Six Fish
A contemplation of fly lines and finish lines.
American Angler
July/August 2013
Although you could regularly catch fish anywhere from the inlet to the dam, a small ribbon of tea-colored water gushing into a cove at one corner of the lake promised a black bass on almost every cast. It was mid-April, and powerful rains had left a high-pressure system enveloping the coastal plain, the kind of cool blue sky that stretches the lungs and turns your whole body into an intake manifold for spring.

During the passing storm, we’d followed the news from Boston while lounging about the main lodge, waiting to break free of dreary headlines come dawn. At daybreak we’d step into the turkey woods for a few hours, follow that up with a fine lunch, and then while away the afternoon with some ridiculously good bass fishing. That’s one of the perks of entertaining clients in the sporting business—the hunting and fishing can be undeservedly good. And any kind of fishing is a good way to forget.

Among the seven of us, over a three-day period, we had caught hundreds of bass near the inlet, consequence of a heavy stocking several years earlier. Aside from the occasional “hawg,” most were two-pound clones of each other, emerald green from the tannin and ravenous for flies.

All week the farm manager’s instructions were to keep as many small bass as we could clean.

The private lake is about a hundred acres of shallow, black water rimmed with lily pads and cattail rushes, whose cigar-shaped heads offer a perch for migrating red-winged blackbirds. Down near the inlet, a sparse stand of bald cypress is favored by cormorants and crows, and this time of year flocks of white ibis frequent the horizon, one group never seeming to travel in the same direction as the last. Occasionally, a gator pops up among the rushes, and a popper teased near its knobby snout is greeted by cold eyes as the beast turns with primitive intent.

Indeed, this is a predator’s paradise, and the night before a guest and I had stalked a sounder of wild pigs across a dogwood ridge, blood trailing one to a sudden and shockingly silent conclusion. But now our guests had all departed, and I had the lake to myself with a desire to add some cull bass in the cooler next to the wild turkey breasts and small hams.

In fact, all week the farm manager’s instructions were to keep as many small bass as we could clean. Thus I had rounded up a Styrofoam cooler from the farm office, filled it with ice, and then drove down to the inlet where I was sure to have dinner in less than a dozen casts. But high winds behind the storm front were stacking up whitecaps on that end of the lake, and what once had been a sure thing produced not a strike.

I drove back up to the dam to get the wind at my back and proceeded to whale away at a self-imposed quota of six fish for supper. Every dozen casts or so I’d take a small buck bass, walk quickly back to the cooler sitting on my tailgate, and then wield an empty bottle as a priest—one sharp blow atop the skull, an arching tail, nerves flaring out across the ice. Killing for the table is always a somber act, but on this day it felt more unsettling than usual.

One moment you are standing on a sidewalk watching people run toward the finish line, and the next moment you have crossed your own. Why?

Introspection yields, and the only thing certain is that I have four fish and want six. But that fifth fish is not coming easily as I move farther and farther down the dam. Finally, I lay out a cast past the spillway, lower my rod tip, and strip straight into the jaws of a 12-inch bass. Perfect filet size. With the truck now a little farther away, I have time to study the creature as I walk. Scales glisten under primordial slime, as a tail fin undulates against the unfamiliar breeze. The pot belly and red iris conjure memories of a youth spent in bare feet, with tadpoles for bait. And then, ten steps from the truck, it occurs to me that I am not going to kill this particular fish.

For whatever reason, before I can reach the tailgate, I find myself swinging one arm toward the lake’s surface, releasing my thumb grip and watching the bass arc gently through a half gainer, nose-diving home.

This act of contrived mercy makes me feel benevolent, and then foolish. So I walk back down the dam, make a few more casts, and soon am strolling to the truck with another bass. I bottle him over the head to end the matter swiftly, consider the time and distance home, and decide that five fish will do just fine. ✦