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BORN AGAIN

When I was twelve years old, my folks got rid of the television set, and to this day nearly twenty years later, I havenít figured out if it was a blessing or a curse. At the time it was undoubtedly a curse. Adolescent logic, of course, precluded my ever inviting friends over, fearing that I would be labeled "the freak with no TV" in the schoolyard. My days from the 3:15 dismissal bell to lights out at nine seemed destined for a solitary emptiness.

Luckily, my cell was located in the middle of the Georgia woods, a tract that included a 4 acre pond. With no television and thus a surplus of spare time, I ventured outside daily, armed with either a fishing rod or pellet rifle depending on the time of year. Word soon got out that I was a pretty fair outdoorsman and I was soon confronted with the dilemma of schoolmates wanting to hunt or fish the "preserve", as I liked to call it. I usually managed to hustle my clients past the glaring bare spot in the TV room on the way to "guided" squirrel and bluegill outings. At 14, a navigational error in the woods fatefully put me on the banks of someone elseís private pond, fishing rod in hand. The 10 pound largemouth I landed that day told me that I had arrived as both fisherman and trespasser, and it still graces my wall, a reminder of my seedy past.

Outdoorsman and naturalist by day, I spent the evenings devouring any outdoor magazine I managed to lay my hands on- I mean cover to cover, advertisements and all. I would commit to memory the ins and outs of ice fishing for Minnesota perch. I yearned for the sound of a big brown slurping my delicately presented Olive off the Madison at sunrise. I dreamed of the searing runs of a bonefish in the Keys. Never mind that I had hardly ever left Georgia, seen ice only in the freezer, never touched a fly rod, and felt searing runs only once after a bad chili dog.

I pored over the hunting articles with equal intensity. Anything having to do with deer hunting called for memorization, as I had begun early lobbying for a deer rifle and made tentative plans to be the first kid to ever ride around town with a ten-pointer lashed to the handlebars of a bicycle.

Of course I read all the others too- articles on bear, moose, pronghorn, and a bunch of other animals that I had about as good a chance of ever killing as a unicorn. It didnít take long to realize that most outdoorsmen did not see squirrels as Huntingís Holy Grail. I was particularly taken with the bird-hunting articles, swept up at an early age with the fine shotguns, graceful dogs, and overall elegance inherent to wingshooting.

Astutely following the advice of each and every gun dog columnist, I set about training Champ, our mixed-blood coon hound, how to fetch. Champ and I spent quite a few chilly mornings hidden out on the fringes of the pond, the dog sound asleep and me reminding myself to keep swinging when the moment came. The moment actually came once or twice, and if Iíd been swinging a shotgun rather than a pellet gun, Champ might have gotten the chance to do me proud. Of course if that hound ever became a retriever, Iíd probably be writing my own gun dog columns.

Somewhere along the line, however- I think around age sixteen, my priorities got all out of whack. Girls, cars, and beer- donít remember the order- began taking up inordinate amounts of my time. I let my outdoor magazine subscriptions lapse and , strangely enough, my folks were not willing to foot the bill for magazines about girls, cars, and beer, despite my protestations about wanting them for the articles.

I managed to get into the woods a few times during the latter years of high school and college, enough to discover that Iím not much into deer hunting. Me and that deer rifle I had longed for so dearly spent a couple autumn morns nodding off while perched in a Georgia hardwood, and I rather enjoyed the sport until I finally saw some deer.

They marched into a clearing single file, eight of them, including two decent bucks. I just knew Santa and his sleigh were about to pop out of the woods right behind Blitzen. I have no idea why I didnít shoot one. I still have that 30-30 somewhere, though I imagine Iíve sighted it in for the last time.

At age 27 I reached maturity. Iíd found the girl I would marry, cared more about getting from Point A to Point B than how I looked getting there, and discovered that the downside of too much beer was starting to outweigh the upside. I was in the process of moving from some run-down urban dwelling to another when the bottom fell out of an old musty box that hadnít been opened in years.

Epiphany is not a word I use a whole lot, but when those old magazines dumped out all over the parking lot, I sat down in the Georgia heat and I read. Dripping sweat in the parking lot of a shabby apartment complex in mid-July, I sat on the curb and read the first magazine I got my hands on cover to cover, advertisements and all. I already knew the plots of the stories and themes of the articles, for this magazine was no stranger. A twelve-year old boy read this magazine 15 years ago, numerous times and with equal fervor. It was a scrapbook of my youth.

A week later, after subscribing to every outdoor publication available, I blew the remainder of my lifeís savings on an old aluminum jonboat and motor, fixed up with a depthfinder, bow-mount trolling motor, and swivel seats. It didnít take too long for me to realize that I was a bush league big-water bass fisherman. In the South, if your not perched atop 20 feet of sparkling fiberglass with 200 horses behind you, then youíre just kicking around in the minors.

Besides, I am a bank-beater, and the only thing shoreline casting will catch you on a Dixie impoundment in August is a heat stroke. The depthfinder and trolling motor served mainly as distractions, toys that kept my lure out of the water. Honest, I tried to enjoy probing an underwater hump or point with a piece of plastic, but I normally wound up beating the banks, satisfying myself with the challenge of putting a lure tight against cover and repeating the process.

I actually had a few good days, mostly in the springtime, when reservoir bass are shallow and people like me can catch a few. But I grew up a creek fisherman and speak the language of eddies, lips, and shoals while the big boys focus on humps, points, and breaklines. I ended up selling that bass rig for far less than I paid for it.

My foray into fly-fishing got off to a rocky start. I walked into a snooty fly shop to buy what seemed like a little bit of gear for approximately the cost of a beat-up bass rig. I boned up on the fly-fishing lexicon before I went in, and must have come off like the guy at the party who throws around fancy words, but obviously doesnít know what most of them mean. Anyway, the clerk saw through my talk of tippets, reel actions, and other trout words and basically sold me what he wanted to, looking down his nose the entire time.

The part about trout fishing that I love is the moving water. Show me a stream and I can pretty much show you where the fish hang out. Resting on a big rock in the middle of an urban tailwater river near my home, the overkill of attempting to be a serious fly-fisherman in Georgia struck me. A guy about my age stepped into the river as if out of an Orvis ad, head-to-toe in the finest trout regalia money can buy. This guy was whipping out long, beautiful double-hauls and making enticing drag-free drifts.

He waded over to my resting place and I commended his obvious skills. The fellow commented on various hatches, aquatic life, and seasonal patterns of the rainbows and browns, explaining that the trout were feeding on emergers or midges or something like that. I was impressed. Once the guy got his microscopic fly tied on, he waded back out to the run, fished it gracefully without as much as a wind knot or a strike, and headed upstream with a shrug. Not five minutes later, a gangly teenager with a Zebco 33 and a bright yellow Roostertail stepped into the same run and promptly pulled out a limit of disoriented stockers. He said itís all he ever uses but didnít mention much about hatches, aquatic life, or seasonal patterns.

Despite a few wrong turns, my rebirth in the sporting pursuits continues unabated, and the person who bears the brunt of that conversion is my wife. One month sheís dating a guy who regularly gets home at three or four in the morning; and the next month heís getting up at three or four AM to go catch redbreasts. Not many women will put up with a man who views Christmas as a necessary evil because it keeps him out of the duck blind on a day off.

Katie has often told me that I pursue the outdoors as if trying to atone for the decade or so that I rarely got out. Yet with thirty in the rearview mirror, I often catch myself wondering how much longer itíll be before I can no longer wade a creek all day. Life is short, the ad says.

For now, the calendar is filled. Bass fishing on rivers and streams March through August, doves in September and October, and ducks through January. February is a month of loathing and home improvement until the rivers clear up and the life cycle begins anew. Iíll even hit the big lakes in springtime, the trout stream on opening day, and even climb a deer stand now and then, though armed with a book rather than a weapon. This year I finally acquired a real retriever, a Chessie named Ruby, apparently bred for selective hearing and occasional fetching. I pray that Champ wouldnít be jealous.

A child will be joining the family soon, and I hope I obsess over him or her the way I do about my hobbies. Katie is a little worried about my priorities, not realizing its my parentsí fault, this outdoor thing of mine. She neednít worry because I plan on being the best father in the world, or at least in the top ten. And as soon as that child is old enough to read, I have no doubt that Katie will adjust well to life without a television.

 
 

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