The lake was formed by damming the Sabine River for water supply and flood control, and when it filled, the trees it covered did not die and topple over. They stayed upright, creating legendary fish habitat and, from an angler’s perspective, a fortunate obstacle to water recreation. Thanks to the ghostly snags of the old East Texas forest that remains underwater to this day, the reservoir—the largest man-made body of water in the South—would never become a water-skier’s paradise. The best way to navigate its narrow lanes would always be in a low-slung bass boat trolling quietly just above the old wood, where big fish live like birds among ancient mossy branches.
Toledo Bend Reservoir had been flooded for ten years when I first came to it, in 1976. The trip was a high school graduation gift from my father. We had been fishing together since I was five or six, when he’d take me to the stock tanks around Fort Worth—brilliant summer heat, grass as tall as I was, grasshoppers clacking, giant cows lowing—and teach me how to cast out into those muddy brown waters. On windy days there were waves over the surface of the stock tanks, and I remember being mesmerized by the motion of the bobber and the frogs squeaking and leaping at water’s edge as I waited and waited.
We stayed a couple of nights in a fish camp cabin, the famous Fin and Feather Resort, which at that time was not quite so upscale. A guide took us out and we caught some decent bass, but what we both remember from that graduation trip is the bream, pulled in on cane poles from a little rowboat later in the day. We’d taken a carton of crickets and paddled out to the edge of a weed bed, to the cooler, deeper waters along that fringed shelf. The fish were living back in the jungle of weeds, and they’d dart out to grab our crickets, then dash back in, carrying the line. You had to be fast, had to be fully focused. We quickly forgot about the bass fishing, the fancy rods and reels, the crankbaits and Mister Twister worms. Instead, it was bait and bobbers. My father and I were both young—it astounds me now to realize that he was only 42—and we had nothing but energy. We pulled out fish all afternoon.
I don’t want to be morbid, but here’s the deal: At some point, everything you do is the last time you do it. The bumper stickers assure us that hours spent fishing are not subtracted from one’s total allotment, but eventually there must come a last trip. Eventually, even time spent fishing—the most timeless time of all—runs out. This July, 34 years after that graduation trip, I get a call from my father. He’s spent the past few years in the hospital, battling a couple of bad cancers. He’s out now, and he says that he and his brother, my uncle Jimmy (eighty and a stroke survivor himself), are going back up to Toledo Bend to fish again. I know he’s hoping to find bream like we did the last time—as if during the decades we’ve been carrying out our lives far away from the lake, the fish have remained there, hiding in the weeds, waiting on us to return with our small offering of crickets.
Uncle Jimmy’s asleep when I get in. Dad’s been waiting up for me, and it’s great to see him, great to hear his plans and schemes. He seems surprised that I made it here in the dark, to this lost little cabin, utterly quiet other than the shrill of insects; we’re the only guests.
“I could hide out here,” he says. “I could come up here for a week and just fish and read.”
The sun is up over the water by 6 a.m., a copper-orange disc blazing through the pines and the cypress, infusing the day with the ascending power of hope: another glorious postcard sunrise, and though I’ve seen thousands of them, they get me every time. Our guide, Stephen—a professional bass fisherman—coasts his boat quietly into the old weathered-wood slip at 6:25, introduces himself with a professional’s good cheer. Hermit that I am, I can’t imagine a harder job. Aren’t there days where you don’t feel like being friendly? If Stephen ever has them, this isn’t one.
He says the bream hunting is pretty tough right now but that he thinks we can find some crappie.
My father helps Uncle Jimmy into the boat. I stand close by, resisting the urge to help both of them. Part of me wants to