debbie or Dan, either of whom you’ll swear you’ve known for several years ... and if/when you go, make sure to ask Dan about the cool popper lures he’s making), and spent the early afternoon paddling our way into the bay to scour the potholes for keeper speckled trout.

This was an absolute blast, as we paddled through crystal-clear, knee-deep water en route to the fishing grounds. We observed dozens of horseshoe crabs, baby stingrays, mullet and the occasional shark as we made our way to the large, greenish-tinted holes in the grass which Debbie promised would hold speckled trout.

It took some work – and some tide – to get the trout to cooperate, but they eventually did, and we enjoyed some truly fantastic bay fishing. While I couldn’t fool many fish with the fly-rod, a spinning rod armed with a jig and a Gulp® shrimp proved to match the hatch quite nicely. We each caught double-digits of trout, keeping only a few and releasing the rest to the fertile bay waters. Along the way, we also caught a motley selection of pinfish, pigfish, lizard fish and sea robins. A few hours later, as the tide continued to flood the flats, we left the fish biting in order to beat the sun to the horizon and to head home with a healthy catch of tasty trout for supper. Good times.

Saturday morning, we switched gears once again and headed inland to some stellar, private bass lakes near the Florida/Georgia border. The lakes and the property in which they’re situated are owned by Fred’s family, who went above-and-beyond to make sure our brief stay on the farm was a memorable one.

Over the next day-and-a-half, we fished two lakes – a deep-and-clear 20-acre one, and a shallower 14-acre pond which was lined with lily-pads – in hopes of landing a trophy largemouth. Despite the reports of resident alligators, we stayed with the kayaks and managed to fool a host of good bass. A big highlight was catching some chunky largemouth on top-water baits deep within the vegetation.

After waking early on Sunday morning and putting in three good hours on the water, we all heard the distant call of responsibility, and we stowed away our fishing gear, tightened the straps on the kayaks and headed northwest to our respective homes.

Fred, Steve, Joe and I have shared some very memorable fishing moments through the years, but this four-day event has left a very vivid mark on our angling careers. The stories I’ve shared about this trip are just the highlights – there are certainly many more that could be told (lost and broken rods, a steady diet of crappy food, watching the Auburn game in a double-wide, … it goes on), but as the saying goes, “What happens on the road, stays on the road.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Greenway Arts Festival - Sept. 18

On Saturday, Sept. 18, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., I’ll participate in the Greenway Arts Festival, located at Old Fort Park in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This annual event is one of my favorites, as it’s a lot of fun and very convenient to both my home and to the famous Stones River Civil War battlefield site.

In the past, the festival rested on the banks of the Stones River, but after last year’s flood (which caused the cancellation of the entire one-day event), the festival organizers moved the location to section of the greenway near Old Fort Park. For Civil War buffs, the site is just a few steps away from “Fortress Rosecrans,” a Union-held earthen-walled fort that was established in 1862-1863 during the battle for Murfreesboro.

A wide selection of artists and artisans will be featured at the festival (admission is free), along with musical entertainment and the prerequisite food and beverage. I’ll be manning a booth, complete with an array of original artwork and limited-edition prints. I’ll also feature several newer works – including some "fresh from the studio" originals.

Even though we’re technically still in summer, it’s never too early to begin planning for the holidays. With that in mind, I'll display a selection of Christmas-themed paintings, prints and cards. And of course, there will be plenty of fish and fishing-related paintings on display, too.

Directions: Old Fort Park is located at 916 Golf Lane in Murfreesboro, Tenn. From Interstate 24, take exit 78 B towards Murfreesboro, pass the Stones River Mall on your left, then turn left onto Golf Lane into Old Fort Park.

The Greenway Arts Festival is a very laid-back, fun, family-oriented event. I hope to see you there!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My beat-up Chevy truck and more stories

My most-loyal fishing companion took it on the proverbial chin this past week, when a seemingly-healthy hackberry tree decided it couldn't take it anymore and plunged to its death. Unfortunately, it's suicidal swan dive was interrupted by my beloved Chevy Silverado.

I discovered the carnage when I walked out the door the other morning. You know those movies where somebody hides in a bomb shelter, only to walk outside and discover that the world has been completely destroyed around them and they’re the only thing left alive, a realization which causes them to fall to their knees and scream at the heavens, “Nooooo!!?”

Well, it wasn’t like that at all. I think I just stopped and said, “Ah crap.”

My brother-in-law provided some quality brother-in-law help by bringing over his chainsaw, and after a couple of hours, we were able to free my truck from the grips of the depressed tree. Thankfully, the truck was drive-able, albeit broken, beaten and scarred. Hopefully, in the near future, it will resume accompanying me to my favorite fishing spots.

Speaking of fishing, I spent yesterday afternoon on the Caney Fork River, floating the “upper float” with my good friends, David and Anthony. It’s been awhile since I spent a Saturday on this popular tail water, and I was shocked at the amount of people on the river. Canoe and kayak rentals, coupled with anglers of all shapes and sizes filled every public access point and/or shoal. Despite the tremendous traffic, we managed to pick up several fish, most of them being smaller, freshly-stocked rainbow trout. A thinly-tied zebra midge was “the fly,” as we “nymphed” our way through the gauntlet of waders, tubers, kayakers and canoeists. It was all good, though, as everyone seemed to be in good spirits and as polite as a bunch of people crammed into a narrow stream can be.

Halfway to our take-out spot, my wife sent me a text message, letting me know that some bad storms were on the way. As predicted, the skies began to darken and we heard the rumbles of thunder in the distance. When the rumbling intensified, we did the smart thing and put down our 9-foot graphite lightning rods, beached the drifter on a gravel bar and sought shelter from the storm.

Mid-way through the deluge, the sun leaked out from behind the clouds and cast a golden glow on the bluff-wall in front of us. I commented to Anthony that there was probably going to be a nice rainbow (not the trout), and he immediately replied, “And, there it is.” The end of the ‘bow was probably 100 feet from us, right in the main channel of the river. No dummies here, we marked the spot in hopes of finding a pot of gold, and when the rains diminished enough, we quickly descended on the expected treasure. Alas. Nothing but moss-covered rocks and streambed critters. No gold. I surmised that maybe we didn’t see the end of the rainbow, but the start of it. Just our luck.

Rubbing it in our faces, nature presented us with a double-rainbow in the distance, sending us scrambling for our cameras. Soon thereafter, the fog rose off the river and we were blessed with some amazingly-dramatic natural lighting. I snapped a few quick shots of my buddies fishing in the preternatural glow and lamented not having my “good camera” with me

Post photo-op, we began the float again, slogging our way to our destination. The bad weather had chased almost all of the traffic off the river, leaving us with a clean slate of fishable water. David started the run with a nice 19 inch brown trout, followed by Anthony’s 18-incher about 30 minutes later. Not to be left out, I picked up my big fish (another 18-inch brown) in an area that had produced a similar fish about a year ago. On the same fly, too.

Those three fish definitely made the day, and the nice, quiet float through the last mile-and-a-half of stream was a really cool way to end the day. As the fog grew thicker and the skies darker, we loaded the drifter amidst an enormous midge hatch and headed home, all of us satiated from a day well spent.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mid-Summer Update


Too hot. Africa hot. Tarzan was never this hot.


Just finished this blue heron painting, but I’m about to dive back into the fish art in a big way. You’ll see.

I also recently donated several prints to the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, an organization which does tremendous work in preserving some of our state’s most beautiful wild settings. For the past couple of years, they’ve used my painting “Brook Trout Study” as a gift for some of their biggest supporters, putting my artwork in the possession of some very inspired people who appreciate our natural treasures as much as you and me.

Speaking of Greenways, we’re just under two months away from the Greenway Arts Festival (Sept. 18). Last year’s event was flooded out, so they’ve moved the site of the festival from the flood-prone edge of the Stones River and placed it at the nearby Old Fort Park in Murfreesboro, just feet from the site of the Civil War's Stones River Battlefield and the famous Fortress Rosecrans. It should be a great festival this year, and I’ll share more details as we near the date.


My favorite river – the Caney Fork – has fished OK at times, but most of the trout are found in the upper six miles of the tailwater. While the fish are willing to eat, you’ll have to share the river with everyone else, as the kayak and canoe hatch is at its summer peak. The fish don’t seem to mind, but if you like to enjoy solitude with your fishing, it’s best to go elsewhere right now.

The lower section of the Caney (below Happy Hollow) is fishing poorly, although a few resident fish – including some larger ones – are still around. But, you’ll have to be very, very patient (a tall order when it feels like you’re fishing on the sun) and very, very persistent.

Getting fed up with the Caney’s crowds and inconsistent fishing, I initiated a summer fishing “tournament” with a few of my buddies. It’s a “back to the basics” fly-fishing tourney, which concentrates on bass and “rough” fish. Categories include largemouth bass, striped bass, carp, gar and skipjack (among others), and it’s provided a nice alternative in what has proven to be a difficult summer to fish. I call it the “Trash n’ Bass Tournament Series,” and it runs through Labor Day. Right now, we’ve got entries in all the bass species and the skipjack category, but carp and gar have proved elusive for everyone. But, I’ve got my eye on a good spot for both. Here’s the current leader in the largemouth category (a 18 inch fish caught on a hand-tied popper).

Other stuff

Last weekend, Betsy and I traveled west to visit with my family and to do some fly-fishing on the Little Red River in Heber Springs, Ark. As always, it was a big time and the fishing wasn’t bad either. It was also great to visit with Mom, Dad, my brother Tim and the Best Dog in the World, Bumper.

While over in Arkansas, we drove up to Mountain Home to see my uncle, and enjoyed a great day with him and the Second Best Dog in the World, Misty.

We also toured the Fish Hatchery near the North Fork River (Norfork, as they say) and were teased by the humongous trout in the nearby Dry Run Creek. The crystal-clear waters of the creek are filled with healthy rainbows, browns, cutthroats and brook trout. While fishing it is limited to children under 16 and physically-disabled individuals, anyone can walk along its bank and marvel at the colorful fish living in the water. Too cool.

Two Big Dry Run Creek Rainbows

Dry Run Creek

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Troutfest 2010

I love Townsend. Enveloped by the Tennessee foothills of the Smokies and situated near an entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town is a welcomed contrast to the hustle and flow of the nearby mountain towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It’s a sleepy place; laid-back and unpretentious, quiet and relatively void of commercialism. It’s also the host of a gem of a fly-fishing festival called Troutfest.

The event, held annually in Townsend, Tenn., is a fly-fishing exposition and fundraiser sponsored by the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited. One of the largest venues for fly anglers in the southeast U.S., Troutfest devotes all proceeds to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fisheries Department, Friends of the Smokies Fisheries Scholarship Fund and other youth educational conservation projects. Troutfest is an extremely cool, highly-educational event that highlights the pursuit of fly-fishing by focusing on instruction, equipment and education of the craft.

This was my second year to participate as an artist/vendor in Troutfest, and quite literally, I lost sleep in anticipation of it. Friday night’s stay in the mountain-top cabin we rented brought little rest, as Betsy and I awaited the chance to meet new people, to learn more about the sport we love … and to hopefully, sell a few paintings.

On Saturday morning, weary, but faking it as best as I could, I helped Betsy set up our 10 x 10 booth area with an array of original paintings and limited-edition giclee prints.

[Note: There are two reasons why I would be one of the first people voted off the island on the TV show Survivor. One, I’m horribly grumpy when I’m hungry and two, I’m an absolute moron on limited sleep. However, unlike the islands Survivor participants inhabit, Troutfest sold caffeinated soft-drinks, allowing the opportunity for me to stay somewhat coherent for just a mere $3 worth of Diet Pepsi’s. Thank you PepsiCo, for your sweetly-uplifting beverages.]

Despite the threat of thunderstorms and torrential rain (what else?), the weather held off for the better part of the festival, allowing attendees to enjoy Troutfest’s offerings of expert instruction (the phenomenal Lefty Kreh, joining fellow legends Joe Humphries and Bob Clouser), fantastic fly-tying (my good friend David Perry held court for four hours on Saturday morning, entertaining his audience with an array of big-trout streamers), outstanding artwork, great food and live music.

Our booth partners – on one side, Wiley Henson promoted his cabins-for-rent in Idaho and Wyoming, while on the other side, Brent and Chris Bonar showcased some amazing custom-built fly-rods – were fantastic people who made the two-day festival even better than it should have been. Betsy and I were also thrilled to visit with friends we met at last year’s event, including fellow-artist Alan Folger (and his wife, Shirley), Ian and Charity Rutter and Townsend-based watercolorist MJ Montgomery. We also met some new friends and welcomed both existing (it was great to see you and the family, Sophia and Keith!) and new customers into our booth. Everyone in attendance was genuine, friendly and very interested in fishing … making the two days at Troutfest a fantastic and fast-moving couple of days.

Officially rested (sort of), packed-up and back in Murfreesboro, Betsy and I are very thankful for our time in the mountains. Townsend is one of our favorite places to go, and we’re incredible fans of Troutfest and the many Trout Unlimited volunteers who work so diligently to make the exposition so successful. Thanks Byron, Dan, Joe and the many TU folks who made Troutfest 2010 a big hit. We'll be back in 2011.

It wasn't all fly-fishing expo ... here are some other photos from our weekend in the mountains:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tryin' to Reason with Monsoon Season

I first heard it at 5 a.m., Saturday. The initial few drops fell heavy on our rooftop, waking me from a shallow sleep. The raindrops sounded like they weighed a pound apiece, splattering the opening salvo of what proved to be a weather system of downright biblical proportions. My brother, himself an aspiring amateur weatherman (“You know I always wanted to pretend to be a meteorologist!”), had warned me the night before about what was headed our way. He had been enjoying the rain for several hours already in Memphis.

By 8 a.m., the local television channels had switched from the cartoons to wall-to-wall weather (back in the day, this would have infuriated me; as cartoon channels had yet to be invented). Rotation was already being spotted in several storms and hail was predicted. But Doppler didn’t know diddly about what was to come.

The storm system seemed enamored with the Volunteer State, behaving like an obnoxious guest sitting down in your favorite recliner and putting his feet up on your nice coffee table. It was going nowhere until it had completely and utterly worn out its welcome.

By noon, the first flooding reports started coming in. Initially, it was all about flash floods, but by afternoon, the rivers and streams began to swell alarmingly fast. Instead of a quick-moving springtime front with a line of thunderstorms, this beast of a weather-maker unleashed fat, swollen cumulonimbus clouds, which poured their seemingly endless supply of chubby rain on areas which had already swallowed more than they could.

As the ditches, creeks and rivers rose, the deluge continued. Betsy and I had tickets to the Jimmy Buffett show in Nashville Saturday night, but our trip up I-24 to the Bridgestone Arena seemed a little far-fetched. The news carried unreal footage of the tops of cars swimming in what looked to be chocolate milk. It got more weird as a modular home floated by, its roofline only visible, looking like the Merrimac cruising its way to the Cumberland River.

At 7:15 p.m., the rain actually let up a bit and Betsy and I decided to chance it – via the long-route up I-840 to Lebanon, then I-40 to Nashville – and make our way to the Buffett show. Our journey was thankfully safe, and oddly easy. Downtown, the normally-festive, pre-Buffett atmosphere was cloaked in a mist of rain, dampened by the roll of thunder and illuminated by the occasional flash of lightning. Undaunted, 17,000 of us, clad in our best island gear, made our way into the arena.

Jimmy put on his usual good show, and smartly deflected the issue of the weather for most of the concert. During intermission, I chatted with a couple of grass-skirted guys (that only sounds weird to people who have never been to a Buffett show) sitting in front of us. They had traveled the normal three hours from Memphis in a little less than eight, and told us tales of flooded highways, diverted routes and multiple back-tracking through the newly-created west Tennessee marshland. The Styrofoam flamingos on their hats couldn’t shade the weariness on their faces. They were going at it gamely, but one can only muster so much after such a journey. By the encore, both guys were almost asleep.

After a solo, acoustic close to the show (“He Went to Paris,” one of my all-time favorites), the throng of concertgoers exited the arena and many stumbled next door to the bars. The usual Broadway honky-tonks were packed with the usual Broadway honky-tonk crowds, with a large contingent of well-lubricated Parrotheads. With much to do on Sunday and worried about the reports we were hearing concerning additional rain and flooded highways, Betsy and I avoided Roberts’, Tootsie’s and Legend’s, and headed home. We tried Murfreesboro Rd., but flashing blue lights reflecting off the misplaced river that rudely flowed across the thoroughfare was enough for us to reconsider the route and to return to the 'Boro whence we came.

There was something about that Sunday; it was most peculiar gray. The weather system hadn’t moved and the rains continued to fall. By afternoon, flooding was widespread. The Cumberland River, which winds in and around Nashville, began to be a concern as it steadily rose up the banks of the city’s downtown area.

By nightfall, the mid-state had received 10 to 15 inches of rain in less than 48 hours. At 11:30 p.m., sporting my newly-purchased, amazingly-overpriced Jimmy Buffett t-shirt, I went outside to check on the weather just before bed. It was sprinkling. Unbelievable.

While a major amount of the flooding occurred during the rainy weekend, ironically, the worst the disaster had to offer came on Monday afternoon, in the bright sunshine. The Cumberland crested and turned downtown Nashville and parts of nearby Hendersonville into an ocean of brown water. Major landmarks joined area businesses and countless homes as the flood’s targets. The misery reached its peak as the river finally began to fall.

Today, less than two weeks later, Tennessee continues to heal. The Volunteer State has more than lived up to its name, as friends, neighbors and strangers have joined hands in helping those affected by the event recover. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved, but especially to those who lost loved ones.

Rain is in the forecast again for this weekend, but I have to believe we’ve endured enough. Maybe, this weekend’s weather is just a way to rinse off the mud and to clean us out so then we can go on.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Something called Tor-Con just rated us a 9 out of 10. Fantastic. A ninety percent chance of tornadoes today. The Weather Channel girl is advising those of us in the southeastern part of the U.S. to find a safe area in our home and to stay away from windows and doors. Outside (I’m ignoring the latter advice in order sit on my couch and watch a pair of Carolina wrens flicker about our patio), it’s slate gray and thunder is rumbling through my neighborhood. Glad I didn’t get up early to go fishing today.

Last weekend, however, I did get up early – really early – and went fishing. Let me tell you about it … although the story needs a little history first.

Over the past 13 years, I’ve done about a dozen offshore fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico. It all started with a six-hour excursion Betsy and I took while on our honeymoon (we caught little tunny and a few small snapper … and were damn proud of it) before blossoming into a series of hard-core, overnight deep-sea adventures with a group of buddies.

This all came about when my longtime fishing friend, Joe, invited me to come along on an overnight trip out of Destin, Fla. We would be joining a contingent of his college buddies aboard the Trade Winds, part of the famous Olin Marler fleet. Two of Joe’s closest friends, Steve and Fred, were the trip’s chief organizers and most-dedicated fisherman. I was both excited and anxious, as I knew I’d have a blast – but a little worried about sea-sickness and sleeping on boat in 400 feet of water 80 miles from shore.

But, the trip proved to be an incredible experience as all 12 of us avoided contributing to the chum slick and managed to tackle a variety of deep-water and pelagic species. We had a blast and returned home with respective freezers full of wahoo, gag grouper, scamp, amberjack and the ubiquitous red snapper. That trip started an annual pilgrimage to the Gulf, as we continued our yearly explorations of Destin’s offshore fishery. Unfortunately, Joe fell victim to seasickness on consecutive trips and just couldn’t stomach another adventure aboard the Trade Winds. By that time, the original crew of anglers had dwindled to just a handful of us, and each subsequent trip featured a brand new set of faces. Steve, Fred and myself, however, were the stalwarts.

Through the years, we’ve burned into memory literally hundreds of great tales of our exploits at sea. We’ve enjoyed mega-trips that produced huge amounts of fish and the occasional meager-trip in which we just couldn’t dial in our quarry. While grouper, snapper and AJs were always among our catch, we’ve also tangled with blackfin and yellowfin tuna, king mackerel, sharks of all kinds, porgies, hake, wahoo, dolphin, ribbonfish,little tunnies and an array of denizens of the deep.

Steve won a Destin Rodeo category one year (overnight wahoo), a deckhand threw back Fred’s rodeo-winning scamp and I’ve caught some amberjacks that nearly turned me inside out. We’ve had calm days and angry seas, we’ve gone through a series of boats and captains and we’ve generated a series of legendary tales (Fred’s accidental swan-dive off the stern while fishing at night in 300 feet of water probably tops the list … but also joins a list of colorful stories which are just too long and too involved to tell).

This past weekend, Steve, Fred and I, along with Steve’s friends Lyle and Paul, joined four other “walk-on” anglers aboard Capt. Skipper Thierry’s Escape, out of Dauphin Island, Ala. Our goal was to ply the fertile waters that surround the many offshore oil rigs that dot the Alabama and Louisiana coasts.

The trip was particularly special for the Core Three, as we’d been frustrated by three consecutive last-minutecancellations of scheduled tuna trips out of Louisiana over the past year. The weather always plays a huge role in determining the success of your fishing, and well … we were overdue for a break.

Leaving out on Saturday morning, the sun was just peaking over the horizon, casting an otherworldly pink glow on the water. As the Escape cruised past the lighthouse marking the head of the pass, the deckhands deployed some high-speed trolling baits and Capt. Skipper hammered down in pursuit of our first stop.

The boat was filled with a capable crew and a cast of characters. As this was not your typical charter (we did not reserve the trip – it was scheduled by the charter service and given an “open call” for willing anglers), the fishermen onboard were experienced and well-aware of what lie ahead.

[A quick note: As only men seem capable of doing, we fished alongside the four other walk-on fishermen for two days, shared meals, beers, a bathroom and several stories … yet never exchanged names. I cannot believe the more social sex would be able to do that. I did eventually learn the name of one of our anglers … Ed, a teacher and writer, aboard the Escape in pursuit of a story for the magazine Great Days Outdoors, was a lot like everyone else onboard: a great guy and very good fisherman. He was also armed at all times with a camera, and was more than willing to drop a rod in pursuit of documenting one of us engaged in battle with an angry fish. Thank you, Ed, for the great conversation and for the photo below.]

Throughout the course of the first day, we loaded the boat with freshly-caught live bait, landed our limit of amberjack and eventually found our way to our desired destination … the shadow of the hulking offshore oil platform, the Petronius.

The massive rig was our constant companion and chief fish attractor as we slow-trolled Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening for the yellowfin tuna who call the Petronius home. Sitting in 1700 feet of water, the platform is one of the tallest free-standing structures in the world, and its massive support system provides a perfect place for the offshore food chain to kick into overdrive.

Taking turns astern, we dutifully watched the spread for any action. While the big yellowfins didn’t want to play with us, we did fool a few smaller ones along with several of their blackfin cousins. At night, though, out came the diamond jigs and anglers on both sides of the 65-foot Escape hooked up with the hard-fighting tunas, loading the fishbox with a sizeable selection of soon-to-be sashimi.

The highlight of my evening was getting the opportunity to toss a topwater chugger via a heavy-duty spinning rod. It took a few casts to hone in the technique, but the resulting strike (more of an explosion, really) was worth the money I paid to get on the boat. I would never get tired of that kind of fishing. Simply awesome.

Eventually, the lack of sleep and the total exhaustion brought about by fishing from sun-up to well past sundown wore down all of us onboard. Before calling it a night, the deckhands deployed a couple of swordfish rigs, which unfortunately went unmolested through the evening.

At 5 a.m., the boat came alive again, the tuna spread went back out and we resumed the troll. A few more fish were willing and our overall tuna haul became quite impressive. Once the sun rose well above the horizon, the trolling stopped and we ventured to another offshore platform and dropped live baits for amberjack. The AJs on this drop were much bigger than the previous day’s, which really put our already-sore forearms to the test. After wrenching up several reef donkeys in the 40 – 60 lb range, Capt. Skipper gave us a break and motoed the Escape to some deep drops over rock bottom where we fished for grouper and snapper.

By noon, we had reeled in our last fish and retired to the air-conditioned cabin to enjoy the trip back to Dauphin Island.

Back at the docks, we enjoyed a few pictures of the catch. Just a tip, though – do not try to be a hero and pick up the heaviest fish in the pile for the trophy photo. It won’t turn out well.

After the fish were cleaned and most of us had donated several quarts of blood to the Island’s no-see-ums, we packed up our coolers and headed north. Steve, Fred and I were completely worn out, but satiated. The trip had been successful and we enjoyed good weather and great fishing. The Escape and the entire Thierry fleet proved to be worthy of a return trip, and on the trip home, we discussed the next time we’d head to the Gulf for another bout of offshore angling. In the meantime, it’s back to the studio to capitalize on the artistic inspiration trips like this provide me.

Back inland, the storms continue. We’re under a severe thunderstorm warning, more storms are predicted to head our way later this evening and the tornado watch has been extended to 8 p.m. My only hope is that the wind, rain and hail will pound the pollen into submission (while miraculously missing my beloved truck in the driveway), helping all of us breath a little easier on Sunday morning.

Watch the skies. Be safe. Stay away from the windows. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that the sun will come out tomorrow.