Catfish and Canoes

As l drifted off to sleep, serenaded by the throaty bellow of the bullfrogs and the gentle rock of the waves, I pondered how it was that I arrived here: curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of my canoe, a dirty life jacket propped beneath my head.

I’ve always preferred the road less traveled. A 50 horse Johnson and a crowded boat ramp is not my idea of a good time. I like the long way, the muddy route, the steep climb. A righteous day afield means grimy clothes and aching muscles. I like a little Huckleberry Finn in a day of fishing.

My usual harder-than-hell-to-get-to catfish hole hadn’t been producing. In the backwaters of a reservoir, it’s a sharp, rocky point that juts out and nearly touches the bend in a creek channel. Yeah, prime stuff. Its the kind of place you’d see diagrammed in Field and Stream with the title, “Catch Spring Cats Now.” Recent deluges had sent the water levels into wild fluctuation and the catfish on the move. Two trips to the not-so hot spot had seen few bent poles and zero catfish fillets. I needed to find smaller water.

My plan B when Field and Stream ain’t happening is a 100 acre lake nestled between the sprawling valleys of an old state forest. Its here that I find myself on a Monday night, the chorus of nature’s nightlife and the sway of the boat coaxing me to sleep. I had arrived on the scene hours earlier, with little more than my canoe and a couple of beers to keep me company. I was going to catch some catfish and spend the night in my boat, but just as importantly I was going to take beautiful pictures to chronicle my experience. I loaded the Wenonah with haste, inventoried my gear, and stepped back to take what would have been a beautiful picture of the loaded canoe, juxtaposed against the choppy lake. But, like a moron, and many morons before me, I Forgot the Batteries. Specifically the camera battery, which was still sitting fully juiced on the charger at home, happily sucking electricity and running up my electric bill.

So there would be no pictures. After a 15 minute paddle I reached my destination, a seemingly nondescript point with little cover other than a shallow weed line. I wedged the canoe over some bullrushes and went about setting my lines for the evening. Small water catfish tend to run smaller, so I down-sized my hook to a 1/0 and clamped on a split shot. There would be no monsters caught this evening, but I was fine with that. Two pounders make fine meals.

The bite didn’t pick up till dark. In the meantime, I made myself comfortable by wedging my dry bag against the back of the canoe and propping my feet up on the yoke. I cracked open a beer and waited for a rod to double, swatting the occasional mosquito. Two bass, not ten feet from the boat, treated me with a display of courtship for the better part of the evening. The male had carved out a nest in the thick weeds, and occasionally the female would emerge from the bullrushes to drop her eggs. They swam in circles around the nest, fins shimmying, their bodies tilted in an intimate dance of procreation. It was one of those seldom-seen moments in nature, the kind that leaves you with a feeling of privilege and a memory you’ll never forget.

Once the sun dropped behind the trees it was difficult to keep two lines in the water. Twice I had doubles. While fighting a fish in one hand, the beam of my headlamp would catch the other rod being waylaid by a hungry cat, requiring a desperate lunge with my offhand to keep my pole from skiing across the lake.

After eight fish I decided to call it a night. With my sleeping bag unfurled along the bottom of the boat and my rods stowed safely atop the yoke and the seat, I slipped off my boots and slithered into the embrace of my mummy bag. I had no idea what time it was and it didn’t matter, I had forgotten tomorrow way earlier. I had no where to be in the morning, no obligations, no appointments. For the moment, life was a simple summation of fish and sleep. It was quiet except for the bullfrog baritone and a radio playing in a distant campground, sending out a song I couldn’t quite make out. The stringer, tied to the seat of the canoe, scratched softly on the sides of the gunnels as the catfish did their signature roll. I hoped no snapping turtles would eat them before I could.

After a relatively good night of sleep, I was awakened by the first rays of the morning sun. Despite my crusty eyes and sore muscles, I set a couple lines before departing. Within minutes both rods had doubled and a limit was mine. As I paddled back to the truck, I wondered how much longer I’d be able to traverse this path less traveled, this rustic and romantic way of fishing to which I’d grown accustomed. At what age would my body reduce me to outboards and modern convenience, when would it send my mind the ultimatum? I’m not getting any younger. Things I could do ten years ago without consequences now mean stiff joints and aching muscles. So for now I’ll enjoy every minute of my fleeting youth and continue to channel my inner Huck Finn, one fish at a time.

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