Wednesday, August 5, 2015


It was the middle of March. I stood at the end of the muddy boat ramp, the tips of my boots nearly touching the lapping water. A green, padded cooler was draped over one shoulder. Inside, a couple of beers, an ice pack and two bottled waters. An old Jansport back pack hung from the other shoulder, filled with a box of shallow-running crank baits, some jigs and a couple of fly boxes. My right hand clasped two rigged-and-ready fly rods and a spinning rod. I checked my watch. 

It was around 4 p.m. I had left work in a dead sprint in order to meet Joe at the river. He had gotten a head start, launching his Tracker boat about an hour before. Standing at the ramp’s edge, I faced an empty stretch of the lake’s headwaters. Winter pool. The exposed mud banks revealed expansive boneyards of downed trees in every direction, most of which would be submerged in the weeks ahead, as the Corps of Engineers allowed the lake to fill. I stood there, rods in hand, waiting. The black-topped parking lot behind me had only two vehicles in it. I was currently alone … if not for the two teenage girls hula-hooping in bikinis atop the nearby bluff. It was overcast, mid-60s. Apparently, a good day to begin working on your tan. And, I guess, for getting out the ol’ hoop. 

Joe’s boat roared around the upstream bend and its operator idled back as he aimed the bow's nose at my knees. As I hopped aboard, I nodded to the bizarre scene on the nearby bluff. He chuckled and shook his head. I mumbled, “Boat ramps, man.” 

It is well known by lake and river visitors that boat ramps contain some of the most colorful representatives of the human race. Some tales are legendary. Personally, I’ve witnessed fist-fights, drunken dancing, nude kayakers, creepy guys, creepy vans, creepy guys in creepy vans, couples screaming at each other over a partner’s inability to appropriately back down a boat trailer, illicit behavior of all types (including some I’ve desperately tried to forget), and, very rarely, the presence of law enforcement. Whether you’re launching or leaving, or fishing or hula-hooping, the ramps tend to gather an incredibly diverse crowd of freaks. Please note, I include myself in that group, as I’m sure the hula-hoopers could’ve easily argued that the pale middle-aged guy standing motionless and alone at the end of the boat ramp and staring at the water was just a little bit freaky. 

Joe pushed the boat forward and the big motor growled and we made our way downstream toward the main lake. Over the din of the Mercury, Joe explained that he’d already caught a few fish around some trees near the mouth of a small feeder creek, and he thought we could start fishing there. So, we did. 

In my experience, the white bass run (a spring tradition, in which thousands of the striped fish head upstream to spawn) does not start in earnest until the redbud trees are in full bloom and their dogwood cousins are about to pop. As we cruised downstream, we did so through a corridor of empty trees still in the dismal clutches of winter. However, if we would've looked closely, we would’ve seen small buds on the many branches of the oaks, sycamores, elms —and redbuds — that cloaked the land beyond the edges of the water. 

After halting our run, Joe hopped to the bow and dropped the trolling motor. We both grabbed spinning rods with shallow-running crank baits, hoping to probe the under-cut banks for feeding fish. We didn’t have to search long, as both of us hooked up within the first few casts. With a couple of healthy stripe caught and released, we continued to pepper the downed timber and mud flats with a bevy of casts. 

As this cadence continued — slowly working our way down mud banks covered in downed trees, casting shallow and retrieving back to the boat — a similar rhythm emerged in terms of how and when we caught fish. It almost seemed as the fish were only active in brief, five-minute-max increments, which were normally followed by 20 minutes of inactivity. Perhaps, it was just a matter of motion and finding schools of feeding fish, but for whatever the reason, the strategy pursued proved to be most productive (flies, jigs and jerk baits realized nada). Even in mid-March, the white bass and hybrids were already thick in the river system. 

White bass. Or stripe. And, a big one.
Ok, let’s break this down briefly, as it took me quite a while to figure it out, and I know even some of my most-seasoned fishing buddies still struggle with it. White bass are also known regionally as “stripe.” They are distant cousins to the much bigger striped bass, an ocean-dwelling fish that smart fisheries biologists figured out could adjust extremely well to fresh-water environments. While the spring run in my local lake produces mainly stripe, there is always the chance one of their hulking cousins joining the procession. In middle Tennessee, striped bass are often referred to as “rockfish,” for their propensity to aggregate near rock, which is convenient, as the mid-state is basically one gigantic chunk of limestone. My buddies and I often refer to the rockfish as “stripers,” and we try — in vain, normally — to fish for them with fly rods. "Striper" just sounds better than rockfish, especially if you pronounce it like Peter Griffin ("Oh my Gawd, da stripah were wicked thick in da Caney last Novembah"). If you cross a white bass with a striped bass (thanks smart-and-perhaps-evil fisheries biologists), you’ll get a hybrid white bass, or simply “hybrid.” Or you can call 'em, “Cherokee.” Or “Wiper.” Then, there's the more-easily identifiable yellow bass, which looks a helluva lot like a white bass except, you guessed it, it's yellow. Locally, they're called "yellas."It's very confusing. All of these varieties look very similar, which adds to the perplexity. Tooth patches versus no tooth patches to broken lines to straight lines ... it all runs together. Most anglers only care if something worthwhile tugs on the end of the line, and, save for the smallish yellow bass, all of the variations mentioned above will do exactly that. From my perspective, the white bass, striped bass and hybrid bass are all worthy opponents, with the hybrids arguably get the nod for their aggressiveness, pulling ability and sheer obstinance. They do not suffer fools. 

Probably a hybrid. Maybe. Probably.
Digression aside, Joe and I continued to hit the same tributary for the next few weeks, enjoying some very fishy days, and some not-so-productive afternoons. In March, we relied heavily on square-billed crank baits which we casted to the water’s edge and retrieved through fallen timber. When all things came together, the bait would bounce and weave through the limbs, only to get crushed by a stripe, hybrid or a hefty, pre-spawn largemouth bass. As the days grew longer and we worked our way into April, the redbuds popped and dogwoods bloomed, and we stowed the spinning rods and doubled-hauled 7- and 8-weight fly rods. I used sinking line and an array of different-colored deceivers I’d tied back in the winter. Any color combination seemed to produce fish, if only it were complimented by white. 

Our best afternoon was enjoyed on high, heavily-stained water, as schools of aggressive hybrids schooled in the downstream, current-breaking areas behind downed trees. A couple of spots produced an impressive number of solid fish, all of which were caught, admired and released. 

Before we knew it, it was late April. Joe and I stood in the near-empty parking lot of the boat ramp, a few strands of dusk between us and darkness. Tree frogs whined from the nearby woods, and the night circled us with much warmer tones than it did a little over a month ago. The humidity and rising heat foreshadowed a change in both seasons and species, as the stripe run wallowed in its final throes and the spawning fish would mostly return to the lake’s deeper waters. In their place, crappie would temporarily fill the shallows, bluegill would begin bedding, post-spawn bass would refuel at odd periods of the day and channel catfish would pass the striped fish, heading in the opposite direction to follow their instinctive charge to reproduce.   

We wiped down Joe’s boat, which, after 10-plus years of being slimed by fish and run through scummy lake water and bounced off the occasional floating debris, still looks brand new — a testament to its meticulous and caring owner. Exchanging smiles and a solid handshake, we went our separate ways knowing that we had given the run our best, and — at times — we'd been rewarded in big and frequent ways. On the way to my parked truck, I stopped at a dented metal trash can bolted down to a concrete base in the median of the lot. The container was nearly full, and when I opened the lid, its wet odor caused me to recoil slightly. As I dropped a couple of empties and a Snickers wrapper into the can, I noticed something inside the cylinder. Even in the darkness, I could make out a distinctive shape amongst the refuse: a contorted semi-elliptical remnant of a what was once a perfectly good hula hoop. 

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