The Comite
March 13, 2009
By Roger Emile Stouff

   Havilah Babcock, an outdoors writer and Professor of English at the University of South Carolina during the first half of 20th century said his addictions afield only once landed him in trouble.
   Babcock said the university was very tolerant of his absences up until the point when his well-meaning secretary posted this notice on the student bulletin board just before the opening of quail season:
   Dr. Babcock’s classes are cancelled as he will be sick all next week.

The Comite River

   But despite the suspicions of my friends who invite me to barbecues and I beg off with the need to go clothes shopping; my neighbors when I say the lawnmower is broken when the grass is knee-high and my employers when I call in sick, I do not play hooky to go fishing.
   It’s an honest assessment, mostly because I probably couldn’t get away with it anyway. If, supposing, I call in sick and take off in the boat, well, if the office needs to know where a file is or a server breaks down, they’ll call the house expecting me to be laying on the sofa or in the bed in quiet misery. Therefore, I am forced to honesty and whether or not this will make me a better man and get me into heaven, well, I guess that remains to be seen. Honesty, for the sake of not getting caught, may have some strings tied to its credits.
   But sooner or later, Babcock said, “there comes a time in every man's life when he is either going to go fishing or do something worse.”
   So when my pal Pete Cooper Jr. called and said he’d like to go fishing Wednesday, I put in for a day off. Honesty may be a questionable trait for a fisherman, but sometimes, you just don’t have a choice.
   Our destination was the Comite River, north of Baton Rouge. I had just recently heard about this river, and wanted to fish it badly. So we took off Wednesday morning. We arrived at the Comite mid-morning.

   I had seen photos of this river, but standing there on its sandy shores I knew the images did this waterway little justice. And I fully realized for the first time that I am falling head-over-heels in love with rivers, with creeks and streams. Me, a swamp and lake boy, raised among the black, stillwater swamps and lakes of south Louisiana. The call of rivers is resonant, I think, and I can feel something in my bones when I’m near them, something author Harry Middleton tried to tell me long before I first stepped foot in Otatsa Creek, or the hills of north Louisiana: “Rivers course through my dreams, rivers cold and fast, rivers well-known and rivers nameless, rivers that seem like ribbons of blue water twisting through wide valleys, narrow rivers folded in layers of darkening shadow, rivers that have eroded down deep in a mountain's belly, sculpted the land, peeled back the planet's history exposing the texture of time itself.”

Casting at a likely spot. (Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.)

   And there was the Comite, it’s source north in the Feliciana parishes, spring-fed and drainage combined. Though its fast current was slightly coppery, the water clear and very cold. We wore waders, not because it was so deep, but so cold. Pebbles and gravel were abundant, and the great bluffs of sand in some places towered two dozen feet over our heads, witness marks, a story stick of this river’s long, patient course to its congruence with the Amite River farther south. Certainly the river exposed time, and its textures were sand, gravel and the occasional slabs of sandstone we waded across.
   Our quarry was spotted bass, a variant of the black bass family and cousin to the largemouth. Spots, or creek bass in general, don’t get big. A three-pound spot is a big bass. So it was light-line tackle and poppers worked along the surface of the water near structure and up close to the bank.
   Pete is teaching me about fishing creek bass, and he must have the patience of a saint. Not only am I a novice fly fisherman, but also I stubbornly insist on using methods and tackle he tells me not to. But I do listen, closely, and the reward has been learning to catch these beautiful little jewels.

  We walked sandbars and waded downstream a good ways, picking up bass here and there. At once spot, which Pete said looked absolutely perfect, I tried to put a cast between a fallen log and the bank, fouled it up royally, and my fly ended up wrapped in an overhanging brush. Rather than ruin the spot, I walked downstream a little, pulling my fly line out of Pete’s way so he could get a cast into the spot.
   Wa-POW! The spot hit like some kid through a firecracker into the water. Pete coerced him over the sunken log, and as he was reeling the fish in, another spot was following it, waiting to see if the first bass would drop whatever he thought he was eating, so the second could snatch it up. It was the best bass of the day, and yes, Pete cast back and caught the second one, too.
   We worked our way down a sizeable stretch of the Comite. The river is wide and shallow, and sometimes the sand is soft and moving, like quicksand, and you have to back out quickly or sink. Now and then I saw fist-sized rock, but not often. It was mostly gravel and we passed a big hole in the side of the bluff where a pebble-mining outfit had removed the material despite the fact that the Comite is a Louisiana Scenic River designee. I saw less litter than I expected, but four-wheeler tracks were abundant.
   Pete and I ended the day with about 20 spots between us, and no, I won’t say which one of us caught the most, but let’s just say the student remains the student and the teacher the teacher. All fish were released to fight again another day.

Nice spot caught on a popper. (Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.)

   I got back home, sore and exhausted, and collapsed on the sofa. I slept for an hour. Just before I dozed, I thought of newsman Charles Kuralt, who once noted, “Often I have been exhausted on trout streams, uncomfortable, wet, cold, briar scarred, sunburned, mosquito bitten, but never, with a fly rod in my hand have I been less than in a place that was less than beautiful.”
   Rivers have stolen my heart. I am smitten with their laughter and their singing. Oh, I do still love my black water swamps and lakes, no doubt about it. But rivers…streams and creeks that move and tumble out playfully, that chant and swirl and twist around my legs, rivers are among my most precious of friends.