A (Mostly) True Fishing Story


     In the late Spring of 1986, my friend Bobby and I had planned a weekend float trip on the James River in Virginia. As a precursor to this event, I had purchased a new fly rod, made of genuine GRAPHITE. State of the art. Berkley. $110.00. The weapon of bass destruction. The night before our early Friday a.m. departure, I spent several hours putting together The Ultimate Smallmouth Box. It was perfect. At 2:00 a.m., I was finally satisfied that the box was complete, and I went to bed for a couple of hours.

     Bobby came by at 4:30 a.m., we hooked up my trailered Gheenoe, and we headed to Hillsborough, N.C. for breakfast at Jack’s, a local greasy spoon which served thick slices of country ham on a hot, homemade, cat-head biscuit. I was driving my new company pick-up, and it pulled the trailer like it wasn’t even there. So, when I pulled into the parking lot at Jack’s, I was a bit stunned by the reminder that it was, in fact, there. It was the metal grinding sounds that came from behind my truck that tipped me off. I had dragged the boat trailer across the tailgate of a brand new Chevy showoff truck, black with silver sparkle trim lines. I found the owner insideand confessed my sins. He forgave me to the tune of $800.00. We got our biscuits and coffee and continued our adventure, bloodied but unbowed.

     In Lynchburg, VA, it was our habit to stop at the local Gaudy Mart and get our license for the weekend. I wandered to the bed of the truck and dug through my stuff, just to check the tackle box one last time, in case there was a hole left unfilled. As I began to unbury my tackle, a sick, sad, and scary truth was beginning to rear its ugly head; I couldn’t find the damn box. I called my wife and verified that, yes, it was still sitting in the middle of my den floor. “Did you need it?” she asked. I cursed, I wailed, I stamped my feet, I kicked the truck. I broke my toe. So I limped into the Gaudy Mart, bought my license and about $95.00 worth of flies, leaders, boxes, nippers, hemostats, a Shakespeare reel, and a Cortland level floating line. It was the only fly line they sold. American Express. Don’t leave home without it.

     We cruised out of Lynchburg toward the James -- Bobby, me, and my throbbing toe. Arriving finally at the put-in, the boat was dropped, the equipment unloaded, and I left Bobby there to rig up and pack the boat while I drove back down to Glasgow to park the truck and arrange the shuttle. All went smoothly back to the put-in, and the anticipation of 100 fish days, campfire skillet meals, good company, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark for dessert made me forget, for the moment, the pain in my swollen toe and in my wallet.

     We shoved off and began fishing, and immediately got into some fish. One after the other, they crossed the gunwales, bronzed rockets with angry red eyes glaring, defiant. Bobby let out a not-to-be-repeated string of epithets, and I assessed his remarks as a subtle indicator that he had gotten his line hung up in the boulder-strewn bottom. No sweat, I thought. That’s why we’ve got a trolling motor. I swung the bow upstream and motored toward his twanging leader. A slight bump, and suddenly we were not making way upstream anymore. I lifted the motor out of the water, and heard the hum of the motor shaft spinning away unrestricted by the burden of any propeller. Again, no big deal, because I had not one, but TWO replacement props. However, I did NOT, damnit, have a single effin’ cotter pin. So, as we drifted further and further away from Bobby’s hang-up, I managed to rig up a couple of size 2 hooks as a makeshift pin, and we motored in a drunken, cavitationally challenged manner toward his leader, which broke off as soon as we arrived.

     The fishing was good that day, and as we drifted downstream, all the catastrophes and casualties of the trip had begun to fade into the far away past. A gentle mid-day sun was nudging me toward the arms of Morpheus. That’s when we hit the rock. The sudden jolt out of sleepy oblivion stirred me, and I reached back and hit the switch to reverse us out of the jam. The Peckinpah sequence that followed is etched gruesomely forever into the inky deeps of my memory.

When I punched the motor switch into reverse, it captured and began speed reeling the tippet and leader of my heretofore lazily trailing Clouser Minnow. That yanked the tip of my fly rod up and over the stern. Then the rest of the rod arced majestically up and over my head and into the river. The fly line jammed the prop, and the current washed us back up onto the rock, where we tilted and spun like a state fair ride. I sat stunned in the stern, catching my breath. I wrenched my arms around to the stern, gripped the handhold there, jumped my butt up off the seat, and yanked on the boat. I was, in effect, trying to lift the end of the boat underneath me, with my big butt still holding it down. This only served to tear a muscle in my back, which felt like it was now in flames. I lost my balance and fell in the river.

To my great relief (and somewhat to my chagrin) I was standing in about calf-deep water. I spied my reel on the bottom, and reached into the river and picked it up. That’s when I found out I was standing on my rod. I also found out that, even underwater, graphite sounds like a gunshot when it shatters. Bobby was now unable to breathe due to epileptic fits of laughter. He hooted so hard that he tipped the dainty balance of our boat and water began rushing over the gunwale on the upstream side of the craft. We began to try and collect our gear as it variously sank away and floated off down the river. We dragpushdragged the boat to a sandbar, where we immediately opened the Maker’s Mark. It helped some. Finally, after we had found all that was findable of our belongings, we pushed off downstream once again. I discovered that sitting in a riverboat seat is not very therapeutic for one’s now torn back muscle. I only whimpered once.

Along the way, as we fished out the day (me with borrowed tackle) we would recapture various floating gear that had been lost during The Great Upheaval. It looked much like a two-mile-long drifting yard sale. Finally, we rounded the bend at our campsite, beached the boat, and unloaded the gear. I felt like Quasimodo as I humped the sleeping bags and tent over to the grassy flat above the sand bar. At last, at long last, we were able to rest. I fired up the stove for a pot of creekside coffee, and leaned against a short stump to rest my aching back and assess the damage to my toe. That’s when the yellow jackets attacked. Apparently, they take great exception when you cover their stumpy nest with your aching butt. I lurched away and crawled into my sleeping bag, where they joined me and held a sting fest in my honor. Bobby was fishing.

Bobby put a few redeyes in the cooler, killed them and fried them up while I slathered myself with peanut oil in an effort to cool down the stings. Did you know that red ants and mosquitoes like peanut oil? We ate, washed up, uncorked the Maker’s Mark, and threw the cap in the fire. It had been a long day. That night, as we slept, a cold front moved in and settled in the river valley.

The next morning it was chilly, and while making coffee, I put on a jacket for warmth. Not a raincoat, just a fleece jacket. I didn’t have a raincoat. (Don't get ahead of me here.) We loaded the boat and shoved off. The bite had shoved off, too, so we did a lot of casting and no catching. Late morning arrived with a thunderhead in tow, which settled over the river and spewed rain that would’ve frightened anyone not named Noah. We headed for shore, and took cover under a pine thicket. I don’t have a raincoat. So I soaked up the driving rain like a junior high gym towel. The temperature dropped 30 degrees, and I discovered a new word to add to my active vocabulary: Hypothermia.

When the rain finally slowed to a drizzle, and the lightning stopped taking potshots at us, we surrendered. We bailed the water from the boat and made a run for the take-out, about two miles downstream. Ten minutes into our cruise, we found out that the Great Upheaval had put a hole in the boat, and we were doing our Titanic impression. Bail, paddle, pray...bail, paddle, pray. Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee.

Off in the distance we spotted the steep bank indentation that marked the take-out. We nosed into the shallows there, tied up the boat, and began the climb-and-crawl up the rain-slick muddy bank up to the parking lot. There were some rocks embedded in the bank. I discovered them with my face when I slipped and fell and broke a tooth.

We got the boat hooked up, dragged it up the embankment, winched it onto the trailer, and drove away.

On the very subdued drive home, the trolling motor flew off the transom and bounced down Highway 501. I didn’t stop.


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  1. Unfortunately, I’ve had days like that as well. Luckily, you caught some fish, and that, my friend, makes it all worthwhile!

  2. I haven’t laughed so hard in quite some time. If you’ve fished a bit… you’ve been there, and Jule captures those moments perfectly.

    Thanks, pal!


  3. This is unbelievable. I think your mostly true story makes the rest of us feel like we haven’t had things go wrong too often. Every single thing that happened backfired on you. Damn, I hope that you gave up fishing after that. (I know you have not based on FaceBook Pictures).

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