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Fish Tales – The Sequel
Every Memorial Day weekend, for the past twenty years, my brother-in-law and his friends have made a pilgrimage to the banks of the Shenandoah River in an attempt to attain enlightenment on a whole new sensory level. “Camping Trip,” as it came to be known, was an escape from their wives, 9-to-5 jobs, and apparently away from sanity.
The ritual begins by preparing the area for the service. Weeding overgrown banks, setting up tents to sleep in and freezing many cases of beer. Throughout the long weekend, they constantly build and maintain a huge fire that uses the same basic primal instincts that their ancestors used to find fire themselves.
I have endured the festival more than once over the years, many other years at all. On this one particular weekend I only planned to visit for an afternoon, a stupid thing like a job cut short any chance I had of going through the whole mental cleansing process. The annual campground 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 moved on to the second phase. Drinking beer, shooting empty cans with the only gun available, and setting fires occasionally. I had a friendly chat with the gang before I started my real task which was to go and fish. This is a great stretch of water to fight a smallmouth descent. I walked through the field along the bank leading to where a large steel bridge spans the river. The plan was to fish for an hour or three and then wade downstream to camp. I quietly headed into the cold waters wearing only a fishing vest, t-shirt, shorts and waders. I stopped for a moment to “read” the river and develop my plan of attack. I had fished this stretch of water many times before so I knew where and how, it was just a matter of where to start. There were several deep pockets right below the bridge that always held good fish, but it was a tough, potentially dangerous wade. Big rocks and fast water. You could venture right off the bank and fish a very deep hole that had formed downstream of the bridge. Below that hole was a wide stretch of downwater that usually produced a good number of smaller fish. So there I am standing in belly high water (when my belly was higher) looking at a live action map of the river. Then something catches my eye from under the clear water to my left. I think I knew what it was, but it didn’t make any sense, it just didn’t register in my ole’ noodle-brain. I raised my casting arm to keep the fly rod out of the water (for some stupid reason because the rod can safely get wet) and bent down to face the surface of the river. Staring at me from the bottom of the river is none other than Andrew Jackson. Not the ex-president who has been dead for 170 years. Don’t be ridiculous. It was a twenty dollar bill that rested quietly at the bottom of the muddy river, momentarily unmoved by the current. I stood back, my face no doubt contorted into an expression of confusion, right eye raised as lips pursed to the left. Sort of like Curly from The Stooges. My immediate thought was… where is Allen Funt and the Candid Camera team? I looked around, looked down at the guys sitting in our camp, then looked back down at the sunken treasure. There was no TV crew to be seen, the boys seemed to have forgotten and the money was still there. Next, I had to figure out how to achieve my unfair reward without getting too wet. Inside my fishing vest was a half quality cigar, a Bic lighter and my fishing license. I definitely didn’t want any of these valuable items to get wet. Plus, it wasn’t exactly a warm May day, which was evident by the receding masculinity and complete loss of desire to become fully immersed. Now it’s almost impossible to tear a piece of paper off the river bottom with the tip of a nine-foot fly rod held in one hand while you manage to catch a rippled buck with the other. I should know, I’ve tried about fifteen times. Being stubborn and full of determination, I wasn’t going to give up until I was rich… RICH I tell you! Several different strategies ran through my head before I finally settled on the best option. The vest was taken off, and along with the fishing rod, the left arm was raised to the sky, while the right one threw itself on the twenty. It was mine, all mine!
A bit of fishing was eventually accomplished, but the giddy excitement left me itching to get back to camp and share my story. The non-fisherman was watching me the whole time wondering what the hell I was doing. So that night, the grilled hotdogs were taken off the menu, and the cheap steak became a surprise dinner special. Exactly as I planned.
The following year I had the extreme privilege of spending an entire weekend with the same Drunken Knights of the Round Bonfire. Twenty guardians of ‘all things manly’ were present that weekend, including the Duke of Lighter Fluids and Sir Drinks-A-Lot. As the beer cans were emptied and the flames of the fire died down, someone suggested a ‘must have sounded brilliant at the time’ idea for a fishing tournament to start at dawn the next day (also in a few hours). Entry fees for tournaments were collected in a cap and different price categories were established. First fish, most fish and of course the biggest fish. Actually, the first category of fish was dropped because nobody really wanted to get up early the next morning. There were plenty of canoes and johnboats available so teams of anglers headed to the old hydroelectric dam and swam/fished back down to camp. I slept with my brother-in-law in his tent that night, which sounds like something you regretfully did before you married your sister, which eventually landed you on The Maury Show. But that’s another story. The thing was, every morning of his life, Bob woke up too early to get to work on time. So after 5 hours of sleep and 50 beers, Bob wakes up as usual just as the sun is wondering if it’s going to come out for the day. Bob woke up. Which woke me up. Then we woke up Jug, Bob’s best friend and the third member of our canoe crew.
We were the first boat on the river that morning. Everyone else was still asleep 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 to soak up the water that eventually leaked out through a small crack in the hull of the canoe. Then the canoe was dragged to the river bank, a swallow but a fast moving rapid. “What the heck?!?” Twenty feet in the middle of the rapids was a large, fat carp sticking out between the rocks, half submerged in the swirling water. Bottom feeding “trash” fish can grow to quite large sizes in the Shenandoah and this one appeared to be nearly two feet long. After getting over the initial surreal feeling of encountering this large slimy animal, we set out to claim our prize. A short wade through the rapids to get the fish and then the chants of “We Are The Champions, my friend!” We hadn’t even wet the canoe yet and were pretty much assured of a cash prize for winning the tournament’s “biggest fish award.” We tried putting the carp in a plastic bucket for safekeeping, but it was too big to fit (“You’ll need a bigger bucket”). So the fish was secured on a heavy stainless beam and hung over the side of the canoe. For the next four hours we dragged the poor whale down the river. As we met other tournament competitors on the river on 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 hooked the fish with a simple worm and bobber. “Uh…yeah…that’s right…he was using a split shot to load the line” “He fought that fish for ten…must have been twenty minutes” “Yeah, that’s what happened. It sure was.” Later that evening after dinner and cocktails, with the money already in hand, Jug slipped out and contradicted his own made-up story about the star. After the true story of the reel emerged, the tournament directors met and decided that the carp was not eligible as the winner. The reward money was returned, but the memories never.
Loose lips, sink the canoe. Full of stories about really big fish.
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