Friday, March 31, 2017

A Kindred Spirit

That morning, I paddled the cove, searching around fallen timber and boat docks for bass. The first one I hung into pulled my kayak around like a bathtub toy, even though he was no more than two pounds. I took a good look at the fish, then flipped him back into the tangled mass of brush that I'd pulled him out of. When I paddled back out away from the bank, I saw a man in a red kayak, working the shoreline toward me, although his only fishing rod was upright in the rod holder, and his hands were prodding the rocks, as if he was searching for something. I just watched him, wondering what he was looking for, and then when he pulled up a wad of mono with a Carolina rig attached to it, I knew he was a treasure hunter.

He looked to be around 70-- slender and tall with a white goatee and ponytail, earrings and tattoos, a stubby pipe puffing smoke as he paddled on around the bend to find another jewel.

When he looked up, I threw up my hand. He took the pipe from his teeth and said, "Morning, captain," and he paddled out toward me.
As he got closer, I could hear the faint sound of John Fogerty's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" coming from inside his vessel. I wasn't real sure what he had in mind, but I was pretty much stuck when he pulled his boat up to mine and reached over and pulled our two kayaks together.

"Everything going your way this morning?" I asked.

"Ah yea, you know," he said, "just another beautiful day." He just sat there with his arm on the side of my boat, and we both looked out across the lake, taking it all in, I figured.

"You live around here?" I asked. I couldn't think of anything else at the moment.

"Yea, just down the road," he said, "I'm here every Saturday, just about." He put his pipe back in his teeth, "Smoke bother you?"

"No sir," I said, "go right ahead." I didn't want the old hippie to think I wasn't cool.

We talked about random things like the weather, the kayaks, fishing. We introduced ourselves, and we awkwardly shook hands. He showed me his finds from the morning: a Daredeville spoon, a Rat-L-Trap, and a chain fish stringer. I told him about the fish that I had caught, adding both weight and length to it, like all good fishermen do sometimes.

As I listened to the man with the white hair and kind eyes tell yarns, I felt at ease. He didn't know me from Adam, but he acted as if we'd been friends for years.
Soon, we talked about our family life, and even touched on religion a bit. I knew that this was a chance meeting, as if we were put there that morning for a reason.

We said our goodbyes, and he shoved off. As I watched him paddle away, I thought about how I'd like to be that kind of man one day-- a simple man that will take time to get to know a stranger, and share this thing called life with them. I hope to run into him again.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Simplicity

As Wildcat Creek slows and widens, just before it flows into what we call Tyger River Swamp, there is a stretch of water that is deep and full of stumps and fallen trees, as well as cattails and willows, making it nearly impenetrable, that is, unless you happen to be the kind of nut that will do anything or go anywhere to catch a fish. And if it so happens that you are warped enough to weave your way through the thick tangle, and get wet from head to toe, not to mention the possibility of coming face to face with snakes, snapping turtles, or the occasional rabid animal, you'd better be prepared to hang on, because there's no telling what you might catch, and there's no telling how big it will be. Sure it's a challenge to fight a five pound bass in heavy cover from the casting deck of a boat, but try it laying on your belly, half-submerged in mud, with a rod better suited to catch bream or crappies with, knowing all the time that it is an exercise in futility. It's not so much if  you will break off the fish of a lifetime, it's when.

I've taken a lot of grief over the years for my lack of good judgement when it comes to waters deemed unsuitable to fish in by normal people. One man remarked that I'd rather wade through a swamp full of leaches to catch a warmouth, than to stand on the front of a brand new boat to catch a record-breaking striper or largemouth bass, but that's just how I am. I've even passed this trait on to my son, who is also a junk fisherman, as some have called it. Truth is, I get a lot of satisfaction sitting on a bucket in the middle of a swamp somewhere, swatting 'skeeters and catching bluegills that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand.

There is just something about fishing in those hard to get to places that intrigues me. I have often found that the rougher it is to bushwhack your way through, the greater the chances there will be a good payoff for your efforts, unless, that is, you get tangled up and can't get back out, or you drown.

My brother and I sliced our way out into the swamp one Saturday and once we reached the water, we had to wade two hundred yards out to get to where we could cast to where fish would be. The weeds were so thick that even a floating worm would snag, and we would pull fifty feet of weeds back on the retrieve. We figured that if we spent a couple of days pulling weeds and hanging them on clusters of bushes all around where we were standing, we'd have a pretty good spot to fish. One good thing, though-- after half an hour or so, the bass began to go nuts, and we couldn't make a cast without them nailing it, if we wanted to. We had a lot of broken lines and lost rigs that day, but we caught more bass that day than either one of us could've imagined.

My son is truly a swamp-rat. He will lay across a dead tree and fish a hole the size of a tractor tire, and catch all kinds of fish. He's an old live bait fisherman to the core, and he won't hesitate to rip off tree bark or dig around under the banks to find just the right bait to use. I wouldn't put it past him to pick maggots off roadkill, if he thought it would produce a fish (you'd never see that on one of those TV fishing shows).He knows that the key to fishing is the ability to adapt to whatever situation you're presented with. Getting wet and nasty, and maybe a little bloody, is just part of the adventure for him.

Soon--maybe this weekend-- I'll find myself knee-deep in mud and weeds, trying to coax a bream to bite. No, I won't catch a wall hanger or fill the freezer with fish, but I will have a good time. And as the sun dips behind the trees, and the frogs begin to sing, I'll look out through the flooded timber and be content.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Under the Cover of Darkness

I thought it was a good idea to begin with, but I had my first doubts when it became obvious that my brother-in-law had never been in a canoe before, seeing as how he tried to step into it, like he was boarding a pontoon boat. Not only that, but he was also the one with the shotgun, loaded to the gills with buckshot, and I knew from experience that he was more careless with one than my five year old son would've been. Piss poor judgment on my part.

We had a major beaver problem on our hands, or actually, in the creek that forms the boundary of our property. The beavers had built a series of dams and backed up water, creating stagnant ponds that would later serve as a giant mosquito hatchery. I'm not sure why we felt it was up to us to "put a stop" to this activity, but I'm pretty sure that it was mostly because we were bored. My brother-in-law had borrowed some beaver traps a couple of months before, and after a few setbacks-- like having to figure out how to remove his injured foot from one of said traps, after he accidently stuck the toe of his rubber boot through enough to trip it off-- we caught one. We even busted two of the dams enough to let some water out, but the beavers repaired them in a couple of days. So I suppose that's where the shotgun came in.

I'd bought my canoe the summer before, without any preconceived notions that I would use it in a swollen creek at night to launch a full-on assault on a colony of beavers. When I bought it, I had something a little more sane in mind, like say, fishing.

We used our Wheat lights to guide us to the ambush point, about thirty yards upstream from the big dam. I served as navigator, with my brother-in-law on point in front of the canoe. We got close, and I held on to an overhanging limb to steady us. I slipped the yellow nylon rope around it  and tied us off. We turned out our lights and waited. And waited.

After sitting for two hours in a canoe, your legs hurt. Mine had went to sleep and woke back up thirty times, and he said that he believed that he was paralyzed from the waist down. Now, keep in mind I'm a big boy, and he was bigger than me at that time. I think the weight limit was 350, so we were about 300lbs overweight.

As we were about to abort the mission, a big ripple moved across the surface the water, and the block head of a big beaver was swimming right towards us. My big brother-in-law didn't give any warning, or give me a chance to steady the boat. He raised the gun and then shifted his weight suddenly to twist his body so he could make the shot, which threw us off balance. The last thing I remembered before going over backwards into the cold water was the shotgun going off. The next thing I knew, my comrade was fishing around for the shotgun which was down in the bottom of the creek. After going under completely, he came up with it. "I got it!" he said. Great.

There was no beaver to show for our efforts, in fact, I'm positive by that time it was back in its cozy lodge. We had a time getting my canoe out of the creek and I'm pretty sure I had stagnant water in my lungs that would eventually turn into pneumonia. When we got back to his house that night, he asked if we were going to try again sometime. I just said goodnight and went on home to dry out.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Murder of Crows

In the distance, just over the hill, I can hear the incessant caw-caws of crows, evidently upset about something. I leave the old gravel road-bed and follow a deer path through scrub-pines and eventually find my way to the clearing where thick woods gives way to an overgrown pasture. I can hear the fabric of my shirt-tail ripping as I pull free of briars that are  waist-high around the field's edge. The crows continue to voice their concern, and as I reach the top of a terrace, I see them, ten or more. I stand still for a moment so as not to alert them of my presence, but I figure that whatever it is they're bothered by is more concerning to them than an out of shape, bushy bearded, lug of a man like myself. I sidle up the hill toward the tree line, and that's when I see the object of their grievances.

About thirty feet up in an oak limb, sits a hawk. He is as still as a statue, and he appears unconcerned about the verbal abuse and continuous dive-bombing from the gang of crows. The only movement he makes is adjusting his grip on the limb with his claws. He stares out at the field as if he's trying to think of something else, and his passivity seems to be pissing off the crows more by the minute.

The crows are not the only ones surprised by the sudden change of plans, and I stand there with my jaw hanging as he takes flight out over the field and then circles back right into the angry mob as if he's stirring the pot. The hawk turns and rolls and flies towards me, and two of the crows go with him. It's the oldest trick in the book. I want to tell the crows that this is a trap, that he wants you to follow him, but I snap out of it and remember who I am pulling for here.

Now, I've seen hawks being attacked by crows before, and I know that if a crow screws up and gets under the hawk, he's a goner. The dog-fight continues high above the overgrown pasture and then the hawk leads them into the tree tops again, like he's trying to lose them. When they come out of the woods they fly directly overhead, and I turn to watch the battle before they go out of sight again. But when I turn, I see the most incredible move on the hawks part, as he rolls up and snatches the lead crow with his talons like picking an apple from a tree, and after flying a little further, opens his claws and drops the lifeless bird like a pair of dirty socks rolled together.

Without his comrade, the other crow pretends that he is running out of gas and cruises behind the hawk like an honorary escort before falling back and returning to where he came from. I can hear crows cawing through the woods, and I imagine soon they'll gather for a funeral whenever the coast is clear.

The hawk has landed somewhere on the treeline down in the creek bottom, not far from the old gravel road-bed, where I'll soon be walking, on my way back to the house.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reluctant Spring

Yesterday, as we traveled the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway near Gowensville, we were amazed by the contrast of seasons on display in the landscape before us. In the foreground was the magnificent pink blossoms of peach trees in full bloom, with the ancient hills of The Dark Corner, covered in a dusting of March snow, as a backdrop. The mountains were shrouded in gray clouds near their peaks, making them look higher than they actually are. We didn't have a good camera with us, just the ones from our cell phones. I did manage to slow enough for Melissa to take a quick, off-handed shot with her phone. As usual, we were in a rush to get from one engagement to another, and didn't have time to stop for a while and take it all in.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Ghost of Wildcat Creek

From the back porch, where I sit with a cup of coffee on the rail and a notebook on my lap, I can see the dog-hobble covered bank of Wildcat Creek. As mundane as this place might seem to some people, it is a place where I draw a great deal of inspiration from. Mornings seem to be the most productive time for me, as I straddle the line between conscience and unconscious-- with one foot still in the dream world, I suppose. I've written pages upon pages here (mostly crap) just trying to figure out exactly what it is that I think.

It is in the evenings, though, that my mind begins to wander, and I find myself distracted with any sound or smell that reminds me of the past. This is usually when I catch a glimpse of him.
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Laying cross-ways on a Persimmon tree that leans across a deep pool is a boy, no more than seven years old. His tattered  jeans rolled up to his knees and his T-shirt covered in silt and mud. He is looking for minnows or crawfish, and when he sees one, he stabs at the water like one of the herons that he saw, stalking the edge for fish or frogs.

He slides back down the tree to the bank, where he wades through the vegetation and jumps down onto a sandbar. He picks up a stick and throws it into the pool, and after the splash, he makes the sound of a stick of dynamite going off. The boy reaches down and takes a handful of sand and pebbles, looking for gold nuggets or some sort of gemstone.

He has a minnow trap that he baits with tiny balls of Sunbeam bread or broken pieces of chunk dog food. He checks the trap and discovers that a crawfish has been captured. Reaching in carefully, he squeezes the critter behind the head and claws and brings it out of the basket. The crawfish somehow reaches around and pinches the side of his thumb, and the boy squeals and drops it into the water, where it disappears in a cloud of mud.

The boy wishes he knew the names of all the plants and songbirds he sees as he explores the creek bottom. He wants to know because he loves this place, and he loves everything in it, even the spiders and the snakes and the crawfish that usually get the best of him.

The creatures here expect nothing of him, and he always feels accepted. This is the only place that he can find peace. He can use his imagination to make up stories and pretend he's somebody else: an explorer or a soldier or an Indian. None of the worries or fears that he has exist out here.
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I've put my notebook aside and now I'm walking the path along the creek bank, with just enough light to find my way. I push through the saplings and laurel and stand on the bank above a deep pool where a tree once leaned across. The last reflections of trees overhead are still on the water's surface.

As for the boy, he still haunts this place. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him as I walk these woods.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Gifts From Above

I've sat among the hardwoods for many  mornings, watching the sun rise and feeling its rays on my face as the first light filters through the trees. The woods slowly wakes and begins to come alive all around me. The birds rehearse their songs and the squirrels leave their warm nests to venture out and get an early start on their busy day. Sometimes, if you pay attention, you can hear a turkey gobble, or the sound of a pileated woodpecker off in the next holler. It's a scene that has been played out since creation. No matter what the circumstances are in our modern society, life in the natural world continues on.

Standing knee-deep in the cold water of a mountain stream, I am taken captive by my surroundings, feeling as if somehow I am becoming part of this place by merely standing still and allowing it to consume me. The sound of the rushing waters is soothing because after a while it begins to drown out all of the thoughts that I normally dwell on. Rivers have a calming effect on people, and it is said that in some cultures a troubled person would be taken there and left overnight to ease their minds and soothe their spirits. The Cherokees would walk into the river every morning in the ritual of "Going to Water", and they saw the river as a gift from the Creator.

Making my way through thick brush along the edge of an old hay field, I am startled by the sudden chaos of a covey of quail taking flight right in front of me. Though my heart has jumped into my throat, the exhilaration floods my soul with joy. This, to me, is a gift from God. Even the things that take me by surprise, like jumping a deer, or seeing a coyote heading toward me while sitting on the ground, with my back against a tree, is at last, a gift.

 Archibald Rutledge called these things, "Life's Extras", and I fully agree with that. These are the type of things that stay with you, long after the adventure is over.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Life Hanging on a Vine

We descended the steep slope down to Green Creek and followed the trail that runs beside it, stopping along the way to let the dogs drink where the sandbars were, or to gather large stones or small pebbles to add to rock cairns erected by past travelers in random places along the hiking trail.

That late September afternoon, the skies were cloudless, and ever so often, a slight breeze would drift through the hemlocks, making it the perfect day for a walk in the woods. We crossed Green Creek twice on foot-bridges, and began the gradual incline that carried us deeper into the forest and closer to our end point, the South Pacolet River.

My wife and I held hands and talked about both past and future adventures in this mountain cove, and I recounted for her the details of hunting trips, just over the mountain.

Two miles in and a half mile to go, my wife's hands started to tremble. Soon, her arms felt so heavy that she could not lift them to brace herself on a oak tree. She told me how dizzy and sick to her stomach she was, and I told her we'd turn back, but she said that she'd never make it. I tried not to show signs of fear or panic, but the fact of the matter was that it would be nearly impossible for me to carry her back to the car, even though she is a small woman. She felt it was best that she sat down, and she did.

Sometimes she gets that way if she hasn't eaten, and that morning she skipped breakfast. We were foolish, in that we didn't bring a single thing to eat, only two bottles of water. I mentioned walking back myself and rifling through our car to find anything-- a few spilt peanuts, a Lance cracker between the seats, a single piece of peppermint candy.
She wouldn't let me; she didn't want to be left alone there, and I couldn't blame her.

Now, it was up to me to find something out there that would help her, but for a few moments, I just froze. I racked my brain, trying to think of some plant that I could give her for her condition, but I could think of nothing. Then my nose gave me an idea. The sweet aroma of rotting muscadines led me to a vine, high up in a pine bough. I tried to shake the vine, but no luck. All I could come up with was a small handful of black, wrinkled fruit.

I gave her one to chew up and swallow, then another. Soon, she was able to stand, and with another in her cheek, she was able to slowly make the trek back to our car.

We learned a valuable lesson that day. We learned to never leave home without something to eat in an emergency, even if it's just a Snickers or granola bar. The other thing we learned was that sometimes the things we take for granted  can save your life and help you make it back home.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Miracle of Trout

It was the first day of spring, and I was taking Chase bream fishing. The weather had been warm for several weeks, but the water was still nice and chilly. "It might be too early for them to bite," I told him, just in case they didn't. It's hard enough to keep a six-year old's attention, especially if there's not much action.

Bream are temperamental little creatures, and if for some reason they don't want to bite, you can hang it up. You can, however, aggregate them enough that they will go into a feeding frenzy, but it takes a great deal of begging on certain days. This particular day they were in one of those moods. I started working the deep under-cut bank of the creek we were on, and they just weren't getting the idea. My son was losing confidence in me, and fast.

Unexpectedly, something took my offering and nearly jerked my spinning rod right out of my hand. I saw a silver flash under the surface as I lifted the rod to pull in the fish. I was thinking bass or a monster chain pickerel, until I saw the silvery sides with a pinkish tinge-- it was a rainbow trout.

First of all, this warm water creek in the foothills of Greenville County was not somewhere you'd expect to find a trout. The water is too slow moving with massive amounts of silt and debris for a trout to survive for long. The only explanation I could think of was that someone must've caught a trout up in the Saluda and didn't want to clean it, so they threw it in at the bridge above us.

The fish was a nice one, 14 inches. I threw him in the bucket, his mistake. On the next cast, same thing-- 14 inch rainbow. My son and I both had trout at the same time, both of those, near 14 inches. I had to be dreaming. We stopped and took the bucket of trout to show my dad, who said we were liars. My brother-in-law went back with us, and caught a few, as well.

We were starting to feel guilty for the luck we were having, (not really) so we quit while they were still biting and made a pact in blood that we wouldn't tell anybody else about our honey hole.

The next day, same thing. I talked my dad into going with me after work. After all the junk he talked, he wanted to catch a few, too. We walked down the bank together, and I showed him where to drop his baited hook in. A trout grabbed it and he fought the fish out from under the bank. When he went to lift the fish, he stepped in a stump-hole up to his thigh and fell backwards, and the fish landed on his chest and flopped around until I could stop laughing long enough to help him up.

We caught trout there until the water became to hot in mid-summer. Nobody believed us.

A few years later, a man that lives up the creek from us said he'd heard we caught a ton of trout on our end of the creek. He said another neighbor had mentioned this to him and this was the first time he had the opportunity to ask me about it. He thought it was a joke, until I confirmed it.

He had a friend from a hatchery stock rainbow trout in two beaver ponds behind his house, not realizing they wouldn't stay put. He said he thought the raccoons were eating them, because he wasn't seeing any trout, and they weren't eating the trout chow he was throwing out for them. What had happened, evidently, was they washed over or through the dams in one of the heavy rains we had, right down the creek.

He was a good sport about it as I described our fishing adventures at his expense. He said it made a good story, at least. I told him to give me a call the next time he decided to stock his beaver ponds so I could get the grease in my fish-fryer hot.