As the summer comes to a close and the days get shorter, many people tell me they get depressed. The usual complaint sounds like this: “I hate that it’s dark when I get off from work now.” I always smile and tell them this is my favorite time of year. Fall means earlier sunsets, cooler weather, and beautiful displays as leaves change color and drift to the forest floor. It also means the bass will begin a feeding frenzy, making them much easier to catch. There are fewer boats on the lake, the weather is perfect, and the fish are biting, how could an outdoorsman not love this?
My usual plan of attack during the fall is to get on the lake around 1 PM, fish til dark, then find a place to camp. Camping allows me to spend the night for free and fish again in the morning. I could just get a room at the state park, but the view isn’t near as great as when you camp. Camping puts you more in touch with the outdoors. You see the stars, feel the ground, hear and even smell the wildlife. I’m here to connect with it all, not lock myself in a room from dark to dawn.
There was a day a few years ago when I planned just such a trip. I loaded the boat with my normal bass fishing gear, then tossed in my camping gear and a night’s worth of firewood. Fishing on Pickwick Lake this time of year is a special thing. The crowds are gone. The only thing that remains are a few dedicated fishermen, an occasional barge, and nature.
This particular day was cool and breezy. Overcast skies ushered in a cool front that required a jacket even when you weren’t in the wind, and the wind was definitely picking up. The bass were hungry. They were pushing baitfish into the backs of coves and hammering them once they got them trapped. On days like this, it seems like any bait you toss into the ring gets clobbered by a greedy predator. They just crush everything that comes near them.
It was cold enough that when you get your hands wet handling the fish you dry them off real quick to keep from losing any more heat. A wool watch-cap and a light jacket were enough to keep me comfortable while fishing. When I got underway, I’d put on a wind proof shell, and I was tolerably warm.
I’d run from cove to cove and toss to feeding schools of bass, landing one every 20 minutes or so. As darkness approached and the temperatures dropped, I’d occasionally glance at the firewood, anticipating the heat it would soon release. After a very enjoyable afternoon of fishing the lake by myself, darkness had arrived. I got behind the wheel and made the five-mile run to the place I’d chosen to camp.
There are a number of coves on the river that are particularly suited to boat-camping. These coves feature a mouth that is formed by a finger of gravel jutting off the land to form a small peninsula. These are wonderful camping spots because I can pull the boat around behind the finger and beach on the protected “bay” side. As an added bonus the gravel bars are free of vegetation so I can have a fire and pitch a tent with no prep required. Below is a picture of one of my spots to give you an idea of what it looks like. The boat is tucked away so the wind and waves can’t bother it, and I have a nice clean camping spot. It’s perfect.
After spending a wonderful afternoon slamming largemouth, it was time to chill. Now it was cold, and dark, and windy. After securing the boat, my first order of business is always to get my fire going. I unloaded all the wood, along with my camping gear. Each trip I made in the light of my headlamp was accompanied by the crunch of cold gravel underfoot. It was a cold, quiet place without anyone here, but soon it would be warm and alive. It would be transformed into a temporary fish camp.
Despite the winds best efforts to deny me, I was able to get a hot fire going by digging a small trench in the gravel to keep my coals protected. The fire was roaring, my camp stove was hissing, the wind was blowing, and my soul was yearning to catch just one more fish before dinner. I walked to the boat under the bright white beam of my headlamp and grabbed a light spinning reel to keep my occupied. I eased around the perimeter of the peninsula tossing a crankbait into the shallow, gravelly flat that surrounded it.
With the fire casting a flickering mix of orange light and shadow that danced all around me, my mind was able to wander. I caught my first good smallmouth on this exact spot a few years back. The devil himself couldn’t have fought any harder had I hooked him. The bronze beast had destroyed a topwater Pop-R and then tried to break my boat in half during one of the five drag-stealing runs he made. That was on a warm, hazy summer morning years ago. What’s amazing is that it was crystal-clear in my mind as I stood there on a cold, windy, dark night so many years later. I’m certain all predators have such memories burned into their memories. Whether it’s a polar bear who recalls killing a ringed seal on a particular ice floe, or a coyote who made an epic kill on a turkey at a certain creek crossing, there’s no doubt those events leave a deep mark on those who experience them, driving them to come back to these spots again and again.
I was getting colder, and dinner was surely almost ready. I stole a glance over my shoulder and that big, warm, crackling fire was inviting me to come back. After making an obligatory “last cast,” I shuffled back to get warm. I sat there staring at the fire and reflected on how lucky I was to be able to do this. Everyone else was home, doing whatever it is we do when we are home, but I was here. I was camping among the high forested hills along the Tennessee River, a hot fire for company, a hearty dinner cooking up, and a warm, dry tent to retire to. In the morning I’d rise with the sun and emerge from the tent next to the last traces of smoke rising from the coals of my fire. I’d pack up camp, get in the boat, and do it all again. It couldn’t get any better.
A campfire provides warmth and light among other things, and tonight the wind really had the light flickering. As the wind pushed the flames to and fro, the shadows followed suit. The light would dance one way and then back again, highlighting the earthy, tan and khaki color of the stones upon which I camped.
The fire throws an even cast of light 360 degrees from its center. However, if you sit on one side of the fire, your view of the other side is limited because the flames cut down on your night vision. So, while I can see perfectly on my side of the fire, the other side is a bit of a mystery. It wouldn’t surprise me if a raccoon suddenly materialized out of the shadows just a few feet on the opposite side, I’d never see him coming.
So, there I sat, miles from civilization, alone in the wilderness with a campfire for company. I wondered about that day’s fishing, and what tomorrows would bring. I’d glance to and from the fire as I shifted in my seat. Dinner was almost ready. At some point, I happened to look across the fire to the far side. At the far edge of the ring of light cast by the fire, something caught my eye. It was lying in that space at the edge of the light, somewhere between visible and invisible. There wasn’t enough light to tell what it was, but not enough shadow to hide it either. It wasn’t movement; it was a shape. A shape that my brain recognized even in the poorly lit shadows of the gravel bar on the opposite side of my fire. What is that? Is it…NO! It couldn’t be! The shape my mind had recognized was that of a human head lying on the ground.
I hit my headlamp to literally “shed some light” on the situation and what I saw made me laugh out loud even though I was all by myself. It was indeed a human head, from a mannequin. Someone, somewhere left a mannequin where the rising waters of the Tennessee River could get it. It floated downstream from who knows where, and when the water dropped, the head stayed here in my campsite.
I propped her up next to me during dinner and felt like Tom Hanks with Wilson on Castaway. Just seeing the picture creeped my wife out, but I still get a laugh out of it to this day. You never know what adventures await you out there, which is why I keep going back.
Take every chance you can to get out there; eventually, we’re all going to run out of days. When I’m old and unable to get around I hope I have enough stories to see me through. If I’m lucky enough some will be so crazy that no one will believe them.