The lowering sun was a smudged orange ball as it slowly found its way behind low hanging puffy cumulous clouds, seeking a resting place for the night. A layer of cypress and water oak trees lay interposed between earth and sky, ringing the smallish lake where I sat motionless in my tiny fishing craft, transfixed by the scene arrayed before me. The reddish orange hues of the sun oozed into the greens and greys of the trees, flecked with splotches of Spanish moss. The scene could have been one painted by noted watercolorist Charles Reid. The occasional call of a great horned owl, readying itself for a nocturnal safari, reminded me that I was indeed, in the midst of the greatest art gallery on Earth, Nature Herself. I was at ease in my diminutive plastic boat, alone with The Creation, knowing the Creator’s face lurks just beyond the façade of His handiwork. I actually sighed as I contemplated it all.
Nonetheless, I was here not for philosophical pondering, but to fish. Actually, it was a bit of both, as the two have become inseparable to me. Rarely do I fail to consider the order of things in this magnificent universe we call home as I stand rod in hand, casting bits of animal fur and feathers into that liquid bit of heaven called water. This day I floated on the sweet surface of a small lake that protrudes like an irregularly shaped liquid hernia from the banks of my home river, the Little Pee Dee. The unlikely clarity of the river’s waters, the abundance of life both above and below the waterline, and its ability to remove me from the modern world, invariably induces prayers of gratitude to the Maker. Once I am out of visual contact with the boat landing, I seem to step through the door of an invisible teleporter, carried to another, nearly alien world.
Rumors of large carp had lured me to this spot. A carp seems an unlikely component of a fly fisherman’s life list, but it has slowly moved up the hierarchy as others species have been gradually crossed off. In my youth, carp were regarded as coarse fish, unworthy of attention, and considered nothing more than a waste of good bait. In recent years, fly anglers have awakened to the sport provided by these freshwater denizens. They can grow to capacious size, reaching weights of 90 pounds or more. Despite being considered devoid of any sporting value by more modern anglers, Izaak Walton wrote of the carp in his classic treatise ” The Compleat Angler” that “The Carp is the queen of rivers; a stately, a good, and a very subtle fish;”. Contemporary fishermen are now recapitulating his observation, thrilled by the size, power, and speed of these generally disrespected fish. I sought that day to experience its strength for myself.
I had affixed a highly recommended fly tied specifically to entice these fish to the tippet section of my fly leader. My fly line was a full sinking model, designed to take my offering to the benthos, where these bottom feeders generally prefer to dine. I had always been taught that carp are strict vegetarians. Scientific investigation has revealed that they are, in reality, omnivores, greedily consuming whatever meal of opportunity presents itself. An enormous variety of flies have been devised for these newly glamorous fish, but I prefer one that moves water and resembles a crayfish. That way, even if no carp seems inclined to consume my dining option, a collateral species might take it as an easy meal.
In the dappled filtering of the soft ochre light emerging through the treeline, I cast beneath an overhanging branch, reasoning that my quarry might be lying submerged beneath, awaiting its daily manna. A bow and arrow cast is not especially easy, particularly when a heavy sinking line is involved, but I did my best William Tell impersonation, letting the fly slip quickly and carefully from between my thumb and forefinger. My second sigh of the afternoon was the result of a happy combination of a bloodless release and the striking of the water’s surface in the general area I had intended. I let the fly, leader, and fly line sink into the darkening water. Once the downward movement ceased, I gently stripped the fly along the bottom. I felt no response. After covering the bottom, I pulled the line from the water, and once more made an archery release. Dragging the fly in short, quick movements this time, I continued to feel only temporary encounters with underwater objects, but no strikes. This sequence was repeated multiple times until I determined that perhaps the carp preferred a different locale this day. I engaged the twin electric motors of my boat and moved a small distance down the shoreline. Once more, I sent my fly to water’s bottom, desperately seeking carp. Once more, I was met with frustration. I now tied on a different color variation of the same fly and let it arc towards the spot I hoped to find a hungry carp. The fly sank slowly to the bottom. I stripped once and, as the famous chef Emeril would say, “BAM!!!” The line came tight and the fight was on. From the pull on the line, I knew this was a decent fish. I tightened the drag as much as I dared and applied some heat to the fish. Unexpectedly, the water about twenty feet from my boat exploded as though a neighborhood kid had dropped a cherry bomb in it. A dark brown mass of writhing muscle contorted itself into the languid late afternoon air. “That’s an odd looking carp!” I thought as I made some semblance of a bow to the fish, so as not to allow disengagement of the hook. Line unwound from my Rulon drag equipped fly reel. The reel had been designed to tame saltwater species such as bonefish, so I remained confident in its ability to control this freshwater beast. I gingerly added a bit more drag. The line began to slow down, so I wound furiously in order to keep the fish away from the many underwater obstructions and snags that coat the lining of the lake. Once more the water’s surface split into a million pieces as the fish leaped into the air, frantically throwing its head to and fro in a last ditch effort to rid itself of the steel that was jammed into the corner of its mouth.
“Go ahead and shake, buster. I got you now!” I thought. I would finally be able to cross carp off my list. The fish felt like it was beginning to exhaust itself, and I seized the chance to bring it to hand for the mandatory photo op. The reel did not disaapoint, and soon the fish was at the boat’s side. Then, out of nowhere, the fish began a violent series of thrashes that reverberated against the hull. “I thought this fight was over”, I silently noted as I held fast to the line. The fish rested, but only momentarily, and quickly began a prolonged episode of seizure like spastic motions. “Wow! I have never seen anything like this before. No wonder carp are regaining sporting popularity” I said aloud, to no one in particular. “I may have to provide a little anesthesia to break this seizure” I surmised. I reached in my tackle box and produced a rusty old pair of heavy pliers that had resided there for many years. I pulled the fish sufficiently close and applied the anesthesia in a series of quick sharp blows to its head between the spasmotic movements. At last, it lay still and submissive, but breathing the dark water of the lake. “Now I can get a photo” I thought. I set up the self timer and positioned my digital camera on the front seat of my two man boat. I next pulled the fish clear of the water. What I saw shocked and puzzled me. “This is not a carp!” I mentally exclaimed. I think it is a MUDFISH!!!
The mudfish, or bowfin as it is also known, is an inelegant, but feisty resident of many of our local rivers, lakes, and ponds. It is inedible to all but the hungriest of fishermen, and sports extremely sharp teeth. The mudfish is no treat to the eyes, but has survived since the Jurassic Era. In fact, scientists tell us that it is the sole survivor of the order Amiiformes. It has been so wonderfully constructed by the Maker that even today it continues to prowl these waters in search of such food as it can find. It exists in large numbers in my area, but is rarely fished for. Its capture is generally merely accidental.
I sat motionless as I considered my next move. I initially thought I might simply throw the fish back from whence it came. It certainly was not what I had thought it to be. The carp was my quest. That species is no glamour fish either, but seems to be Miss America when compared to the mudfish. The tenacity and ferocity of this mudfish had, in fact, created an exciting angling experience for me that afternoon. Its leaps and vigorous runs had tested my reel as well as the knots I had tied to attach leader and fly. “Well, this monster does have heart, I suppose.” I admitted to myself. I carefully lifted it from the water, activated the timer on my Panasonic, and posed, removing my sunglasses quickly before the shutter fired. The camera beeped, the fill flash illuminating angler and fish. I placed the fish back in the water and checked the image on the camera’s small screen. It seemed acceptable, so I turned to the gunnel once more, this time using the pliers to remove the hook from the mud’s mouth, mindful of its sharp teeth. It swam away, appearing unfazed by the fight or the “anesthesia”.
By now, long shadows extended from the western edge of the small lake and across me and my sturdy little craft. The landing lay some two miles distant, and I thought it prudent to begin the return journey. My Honda four stroke could, with maximum effort, propel my boat at the breakneck speed of 3 miles an hour, and that was without considering the current I would be facing. I laid my rod alongside the gunnel, cranked the modest motor, and pointed the bow towards the landing.
The journey took nearly an hour to complete, despite the best efforts of the engine. That was no matter to me, as I was able to enjoy the scenery and wildlife along the way. It also provided an opportunity to consider the events of the afternoon. I had a wonderful angling experience, though I did not land what I thought I had hooked. Initially, the mudfish seemed gross, ugly, and undeserving of even a second glance, much less a photograph. Yet, on further reflection, it had become clear that even the mudfish did have its appeal. I found myself hard pressed to dismiss the warrior spirit of this creature, in spite of its unattractive exterior. It had earned a place on my list after all.
As I motored slowly landingward, a realization suddenly formed in my mind. I now see that fish as symbolic of people in my life. On occasion, people I have known for many years have turned out to be quite different than my impressions of them. Some are far better and stronger people than I had previously appreciated. I had simply not recognized these qualities in them. In many cases, they silently bear burdens of which I have been completely unaware. The quiet dignity with which they go about living camouflages physical ailments or deep psychological or emotional damage, which can be just as painful as other kinds of injuries. Others for whom I have an accumulated lifetime of respect and admiration, have ultimately been revealed to have feet of clay, like the statue in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. I remain devastated by discoveries of their true character. But, as the writer of Romans said “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I am learning that, thankfully, one does not have to meet a standard of perfection in all ways to be worthy of love and respect. God does love all his creatures, even the mudfish, warts and all. And as the saying goes, I am trying!
The following day, I printed that image of the mudfish, enlarged it, and hung it in my fly tying room, right next to the photo of my hallowed permit.