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MY BIGGEST CATCH

July 17, 2016

Some of the stories in this column will appear in the forthcoming book, Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard, by Kirk H. Neely.

My good friend John Faris is working on a new book, We’ll Do It Tomorrow: Southern Hunting and Fishing Stories.  I have had the good fortune of fishing with John on numerous occasions. He has many stories to tell as do I. In fact, John and I get almost as much enjoyment sharing fishing stories as we do fishing. In his new book John recounts adventures fishing for bream and bass on small farm ponds as well as fishing for spot tail bass and tarpon in salt water. I’ll let you know when John’s new volume is published later this year. It will be a page turner you will not want to miss!

Recently, I spoke with a man at the Beacon Drive-In. He and a friend had just returned from a fishing trip. He still had his boat in tow behind his pickup truck in the parking lot. He insisted on showing me his catch. He had landed several large striped bass, now on ice in a big cooler..  Bragging about the day’s catch, he said, “We just wore them out!”

The striped bass, sometimes called a rockfish, is the state fish of South Carolina.

In mid-June several years ago, three friends and I fished for striped bass from dawn to dusk on Lake Murray.  The lake was calm.  The sun was hot.  Fishing was slow. The striped bass would not bite.

The fellow who owned the boat wanted to call it a day.  The wind picked up making the water choppy. I wanted to try one more place.

Near the islands in the big water of Lake Murray, the bottom drops quickly to a depth of ninety feet.  As we moved over the deep water, I reached in the bait well, grabbed a large gizzard shad, put him on my hook, and dropped my line to the bottom.  Just then, the rod tip bent beneath the water, and curved under the boat.  I set the hook hard.  The fiberglass rod broke in half.

It was like fishing with a stiff broom handle.

The fish on the other end made a run, pulling line off the reel.  Accompanied by that distinctive hum so thrilling to a fisherman, the striper continued its run.

When I saw bare reel, I knew I had to turn his head.  I gave one quick jerk on the rod.  The fish stopped.  We moved the boat to the fish, and I took in line.  When we were above the fish, I worked him up from the bottom of the lake.  Slowly, he came closer to the surface.   The striper ran again, this time not so far.

Because the rod was broken, I could not feel the fish.  I knew he was large.  My arms and back were aching from the extended fight. When I finally saw the striper on the surface of the water, I could hardly believe my eyes.  I reeled him to the boat; one of my friends netted him, and brought him aboard.  It was the largest freshwater fish I have ever caught – a 23-pound striped bass.

My friend said of his striper fishing, “We wore them out!”

I would reverse that in sharing my own striper story. “He wore me out!”

I had my picture made with my prized striped bass.  When my uncle saw the photograph, he quipped, “Whoever caught that fish was lying.”

Several years ago, I was driving my pickup truck home from a conference in Tennessee on a beautiful Saturday in March.  Deciding to get off the interstate, I came home over the mountains and through the country.  Just below Highlands, North Carolina, I crossed into South Carolina on Highway 107.  I realized that March was the beginning of trout season in South Carolina. I had a fishing license in my wallet and a light weight spinning rod and reel in the truck. Just south of the Walhalla Fish Hatchery, I stopped at Indian Creek for a cast or two.

I was dressed in a coat and tie, but I got my gear out of the pickup, and tied a brass Mepps spinner with a black tail on the monofilament line. I found a likely looking pool just beyond a mountain laurel thicket.  I set the drag on the reel and made a less than perfect underhanded cast.  At the count of three, I retrieved the lure.  As I did, I saw a large swirl in the water.  The second cast was nearly perfect.  I counted down to five.  On the first turn of the reel the hungry trout struck.  Because my tackle was ultra-light, I played the fish for ten minutes or so trying to keep him in the center of the pool and away from snags. I was able to carefully guide the fish to the edge of the creek.  In order to land the fish from the bank, about three feet above the surface of the water, I stretched out flat on the cold, wet moss, still wearing my white shirt, my coat, and tie.  I lifted the rod high above my head with my left hand bringing the fish’s mouth to the surface.  I stuck my right thumb in his mouth, grasping his lower lip.  I slowly lifted him out of the water.  He measured about nineteen inches long.  He was a male rainbow trout with a distinctive hooked jaw or kype.

As I stood up with fish in hand, I realized there was no one to take a picture.  I had no one to show him to.  I admired him for a few minutes, removed the treble hook, and released him. It was the largest fish I have caught from a stream, a breeder no doubt released from the fish hatchery the previous fall.

Fishing adventures bring back memories of my youth. I started fishing before monofilament line was invented.  The rig I first used was a black braided line tied to a bamboo stick outfitted with a single hook, a split shot, and a real cork.  I caught a lot of bream, my share of bass, and a few catfish using a cane pole. Once I even hauled in a snapping turtle.

Though I have enjoyed deep-sea trolling, angling on mountain streams, and fishing in large lakes, there is sheer delight in fishing a farm pond.  The biggest largemouth bass I ever caught was an eight-pounder hooked in a North Carolina pond.

My grandfather, Pappy, taught me to fish.  When school was out for the summer, we went fishing at daylight nearly every day except Sunday. A farm pond near Walnut Grove was our fishing hole.

To this day when I fish, I spit on my bait, just as Pappy taught me.

“For the fish, it changes the smell and flavor of the bait,” Pappy said.

That is true, especially if the fisherman smokes cigars as Pappy did.

When I was ten, my grandfather gave me my first rod and reel and a few quick lessons on how to cast.  Using a wooden Chub Creek Minnow with treble hooks, he demonstrated the technique.  I was sure I could do it.

Rod and reel in hand, I reached back to cast with all my might.  On my very first cast, I made the biggest catch of my life.  I hooked my grandfather – right in the eyebrow.

When I set the hook, Pappy used some of his Navy language.  To create slack, he grabbed the line cutting it with his pocketknife. The Chub Creek Minnow dangled from his eyebrow, and blood ran down his face.  Taking needle-nose pliers from his tackle box, he rolled the hook through his eyebrow and clipped off the barb.  The hook was removed.

Pappy bit the end off of his cigar, chewed it up, and made a poultice for his wound.  Once the bleeding had stopped, he tied a new lure onto the end of my line and said, “Now let me teach you how to cast.”

My biggest catch ever was Pappy, my own grandfather. He was definitely a keeper!

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