An unlikely angler finds a land of opportunity just across the bridge.
In late 2005, I spent part of a well-attended Memphis Flyer party chatting with editor Bruce VanWyngarden. We talked about fishing. More specifically, we talked of our shared affection for urban fishing. When he briefly mentioned our conversation in his next editorial, a strange thing happened. Several people approached me with different versions of the same question: "You like to fish?"
Well, believe it. During a good spell, I manage to go once a week. It doesn't hurt that my girlfriend's parents own a sizeable pond so full of fish that it feels like cheating, but other honey holes make my schedule, and, get ready for it, sometimes I even take long-distance fishing trips! Am I any good? Eh . . . the jury may still be out on that one. I'm a lot better at going fishing than actually catching fish. At least I get a passing grade for effort.
But why should this outdoorsy revelation take so many who know me by surprise? Perhaps it's the shortsighted attitude that fishing is an activity primarily enjoyed by more, how do I say, country folk. If coming from a Northerner or European, this misconception is understandable. Not justifiable, but understandable. Northerners and Europeans harbor a lot of misconceptions about the South. Like the fact that not all of us navigate an obstacle course of discarded appliances during the morning walk to our cars. Or that very few of us live next door to a blind, porch-sitting bluesman. But fellow Southerners shouldn't be flabbergasted at the notion of fishing. It's practically in our blood.
Then again, the confusion might not be helped by my usual haunts around town. If we've met, more than likely you've seen me deejaying a hardheaded set of underground indie-music circa 1979 to 1991 at the Hi-Tone. Maybe you've spotted me tying a couple on and enjoying a scorching set by garage popster Jay Reatard at some smoky dive surrounded by hipsters in skinny jeans and white belts. (The fishing enthusiast-per-patron ratio in these situations tends to be exactly what you'd think). So I guess I can understand that you'd possibly find it odd that I plan on spending the next morning in Arkansas (a trip that will hinge on whether or not I can peel myself out of bed before 6:30 a.m.). If there's anyone remaining still bored enough to establish a passing opinion regarding my lifestyle, they usually assume I spend my days in front of a computer, watching TV, or prank-calling people. All true to some extent, and that last one is a long story for another time.
Like many people reading this, I fed a childhood love for fishing. Unlike many people reading this, I use the term "childhood love" to conservatively describe something more akin to an obsession. Fishing was just one of my, as I like to downplay them, "phases," and the only one to reenter my life during adulthood.
About 10 years before discovering girls, music, and partying, I would pick a subject and go completely bonkers learning every single crumb of relevant minutia about it. While the grades stayed average in elementary and middle school, I was absorbing any one of the following disparate groups: Hotel and motel chains, dinosaurs, large buildings, bridges, Legos, bodies of water, the animal world, plant life, fishing, farm equipment, automobiles and automobile makers, trucks and construction equipment (large and small). The latter three were eventually combined into "anything that uses a gas engine."
Even with all the stuff I collected relating to the aforementioned list, one of my most coveted possessions was a huge, six-tray Plano tackle box (total overkill for my age and ability) filled with handpicked lures and gear to go along with a rod and reel of now-forgotten quality.
These things laid out before me, I obsessed about catching one of the largest freshwater fish in North America, the Alligator Gar. I had fantasies of tracking one of these 12-foot monsters down Nonconnah Creek – the hunter and the hunted, one and the same. Nonconnah Creek? Wha? Hey, I grew up in Fox Meadows. I was routinely kicked off the Fox Meadows Golf Course for fishing in one of their pathetic little ponds, so much so that I took to hiding under the golf cart bridge behind the 19th Green Apartment Complex, fishing for skimpy bullhead catfish with hotdogs and rotten lunchmeat. No apartment complex with a manmade lake in the Fox Meadows, Parkway Village, or Hickory Hill area was safe from me on a ten-speed, precariously balancing my gear with a head full of "I'm visiting my aunt, she's grocery shopping right now, but lives in number . . ." excuses. My tackle was carefully chosen after hours of scouring the Bass Pro Shops catalog, choosing crank baits that would dive the deepest (virtually useless in a golf course pond), top water lures that would act the craziest and make the most noise, and plastic worms with the flashiest colors. Predictably, I utilized about one-fourth of my childhood tackle box.
Eventually, the fishing phase gave way to other interests, though the perpetually obsessive power of it all was probably carried over into music geekdom (with girls a close second).
But for some reason, the fishing phase reentered my life again about three years ago. Why? I have no idea. I probably wanted to take on an activity that had absolutely nothing to do with writing about music, going to shows all the time and toiling through pedestrian small talk with the same 70 people, and the need to fulfill a nature-based wanderlust that didn't require a great deal of wandering. An added bonus: Do it right (yard sales, eBay, and off-season sales at outfitters) and it's pretty cheap to get the necessary gear.
Having moved on from the public golf course water-hazard, my new favorite destination is Arkansas' Lake Norfork. This giant, pristine lake at the foot of the Ozarks is a little less congested than the neighboring Bull Shoals Lake, and a night-and-day difference from the crowding that can take place at Pickwick Lake. It's also incredibly clean and clear. I've never looked up to see a giant, rust-colored barge crossing Lake Norfork like I have at Pickwick or Kentucky Lakes. As one of the top five freshwater scuba diving destinations in the U.S., spear fishermen are a more common sight than boozy partiers tying their speedboats together, blasting Hank Williams Jr.'s theme to Monday Night Football or bad hip-hop, and buzzing about with their wave-runners set on "rooster tail." Thank goodness for that.
It's here I fish for largemouth bass, bream, and crappie, because I know how to catch those fish. Not that there's all that much that the amateur needs to know. If you can cast a spinner bait and reel it in at an acceptable speed, you will eventually catch a largemouth bass. Learn to jerk a plastic worm or countdown a sinking crank bait, and you'll catch more. And bream will bite anything you find in your refrigerator. I have not mastered the art of landing a giant catfish, but it's certainly not for lack of trying.
I romanticize and sporadically execute the pursuit of what is commonly called "rough fish." Carp, freshwater drum, buffalo fish, gar . . . all fish that the bass pros despise. Being of the catch-and-release ilk, I don't care how they taste, and these fish are often much harder to catch than your regular "accepted" fare. Asian carp are smarter, tougher, and bigger than your average game fish. I have a lot of respect for them.
Not everything about my rediscovered phase is easy to romanticize, though. I have zero respect for the rural teenagers that have adopted the backwoods extreme sport of using a shotgun to blow jumping fish apart in mid-air (check YouTube if you don't believe me). I shun the pro bass fishing circuit and resultant culture that has made a ridiculous circus of our lakes and waterways, creating a sort of NASCAR-on-water mentality that holds absolutely no interest for me. The day I purchase a 200 HP bass boat with metal-flake paint and start referring to myself as "The Bassassinator" is hopefully the day that a loving friend commits me to a state-run facility.
Within the next year, I've set a personal goal to teach myself how to fly-fish. That's right; I don't know how to fly fish. It's been the perceived air of superiority from fly fishers that has turned me off in the past, though I've recently met several very friendly fly experts who were more than willing to teach me their craft. I'll submit, so long as I don't have to sign a waiver stating that I'll never revert back to the "common man's fishing." I can extract the maximum amount of pleasure from any form of fishing, and I'll chase anything that bites.
So yes, you hipster action figures out there, I know it's a lot to ingest after that fifth Pabst, but you've heard it from the source. I like to fish.