The Fountain of Youth
“Hey. Hey ya’ll. GUYS!” In annoyance, the radio gets turned off and the laughing stops. “What’s up?” Pointing south with my paddle, “look ahead of us.” Even though they are a quarter mile down river, the violence of the rapids and the upward spray of the turbid waters can be seen from our seats in the old and overloaded canoes. This area received two inches of rain since yesterday evening, and now the river is angry and rushing water is where it hasn’t been in quite some time. Mother Nature couldn’t care less about us and it looks like she is about to prove that point.
“Let’s put our life jackets on and get a game plan. With this current, we don’t have much time to talk.” As we get closer, we see what used to be a sand bar is now an island, with very fast moving and dangerously shallow water on its right side. On the left there are three to four inch wide saplings that have grown up in the main channel during times of low water, but now they are just very ill-placed obstacles. We are about a hundred yards out now and closing. “If one canoe tips, the other helps retrieve the stuff and people. Hug the island and it should be fine. Don’t go too far left and sucked against the rocks and trees. Willie, if ya’ll go down, save Travis. He’s the only one of us with a wife and kids to live for. Oh, and by the way, good luck.”
The roar of the crashing water has become deafening and all we can do at this point is steer and pray. Twenty yards ahead of us, Travis and Willie are the first to go down. Justen and I wanted to watch and see how they fared, but we have our own problems to worry about. The current has pulled us too far left and we are now pinned against two saplings. Water is trying to roll our canoe, but we’ve each got one leg out and stuck into the rock. We’re pushing with everything we have to move our boat forward, and when we finally get the nose out far enough away from the tree, we tuck are legs back in and hold on for the ride.
Travis and Willie have spun around backwards, but they are in an eddy and safe. Justen and I are way too heavy for these conditions and are taking a few over the nose. Trying to limit the amount of water we take over the bow, Justen stays still and I use my oar as the rudder. After a couple hundred yards of turmoil, we get spit out downstream. Travis and Willie slide up beside us, beers in hand. “Ya’ll want one of these? Figured you might be a little thirsty after playing around in those trees.” “Oh you’re a riot, Richard. By the way, where did you find the reverse button on that canoe?! “
“This is it.” Sticking the canoe into the gently sloping bank, we step on land and I pull out memories from half my life ago. “When we were freshmen in high school, my mom used to drop us off on a Thursday and she would come pick us up on Sunday. Almost every other weekend we would do this. None of us had a phone; we just knew she would be back at 1pm on Sunday. We would seine for minnows and fish all day catching anything that swam, and at night we would catch monster yellow cats with live bream. We would sleep right here on these rocks next to a fire, digging a hole in the pebbles and sand to fit our bodies, placing a pillow at the uphill part of the hole. When we finally went to sleep, bait-clickers would often wake us up at night. One day the owner sold all the property, and I cursed his name for taking it all away. Of all the places in the entire world I’ve been, this is my favorite.”
Honestly, I can’t believe I’m here again. I have dreamed about this spot since the day I said goodbye, telling stories and reliving experiences time and time again, never once thinking I could ever return. In all its glory, here it is.
“If we boys don’t want cold vegetable for dinner, we better find a way to catch fish. With the river the way it is, my original game plan is useless.” Justen and I grab the seine, heading down stream a bit to a small current break with a lot of flooded grass. “Justen you run the shore and I’ll get off in the river. Travis, you stay to our outside and walk towards us, pushing the bait our way. Willie, you mind filling those minnow bucket up with water? We’re going to pull the net out right next to that tuft of grass.”
Hopping in the river, I stretch out the net. “You ready?” “Alright, let’s do it.” We are little match for the swollen river. Doing everything we can to not lose our footing, and ultimately our bait, we push upstream. Scratching and clawing, we move very slowly. With both hands needed to control the net on each side, we are quickly realizing that we can’t make it to our original pull-out area. “Hey Trav! Go ahead and start walking this way. Willy, bring them buckets down here!” Travis is pushing the bait down towards us, Justen is anchored close to shore and Willy is in position. When Travis gets close, I start to pivot around Justen. Travis, now inside the net, walks toward the shore and we scoop the seine up.
Hundreds of ghost minnows and small perch line the net. We pick out the bait we can use and quickly flip the rest back into the river. With the minnow buckets full, we go about driving in the custom made rod holders along the shore line. “I have one 8 ounce weight, half a dozen 3 ounce weights and probably another twenty or so 2 ounce weights. We need to get creative if we’re going to catch fish with what we have at hand.”
We opt for three way rigs on every pole. On one pole I put the 8 ounce weight, and on the other two poles we tie together two 3 ounce weights. We stage 6/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks roughly two foot above the weights on each line. The bait of choice is live two-inch long perch, each with a small slice down their side. The hook is run through the eye and back through the body on the other side. I cast the pole rigged with the 8 ounce weight to see if we even stand a chance. The weight sticks, so I go ahead and cast out the other two rods. With all the “tough” stuff taken care of, there’s only one thing left to do this afternoon: “Hey sensuwas…”
If someone can come up with a better way to spend a Friday, I’d like to hear about it. With the partly cloudy skies and fresh water, the fish are being very cooperative, and the assortment of species is making this day even more enjoyable. Channel cat for dinner? You got it. White bass on the half shell? No problem. Black bass under glass? Just say when. We are by no means slaying the fish, but given the fact that we’re not putting in even the slightest bit of effort, I’d say we’re doing fantastic.
If you were a nearby turtle, you would see a bunch of grown men morphing into teenagers. If you were a nearby photographer, you could take a black and white picture of us skipping rocks across the river. You might even get a snap shot of us throwing pebbles at an empty water bottle, knowing that the last person to hit the bottle would have to go get firewood for this evening’s dinner. If you stuck around just long enough, you may notice that there wasn’t a single phone call or text message made throughout the entirety of the day. That little tidbit alone is worth the trip.
“I don’t mean to share the family secret, but if we want to catch them big yellas tonight we need to go get some bream. These little tiny perch aren’t going to cut it for live bait.” The river has continuously dropped throughout the day, so much so that the very same spot where the tropical colored sunfish used to stack up over a decade ago is now exposed and presenting a great target. Each of us armed with a small pole, small tackle box and a minnow bucket, we make our way up the bank and cross the river to a small island.
We’ve traveled even further back in time as we explore our newfound territory. We are on a small, grass covered island that is offering a fantastic spot for baitfish to get out of the river’s current. There are several small pockets of 2-3ft deep water, each of which providing an eddy for several different species. As we each scope out likely targets, a young carp pushes through the middle of us and the chase is on. We dive back and forth at him and even attempt to push him towards shallow water, but the fish easily gets by us and the Man upstairs gets to laugh at His children.
Willie Randall may be the perch jerkiness person I’ve ever met. Where he casts, he finds success, and gets a very healthy lead on the rest of us. I’ve yet to get on the board, but everyone else is carrying the team. There are several species hiding in the grass laden current breaks all around us. We catch bass, carp, bream and catfish, with an emphasis on bass. They are very fired up today, so much so that they keep annihilating our cigar floats as if they were prey. Eventually though, we get roughly two dozen sunfish into the minnow buckets, and with rods and night crawlers held overhead, we let the river float us back to camp.
There’s work to be done before the moon comes over the horizon. We need a fire, the fish have to be cleaned and cooked, the rod holders need to be moved closer to the shore and it probably wouldn’t hurt to get a little more firewood in case a celebration takes place later tonight.
“I may never eat fried fish again.” We’ve all just eaten our weight in fish that was swimming around on a stringer hardly an hour ago, only to be lightly coated in oil and Cajun seasoning. With a side of Ranch Style beans and toasted bread, I’m not sure we could put a worthy price on such a meal. “The black bass is better than I expected, and the catfish is damn near perfection on a plate. Well done, Justen. Well done.”
Looking east, the time is upon us. “It’s time to get the baits in the water, boys. With that moon coming up, the party is about to get started.” We choose our finest three rod and reels, space them out in five yards intervals, and make our volley towards the now dark but still swiftly moving waters.
With baits soaking and the night ahead of us, we pass around homemade peach cobbler for dessert. It’s a liquid variation that was put in a jar and has a lot in common with what’s shimmering on the surface of the Brazos. What we talk about isn’t fit for print. I’m not suggesting that the material is inappropriate, but instead because it’s personal and was spoken as a secret to the other brothers in the group. Somewhere between solving the world’s problems and our own, the first rod bends over.
“Good fish ya’ll.” I’m keeping tension on the cat while Travis and Willie get the other two lines out of the way. “I can feel him roll, so it’s definitely a cat. He’s taking line, but I don’t know how big he is yet.” I fight the fish until I get him close, then someone grabs a flashlight and we get a look at him. He is roughly 15-17 pounds, not huge, but he’ll be tomorrow’s dinner. I lift my rod to get him past some grass, take a step towards the water to make the grab, and he spits the hook.
In disbelief, to both me and the fish, neither of us moves for a few hundredths of a second. I’m not sure why, but I drop my pole and jump in after him. I feel him underneath me, and I’m sure he feels me on top of him. He doesn’t care much for this arrangement, and shoots back towards the bank. Travis tries to grab him as I’m rolling around trying to grab anything I can. The fish isn’t keen on this idea either, and eventually makes his way back out to wherever it is that he came from.
“Dude, what happened?!” “Man, I don’t know. I got ‘em to the bank, tried easin’ him over the grass, and the hook came out. I figured I could grab ‘em before he realized what happened and jumped in after ‘em. I felt him and grabbed at ‘em, but he gone.” Uncharacteristically, I’m laughing this one off. “Are you serious man, that thing looked huge!” “Naw, he wasn’t the one. He would’ve been good for dinner, but he wasn’t the one.”
“Here’s the problem we’re facing, and this is why I was so picky about the perch earlier. We’re not supposed to use three way rigs when fishing for yellas. We are supposed to use light egg sinkers rigged with swivels and leaders, so that when these fish grab the bait, we can feed them line, allowing them to take the bait farther down, and then set the hook. The way we’re doing it, we have to use these smaller three to four inch perch so they can get them in one swipe and spend our downtime praying that hook drives deep on the initial run. It’s not ideal, but that’s what we got.”
The moon continues to rise and the water level continues to drop. We aren’t fishing as much as we are hunting, as is usually the case with flatheads. I’ve been fishing professionally for seven years, and have netted several nice yellas in that time. They were always caught on accident though, while fishing for some other game fish. This spot, at this moment, for this specific type of fish has rested on my mind for over a decade. I’m searching for a feeling that can’t be explained. If you don’t know what that feeling is, there’s no use in me trying to tell you.
We add wood to fire as the night settles around us. A breeze has come in and there is enough chill to prompt a need for a jacket, as my shirt is still drying on an oar that has been driven in the soil. I return from my backpack, jacket zipped and ready for more fire. The cigarettes that we’ve laid out on the rocks have dried out nicely, despite taking a good dip when I went fish diving. I’m trying to enjoy the evening, but since I’ve returned to my chair the smoke has chosen to blow straight at me. Moving my seat, I get a new angle on life and now have a perfect view of our farthest rod. Whether it was divine intervention or planetary alignment, not a moment goes by after sitting down that this very rod that I haven’t paid much mind to all night is now entirely bent over.
I jump over the front of the canoe, grab the rod and set the hook. It should be noted that I don’t jump and run often. The drag is already rolling coal by the time I set the hook and all I can do is hold on. “Reel those rods in! This is him!” This is a big fish and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Riding the current down, he has easily taken 20-30 yards of braid and continues to run. Travis and Willie are burning the reels to get everything else out of the way. I feel the fish stop, make a few rolls, and head back towards me, keeping the river and all its power between us.
I’m so glad he’s not a gar but I’m so nervous he’s going to swing those six ounces of lead and he’ll be gone. There is nothing to do but play the fish at this moment. It’s a game of yards as he pulls some and I take some. Although he is still 40-50 yards out, I can feel him rise and under the blinding full moon, he rolls on the surface. The river is glass smooth except for this fish’s tirade, and if Normal Rockwell ever painted at night, he would’ve loved to have seen this.
Several minutes go by and we haven’t seen the fish. The drag is fairly tight, but I want to play him the right way. He has gone back and forth, but I’m winning more that I was at the start of this fight, and now he is closing in at 10-15 yards. “Someone grab a light, he’s close!”
A blue beam of LED light scans the water, and when he enters the glow, we are all surprised. “Oh my God; I didn’t know he was that big.” The big fish is tired, but he does what any proud fish would do and runs again. Please God don’t let him get off now. He has fought too long though and can’t take the strain of the heavy rod and reel. I step in the river, putting myself next to him. With my right hand I raise the rod and draw the beast near. When he gets close, I switch my rod to my left hand and put the knuckles of my right hand against his sandpaper jaws. I lift with my right and cradle with my left and move to shore with the fish in my arms under complete silence.
When that fish crosses the line from water to rock, all heaven breaks loose. You want to talk about some crazy Indian dancing, Super Bowl winning, world championship celebrating and champagne spraying mixed with who knows how many high-fives. I’ve been fortunate enough to fish a good part of the western hemisphere, and I don’t know that I have many moments that top this one. We were completely cut off from the world, with only the moon and the Lord as our witness and the innocence and happiness of this moment washed away anything and everything that was weighing on our minds and in our hearts. At this moment, it’s just us, the river and the fish that brought us here.
“Travis, when I die, I want to be buried in the Brazos. I want my ashes spread upriver of here so that I can flow through what I consider heaven. I haven’t seen these lands in fifteen years, and there’s no spot I love in this world more than I love this spot on the river. I want to run these banks with the ghost of John Graves and I want to fish with Jesus as I please. I don’t care what you have to do to make that happen, and I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon, but when I die, bury me in the Brazos.”
That night, we celebrated.
A couple more photos from the next night.