I felt it in the air the night before. Like fish under the spell of the moon, I could feel it: tomorrow would be a great day, one of those days when it all comes together…the steady temps of the week before, the moon, the warming late winter water and a powerful longing of fish and fisherman to hit the shallows: fish, looking for early hatches of nymphs, grass shrimp and baitfish, all drawn to algal blooms and warmth; fisherman, in hopes of hitting that convergence of perfect conditions and the desire of fish to feed ravenously.
In vivid color I could visualize perfectly stained water, the telltale sign of a resurgence of life on a lake awakened by the warmth of the late winter sun.
It was a fitful night of sleep with no need for an alarm; it was set in my soul. Two hours before dawn I stood over a pot of fresh brewing coffee. The aromatic wisps of steam conjured a light fog lifting in gentle swirls on the lake, back-lit by a rising sun.
A half hour drive to the lake gave plenty of time to paint mental pictures…slam-dunked strike indicators, heavily bowed rod and huge fish swirling, spinning below, trying to free themselves from my line.
At the launch, it was still dark, the water black, and no light revealing its true color or condition. Still, I imagined it to be perfect. I unstrapped the boat and, as always, made certain the motor would start. I gave her a couple of swigs of gas with the primer and hit the starter…she immediately came to life. She was as anxious as I to hit the lake. I backed the boat in the water just deep enough to set it free. It glided back into the black night, now in its favored element…she came tight against her leash.
Having to wait at least thirty minutes before safe light, I poured a cup of hot coffee from my thermos, sat on the rod box, lit up a cigar and removed my fly rod from its restraints. As anxious as I was to fish, those few peaceful moments of pure silence were divine…the christening of a beautiful day to come.
At safe light I fired up the outboard; never cold natured, always eager to do her thing, she never lets me down. There is something joyful and satisfying about the smell of an outboard’s smoke regurgitated through the underwater exhaust; an essence of fishing and fun.
My grandfather, in preparation for a fishing trip, would send me into his dirt-floored garage to dig red worms from an old washtub full of peat. He kept the tub on a wooden bench, where, close by, hung an old and faded Wizard outboard. The perfectly blended smell of peat, red worms, 2 cycle oil and gas is a memory burned deep within me, a smell I will never forget, in which one breathes fishing and life’s unforgettable days.
Slowly I made my way toward the boat road and headed to the westernmost side of the lake. As I envisioned, there were dancing swirls and wisps of fog rising from the water: the lake had indeed warmed.
The night before I decided this was the best area, heated earliest by the late winter sun. The primary creek feeding the lake enters this westernmost cove. The upper reaches are choked shut, impassable with young cypress and heavy aquatic vegetation that stretch a great distance, a perfect nursery for grass shrimp, crawfish and untold varieties of aquatic insects, nymphs and small bait fish.
I hoped a heavy rain, some days before, had flushed a lot of bait into a shallow flat just to the east. The main feeder creek runs through the middle of this flat. The edges are lined with aquatic vegetation: gator grass, hyacinth and a spattering of coontail…a perfect combination. With an average depth of three and a half feet and six in the channel…it is perfect for fly fishing.
If it were a little later in the year and the water a bit warmer, I would start with a popping bug. Today I fish a bugger some two feet under a strike indicator.
As I approached the western edge, I killed the motor as the remaining three hundred yards or so require a trolling motor in the shallow water with numerous stumps. Slowly, I wound my way up the creek toward the flat, dodging stumps and cypress knees. The last two turns are marked by several large, stately, moss-draped cypress. The trees mark the point where I pick up my rod and free the fly from its keeper. Making the final turn, I pull four or five strips of line from the reel…the clicking of the pawl quickens my pulse, sharpens my senses.
An osprey passes overhead in what I hope is an attempt to beat me to “the spot.” Surely he must know something: he is a professional…my intuition might just be correct.
As I round the final turn I see the flat before me…stained perfectly. So heavy is the plankton, it is visible; clear enough for a fish to see a fly; yet stained enough to provide cover: perfect conditions…just as I imagined.
Entering the flat, I head to a small circular pocket of water some seventy-five feet or so across. A small cypress stands guard near the mouth of a narrow channel which winds through gator grass. It begs for a cast. A quick loading of the rod, sends a perfect cast toward the base of the tree. A Pop’s Brown Bugger and its little pink companion, a half inch Thing-a-ma-bobber, politely land a foot from the tree.
I hesitate to move the rig for a moment when suddenly…the pink is gone, only a telltale ripple left behind. In disbelief, I almost hesitate too long. I give the line a brisk strip and raise my rod, which promptly bends double, the line shoots straight to the right.
Like a kid at Christmas ripping wrapping from a gift, I strip line trying to catch up to him and catch up with time. My mind is whirring: “Let me at least see him.” A minute or so later I see the flashing silver and black side of what I know is a large, heavy crappie…“Damn, the fish are here, or is he just one of those loners?” You know…the ones that make you wonder, “Now, why the hell was he in here and no others?” I bring him alongside, kneel and lip him into the boat…a beauty of a fish.
My second cast lands nearly in line with the first, but a bit longer. Promptly the indicator begins to move slowly to the left. I anxiously watch as it moves a half foot or so before bringing the rod up and against the fish. He pulls hard and fights more violently. He is pulsing and throbbing…the recognizable fight of a large bluegill. The line zips and sings back and forth as I try to keep pace with the rod. A short fight later, a fine heavy bluegill comes to hand.
In Louisiana we refer to large bluegill males as bull bream…really huge males as bull-a-gators. This fish was approaching bull-a-gator in size.
I worked the area over for a while, landing dozens of fine crappie and large bream. By now, I know, “They’re here in numbers, they are big and they are hungry as hell!” I am giddy!
Giving this area a rest, I anxiously move further up the flat. The southern edge has a nicely shaped bottom…going from a foot or so deep, right next to the vegetation, to several feet deep and dropping again to six feet or so in the creek. The fish have several distinct areas to stage and feed. Before the day is up, I will have success in all.
I quietly approach an indention in the edge, bounded by two trees approximately six feet out and twenty or so feet apart, forming a beautiful pocket. A long cast deep to the back is promptly rewarded…the indicator is slowly going under. With a brisk strip set and raising the rod…all hell breaks loose. A heavy fish is having its way with my rod. All I can do is give him some rod, feather the line…lots of line and hold on for the ride, first this way, then that.
After several minutes, I still have no control of him. My mind is trying to unravel clues as to what he is. There is no thumping to indicate a bream struggling on its side or the heavy, yet compliant, pull of a large crappie. If it were a bass, he would have gone airborne by now or headed for deeper water.
My mind is once again begging, “I just want to see …just let me see what he is.” After what seems like five minutes, but more likely two, I get a fleeting glimpse of a huge, beautifully colored chinquapin, known to some as shell crackers, lake runners or red eared sunfish. In Louisiana, these fish get huge. This fish is freaky big. Catching a glimpse of me, he takes off as if he has seen the meanest creature in the world. He takes line at will. By now, I really don’t mind if he tears loose or brakes off…I have seen him, he has given me a thrill…he has slaked my Jones.
Several times I bring him along side, only to have him keep going out the other. Finally, I reach and lift one of the biggest chinqs I have ever seen. I have caught big ones before…but none as thick and tall. This fish is like reeling in a mad hub cap.
I sit there for a few moments to soak in what has happened and what is surely to come. Picking up the sleeping cigar, I puff it back to life. Ah…a hot cup of coffee and a few delightful draws from a good cigar are ample celebration.
Sitting there soaking up the moment, I hear a wren in a nearby bush roll out a short, beautiful song. The last note sounds a little funny, just a tad off key…she then makes a scolding chatter, as if griping about hitting a bad note. I can’t help but chuckle. In this one small spot there is so much to see, so much to hear and so damn many fish to catch.
The osprey, now circling at the far western edge of the flat, suddenly folds his wings, and drops like a stone…making his first catch of the day. He rises fifty feet or so back into the air, pauses in mid-flight, and gives a violent shudder, shaking off water droplets that cling to his chest. I offer him up a cloud of aromatic smoke, raise the small shiny chrome cup in a salute and give him a smile. It is a great day for us both, …a day to remember.