Sunday, August 23, 2015

Whiskey River: A Saturday afternoon on the Caney Fork

They touched chests. One was shirtless; the other in a tank top. Their noses briefly brushed, their eyes locked, and they stood, passionately frozen in the instant before the inevitable embrace, both men bathed in the soft glow of the fading sun. 

They arrived by boat. Nearly two dozen people of a variety of makes and models, all of whom had traveled several miles in boats of a variety of makes and models. They ranged widely in age and in shape; a few males were bare-chested and in swim trunks, the females wore an array of swim gear while an older woman braved a faded yellow bikini and a giant floppy hat. Also scattered in the crowd, a short and stocky bare-chested man wearing a pith helmet, a mid-teens girl with tattoos covering her shoulders and arms, a younger chubby boy with a gray, wet t-shirt plastered to his ample frame, and a much older man whose droopy body and tired facial expression displayed a deep exhaustion … with the day, the float, gravity … everything. A half-burnt cigarette dangled from his crooked mouth. He appeared to be very drunk. In fact, most of the adults were drunk. Heavily so. They staggered zombie-like from their kayaks, soaking wet and sunburnt, slack-jawed and drooling, stumbling step by wobbly step up the slick ramp as they gathered empties from the hulls of their well-worn watercraft and mumbled to one another in a language only they understood. 

At the water’s edge, a heavily-scratched tandem kayak entered the frame. Fore, a middle-aged woman in a one-piece bathing suit, and aft, a shirtless, huge-bellied, 50-ish man who wore a languid grin and a whiskey-soaked squint. The woman tried to exit the kayak, but her foot hung on the plastic gunnel, and she pirouetted and fell, face-planting into a skinny pool between two moss-covered boulders. Another woman paddled up in a beige sit-in yak. She made the mistake of giggling at her companion’s calamity, who, while on all fours in inches-deep water, blasted the woman with a shocking stream of profanity. 

Trying to rally, the fallen woman blamed everything on Darrell, her bloated and beet-red boating partner. “He’s drunk, and I’m tired of this shit!” Darrell didn’t acknowledge the accusation. In fact, it didn’t appear he was even aware of his current situation or lot. He just sat, in a stupor, with a slight stupid grin on his sun-grilled face. 

On the nearby rip-rap was a small boy, standing and staring wide-eyed at the legion of horribles populating the ramp. Next to him, his grandfather sat on an old red cooler and carved up the day's catch with a buck knife, tossing the entrails of several rainbow trout into the nearby river. He seemed to be doing his best to ignore the regrettable scene occurring just a few feet from them, perhaps emboldened by the barrier of discarded kayaks and canoes that were piled between his grandson and their clambering horde.

Awkwardly, we were there, too. At the end of a long, but productive, day of fishing on the river, Mark and I stood at the end of the ramp with our friend’s canoe, waiting for him to back down his trailer. The ramp, of course, was blocked by discarded rented kayaks and the zombie crew, so it wouldn’t have made any difference if he were poised and ready to back the trailer down … he couldn’t have made it to the water. Mark stood knee-deep in the river, his feet planted on the last few inches of grooved concrete. His right hand grasped the port side bow of the canoe, and he maintained an athletic stance, knees slightly bent, head up, and poised and ready to move quickly. His eyes were concerned and alert. I stood off the starboard side, but on dry land, my two feet not-so-firmly placed on the piled rocks surrounding the ramp. We had caught a lot of trout during the day, but the memories of the float were about to be erased. 

To our left, an argument broke out. The face-planter ripped into Darrell, who woke from his coma and growled an abhorrent retort, and punctuated it with a very loud and very angry “bitch!” His thundering proclamation resonated with a near lifetime of cigarette tar, and bounced off the water’s surface and rumbled between the river banks. It caught the attention of every person nearby. Unwittingly, we all became audience. 

He awkwardly exited the kayak, but did not fall. He gathered himself at the foot of the ramp, wobbled slightly, and pulled up his shorts, which clung precariously to the weirdly narrow waist and hips below his immense belly. He was really sunburned. A deep and hateful crimson. Glowing and glowering, he vomited forth obscenity upon obscenity, directed up the ramp at one of the men in the group. A tall man wearing a multi-colored tank-top emerged from the huddle of people and claimed his ground in a defiant pose. We presumed he was the target of the diatribe.

“Look, this ain’t got nothin’ to do with my son,” he exclaimed to Darrell.
“You don’t f____n’ talk like that in front of a woman,” replied the antagonist, spittle flying from his purple face. 
Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. 

The clan merged in a loose group, and the two men met in the middle. Standing nose-to-nose, they screamed at one another. They bumped chests, causing Darrell to gather himself as his worn-smooth Crocs slid on the wet ramp. The entourage constricted the two combatants, who reeled off a series of taunts. Their shouts eventually settled into an odd groove, with added emphasis placed within each return. 

“Shut your f____n’ mouth!”
“Shut YOUR f____n’ mouth!” 
“Shut YOUR f____n’ mouth!” 

This went on for a while. 

The grandfather continued to carve away at trout, shaking his head and hoping his grandson paid no attention to the adults behaving so poorly. Of course, the kid stared. Mesmerized. Frozen. Horrified. 

I looked at Mark. 
“Should I get my GoPro out?”
He quickly considered the idea. “Yeah, get it.” 
Before I could surreptitiously step into the water and retrieve the camera at the back of the boat, Darrell got dumped. 

I didn’t see who threw the first punch, but honestly, I’m not sure a punch was even thrown. Darrell went spilling down the ramp, scattering a few of his crew and flopping awkwardly into the seat of a faded red kayak. He sent three other empty kayaks skittering across the rip-rap, one of them in my direction, causing me to side-step it carefully as it slid toward the river. He tried to scramble to his feet, but his ample frame was wedged in the sit-in kayak’s opening. Stuck and panicking, he was set upon by the tattooed teenager and the chubby boy in the wet gray t-shirt. And, they just pummeled him. The two kids took out at least a day’s frustration on the older man, bashing him repeatedly with blows to his head. Darrell tried to stand up, but his legs and arms churned at the air as if he were an upturned turtle. The girl landed haymaker after haymaker; her lips drawn in a sneer, her fists jack-hammering away on her drunken opponent. 

The rest of the horde encircled the fallen man, as he struggled to pull himself upright. The two kids paused and stood back, breathing heavily. The tank-topped man towered triumphantly, his chest out, his arms slightly bent at his side and his hands clenched tightly. Finally standing, Darrell slurred curses before being set upon again by the young’uns. This time, the boy went for the body, while the girl seethed malice and continued to fire away at Darrell’s noggin’. He flopped back in the kayak. Blows continued to rain.

At last, the man in the pith helmet provided some needed leadership and corralled both children, and cautiously helped Darrell to his feet. Darrell’s face was now even more red, not from sunburn, but from the rat-a-tat-tat of little fat fists. The tank-topped man advanced, but Mr. Pith put himself between the two wannabe pugilists, as the chubby boy stood aside, wheezing. The tattooed girl kept her eyes locked on her target and paced. Like Tyson in his prime. The drunken entourage lingered. 

Nearby movement caught my gaze. Trailer lights appeared at the top of the ramp. Mark still stood knee deep, his eyes still wide and an even more concerned look covered his face. We exchanged glances and thought the same thought. He’s not going to try to back his trailer down now, is he? 

The horde was focused on the remnants of the fight. Mr. Pith maintained a Referee Mills Lane stance, having waved the contest over, and keeping Darrell at a safe, arms’ length away. Voices from the crowd urged Darrell to stop, but he continued to try to make his way at the tank-topped guy, who now looked a little embarrassed. His buzz had been killed. The woman who face-planted at the beginning of this tale was crying and repeating Darrell’s name. This soothed the beast slightly, and his cussing tapered off. He had already used every foul word invented, in every conceivable tense and in every conceivable sentence structure. Now, he just grunted softly. 

A respite of silence ensued, and a cool breeze blew across the ramp, and seemed to cleanse the air of malice. One of the women standing nearby handed Darrell a Croc that had fallen off when he was getting his ass kicked by the children. He acknowledged her gesture with a polite nod. The tattooed girl still glared at him, wanting to get in one more good shot. Part of me wanted to know the back story there. The better part of me didn’t. 

The group began to part, but only because someone noticed the boat trailer zig-zagging its way down the ramp. Most moved, while a few had to be nudged by their compatriots, numbed by both alcohol and the spectacle they had just observed. One woman didn’t move at all, choosing instead to stand right in the path of the trailer, which veered off-course, its right wheel falling off the side of the concrete. We heard the brakes squeak, as our buddy maneuvered to correct. The woman just stared blankly, in what appeared to be a textbook case of “drunken stupor.” Mark politely alerted her to the trailer and truck coming her way. A long, very weird pause followed, and the zombie woman creepily croaked, “I don’t know what the hell you want me to do.” Set slightly aback, Mark had to chase down the appropriate words. “You might want to move to the side, ma’am.” 

After a half-dozen-or-so more corrections, the wheels of our friend’s trailer finally touched the water, and Mark and I guided the boat onto its waiting cradle. Amidst the grinding, groaning and squeaking of the winch’s crank, we heard Darrell offering contrition to most of his party. I didn’t see if one was extended or accepted by the kids who beat him silly, but I was now just focused on getting the hell off the ramp. 

As we made our way to the waiting parking lot, Darrell stepped in front of us and furnished a handshake. To his left, the tank-topped man, whose expression very clearly suggested remorse and reconciliation.

“Man, I’m sorry for ruining your weekend,” Darrell rumbled. We wanted to reply, “Man … you just made our weekend,” but, instead, just traded niceties and assured him we were fine. He was defeated, but still proud. As he released Mark’s hand, Darrell uttered his final words to us. “Go Vols.” 

From the parking lot, I looked back at the river. Mid-ramp, Darrell and the tank-topped man were embraced in a placatory hug. They were surrounded by friends and family, in a tightly-knit huddle in the fading light of a faded day on the banks of the Caney Fork River. 

As we headed home, we passed a Smith County Sheriff’s Department patrol car, and watched it pull into the lot, drive slowly to the top of the boat ramp … and stop. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


It was the middle of March. I stood at the end of the muddy boat ramp, the tips of my boots nearly touching the lapping water. A green, padded cooler was draped over one shoulder. Inside, a couple of beers, an ice pack and two bottled waters. An old Jansport back pack hung from the other shoulder, filled with a box of shallow-running crank baits, some jigs and a couple of fly boxes. My right hand clasped two rigged-and-ready fly rods and a spinning rod. I checked my watch. 

It was around 4 p.m. I had left work in a dead sprint in order to meet Joe at the river. He had gotten a head start, launching his Tracker boat about an hour before. Standing at the ramp’s edge, I faced an empty stretch of the lake’s headwaters. Winter pool. The exposed mud banks revealed expansive boneyards of downed trees in every direction, most of which would be submerged in the weeks ahead, as the Corps of Engineers allowed the lake to fill. I stood there, rods in hand, waiting. The black-topped parking lot behind me had only two vehicles in it. I was currently alone … if not for the two teenage girls hula-hooping in bikinis atop the nearby bluff. It was overcast, mid-60s. Apparently, a good day to begin working on your tan. And, I guess, for getting out the ol’ hoop. 

Joe’s boat roared around the upstream bend and its operator idled back as he aimed the bow's nose at my knees. As I hopped aboard, I nodded to the bizarre scene on the nearby bluff. He chuckled and shook his head. I mumbled, “Boat ramps, man.” 

It is well known by lake and river visitors that boat ramps contain some of the most colorful representatives of the human race. Some tales are legendary. Personally, I’ve witnessed fist-fights, drunken dancing, nude kayakers, creepy guys, creepy vans, creepy guys in creepy vans, couples screaming at each other over a partner’s inability to appropriately back down a boat trailer, illicit behavior of all types (including some I’ve desperately tried to forget), and, very rarely, the presence of law enforcement. Whether you’re launching or leaving, or fishing or hula-hooping, the ramps tend to gather an incredibly diverse crowd of freaks. Please note, I include myself in that group, as I’m sure the hula-hoopers could’ve easily argued that the pale middle-aged guy standing motionless and alone at the end of the boat ramp and staring at the water was just a little bit freaky. 

Joe pushed the boat forward and the big motor growled and we made our way downstream toward the main lake. Over the din of the Mercury, Joe explained that he’d already caught a few fish around some trees near the mouth of a small feeder creek, and he thought we could start fishing there. So, we did. 

In my experience, the white bass run (a spring tradition, in which thousands of the striped fish head upstream to spawn) does not start in earnest until the redbud trees are in full bloom and their dogwood cousins are about to pop. As we cruised downstream, we did so through a corridor of empty trees still in the dismal clutches of winter. However, if we would've looked closely, we would’ve seen small buds on the many branches of the oaks, sycamores, elms —and redbuds — that cloaked the land beyond the edges of the water. 

After halting our run, Joe hopped to the bow and dropped the trolling motor. We both grabbed spinning rods with shallow-running crank baits, hoping to probe the under-cut banks for feeding fish. We didn’t have to search long, as both of us hooked up within the first few casts. With a couple of healthy stripe caught and released, we continued to pepper the downed timber and mud flats with a bevy of casts. 

As this cadence continued — slowly working our way down mud banks covered in downed trees, casting shallow and retrieving back to the boat — a similar rhythm emerged in terms of how and when we caught fish. It almost seemed as the fish were only active in brief, five-minute-max increments, which were normally followed by 20 minutes of inactivity. Perhaps, it was just a matter of motion and finding schools of feeding fish, but for whatever the reason, the strategy pursued proved to be most productive (flies, jigs and jerk baits realized nada). Even in mid-March, the white bass and hybrids were already thick in the river system. 

White bass. Or stripe. And, a big one.
Ok, let’s break this down briefly, as it took me quite a while to figure it out, and I know even some of my most-seasoned fishing buddies still struggle with it. White bass are also known regionally as “stripe.” They are distant cousins to the much bigger striped bass, an ocean-dwelling fish that smart fisheries biologists figured out could adjust extremely well to fresh-water environments. While the spring run in my local lake produces mainly stripe, there is always the chance one of their hulking cousins joining the procession. In middle Tennessee, striped bass are often referred to as “rockfish,” for their propensity to aggregate near rock, which is convenient, as the mid-state is basically one gigantic chunk of limestone. My buddies and I often refer to the rockfish as “stripers,” and we try — in vain, normally — to fish for them with fly rods. "Striper" just sounds better than rockfish, especially if you pronounce it like Peter Griffin ("Oh my Gawd, da stripah were wicked thick in da Caney last Novembah"). If you cross a white bass with a striped bass (thanks smart-and-perhaps-evil fisheries biologists), you’ll get a hybrid white bass, or simply “hybrid.” Or you can call 'em, “Cherokee.” Or “Wiper.” Then, there's the more-easily identifiable yellow bass, which looks a helluva lot like a white bass except, you guessed it, it's yellow. Locally, they're called "yellas."It's very confusing. All of these varieties look very similar, which adds to the perplexity. Tooth patches versus no tooth patches to broken lines to straight lines ... it all runs together. Most anglers only care if something worthwhile tugs on the end of the line, and, save for the smallish yellow bass, all of the variations mentioned above will do exactly that. From my perspective, the white bass, striped bass and hybrid bass are all worthy opponents, with the hybrids arguably get the nod for their aggressiveness, pulling ability and sheer obstinance. They do not suffer fools. 

Probably a hybrid. Maybe. Probably.
Digression aside, Joe and I continued to hit the same tributary for the next few weeks, enjoying some very fishy days, and some not-so-productive afternoons. In March, we relied heavily on square-billed crank baits which we casted to the water’s edge and retrieved through fallen timber. When all things came together, the bait would bounce and weave through the limbs, only to get crushed by a stripe, hybrid or a hefty, pre-spawn largemouth bass. As the days grew longer and we worked our way into April, the redbuds popped and dogwoods bloomed, and we stowed the spinning rods and doubled-hauled 7- and 8-weight fly rods. I used sinking line and an array of different-colored deceivers I’d tied back in the winter. Any color combination seemed to produce fish, if only it were complimented by white. 

Our best afternoon was enjoyed on high, heavily-stained water, as schools of aggressive hybrids schooled in the downstream, current-breaking areas behind downed trees. A couple of spots produced an impressive number of solid fish, all of which were caught, admired and released. 

Before we knew it, it was late April. Joe and I stood in the near-empty parking lot of the boat ramp, a few strands of dusk between us and darkness. Tree frogs whined from the nearby woods, and the night circled us with much warmer tones than it did a little over a month ago. The humidity and rising heat foreshadowed a change in both seasons and species, as the stripe run wallowed in its final throes and the spawning fish would mostly return to the lake’s deeper waters. In their place, crappie would temporarily fill the shallows, bluegill would begin bedding, post-spawn bass would refuel at odd periods of the day and channel catfish would pass the striped fish, heading in the opposite direction to follow their instinctive charge to reproduce.   

We wiped down Joe’s boat, which, after 10-plus years of being slimed by fish and run through scummy lake water and bounced off the occasional floating debris, still looks brand new — a testament to its meticulous and caring owner. Exchanging smiles and a solid handshake, we went our separate ways knowing that we had given the run our best, and — at times — we'd been rewarded in big and frequent ways. On the way to my parked truck, I stopped at a dented metal trash can bolted down to a concrete base in the median of the lot. The container was nearly full, and when I opened the lid, its wet odor caused me to recoil slightly. As I dropped a couple of empties and a Snickers wrapper into the can, I noticed something inside the cylinder. Even in the darkness, I could make out a distinctive shape amongst the refuse: a contorted semi-elliptical remnant of a what was once a perfectly good hula hoop.