“Play it again, Sam” were the words reverberating around my cranium as Mike and I once more backed his tiny two man boat into the clear waters of the Little Pee Dee River. The LPD, as I have come to call it, has reawakened my interest in fly fishing for bass and panfish. Truth be told, my entire interest in freshwater application of the fly has been rekindled by recent adventures on the clear, slow moving waters of this picturesque river. The paucity of rain of late has led to historic lows in the river water levels, at once concentrating the fish among the many cypress knees and stumps, as well as dropping the water to levels that permit only the shallowest drafting of boats any hope of navigating its slow moving and very lightly tannin stained waters. Highways, cars,other fishermen, boats, and in fact all evidence of contemporary life were left in our tiny wake as we activated the time machine that is the Little Pee Dee River. Another novel effect of the molasses like current rate was soon to be observed as well.
A mere two months ago, I stood astride the bow of a saltwater flats skiff in search of tarpon dreams. Casting a small purple bunny strip fly to fish weighing greater than a hundred pounds was a heart stopping thrill, second only to actually hooking up with one and entering the fly fishing gladiator’s ring. Finally bringing to hand such a beast, at the time, seemed the penultimate achievement of my fly fishing career. It appeared greater even than hooking, fighting and landing, with my close friend Mike Barnett, twenty two Pacific sailfish of not inconsiderable size, all on fly, and all in a single, glorious day off the Guatemalan coast. Greater even than a day spent in a tributary of the Rio Negro in northwest Brazil known as the Jufari, when we together caught a validated two hundred and twenty peacock bass, every last one on the fly rod. Like Alexander the Great, there seemed no more worlds to conquer. Everything from here on out could only be a disappointment. My tarpon victory, so long cherished and so hard sought, seemed but bittersweet. How would I cope with lesser forms of the sport, like trout or bass fishing? I strongly considered abandoning fly fishing altogether in favor of some alternative – stamp collecting anyone??
Perspective in all things in life is key to fulfillment, or maybe even maintenance of one’s sanity. This valuable life lesson was reinforced to me a few days ago on the LPD. Shortly after departing the social activity occurring at the ramp area, we left behind all vestiges of modern life and once more entered the Mesozoic Era, no traces of the conspicuously overpowered wooden strip boats indigenous to this area, noses pointed skyward in a space shuttle like attitude, 50 HP Yammies and the often alcohol soaked operator at the other end. Not even the ubiquitous metal jon boats which populate these waters could have even a remote chance to follow our lead over the sandy bottomed skinny river here.
Not long after we were out of sight of the ramp, I happened to spy the cylindrical, torpedo like shapes of fish which had compacted themselves into smallish groups. I assumed these to be the bodies of somewhat emaciated bass. It did seem strange that they travelled upstream in pods of four to as many as perhaps a dozen fish. I queried Mike, my reliable oracle of all things natural about these fish. “Mullet” was his immediate and matter of fact response. For me, it seemed a miracle of sorts- a saltwater species some 40 miles upstream of even brackish waters. Mike educated me that mullet often travel great distances up into fresh water, a revelation to me. After some discussion with another friend who is an outdoorsman of considerable repute, it seems that in conditions of draught and decreased water flow from rivers dependent on upstream rainfall, the tidal influence, as well as salinity change, might extend to shocking distances upstream. He reported a friend living on the nearby Black River, roughly 20 miles distant from the ocean, to have pods of feeding dolphin at his dock. All this was a news to me, despite having been born and raised in the genteel Lowcountry around Charleston.
After encountering what I heretofore had considered strictly marine creatures, we gently motored further downstream in search of bass and bream. As we neared a large grass patch, an ominous figure rose to the surface and cruised in our general direction, its massive tail slowly arcing across the surface. No, it was not a shark,but rather a large gator. To my eye, it measured some seven or eight feet. Mike, however, an infinitely more experienced outdoorsman, and, more importantly, one not given to hyperbole, estimated perhaps twelve feet. This gave me pause, as our boat was a mere ten feet. We fervently hoped the large reptile would be put off by the commotion of the motor, and ,indeed, as we approached, it sank out of sight in this deeper part of the river. We made our way past that spot, nervously eyeing the water for a re-emergent reptile, but saw nothing. We resumed casting our flies among the wood in the river after achieving what we felt was adequate separation from the beast.
Mike connected with a decent bass using his spin rod and a buzz bait. I was enthralled by his uncanny accuracy with the spinning gear. I repeatedly observed him direct the lure through the maze of limbs, branches, and bushes into seemingly inaccessible spots at the bases of stumps, trees, and cypress knees where he knew the bass were lurking. I made two attempts, one making a fair imitation of Mike’s casts, the other abruptly terminating in a bush. Mike patiently stood up in the unsteady craft and plucked my lure from among the leaves and small branches. “Good thing there was not a black wasp nest in this bush”, he commented, reminding me of yet another danger waiting in this wilderness to ensnare the unwary angler. My mind immediately went to my close encounter of the serpentine kind on our last outing. “No snakes, either, ” I thought, much to my relief. I concentrated my remaining efforts at using the fly rod, much less likely to become tangled in the vegetation in whose midst we were forced to cast. I managed to catch most of the subspecies of bream, including bluegill, redbreast, hardhead, and pumpkinseed. We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon on the water, frequently halting our casting to admire the handiwork of the Great Artist. We reflected on the shapes and colors of the trees, the refraction of the ever lowering sun on the water’s surface, and the miracle of the area’s rich diversity of fauna. Mike later emailed a favorite quote from the historian Dr. Will Durant, among the keenest observers of the human spirit.
“Art appeals to the soul through the senses rather than the intellect; its beauty fades when diluted into ideas or words. The universe of thought is only one of many worlds; each sense has its own; each art has therefore its characteristic medium, which cannot be translated into speech. Even an artist writes about art in vain…. A man may, if he cares enough, gradually surround himself with objects whose zealously finished form gives to those who live with them the subtle and quiet happiness of beautiful thing.”
Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol.III, pp.338, 342
In our minds, this observation applies even more to the art created by God, and on display in His natural world.
Lost in the awe of our surroundings, we made our final casts for the day, catching a number of fish, on both flies and lures. The sun finally gave up its ghost and darkness gradually threw its cloak over the river. We were in a braid of the river, separated from its main channel by obstructing trees, stumps, and thick water grasses. By now, navigating visually was essentially impossible, despite the full moon that was on magnificent display,albeit low in the early evening sky. Reluctantly resorting to modern technology, Mike flicked on his handheld GPS device. Instantly, our position was illuminated in grey scale pixels. Using this modern iteration of the ancient astrolabe, we worked the boat over the grass bed which lay between us and the open water of the river. I silently hoped no reptilian residents lay in silent repose beneath it. We made an uneventful re-entry to the river. I was, for one, was grateful that we were spared having to endure a night on they water, and had managed to avoid conflict with any unfriendly creatures.
We motored back upriver towards the landing, Mike was now guiding the boat on instruments, unable to see past my wide body, which occupied the front seat. I swung a headlamp to and fro, searching the now dark water for obstructions such as stumps or floating logs. Mike displayed a remarkable degree of trust in my sixty year old eyes during the return journey. Soon, with Mike counting down the distances from his GPS, we were able to make out the feeble image of the ramp area. We pulled up, bow resting on concrete. Mike grabbed the keys and made his way to his vehicle in the darkness .
The ramp we had used , though well known, is isolated, located far down an unpopulated unpaved road. He quickly started the car, and adroitly backed it into position to receive the boat. Just then, we saw the form of a pickup truck emerge from the darkness of the dirt road, moving at a deliberately slow pace towards us. We continued the loading process, now growing a bit uneasy at the prospect of our vulnerable position. The truck was occupied by two males, who stared intently at us as we frantically stowed our rods and fastened the boat to its small trailer. The truck continued its course, to our shared relief, but soon came about and headed back towards us. I recalled Mike’s story about an incident he experienced last season, at a ramp similar to this, when thugs broke out his vehicles windows and vandalized it as he was out on the water. Feeling defenseless, we hoped the truck would make its way on back down the road, but the occupants once more gave us a close visual inspection as it passed by.
Indeed, it did head away from the ramp, but we remained on alert after this second pass. It was as though the men in the pickup were sizing us up, weighing whether or not we might be easy prey, like a wolf surveying a herd of sheep, looking for any weaknesses. We climbed into the car and hurriedly left the ramp. The suspicious truck lay dead ahead of us, so we dropped back a safe distance. We hoped there would be no confrontation, as the driver of the truck could easily block our path on this single lane road. Soon, the pickup pulled to the right side of the road, headlights ablaze. We agreed that under no circumstances would we stop.
We sped up slightly, passing by the truck without incident. Had I a beer, I would have cracked it open at that point.
It had indeed been an interesting and memorable adventure. We were privileged to observe a number of God’s creations that afternoon and evening, including a few that presented potential threats. Yet, we had survived it all, even our encounter with that most dangerous of all living things, man.