Sept. 19, 2008
By Roger Emile Stouff
Odd as it may seem Ė or perhaps not Ė the passing of two hurricanes over the last three weeks puts me in mind of what was probably the most resilient fish I have every known.
Back just before Hurricane Andrew, just before I gave up fishing for about a decade (donít some of you wish youíd known me then?) I was fishing Grand Avoille Cove late in the fall. The shortening of days and cooler temperatures had bronzed the cypress needles into hard splinters, and maple leaves were falling into the green-black pool of the cove. In my dadís wooden bateau with his old 1963 Merc outboard, I had been doing fairly well on the big chinquapin perch near Sawmill Bayou.
At that time, I hadnít touched a flyrod in many years. I was a bait fisherman. Not, as Seinfeld would say, that thereís anything wrong with that. My father believed that the best way to catch fish was to present them whatever they wanted, and fished the gamut of flies, bait and lures. He had a particular way of rigging an Idaho spinner, the straight-shanked ones with the spoon about the size of a ladyís pinky nail, to a snap-swivel tied to his line with an improved cinch knot. Heíd arm the spinner with a No. 10 Eagle Claw "Aberdeen" long-shank hook, up on which an earthworm would meet its demise. I canít remember Dad ever fishing shiners or crickets: In fact, he had a box full of tackle but almost without fail his weapons were live worms, yellow popping bugs on his fly rod or a Rapala floating minnow. Heíd pull out the Jitterbugs or other lures now and then.
There was a certain cypress tree in the cove that was surrounded by a circle of knees. They reminded me of Stonehenge. It was in two feet of water or so, but close to a three-, four-foot channel. Grand Avoille hadnít shallowed so much by then.
That auburn fall before Andrew, I threw a small H&H spinner into the cypress circle and someone must have been standing in the woods where I couldnít see them, because they threw a stick of dynamite in at the same time and the water erupted from that circle of cypress knees explosively. I caught a glimpse of green-silver-white, my little Berkley spinning rod bent over and my Daiwa reel screamed and immediately my H&H hit me square in the forehead. Left a mark from the lead jighead, too.
Several more casts produced only silence.
Winter came, and then spring and I got married and fished little to none. My son was born in August, and two weeks later Andrew dropped in for tea. Things went on as things do, and I didnít pick up a rod much. Not long after the divorce I boarded the old manís boat and went to the cove after too long. I had forgotten that fish in the circle of cypress knees, and by then it had been five years since Andrew had dropped in for tea.
But when I threw an impaled worm on an Idaho spinner against a certain tree with a familiar barricade of knees, searching for goggle-eye and chiquapin, I remembered the explosion and the deafening splash.
I hooked him that time, and he fled to deeper water. My line cut a wake straight up the channel I knew was there, leaving a rooster tail as it went! Nothing could slow the fish: My drag was screaming, my rod trembling and it was all I could do as the bass pulled the boat sideways into the inner reaches of the cove. All at once, the monster changed course and like a juggernaut hauled tail into the dozens of sunken logs I knew were near the north bank, and with a heart-rending release of weight and snap-back of my rod, was gone.
Understand, he towed me halfway across the back of the cove. I fished little after that, life got in the way, but in the spring of 2003, I woke up one day and the obsession took me over like a witch had cast a spell on me.
I believe I fished 350 days in 2003-04, and lost only the remaining 15 because of bad weather. I fished in the morning before work, after work, after meetings, you name it.
So it was with a fuzzy memory and passing of years that I lifted a fly rod again for the first time since I was about 16. And boarded the old manís boat to go back to Grand Avoille Cove after years away, and it welcomed me, the wayward son, back as if I had never left.
You can predict what happened next. I set an Accardo "Spook" popper into a likely looking spot, and the water leaped skyward. I missed the hookset, and couldnít get another, but I remembered that time. Same place? Same fish? More than likely it was just a great spot that big bass liked.
Oh, who can explain the things that speak to you in the wild places? Whispers in my heart, tickling breezes up my sleeve and tugs at my hair hinted, "Or not."
And I made up my mind it was "or not." It was the same fish, the same monster, and I donít really care about the science or the experts that say otherwise. My bones know.
He didnít strike again until 2005, at the same spot, in the spring and I hooked him that time, got him nearly to the boat, but he plunged like a depth charge then and dislodged a red-and-black Jitterbee. I had seen his mouth that time, though he was six inches below the surface, and it looked like a salad bowl. All right, thatís a fishermanís description, but trust me, it was big.
But Hurricane Rita killed the cove that year and it was only starting to come back last fall. And last fall Ö well, you donít need to go through all the adjectives and flowery outdoors-writing again. But I missed him.
"There are some fish that cannot be caught," Daniel Wallace wrote. "Itís not that theyíre faster or stronger than other fish. Theyíre just touched by something extra."
I didnít get to fish much in the spring, with all the rain and crazy weather. In fact, I think I made only one trip to the cove and got not a single bite.
Here it is, fall. Two hurricanes have ransacked us. People are suffering, their homes damaged and flooded, and some of us are walking around dazed, or stressed and angry, or pumped full of frantic energy. The sorrow in the air is palatable.
My personal tragedy is not nearly so severe, and I feel guilty for toiling over it: The photos I see of the rafts of dead fish in the basin, in the bayous and canals, as far north as Jena. I canít describe how it saddens me. But I have a roof and dry joists, and it makes me feel grateful for the greater things in life.
And I guess itís the hurricanes that make me think of that circle of cypress knees and the leviathan within. In my bones, in my mindís eye, or through some clairvoyance understood only by creation, I know heís out there, somewhere. I can see him, heavy and thick, a dark-green juggernaut prowling through black, rank water with an insatiable will to survive.
Oh, the science tells me I couldnít have hooked the same monster bass in 1991 and again in 2005. But itís fine to believe in it, itís my personal conviction and my personal tragedy.
Yet I can see him. The fish that cannot be caught. If he is touched by something more, perhaps he has lived these long decades. Perhaps he will live long more.
It doesnít matter. Heís more of an icon to me, than a real fish. And heís what Iíll look for again, when the waters smell sweet again and the skies clear and a circle of cypress knees is forward of the bow of the boat, awaiting my cast.