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by Mike Gaddis | Jun 1, 2020 | FISHING, FRESHWATER
Like Once It Was


I thank God most weekdays, and sometimes twice on Sunday, that there’s not a Trout Angler’s Sportsman Society.
That, in modern matter, the fine art of fly fishing for species Salmo continues quietly and foremostly a gentleman’s endeavor, largely unsullied by mass mania, gluttony, glitter and gold. That nobody has come along and tried to universally organize and merchandise it as a fetish sport, as a gladiator and spectator sport for the commons. That, in significant main – aside from basic wet apparel and tackle refinements – the pursuit of the coldwater reverence fishes continues virtually pristine.

I’m glad the fundamental elements for success persist as predominantly contemplation, intellect and solitude. That the venues of its greatest appeal in these regards are and will ever be unnavigable by the limits of mainstream contemporary imagination and unmarketable as tender for public pawn.
I’m thankful that in a society obsessed with easy, that for the less-than-ambitious majority it endures as too mystic and remote to broach.

In short, I’m glad nobody has thought or managed to come along and muck up “the river that runs through it.”
There was a time, in my mind, when bass fishing was much the same. We suffer our regrets, large and small. Often now – confined and configured within its modern persona much more than I want to be – I’m regretful enough to remember.
Truth is, if I could have back the pre-1960s, I could do quite nicely, thank you. As we did then. Without B.A.S.S ., without the comfort and cool of $40,000 bass boats, without 275 h.p. four-strokes nobody can lift onto the transom, without digital electronics and smart motors, without televised national tournaments and lottery-sized jackpots, without high-fives, jump suits and a dozen sponsor patches, and most certainly without a bass boat on every hole, and seven more in line to pull in when that one leaves.

I’ll admit to being taken by it all for a while, but the further up the lake I’ve come, the more I look back down my wake to where I’ve been.
Give me back Santee-Cooper in the late ’50s, the bounteous leviathans under the dead willows of Lake Marion, a 14-foot vee-bottom and a 20-horse Merc; Lake Jackson in its double-digits heyday, an old straw hat to fight off the sun and a make-like water dog; the St. Johns, over swirls big as a ’58 Buick bonnet and a first-run, Nick Crème worm. I’ll travel light happily back down the road, should I could, and leave you the change.

Better yet, give me again the legendary, little, home-grown, small waters before the bass revolution jaded them out. Quaint little bassy haunts with their two-by boathouses on the side of the hill, the amicable, old retired couples that ran them, and the couple of cane-bottom chairs that reposed by the drink machine. Seven miles down-the-road from town, past the forks and just over the bridge. Locally revered little destinations with descriptions like Back Creek Lake, Parker’s Mill, the Deep River Oxbow, Lake Benson and Webb’s Pond.

Where fabled old behemoths lurked among the ancient black stumps along winding little creek channels you could sometimes cast across, like Green Branch and Moser’s Run. Old bruiser, wisdom-fish that folks palavered about in the hardware store, over an eight-ounce Coke, by the fishing aisle.

Give me back the old men under weathered felt hats that slipped around them softly with their Silvertrolls, or clucked along in no hurry with their one-Iunger Martins, on hand-built, little juniper/plywood boats. Leaving nary a wake to trouble his neighbor. Men like Milliard Alvin Connor, Therman Coltrane, Raymond “Eck” Bullins, old hands with names as colorful as their character. Who could fish all day on a Nehi and a cheese cracker.
mike gaddis with twin bass

Mike Gaddis, then 26, caught these virtual twins, each topping nine pounds, from Lake Wheeler in North Carolina.
The once-upon-a-time, lunkermasters who did it off the cuff…by a water-in-a-bottle barometer, a sculling paddle, a seat cushion and their thinking caps. With nothing but a single, dinged-up, old dome-roofed tackle box and five beat-up, tested-and-true plugs nobody makes anymore. The old codgers who read the water by watching carp jump, by the color the creek ran after rain, the way their bones felt before a front, how the smoke off their cigar rose or fell, and by the weight of an anchor rope as it hopped along and pitched off a drop. Who triangulated a good hole to memory with two hickory trees and the Balfour Fire Station tower.

“Antediluvian?” Obliged. They’d fetch that up a compliment.
Seems to me, bass fishing still maintained some romance then, a proper modicum of dignity, and an ethic. Something mostly it’s lost, long since. Something worth looking back on, and wishing you could go back for.
Something of a quiet code of respect, where none of the old fellows I remember thought to apathetically sling a green fish across the gunwale with the rod tip to see how anxiously he could do it, wore his name on his jacket to proclaim “Hey, Look, this is me!,” bragged about “smoking ’em” like smokehouse pork when the Good Lord granted him an especially good day of fishing, or stooped to fist-bump unless it was up aside somebody’s head if they pulled in on him when he was there first.

If you were a good fisherman back then, folks knew it. You didn’t have to put it on a tournament board or broadcast it on a loud-speaker. You wore your pride under your hat, and kept your honor on your shirt-sleeve. And a little something else…a lot of old horses then were releasing good bass so they’d be there tomorrow long before Ray Scott ever had to borrow the mantra.

So, tomorrow…if I were brought to the choice…I think I’d let the modern bass mercenaries keep their jerkbaits and trickworms and flippin’ rigs and jump seats. I’m not at all sure they were ever worth trading for. If I won the B.A.S.S. Classic, all I’d really have anyhow would be less time to fish the way I really want to.
And by the way, have you ever considered what Ray Scott did after he populated the public lakescape with non-stop tournaments? Built an exclusive bass lake he could protect privately, to get away from the public plunder.
No thank you. I think I’d have back 1959, if I could, and my old Jointed Creek Chub Pikie with the perch-scale finish – on small, quiet water away from the maddening crowd – a nightcrawler, an S.O.S., a Dinger, a Jointed-Vamp and a Hula Popper. On a small stretch of backwater along a meandering old creek run, with some lily pads, and a few old black stumps to throw to, that haven’t been beat to death by the masses. Maybe a few cypress knees. That are all part of an old backwoods lake, with a cherished fishing history.

Beneath a warm, early spring day, without the constant beehive whine of 300 horsepower going by…just a red-wing blackbird singing in the willows over my shoulder…a turtle or two sunning by-the-way on an old silver log, and the Bobwhite who’d still be there, begging for his bride along the fencerow of Baxter Thornburg’s bottom ground.
Maybe I’d catch the monster old bucketmouth that would still be there too.

Maybe, the better – he’d be a “good-un,” over eight pounds, big enough I’d keep him. Put him in the bottom of my little 12-foot wood boat. Point it down the lake toward the boathouse about the rise of dusk. Hold the three-horse Johnson to half-throttle and piddle my way back. Relishing the day, the fish, and the moment, the last orange glow of sunset, the wood ducks dropping through it into the little back coves to roost, the swifts dimpling the mercurial glimmer of the darkening water ahead, and watching for Miz Sally Middleton ‘s lantern, hung up to guide us home. Knowing they’d all be waiting there, by the old Chatillion scales – all the old bass horses I knew – until everybody was safely ashore.
We’d gather in the twilight, behind the little boathouse, and they’d offer a firm hand over my fish, and I’d offer the same over theirs, and we’d reminisce a while. About that day and many another. Innocent still, knowing nothing about trading pounds for dollars, or what it would come to do to the world we most loved. Just sharing and banking the greatest reward any fisherman then could ever hope to earn…the kinship of brotherhood, and the gift of mutual esteem.
 
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