“Stealth,” I said aloud as my father and I noisily dragged the canoe off of another rock. “Yes, ‘stealth’!” Dad laughed. …A Day on the Rappahannock River
We pushed the canoe into the slowly moving current. The past fifty yards of the Rappahannock River were mostly a foot deep and heavily littered with large stones. We’d probably donated a half gallon of yellow canoe paint to the river already. As we began paddling again, it occurred to me that in all our years of fishing together, Dad and I had never really mastered that important “quiet” element of fishing. Between the loud banging of tackle box lids and hitting the sides of the boat with paddle or anchor, we were somewhat deaf to the subtleties of catching fish. The only thing we seemed to have mastered was the food and drink supply for these outings. It consisted of several bottles of Coca-Cola classic, Doritos (nacho cheese), a few ham and mustard sandwiches, and a jug of drinking water which we completely neglected as we guzzled cola. This day was sort of windy and overcast, but a very friendly temperature – around 75 degrees. The wind made it feel like 70. Although wind usually bothers me when I’m fishing, today would alter my perspective. Perhaps due to the wind’s presence, my father and I would not require a lot of “stealth”.
“Ole Chester told me this was the lure,” Dad said, holding up a freakish neon green plug. He squinted his eyes and grunted in that way of his which I have come to understand means: ‘ahh, this is bullcrap’. The lure had been recommended over a year ago. It was finally getting a chance to see some action…and to our collective surprise, action it would see.
The river was quiet and still, except for the breeze that pushed us gently against the slow-moving current. I peered over the side and saw every detail of the river bottom, and it was easily 12 feet deep. Abruptly, the water shifted from clear to a misty green. “Looks like a hole over here, Dad,” I said, “Let’s try it.”
I started rigging a plastic worm onto my line, and glanced over at him. He’d made the decision – he was tying on the sickly green plug. I guess the thought of having spent twenty bucks on the things demanded he try one. We paddled about fifty yards against the wind to achieve a longer drift. As I put down my paddle, Dad made a long, arcing cast back into the deep water. I was still searching for a worm hook when he got a hard strike. “Oh, boy!” Dad said excitedly. His grin was ear to ear as the fish jumped high out of the water about thirty feet away from us. This fish put on a leaping display, zig-zagging all the way in. As it neared boatside, I grabbed the net and gently slid it underneath the fine bronzeback. “All riiiight!” Dad yelled. I held the fish up high for us to admire. It was just over twelve inches long, which is respectable for Virginia smallmouths. Onto the stringer he went.
While I continued to labor with my worm rig, Dad landed another bass. It was a little smaller than the first fish. Dad bellowed again anyway, thrilled at the fight the smallie put up. He released it, and asked if I wanted to tie on one of his green plugs. I declined, remembering all the stories I’d read in fishing magazines about the effectiveness of plastic worms. Dad pulled in a “bull” bream (on that same ugly lure) before I finally made my first cast. That crazy lure was catching everything that swims.
I let the line run out for a few seconds, giving it time to sink. Then I looked around for some chips, which was a bad idea. By the time I picked up my pole, a fish had run all the slack out of my line. “Hey!” I yanked back on the rod, startled. I watched my fishing pole start to bend…and bend. In the brief period of time that the fish was on the line, I could tell it was big. I could feel its slow, powerful surges as it swam for the safety of the rocks. And then it was gone. My line parted, unable to take the punishment of the battle.
Normally, I would brood for a while after losing a good fish, but there was no time for that. As I checked my reel’s drag, Dad had another fish on. “Yeah! This is great!” My father was like a little kid in his enjoyment – which is, of course, the best way to be when you’re fishing. I hadn’t seen him so happy in a long while. After he put the new addition on the stringer, he held it up. “Sure you don’t want to put that other plug on, Pete?” I laughed with him, and from that moment forward we transcended life’s everyday troubles. The fish were on, and for the first time in forever we were actually there at the right time.
I hauled in a good fish on my next cast, and it was starting to look like a fish dinner for the family. Only ten minutes had passed since Dad’s first catch in this deep, serene stretch of the Rappahannock River. The area we were fishing was only about a hundred yards in length. A shallow and rocky run preceded the deep pools, and then small rapids began where the calm stretch ended. Tall trees stood on both riverbanks, seeming to enclose and protect the area. The trip was worth it for the scenery alone. We went on catching and releasing mostly, keeping only the larger ones. Finally we had drifted to the end of the deep holes and into shallow rapids. The hundred yard ‘honey hole’ was now behind us.
“Shall we paddle back?” I asked needlessly. “Oh yeah, I think that is a good idea,” Dad replied. He was already paddling.
We made the drift several more times, making an increasing amount of noise as we did so. Yet, our frequent outbursts and lack of stealth did not turn off the bite. Many of the bass were small, and we quickly released them unharmed. Every fish was putting up a good fight. We couldn’t believe how hot the action was; we’d never known smallmouth fishing like this. Smiles became permanently affixed to our faces, and our eyes were wide with excitement.
“Let’s pull up on that sandbar over there,” Dad suggested.
The sandbar was located near the beginning of the deep run, and would give us casting distance to a few holes. Standing up, I glanced at my watch and did a quick double take. Six hours had gone by. We’d seen absolutely no one else all day. Incredibly, we had the river to ourselves. Our only guests included a couple of majestic hawks, and their graceful flight silenced us when they appeared. Each time one passed overhead, our eyes followed it respectfully. On one flight, a hawk had a fish writhing in its talons. I stood at the bow of the beached canoe, enjoying the peaceful surroundings. I knew at that moment that I must return to this place. But what I could not know, and wouldn’t have dared to expect, was that my father was just about to catch the biggest smallmouth bass of his life.
“Pete! Hey Pete! Get the net!” Dad shouted, and it echoed between the tall banks of the river. There was an edge in his voice, and I hurriedly stumbled to the back of the canoe to procure the net. “Wow, this is a big fish! Bring that net over here, willya?” Dad was yelling and laughing at the same time.
I grabbed the net and looked across the water to where he was standing at the water’s edge. I followed the deep bend in Dad’s fishing pole to the river surface. It looked like he was snagged, except for the quivering of the rod tip and swerving paths that the line was cutting through the water. Dad became aware that I was nearby and glanced over, which reminded me of the role I needed to take in this event. Drag squealed as line left the reel in long pulls. I started to walk closer, and then I saw the fish in a quick flash of gold about halfway across the expanse of water.
“Holy Moley!” I blurted.
“Did you see it?” Dad smiled at me, looking for confirmation.
Stunned by what I’d seen, I simply nodded.
“This is a really good one. Wow! Look at him go!”
The drag screamed some more. I tried to pull myself out of a trance.
“Don’t let him get underneath those rocks,” I coached urgently.
The fish was not jumping, as his younger predecessors today had. Instead, he stayed deep and ran wildly back and forth across the pool of green.
“He’s heading for that rock to the left,” Dad said as he raised the rod tip higher.
Then, for a moment, the drag stopped screaming. I felt my heart sink as line movement ceased.
“Is he…stuck?” I asked breathlessly.
“I don’t think so… No! Here he comes! Get the net ready!”
We both saw him now, and he ran straight at us. I slowly lowered the net into the water and extended my arm.
“Can you get him?” Dad asked hopefully. But the bass saw the net and shot back out into the middle of the river.
“That is the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever seen,” I said.
I readied the net for another chance to land it. Dad started laughing again, thoroughly enjoying every moment. I became gravely serious when the fish made another pass. To me this was a test. It had taken many years for this particular set of circumstances to occur – indeed, for the stars to align just so – and I was determined. To lose this fish now would be a crushing blow to both of us.
I suppose some might say that to lose the mighty fish would somehow be “poetic”. But those people have not gone fishing and gotten ‘skunked’ as many times as my father and I have. They haven’t lost sleep, been bitten by a thousand mosquitoes, or spent large sums on tackle in a fruitless attempt to catch a few fish.
At the last second of his desperate, final charge I lunged forward – the wary fish again attempted to avert the net’s outside rim. I dropped into water above my waist, but never broke concentration or lost sight of our quarry. A few seconds later I proudly (and with some effort) hoisted the net from the water, and inside it was Dad’s five and a half pound smallmouth bass.
“Wahoooooooooo!” Dad bellowed, and embraced me.
I hugged him with my free arm and shouted, “NICE CATCH, Dad!”
We marveled over the big fish for several minutes, in disbelief. Never before had we been so successful, on any fishing outing of any kind. We both realized that this day was some sort of rare gift. After a while, I calmed down enough to go and get the stringer.
The sun was setting over the tops of the tall riverbank trees, and after a few more casts we finally decided to call it a day. The river looked surreal in the fading light…or maybe it was just that our heads were in the clouds. We took a last look at the river, silent as we tried to comprehend everything that had just happened. Then we paddled toward the landing, closer in spirit than we had been at the trip’s outset.
By Peter Slis