Fish Tales – The Sequel
Every Memorial Day weekend, for the past twenty-odd years, my brother-in-law and his buddies have made a pilgrimage to the banks of the Shenandoah River in pursuit of enlightenment, set at a totally new sensory level. “The Camping Trip”, as it became to be known, was an escape from their wives, the 9 to 5 job, and apparently away from sanity.
The ritual begins by prepping the area for service. Weed-whacking the over grown banks, setting up sleeping tents, and icing down multiple cases of beer. A huge bonfire is built and maintained constantly throughout the long weekend, employing the same basic primal instincts used by their ancestors who themselves had a quest for fire.
I had endured the festival more than once through the years, many other years not at all. On this one particular weekend, I had planned to visit just for the afternoon, a silly thing like employment had shortened any possibility of me going through the entire process of mental cleansing. The annual campsite is a beautiful, wooded area on the South fork of the Shenandoah. When I arrived, about six guys had already completed the initial steps of preparation and had moved on to Phase Two. Drinking beer, shooting the empty cans with the one pellet gun available and stoking the fire from time to time. I made my friendly chit-chat with the gang before beginning on my real quest, which was to go and do some fishin’. This is a great stretch of water for doing battle with descent sized smallmouth. I walked through the field along the bank leading up to where a large steel bridge spans the river. The plan was, fish for an hour or three, then wade back downstream to the camp. I quietly inched into the chilly waters, wearing just my fishing vest, a t-shirt, a pair of shorts and wading boots. I stopped for a moment to ‘read’ the river and develop my plan of assult. I had fished this section of water many times before, so I knew the in’s and out’s, it was just a matter of where to begin. Directly below the bridge were some deep pockets that had always held good fish, but it was tough, potentially dangerous wading. Big rocks and fast water. You could venture straight out from the bank to fish a very deep hole that developed downstream of the bridge. Below that hole was a wide stretch of descent water that usually produced a good number of smaller fish. So I’m standing there in belly-high water (back when my belly was higher), inspecting the live-action map of the river. Then, something catches my eye from under the clear waters to my left. I think that I knew what it was, but it didn’t make any sense, just didn’t register in the ole’ noodle-brain. I raised my casting arm up to keep my fly rod out of the water (for some stupid reason, since the rod can safely get wet) and bent over face to face with the river’s surface. There staring up at me from the river’s bottom is no other than Andrew Jackson. Not the ex-president who’s been dead now for 170 years. Don’t be ridiculous. It was a twenty dollar bill, resting quietly on the silty river’s bottom, momentarily unmoved by the water’s current. I stood back up, my face no doubt skewed into an expression of confusion, right eye brow raised as the lips clinch to the left. Sort of like Curly from The Stooges. My immediate thought was… where is Allen Funt and the Candid Camera crew? I looked around, looked down at the guys sitting at our camp site, then looked back down at the sunken treasure. No TV crew to be seen, the guys seemed oblivious, and the cash was still there. Next, I had to figure out how to reach my unjust reward without getting too wet. In my fishing vest was a half-descent-quality cigar, a Bic lighter and my fishing license. I certainly didn’t want any of these valuable items to become soaking wet. Plus it wasn’t exactly a warm day in May, evident by a retraction of manliness and a complete loss of desire in becoming totally submerged. Now, it’s near impossible to flick a piece of paper off of the river’s bottom using the tip of a nine foot fly rod held in one hand while managing to catch the undulating money with the other hand. I should know, I tried about fifteen times. Being hard-headed and full of determination, I wasn’t about to give up until I was rich… RICH, I tell you! A few different strategies ran through my head before I finally derived at the best option. The vest came off, and along with the fishing rod, was lifted skyward with the left arm as the right arm plunged for the twenty. It was mine, all mine!
A little fishing was eventually accomplished, but the giddy excitement had me itching to head back to camp and share my story. The non-fisherman had been watching me all along and were wondering what in the heck I had been doing. So that evening, grilled hotdogs were scratched off of the menu and cheap steak became the surprise dinner special. Just like I had planned it.
The following year, I had the extreme privilege of spending the entire weekend with these same Drunken Knights of the Round Bonfire. There were twenty-some guardians of ‘all things manly’ in attendance that weekend, including the Duke of Lighter Fluid and Sir Drinks-A-Lot. As the beer cans became empty and the fire’s flames became dimmer, someone suggested the ‘sure-sounded-brilliant-at-the-time’ idea of a fishing tournament to begin at daybreak the following day (a.k.a. a few hours from now). Tournament entry fees were collected in a ball cap and different prize categories were established. First fish, most fish and, of course, biggest fish. Actually, the first fish category was dropped because no one really wanted to get up early the next morning. There were ample canoes and johnboats available, so teams of fisherman would head up to the old hydroelectric dam and float/fish back down to camp. I slept that night with my Bro-in-law in his tent, which sounds like something that you regrettable did before he married your sister, which eventually landed you three on The Maury Show. But that’s a different story. The point was that Bob woke too early on every morning of his life in order to get to his work on time. So, after 5 hours of sleep and 50 beers, Bob wakes up as usual, just as the sun was thinking about whether or not to rise yet for the day. Bob woke. Which woke me. Then we woke Jug, Bob’s best buddy and the third member of our canoe’s crew.
We were the first boat to the river that morning. Everyone else was still sleeping, like normal hungover human beings should be. We loaded the canoe with our fishing rods, a cooler full of iced breakfast beers and a plastic bucket for dipping the water that would eventually ooze through the small crack in the hull of the canoe. The canoe was then dragged to the bank of the river, a swallow yet fast moving set of rapids. “What The Heck?!?” Twenty feet out in the middle of the rapids was a big, fat carp, stuck between the rocks, half submerged in the churning water. The bottom-feeding ‘trash’ fish can grow quite large in the Shenandoah and this one appeared to be almost two-feet long. After getting over the initial surreal feeling of stumbling upon this big slimy beast, we went about capturing our prize. A short wade through the rapids to retrieve the fish and then chants would begin of “We Are The Champions, my friend!” We hadn’t even gotten the canoe wet yet and we were pretty much assured the cash prze for winning the tournament’s “Biggest Fish Award”. We tried putting the carp into the plastic bucket for safe keeping, but he was too big to fit (“You’re going to need a bigger bucket”). So the fish was secured onto a heavy duty stainless steel stringer and dangled off the side of the canoe. We dragged that poor whale of a fish down the river for the next four hours. As we encountered fellow tournament competitors on the river along the way back to camp, the story of how we ‘really’ caught the fish began to grow, almost as big and real as the fish itself. Jug had hooked the fish with a simple worm and bobber rig. “Uh… yea… that’s right… he WAS using split-shot to weight down the line” “He fought that fish for ten… must have been twenty minutes” “Yep, that’s how it happened. Sure was.” Later that evening after dinner and cocktails, with the award money already in hand, Jug slipped up and contradicted his own concocted story of stardom. After the real ‘Real’ reel story came out, the tournament directors convened and ruled the carp ineligible as the winner. The cash prize was returned, but never the memories.
Loose lips, sink canoes. Full of really big fish tales.
write by Goldwin