Before I begin this tale, let me set the stage properly. I had punctured my
right hand with a rusty nail on Saturday, while salvaging timbers from my
uncle’s old home place. By late Sunday afternoon the Tetanus shot had not only
made my left arm sore, but had given me a killer headache and a slight fever.
George, my brother Tony’s fishing buddy, called shortly after noon to ask if we
wanted to go to a killer bass fishing hole he knew of on the Coosawachie River.
Although I felt like death warmed over, the chance to see George’s secret
fishing hole was too much to pass up. George was one of about dozen truly
legendary Black Water fishermen in the South Carolina low country. These guys
a minnow died in a mud puddle anywhere in the
low country within 50 miles of the Hampton County
Courthouse. Like my brother and I, they fished almost every
day, before work in the morning, during lunch break, after work, often well past
midnight and almost all weekend, every weekend, all year
around, regardless of weather. I had first noticed them cooking fresh fish and
hush puppies on the river bank in an old cast iron skillet. Most
of the fishing holes they frequented were deep in the swamp
with dozens of trees felled across the channel, often
deliberately by them, so that you had to get out of the boat, balance on
a slippery log and haul your boat across to the other
side. Later we learned that only one or two of the half a dozen
logs down across the run would be out of the water like
that, the rest were partially submerged so you could just
run up fast, let the nose of your Jon bloat ride up over the log,
cut the throttle and pull the boat motor out of the water,
as the boat jumped over the log, then drop the prop back
into the water, hit the throttle and continue on your way.
A 14’ Jon boat with an 18 horse Johnson outboard was
ideally suited for such rough treatment. We had seen them
coming out of these dead end runs and attempted to travel up
them ourselves on several occasions. The first time George
accelerated towards a partially submerged tree across the
run, I panicked. After the jump, the adrenalin rush was
delicious. These were no ordinary weekend fishermen. These
guys were the real thing. They had apprenticed at the heels
of their fathers and grandfathers, graduating from
earthworms, night crawlers, red wasp larvae and catalpa
worms on the end of cane poles to artificial lures and
spinning reels. They were deeply attuned to the rhythms of
nature and had a deep abiding respect for the magical black
waters they loved to fish.
My brother and I had been fishing all our life, but had become serious Large Mouth Bass and artificial lure fishermen over the last decade. Gradually we had begun to recognize these rough, often hostile black water fishermen as they came out of the places we thought impossible to get into with a boat. Over time they began to realize that we were serious about our fishing and now we had finally been invited to join their secret club. They had talked with us and observed our skills and decided that we were ready. Our tenacity, fishing all day long without a single bite, in rain, sleet, freezing weather, casting thirty, forty feet to within inches of the bank, under ten feet of overhanging limbs only a foot off the water, bouncing lures off the bank and back into the water, deftly flicking the rod tip to retrieve a lure caught up in a branch, pushing a rod tip into the water to dislodge a lure with it’s treble hooks buried deep in a submerged dead tree limb, feathering the line with the button on our closed face Zebco Classic reels, so that the lure landed on the surface, gentle as a leaf, hitting a three foot opening in the lily pads then walking the lure back across the twenty yards of weeds and pads without getting caught up, walking a bass across the top of the vegetation back to the boat, and other even more subtle nuances and skills that can only be learned by thousands of hours of trial and error. We had to be at this level in order to even perceive the knowledge George and his pals would now impart to us. We were now entering the top levels of Southern Black Water fishing education: an educational program that can be entered by personal invitation only.
When George finally pulled up with the 14 ‘ Jon boat in tow, it was nearly 1:30pm. He then proceeded to take us by the most incredibly circuitous back road route to his secret fishing hole. He deliberately tried to keep us from being able to find our way back without him, crossing from one unmarked paved country road to the next by dirt roads and sometimes driving across farm fields. In fact it took me half a dozen entire weekends of hunting to relocate his secret spot. It was so well hidden, that I passed the road that led to it at least half a dozen times without recognizing it. As we crossed a bridge over the Coosawachie and then turned left onto a side road, neither Tony nor I had a clue where we were. After a few miles of hairpin turns, the two lanes changed to a one lane, pot holed, crumbling asphalt then gravel road, finally making a 180 degree turn into a paved parking area, grown up with weeds. On one end we could see the decaying remains of an old bait shop and store partially collapsed. You had to drag your boat down to the water’s edge and wade out knee deep to pull it out far enough to float. This was due to the fact that the water level was extremely low. We were in the third year of the most severe drought I could remember. I would later realize that the low water level was why this fishing hole was to be so productive. Like most of the black water fishermen, George’s vehicle was old enough not to be worth stealing. He had taken the knobs off the radio/tape player and jammed the butt of a cigar into the tape slot before he locked the doors. The tires were nearly bald retreads and the truck badly needed a paint job. The closest it had been to a washing was the last rain storm. The idea was to let any thief know that it wasn’t worth the effort of breaking into or stealing. I had already learned these tricks, the result of having seen far too many Sunday fishermen’s shiny new sport pickups sitting up on blocks with stereo, wheels, doors, hood, sometimes even the engine and transmission missing, when we returned from a days fishing. Once Tony, his friend Marion, and I had settled down in the boat, George took two steps into the water pushing the boat in front of him and then deftly stepped onto the back seat and sat down, water running out of the holes in his boots. He took the paddle and silently moved us out into the run. We drifted lazily down stream as George adjusted the trolling motor, arranged the battery and tackle box, and hooked up the fuel tank to the outboard. We naturally began casting towards the shorelines for bass. George soon told us to reel in and started the outboard. As we slowly trolled down the creek, George threw his lure over his shoulder and let about 25 yards of line out, then told me to do the same thing. He said that getting the line moisturized would make it cast better. That was lesson number one and quite a valuable one. After only a hundred yards, we began up a side creek to the left about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep, but were soon forced out of the boat to drag it across the Cyprus knees jutting above the water line. George seemed surprised. It had been a navigable channel the last time he had been here only a few days before. In the 95 degree August sun with 100% humidity, we were quickly soaked with sweat. Marion carried the battery walking along behind the boat, while Tony pushed and George and I pulled on ropes up front wading knee to waist deep in the run, the boat reluctantly bouncing along over the Cyprus knees jutting two to six inches out of the water. My head was pounding from the fever caused by the tetanus shot and after about half an hour, I was reduced to concentrating on each step as if I were climbing Mt. Everest. Tony and Marion switched off on the battery several times and both looked about ready to fall out. Every time we asked George how much further we had to go, he would say just a little ways more, or just around the bend. After an hour of dragging the boat down the run and dozens of just a little farther, we were convinced George was lost and were ready to lynch him to the nearest tree. Finally, with my temples pounding, I could not go any further. I stopped and told George that I thought we should leave the boat and find the lake on foot first, then come back for the boat. Everyone else chimed in unanimously. George insisted it was just around the next bend. We said fine, then it won’t take long to find it and we can come right back for the boat. He said the run curved back to the right, so we took off cross country to locate the dead lake. What had been submerged swamp was now mostly dry land because of the drought. As we all walked single file, in lock step, we set up a harmonic rhythm that none of us were aware of until George stopped suddenly. That’s when we all felt the ground moving up and down under our feet a good six inches. It was very unsettling. George just laughed and explained that the ground we were walking over was normally covered with dense aquatic vegetation in about four feet of water. The main channel we had been dragging the boat along had actually been a creek 5 to 10 feet deep only last weekend. The reason the ground moved in waves beneath our feet was because we were actually walking on a layer of decaying vegetation floating on top of a deep pool of water. He said to be careful because if we broke through we would drown. About that time we heard something snapping twigs as it ran through the vegetation. George quickly reached down and removed a .38 pistol from his tackle box and told us that if we were attacked by the wild boar, we should find a tree and get up it really fast. Visions of a dozen large boars, with scythe like, razor sharp tusks thrashing at our legs filled out exhausted minds. That really boosted our morale, not! On the verge of heat prostration, dehydrated, the sun sinking low on the horizon in the middle of a swamp from which we could not find our way out of even in the daylight, let alone at dark without George, near total exhaustion, and the fabled honey hole still nowhere in sight, mutinous thoughts flashed through our minds. If we hadn’t needed George to show us the way back out, we would certainly have hung him from the nearest tree. After another 100 yards or so, we finally came upon the deep hole that had been an oxbow bend off Coosawachie River and now was a land locked lake nearly 300 yards long. We had our reels, so of course we all started casting from the bank. George tried to get us to go back for the boat, but no one listened. The sun was getting low on the horizon, so I asked George about when we would be heading back. I had been forced to spend the night in a swamp on several occasions because I got lost as darkness hid the landmarks I needed to find my way out. He only said in a little while, then casting into the top limbs of a tree that had toppled from the bank, he hooked a four pound largemouth. As he manhandled it across the top of the water, whooping and yelling at the top of his lungs, we all stood there with our mouths hanging open. In the first place, no one in their right mind would deliberately cast into those limbs and risk losing their favorite lure. In the second place, most of us considered a two or three pound bass something to brag about. None of us had actually caught anything close to a four pounder before. We all redoubled our efforts, of course, as George made a stringer from a briar vine and strung up his catch. It wasn’t five minutes later that the whooping and hollering started up again from the opposite side of the lake. Of course all of us casually, but quickly moved down to where we could see George pulling in another huge fish, this time a nearly two foot long chain pickerel. By now we were all getting frantic. I climbed out onto the trunk of the tree George had caught first fish from and tossed my green immature crawfish lure at the base of a tree stump 30 feet further down the run. Marion was fishing about 15 feet just this side of where I cast and was watching as a three pound largemouth jumped clean out of the water and swallowed my lure in mid air. I nearly lost my balance when he took off. Leaning precariously with one leg wrapped around a tree limb, the drag singing on my reel, I held on for dear life. Finally he tired and I began to reel him back in. It took me nearly ten minutes to get him to within reach as I lay down on the slippery tree trunk and reached into the dark water to grab him by the gills. I recovered my lure and with the rod in one hand and the struggling bass in the other I started down the tree trunk towards the shore, bragging like a fool. Suddenly the bark peeled off the dead tree trunk in a sheet and bass, reel, and I all took a bath. I came up still holding onto my reel, but without the bass. I was soaked and everyone was laughing their hearts out, but at least I had caught a respectable fish and no one else except George had even gotten a strike. About then my brother Tony let out a whoop and began hauling in an 18 inch pickerel. By now Marion was really feeling the pressure and crossed to the other side and followed George step by step, often casting into the same spot George was fishing, a real breach of fishing etiquette. Finally George must have taken pity on him and told him where to cast, because he stopped and talked to Marion, then moved on and within minutes Marion was hauling in a 2 1/4 pound largemouth that was dancing on top of the water from nearly 20 yards across the run. So it went for over an hour, each of us catching a large fish every ten minutes or so. By then it was getting so dark that you could hardly to see into the shadows to cast. I removed my lure, tied off my line and grabbed my stringer of fish and headed off to round everyone up. I knew that if we didn’t get out soon, we would not be able to find our way in the dark and would have to spend the night. I found George and pointed to the encroaching darkness and asked him if we shouldn’t head back out before it got too dark to see. He agreed and then looked at his stringer and began to pull fish off and toss them back into the water. He told me to do the same. He pointed out that the nine fish I had, each several pounds, would be too much to haul out, especially considering we still had to drag the boat and battery back to where the run was deep enough to navigate. Once we had our stringers ready, George went one direction around the lake and I went the other gathering up the Tony and Marion along the way meeting at the head of the lake where the channel leading to the boat joined the lake. As we began the trek back to the boat, everyone was talking at once. The adrenalin was pumping and our excitement was obvious. After about 45 minutes of stomping through the mud and murky water, all conversation had died out. We had come into the lake by cutting across country, taking only about a half hour. The channel was nearly three times a far and walking thought the cypress knees and mud was much slower. It was also getting very dark. We all realized that night was closing in very fast. The weight of my fish stringer became too much to carry, so I dropped another two fish into the water and everyone else also lightened their stringers. We were all beginning to get worried. Nearly an hour after leaving the lake, we finally came upon the Jon boat. It was now so dark, that we had to use a penlight to load the boat. By then the run was only visible by looking towards the skyline in the distance. We began the long haul back to deep water. In spots where the water was deep along the sides of the channel, we had to look for trees where the flow had eroded the bank causing them to lean towards the run to keep in the channel and not wander out into the swamp. As we stumbled along in the darkness for what seemed like an eternity, falling down, getting stabbed by dead limbs, torn by briars, inhaling the thick fog of mosquitoes, each one of us realized that we were in serious trouble. At least a dozen times I felt something as big as my forearm and very muscular wriggle against my leg under the water. A fish I prayed. We kept hearing large objects splashing into the water of the run ahead of us. We tried very hard to avoid acknowledging the fact that it sounded like snakes, very large snakes dropping from the bushes into the water. In truth I did not see how we could possibly make it out without getting someone snake bit. The only reason we made it out at all, was that we were all so totally exhausted we had past the point of thinking about anything except taking just one more step. The Lord must have had a soft spot for us fools, because we all made it out without getting bitten. As we loaded the boat on the trailer and climbed into the truck, no one said a word. It was only after we were back on the main highway, that we began to come round and the wonder of our adventure began to rejuvenate us again. It was quite an experience but only one of many I shared with George, my brother Tony and others in the Black Water Swamps of South Carolina. Getting that close to nature is a truly religious experience. The bonding that took place during the Drag Hole adventure was my graduation exercise into the society of Black Water fishing. It will always be a part of my character. It taught me a lot about life and what I was capable of doing. I suggest that everyone take the time to reconnect with nature. It is worth more than a hundred thousand dollars in psychological counseling. It will keep you centered. I think that our loss of a personal connection with nature is the primary cause of most our social problems. Go fishing…go hiking…go mountain biking, even a quiet walk through the woods with a camera will do wonders to reduce stress and the health problems associated with it. If you can, visit a Black Water Swamp…it is truly magical.
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