Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dog Days

As the seasonal cicadas buzzed annoyingly above me, I cruised silently up the east fork of the Stones River in my kayak, looking for any signs of life, fish or fowl, to distract me from the fact that I was profusely sweating in the oppressively-humid August heat. The river rippled and shimmered as acres of newly-hatched shad schooled just below surface, only to be periodically interrupted by the angry swirl of a hungry bass. Frustratingly, there was no rhyme or reason for the feeding, and matching the hatch, while possible, was futile. With this much bait in the water, it was going to be really difficult to convince a fish to select my hair-and-feathers offering amongst the smorgasbord of easy-for-the-picking shad fry. So, I quietly paddled upstream, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of early August on the river.

Late summer is my least favorite time of the year to fish. Due to the heat – and we’ve had a great deal of it this year – most fish prefer the cooler climes of deeper water, which challenges anglers both in terms of tactics and patience. Traditionally, the best luck – at least for warmwater species – can be had at night. Some of my fondest fishing memories were made while participating in bass tournaments at night with my brother-in-law, Bubba. We’d head up to the lake every Monday afternoon during the summer and plop down $20 bucks a piece to a chain-smoking tournament chairman, who huddled inside a small booth in a marina restaurant on the banks of the reservoir. Competing anglers would mill about, some of them sharing secrets, most of them sharing lies, and all of them either smoking, dipping or chewing tobacco. The comraderie of this unique and colorful crew was impressive, and despite my lack of an appropriate nicotine rush, I was right there in the middle of 'em.

When darkness began to fall, we’d hop into Bubba’s well-worn and fish-scale-covered Alumacraft and blast off from the marina and usually head upstream. Bubba liked fishing the rivers, and his influence has stuck with me to this day. But, as a lifelong fisherman of this lake, he knew were the big ones were. We’d throw dark-colored, hysterically-large plastic worms in 10-15 feet of water and tried to fool a couple of keeper-sized bass before the midnight deadline. Most times, we were successful and even won a bit of money over the period of a couple of years. During the dog days, fishing would often be tough, even at night, but we still caught plenty of good-sized fish amidst the haze of cigar smoke, the buzz of orbiting mosquitoes, the pale light of the moon and the occasional pterodactylic squawk from a blue heron who didn’t appreciate us horning in on his fishing hole.

It’s been a long time since I’ve fished a Monday night tourney, but the memories came vividly back to me as I paddled to the boat ramp. I passed a couple of late-model bass boats, camped out on fishy-looking spots, with moustached anglers throwing huge soft plastics with fluorescent line spooled on their reels and black lights suction-cupped to the gunnels of their watercraft. Cigarette smoke swirled above them and hung in the river as I quietly passed them, as we exchanged a subtle nod and maybe a casual wave that said, “Evenin’ fellas … hope you catch a bunch.”

Black-capped night heron ... just before I paddled by him.

Over the past couple of hours on the water, I’d struck out in my hunt for big fish (or small fish, … hell, any fish), and I loaded up my kayak in my truck bed and headed home. Upon arrival, I carefully unpacked my fishing gear, but paused when I grabbed my spinning rod armed with a plastic frog. Remembering the night-fishing lessons of a few years ago, I quietly strolled to the edge of my pond, cast the topwater frog to the far edge of water and landed it next to the tall, frog-infested grass that ironically grew during the recent drought. After letting the bait settle for a few seconds, I twitched it twice and a bass exploded on it. After a short fight, I brought the fish ashore, carefully unhooked it and tossed it back into the water.

All that poetry aside, fishing during the day at this time of year can still be productive. Last week, my brother came up to visit, and we took the kayaks down to a friend’s lake down in Manchester, Tenn., just a mile or so from the site of the recent Bonaroo music festival. We had the lake to ourselves, and over the course of six hours, we caught an impressive number of fish and an equally-substantial amount of sunburn. Tim slung a rooster-tail and easily took big fish honors with several good-sized bass, while I happily landed a nice-sized shellcracker that vaulted me into first place in the Trash n’ Bass tournament. Regardless of the fishing, it was great to get out on the water with my brother. We were exhausted by the time we got back to Murfreesboro; I’m sure Betsy was quite pleased to go out to dinner with a couple of sunburned zombies.

Tim, with a nice largemouth bass.

I’m not sure if there’s a moral to any of this, other than “get out and fish.” And, if the angling is tough, you can still enjoy everything around you. Even during the fishless couple of hours I spent on the Stones yesterday, I got up close to blue herons, green herons and black-capped night herons. While rounding a bend in the river, 25 turkeys flew from bank-to-bank, directly in front of me. Upstream from there, a Cooper’s hawk landed in a tree limb just above me, while later in the day, I nearly cast a large streamer into a much larger hornet’s nest which hung from a tree limb just a few feet above the water.

And, if it’s any type of saving grace … the days are getting shorter and fall is right around the corner.

Regardless … get out and fish.