Fish Story

Eventually, even time spent out on the lake with a cane pole in your hand—the most timeless time of all—runs out.

September 2010By Comments

ANGLER OF REPOSE: The author with his father, Charlie (right), and his uncle Jimmy.

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 shake my fist at this suddenly rapid disintegration of the body (it was not rapid; life is long, it only seems short looking back). The other part of me is so happy to be having one more fishing trip with them that I feel nothing but great fortune.

Life is long. My father and uncle have been in the oil business since, it always seemed to me, the oil business began. Dad’s a geologist and has, over the past seven decades, found a lot of oil. My childhood memories are of waking up in the night and looking down the hall of our house in Houston and seeing him seated at his drafting table, awash in yellow light while all else around him was darkness—studying, working on a vast map that spilled over the edges of the big table. Uncle Jimmy ran a company that fabricated steel pipe, mostly for oil fields; over the past seven decades, he’s threaded and sold a lot of it. This is an understatement, but none of it matters now. All those years, all that business, was only but a moment.

Stephen takes us out beyond the no-wake zone, out onto the big lake proper, and gives the boat full throttle. Suddenly we’re surging forward across the flat surface into the cool forest-and-clean-lake-scented air, the surge blowing our hair back, the air washing past us. We inhale deeply, having completely forgotten this feeling in which the physical act of soaring matches the imagined act of flying. The feeling has been gone so long that we had accepted—perhaps decades ago—the condition that replaced it. But now here it is, totally unexpected. Dad’s three years of hospital bouts wash away, and Uncle Jimmy’s speech and walking therapy wash away too. We’re flying.

Stephen steers our boat into an empty cove—dark, pretty water—and tosses a buoy over, taking only the quickest of glances at his depth finder. I’ll soon come to understand that he knows every branch of every submerged tree in this lake, knows the underground terrain of the old mysterious forested valley that lies beneath us, the way my father and uncle know the buried landscapes of the oil fields.

Stephen hands us our rods, complete with sliding corks and baited minnows—he’s brought fourteen dozen!—and we drop the weighted lines over, the bobbers measured to descend to the day’s magical crappie depth of twelve feet. As he’s handing us our poles, Stephen’s explaining the basics to us: how to wait for the bobber to go all the way under and how, if the hook gets stuck on an underwater branch, to not jerk and yank, because that will spook all the other fish hiding in that brush.

I particularly like this image—a flock of crappie roosting in all the branches, exploding into flight at the tug of one impatient fisherman, crappie flashing in all directions, like quail. Stephen tells us it may take some getting used to, learning to fish with a bobber again.

The wait isn’t long. Suddenly Uncle Jimmy has a fish aloft and swings it into the boat. It’s a huge crappie, and at that moment it’s more precious than jewels or any other riches of the earth, gleaming in the morning light, every scale illuminated with fantastic clarity. Uncle Jimmy is grinning like he rarely grins, the ear-to-ear kind, and even Stephen, who has seen so much, seems a little surprised by the immediacy of our success. He unhooks Uncle Jimmy’s fish and holds it up for me to photograph, the two of them still grinning, Uncle Jimmy giving a thumbs-up.

Stephen rebaits the hook with a splendid shining minnow. And almost instantly Uncle Jimmy’s got another crappie, almost as big as the first. Now Stephen has an explanation. He says that’s often how it goes, that the other fish in a school get excited when they see one of their own rush out and take the silver minnow and then disappear—ascending!—and so they rush out too and attack the next minnow. And sure enough, now Dad has one on his line.

My own bobber begins to twitch, sailing a short distance under unseen power, then pausing, and after a while, when it has moved no more, I reel in to see the archetypal image of woe and futility: the shiny, bare hook.

Dad and I are both losing bait now, while Uncle Jimmy is still hauling in one crappie after another, though finally, he too hits a cold spell—I imagine a vast school of bream moving in, with some underwater communication going on—and after we’ve gone through maybe three dozen minnows, Stephen announces quietly that he thinks we’ll move on to another spot.

He’s got plenty of other spots. He has gathered and bound great twisted bundles of tree limbs, trunks, and branches, as if creating some public art installation, then towed them out into the lake and tossed them overboard to create microsites of extreme habitat: secret places known only to him, which he guards and protects carefully—his livelihood. Like a farmer, Stephen practices rotation on his underwater fields of fish, never harvesting more than ten from any one pile and giving each brush pile a good rest between such harvests. The practice is not illegal—it creates structure and habitat that would otherwise be lost as the lake ages, slouching toward senescence—but still I picture him towing out his little thickets on moonless nights, like a pirate or a rumrunner.

There are fish at every brush pile. I’m surprised we don’t catch any largemouth, but Stephen says the crappie are more aggressive and drive the largemouth out of the prime habitat. At one pile, we begin catching little yellow bass, each of them about a pound, and they too go into the ice chest so we can find out what they taste like. They look like circus fish, yellow-bellied and blazing with the distinct markings of striped or white bass, bold as zebras. Particularly fascinating to me is the way the lines stop above the anal fin and then begin again, slightly offset, rather than continuing uninterrupted, as if a printer had run out of ink and then repositioned the fish for the remainder of the stripes, but with that slight offset.

Who made the world? goes the first line of a poem by Mary Oliver. Who made the swan, and the black bear? I puzzle over what selective advantage there could be for those offset stripes but can’t figure out a satisfactorily intelligent explanation. The day is growing hotter, and it just doesn’t feel much like a day for hard thinking. Marveling, yes, but straining my brain, not so much. Maybe the stripes are just an ongoing, random experiment. Maybe the verdict on such offsets—compared with the unbroken lines on striped bass—is still a work in progress. Who made the world?

Stephen shows us on the depth finder the deeper, cooler channels, the meandering path where the old Sabine River once was or, I suppose, still is. The limit for crappie on Toledo Bend is 50, but Stephen says he asks his anglers to fish to only 25 each. As if 75 fish in the ice chest is modest. But the crappie are so large that our ice chest is filled with only 50. A hundred filets. We head on back into the shady cove at Fox’s Lodge, sun-blasted, sated, and maybe even a little chastened by the volume of our catch—not just the bounty but the ease of it, just waiting for that bobber to go down, time and again. You wouldn’t want every day to be like this one, probably, or the thrill would wear off, but once in a while—every 34 years maybe—it’s okay.

The bumper stickers are true. Time did not move while we were out on the lake. All day long it sat still and deep, while we pulled one fish after another from out of those brush piles. Even after we got out of the boat, and my father helped Stephen clean the fish, and we took them up to the cabin to cook over mesquite coals in the red dusk with no one else around—even then, time didn’t move. It would soon enough resume its fluid rush, eddies and crosscurrents, standing waves, riffles, everything working its way downstream. But not yet. And as I sit listening to the East Texas summer evening insect-roar, it’s the end of Mary Oliver’s poem that comes to mind: Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

We sit around the grill, visiting. The fish is delicious. As night comes on, a few fireflies begin blinking, flashing their lights, patrolling the forest as if in search of a lost route—the channel where a river, now buried, still runs, well below the surface.

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